Historical Sociology: Definition, Types and Methods, Contributions

Historical Sociology: It is a branch of Sociology that focuses on how societies have developed through the past and continue to still that is a historical development. It looks at how simple structures in the society are actually a result of complex processes. It focused on gender biases, inequality to war. The historical data that is available is used to study many present theories in relation to society and it’s components. The more questions asked the richer is the history of Sociology gained. The theory of Path Dependence has also established a link between the past and the happenings which will take in the future by its influence.                                                                                             

Understanding and Defining Historical Sociology

Sociology as a discipline began in the mid-1800s, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution. This was undoubtedly a time of accelerated social change. These two events- the inception of sociology and the Industrial Revolution, are no coincidence, as sociology began as a means to explain societal change. Classical sociological thinkers including – Marx, Weber and Durkheim were concerned with a number of questions pertaining to their changing society. Despite the root of their questions, all pertaining to the current structure of society and how it came to be, all three of them focused on different aspects, which they believed was the nature and cause of this change. Marx was quite famously known for his concern with capitalism, specifically- how it came about and was changing society. While Weber’s focus on historical change was centred around the origins of religion and rationality. Durkheim, much like Marx, was concerned with the effects of capitalism, but instead focused on the division of labour as the key nature of societal change. Despite varying in focal, the crux of all the founders was consistent- sociology was concerned with explaining historical change  (Lachmann, R. 2013).

The Inception of Sociology as a Discipline

Sociology, despite how it is practised and understood today, began as an extension of history. Historical sociology examines social processes over time, highlighting contexts and contingencies that influence specific changes while looking for general patterns, seemingly similar to the core of modern sociology today. Both aim to understand complexities and identify causal mechanisms of society (Comparative/Historical Approaches, n.d.). Hence, at its inception, change was the crux of sociology. However, many scholars believe that contemporary sociology no longer focuses on change that is thought to the detriment of the discipline. Sociologist Richard Lachman, in his book, What is Historical Sociology, puts forth the idea “that the failure to identify and find the origins and causes of social change as the crux of sociology invalidates sociological attempts to grasp the meaning and significance of social transformation” (Anais, 2014). The cause of this removal of the origins of social change, Lachman says, is caused by contemporary sociologists’ need to only research their immediate environment, as opposed to focusing on larger more fundamental changes that are occurring (Lachmann, R. 2013).

At its inception, historical sociology and the discipline of sociology were unequivocally synonymous with each other. This is no longer true, today historical sociology is a separate branch of sociology. However, this branch continues to centre around societal change. It looks at how the events of the past have shaped the structure of today, and what is the origins and causes of this social change.

Types and Methods of Historical Sociology

The primary method of using pre-established historical data is used as a means to perform an analytical analysis. This allows sociologists to test theories across time and space in search of generalisable patterns which result in societal change (Comparative/Historical Approaches, n.d.).  The other prominent manner in which historical data is used is Mill’s Method. The aforementioned is concerned with causality at a macro level  (The Audiopedia, 2017). C.Mills was an American sociologist who wrote, The Historical Imagination, wherein he presented the idea of ‘sociological imagination’. This concept is concerned with understanding the self in relation to society, the latter he believed was affected by historical forces. In his book, he proposes that historical sociology must be concerned with four key characteristics : The first being that the study of historical sociology is concerned with social structures in reference to where they are situated in time and space (Skocpol, 1984). Secondly, the study acknowledges the sequential flow of social change through time. Thirdly, to consider the individual’s actions as they interplay with the social structures of that time. Lastly, the study of historical sociology must acknowledge the importance of individual choices resulting in a present society that would not exist if different choices had been made. Hence, acknowledging that the structure of future societies is not predetermined (Skocpol, 1984). Hence, Mill’s Method requires a view of society that greatly differs from the structural-functionalist perspective, i.e. the view that society is like a machine and every social institute is indispensable to that machine. Mill’s method is the most holistic and pertinent manner in which historical sociology analysis and debate is done.

Historical Sociology’s Contributions

In his book What is Historical Sociology, Lachman acknowledges the various areas to which a historical sociological view has contributed to the discussions of revolutions & social movements. In reference to the area of revolutions & social movements, Lachman acknowledges the importance of characteristics mentioned in Mill’s method- the importance of individual choice and how it affects social change. Lachman then performs a three-step analysis to understand the origins and causes of social change, thus placing his analysis neatly in the realm of historical sociology. The first step is to when and where the revolution occurred. This is once again in line with Mill’s Method, which states that historical sociology is concerned with social structures in reference to where they are situated in time and space. The next step, according to Lachman, is to question why the movement or revolution happened at that point and not earlier. Finally, to look at the revolution through a comparative lens, what before and after the movement.

A number of sub-sections of sociology are centred around the aforementioned steps. For example, women studies focus on the impact of various feminists movements most notable the suffragette movement of the early 1900s’ which resulted in the right for women to vote. Similarly, African American studies focus on the impact of historical movements such as the Civil Rights movement of the mid-1900s. Hence, in a number of areas of sociology, a historical context is integral, even though women studies and African-American studies may not clearly state that they fall under the purview of historical sociology.

Yet another area that historical sociological methods are used is when considering the evolving nature of states. The historical sociological perspective on states is to understand how and why states are created. As well as to perform an analysis that separates the creation of the state from other events that were happening at that time, such as the growth of capitalism. Other areas to which historical sociology has greatly contributed include but are not limited to: empires, states, inequality, gender & family, and culture.

Criticism against Historical Sociology

Any discussion or analysis is done through the historical sociological perspective is dominated and centred around social change. Unfortunately, in doing so, these analyses may not consider small societal changes, changes that are perhaps less historically epochal, ones that perhaps do not result in immediate structural change. However, through the course of history, there have been smaller fringe movements that have slowly resulted in societal change. For example, in the contemporary zeitgeist of social media, the fat acceptance movement is happening gradually, and can not be traced to a single epochal moment in history. Nevertheless, social change is occurring. Hence, the largest drawback of historical sociology is how to quantify a social change as opposed to viewing society as a constant continuation of transformation.

Historical Sociology and the Future

The fundamental aspect of historical sociology is the past. However, though it may seem like a paradox, this sub discipline can also be used when considering future society. Most notably, in understanding how pre-existing concepts such as global warming, gender inequality and public relations may evolve in the future.


Lachmann, R. (2013). What is Historical Sociology?. United Kingdom: Wiley.

Comparative/Historical Approaches. (n.d.). American Sociological Association. Retrieved 27 August 2021, from https://www.asanet.org/topics/comparativehistorical

Anais, S. (2014). Richard Lachmann, What is Historical Sociology? Canadian Journal of Sociology, 39(1), 130–132. https://doi.org/10.29173/cjs21659

The Audiopedia. (2017, April 14). What is HISTORICAL SOCIOLOGY? What does HISTORICAL SOCIOLOGY mean? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-G8F-q7E-0

Skocpol, T. (1984). Sociology’s Historical Imagination. In T. Skocpol (Ed.), Vision and Method in Historical Sociology (pp. 1–21). Cambridge University Press. https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511621567.002

Share on:

Natasha D'Mello is currently a communications and sociology student at Flame University. Her interests include graphic design, poetry and media analysis.