Historical Research and Social Movements

Mathieu Deflem
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April Lee Dove

This is a copy of a paper in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, edited by David A. Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013. Also available in PDF format
Also reprinted in the encyclopedia's second edition, 2023 (Volume 3, pp. 980-983).

Please cite as: Deflem, Mathieu, and April Lee Dove. 2013. "Historical Research and Social Movements." Pp. 560-563 in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social and Political Movements, Volume 2, edited by David A. Snow, Donatella Della Porta, Bert Klandermans, and Doug McAdam. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

The use of historical research methods in modern sociology has been largely conditioned by the relative popularity of the specialty area of (comparative-)historical sociology, despite the relative autonomy of methodological orientation and substantive research themes. Any discussion of historical research, whether in the specialty area of social movements research or in sociology more generally, must therefore proceed from the place of history in sociology and embark on an always difficult quest, for intellectual and institutional reasons alike. to delineate the boundaries between the scholarly tradition of history, on the one hand, and sociology, on the other (Burke 1980; Tilly 1981).
History and Sociology
The science of sociology has historically emanated from the European traditions of social philosophy that, during the classical period built on the ideals of the Enlightenment, relied upon history to move away from speculative thought towards substantiate normative prescriptions on the basis of historical accounts of the evolution of social life. Until the late 19th century, these historically-based social philosophies were typically framed in terms of an evolutionary framework denoting increasing complexity, linked up to the growth of industry, individualism, and related manifestations of modernization. Evolutionism in social philosophy found its sharpest expression in the historical materialism of Karl Marx.
In classical sociology, evolutionary models stretched the spectrum of thought from Ferdinand Tönnies to Emile Durkheim and Max Weber. Tönnies (1935) suggested a societal development from small-scale agricultural communities (Gemeinschaft) to the complex industrial societies of his days (Gesellschaft). Durkheim (1893) transformed the Marxian sketch of an increasing division of labor from a narrow economic focus to a more encompassing social development that was primarily shaped by cultural changes concerning the relation between individual and society. And Weber (1922) characterized the modern age in terms of an increasing reliance on purposive-rational models of thought that were preoccupied with considerations of efficiency.
Despite the centrality of history in classical sociology, modern sociology was initially not receptive to the use of historical research. Among the reasons, sociology was understood to be a science of the present, while history was the study of the past. Sociologists themselves, more importantly, understood some of the European building blocks of sociology as implying a static view. The work of Durkheim, most tragically, was misunderstood on the basis of its orientation towards functional analysis (Tilly 1981), rather than its more comprehensive attention towards function as well as cause (Durkheim 1895).
Whereas the classics argued implicitly or explicitly that all sociology is by necessity of a (comparative-)historical nature, it was not until the growing popularity of Marxist sociology, especially by the generation of sociologists that came of age during the 1960s, that a (re)turn towards historical sociology became possible (Adams, Clemens, and Orloff 2005). Rejecting the evolutionism of old, this second wave of historical sociology focused on the contradictions of the modern political economy and the centrality of the state. Ironically, this development overlooked the historical fact that virtually all of the important classic scholars worked in an essential (comparative-)historical framework. Yet, whatever its roots, the development of historical research in sociology has since been subject to developments not uncharacteristic of other movements.
Historical Methods in Sociology
From a methodological viewpoint, the rigid separation of history as idiographic (particularizing) and sociology as nomothetic (generalizing) disciplines has serious consequences that can be, and have been, overcome by premising that all topics of inquiry, whether historical or sociological, can only be presented within analytically relevant models that posit those topics as relatively unique or, conversely, representative of broader patterns. The very conception of history as the descriptive analysis of concrete events is antithetical to sociology as a theoretically driven social science. The most central insight remains that historical sociology is not a mere study of the past but an intrinsic part of a sociology of the present: in order to explain the structures of contemporary societies, one must investigate their historical origins and development.
Arguably as a result of the march of survey research and the advance of techniques of statistical data analysis, the anti-modernization and anti-quantification tendencies of modern (and contemporary) historical sociology have been methodologically attacked because of its reliance on the study of a limited number of cases (small-N research) and the logical limitations associated with comparisons of variables associated with real-life events. Nevertheless, the methodology of historical sociology can be systematized in terms of both its strategies and data collection techniques.
Various strategies can be used in historical research to link theory and research questions with an appropriate methodology (Skocpol and Somers 1980). In the parallel investigation of a particular sociological theory, propositions can be examined in various historical contexts in order to demonstrate or falsify that various cases are to be conceived as different modalities of a more general process. By interpreting contrasting events, alternatively, it is endeavored to analyze specific historical events in terms of their unique composition and meaning, such as it is associated with the sociological perspective in the Weberian tradition of Verstehen (understanding). By analyzing causalities at the macro level, the Millean method of difference and of agreement can be relied upon, not as an explanatory model, but to systematically present cases subject to further exploration.
The methods of data collection and investigation in historical research involve the empirical examination of the traces the past has left behind in the present, including material artifacts, written and/or otherwise recorded sources (both primary and secondary), and oral history. In a most ideal and systematic case, the procedure of historical inquiry involves at least four stages. First, relevant sources have to be identified, found, and selected. Special problems are thereby posed in terms of availability, when materials are lost, and access, when available sources cannot be accessed because of physical or social obstacles (e.g., classified government documents). Second, on the basis of formal and substantive criteria related to research needs, sources are registered and classified in preparation of further analysis. Third, the collected sources are subjected to critique and confrontation to determine their authenticity and accuracy in portraying social events. Fourth, as indicated by the variety of strategies that exists in historical sociology, analysis can proceed in multiple directions, involving qualitative or quantitative methods, interpretive or explanatory perspectives, in a structured or unstructured framework with deductive (theory-testing) or inductive (theory-construction) objectives.
Historical Research on Social Movements
The very term ‘movement’ presumes the relevance of history, involving change and/or continuity. It would therefore alone seem indispensable for sociologists of social movements to engage in historical research. Yet, as one manifestation of the relative specialization of historical sociology, the modern sociology of social movements is also subject to the trends that have shaped the discipline in general, leading to much research on what movements are and do, rather than where they come from and what they have done. Nonetheless, it is also true that historical research has been put to good use in the study of social movements (Clemens and Hughes 2002; Marx and McAdam 1994).
A useful distinction can be made between the internal and the external history of social movements. An examination of the internal history of a social movement concerns the development over time of the movement itself. At least two components are thereby important to consider. First, with respect to movement institutionalization and planning, social movements can be distinguished from more informal manifestations of collective behavior by a variety of formal characters such as the formulation of membership criteria and the routinization of activities. With respect to movement emergence, a focus on internal history includes questions concerning members, activities, and outcomes. Second, as distinct from more ephemeral episodes of collective behavior, social movements are also more structured to enable a more prolonged, ideally permanent existence as an established and recognized entity. Relevant questions pertain to movement maturation, transformation, and possible dissolution. Attention can go to both relatively short intervals of time (e.g., weekend versus working days) and longer periods of historical time (e.g., before, during, and after a period of war).
The external history of social movements refers to the surrounding societal conditions in which they formed and transformed. In this respect, minimal attention should go to the economic, political, cultural, and normative contexts in which social movements emerged and have evolved. It can be safely assumed that those contexts are important in accounting for questions of movement formation and transformation, although it should also be addressed if and how movements in turn have affected their surrounding environments. It is also important to recognize that aspects of a movement’s internal and external history may be mutually influential.
The data sources to be investigated to answer relevant questions of movement history can be derived from organizations as well as individuals. Organizations can provide useful data because social movements exhibit at least some degree of institutionalization and invoke responses from other organizations, such as countermovements, media, and government agencies. Individual-level data can come from members of a movement and its various proponents and opponents.
The main limitation of historical research, most obviously, is that the past can be revealed only inasmuch as, and in the manner in which, it is still present today, thus posing important problems of validity. Sociologists interested primarily in the testing of their theories, rather than in the analysis of important social events, will therefore favor other methodologies whereby data can be generated. Alternatively, the unobtrusive nature of historical research may be seen as the main advantage of the methodology, as the research enterprise itself cannot affect its subject matter.
However, apart from questions of methodological rigor, the relevance of historical research to our knowledge of social events is easily demonstrated. Suppose that at a given moment in time a particular social community exhibits a particular level of commitment from its members in the cause advocated by a social movement. What can be known about such a commitment without knowledge of its development over time is severely limited, as its level may have decreased sharply or, on the contrary, increased dramatically from before, with all kinds of variations in between. Only historical research can unravel such sociological questions that ponder on the conditions of society as emanating from a historical process of change and continuity. 

