Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 3 September, 2020 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Critical historicism

core definition

Critical historicism not only regards history as an interpretive process but one that deleves beneath taken-for-granted presuppositions, taking perspectives from the past and critically reassessing them in light of current broader socio-economic perspectives and vice-versa.

explanatory context

Critical historicism, like historicism, interprets the past but ensures that the persspecives from the past inform how events are understood with the benefit of the current broader structural and social knowledge of the evolution of society. However, it does not just take current perspectives and use them as the basis for interpeting the past but rather uses the documents from the past to dig beneath the surface of the current preconceptions about history, ultimately producing a reconstructed history.


Critical historicism is an important element of critical social research or any other dialectical deconstruction.


Critical historicism is similar to the rather less often used term historicalism. It is sometimes referred to as radical historicism.

analytical review

associated issues

History and social science

In an article titled 'The Contribution of History to Social Science', Hobsbawn (1981) argued that sociologists tend to use secondary historical data and theorise on the basis of it. Economists use statistical series that are available irrespective of their reliability. (He goes on to list four types of uses of history)

The nature of historical evidence

Historians, like lawyers, begin by being sceptical of their evidence. Historical methodology has frequently centered on the problem of assessment and verification of historical evidence. Indeed, traditionalist history often sees methodological problems as limited to the nature of evidence. The way traditionalist history approaches this problem in practice is to exhaustively study all material available taken from archives or personal papers. (This can only apply to a narrow specialist topics). Social science is rarely able to do this; aiming as it does for generalisations. traditionalist history has built up a notable tradition exposing bias and hearsay in evidence, of errors in transmission and translation of documents, of first- and second hand-accounts, etc. In short, traditionalist history has taken on the role of detective and trial lawyer in respect of historical evidence. Social scientists should bear this traditionalist history in mind before proceeding uncritically with historical sources. (FOOTNOTE 1)

Traditionalist history tends to use given data to reconstruct historical chronology, scrutinised but lacking any concern for the interpretive process. Hobsbawn argues that social science tends to extract history (via a search for 'indicators') from the available data, in order to give an historical perspective to areas of enquiry. The selection, presentation and processing of this derived or constructed history as well as the interpretation is likely to be interpreted by the historian's purposes, bias and preconceptions. Old-fashioned positivism, which ignores the theory-laden nature of observation, must be dispensed with.

Hobsbawm is also concerned about the trend to static structural analysis. On the one hand, structural functionalist type models that assume that other things remain equal and then try to develop the models by gradually relaxing the assumptions (notable in economics) and, on the other hand, structuralism which evolves a system of relationships and then attempts to give them a dynamic element. Structural functionalism is inappropriate as things never do remain equal and society is too complex to be modelled. Structuralism effectively assumes an 'aspiring to equilibrium' by societies that is spurious. History is about the factors/forces that bring about change—not about the stabilising factors. Adequate social science must investigate change; i.e. requires the incorporation of history in some form.

Hobsbawm (1981, p. 630) is concerned with history that deals with the 'evolution of man as social being' but regrets the 'reductionism of social biology'. He argues that the approach adopted by Marx and outlined in the Preface to the Critique of Political Economy (1859), is the most fruitful approach and that Marxists who 'develop' it are actually abandoning this line of analysis.

Marx's approach contains three elements: 1. It provides a basic mechanism of historical transformation through changes in the mode of human production. 2. It provides a model which brings the other (i.e. non- production relations) human social activities (the 'superstructure' or 'specific forms of social consciousness') into relation with the economic structure (the base) and with each other. (While not wanting to get into the base- superstructure debate Hobsbawm notes that it is clear that it is first necessary to analyse the mode of production in material life if one is to understand characteristics of human activity and dynamics of historical change) 3. The relation between praxis and historical changes are independent of men's will.

[Hobsbawm notes that Marxists have necessarily had to develop Marx's observations on the uneven development of societies ]

Hobsbawm seems to view Marx primarily in relation to his work on history. Thus, he sees Marx as providing general models, which are related, still generally, to particular stages of history and then finally to detailed studies of particular events. (Here the base-superstructure relationship is spelled out). (FOOTNOTE 2)

Hobsbawm is interested in why human history manifested itself as it did.

If the historical approach embraces change herein lies its significance for social science. Four aspects of this:

1. Analysis of various levels of regularity : 'laws' of increasing specificity
2. Analyse the nature of historical change
3. Complex interactions: history concerned not with mere abstractions but with societies that are products of their past. Why do systems consist of the components they do [synchronic accounts].
4. Explanation and prediction: social science prediction tends to be statistical projection based on little theoretical development or theories of little significance. Generally: avoid simplistic reductionism.

Hobsbawm notes that as politics and ideology are overwhelmingly present in social science, that interpretation is a complex process and that history can be a guide through those complexities because it allows one to analyse the relations between a very large number of ways of looking at the reality of nature and society and providing explanations and understanding. History allows for retrospective assessments of the limitations of accounts and theories.


Footnote 1: This is important re : myth exposure, although only from the 'technical' side, an analysis of prevailing theory, ideology etc also needed.

Footnote 2: Compare with comments on Schmidt. (esp Summary of Schmidt). Hobsbawm is concerned with the historical process in Marx, Schmidt is concerned with the dialectic nature of the methodology.


related areas

See also

critical hermeneutics





Hobsbawm, E., 1981, 'The Contribution of History to Social Science', International Social Science Journal, 33, pp. 624–40

Marx, K., [1859] 1977, A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, Moscow, Progress Publishers, with some notes by R. Rojas.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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