References and Selected Readings
  • Adams, J., Clemens, E.S. & Orloff, A. (2005) Introduction. In Adams, J., Clemens, E.S. & Orloff, A. (eds.) Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology. Durham: Duke University Press, pp. 1-72.
  • Bonnell, V.E. (1980) The uses of theory, concepts and comparison in historical sociology. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, 156-173.
  • Burke, P. (1980) Sociology and History. London: George Allen & Unwin.
  • Clemens, E.S. & Hughes, M.D. (2002) Recovering past protest: historical research on social movements. In Klandermans, B. & Staggenborg, S. (eds.) Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 201-230.
  • Durkheim, Emile. ([1893] 1984). The Division of Labor in Society. New York: The Free Press. 
  • Durkheim, Emile. ([1895] 1982). The Rules of Sociological Method. New York: The Free Press.
  • Kiser, E. & Hechter, M. (1991) The role of general theory in comparative-historical sociology. American Journal of Sociology 97(1), 1-30.
  • Mahoney, J. & Rueschemeyer, D. (eds.) (2003) Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Marx, G.T. & McAdam, D. (1994) Collective Behavior and Social Movements. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Pitt, D.C. (1972) Using Historical Sources in Anthropology and Sociology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston.
  • Quadagno, J. & Knapp, S.J. (1992) Have historical sociologists forsaken theory? Sociological Methods & Research 20, 481-507.
  • Skocpol, T. & Somers, M. 1980. The uses of comparative history in macrosocial inquiry. Comparative Studies in Society and History 22, 174-197.
  • Skocpol, T. (ed.) (1985) Vision and Method in Historical Sociology. New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Tilly, C. (1981) As Sociology Meets History. New York: Academic Press.
  • Tönnies, F. ([1935] 1940) Fundamental Concepts of Sociology (Gemeinschaft und Gesellschaft). New York: American Book Company.
  • Weber, M. ([1922] 1978). Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. 


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