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 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

Historicalism is a view that history is an interpretive process in which the past and present mediate one another.

explanatory context

This means that understanding of the past requires both seeing the past from the point of view of the actors at the time but setting the information in the wider socio-historical context. This shuttling between views also requires critical engagement with sources and an attempt to deconstruct ideological preconceptions about the past.


The term historicalism has dropped out of vogue but the approach is very similar to what is more often referred to as critical historicism or in some cases radical or critical hermeneutics.

analytical review

In his book about globalisation, Paul James (2006, p. 25) compares globalism and historicalism as follows:

If globalism refers to the ideologies and subjectivities of generalizing connection across space, it can be inferred that, despite the process being largely ignored in the literature, there is a parallel temporal subjectivity for the generalizing connection across world-time – namely, historicalism. The concept refers here to the developing subjective consciousness of history as linking past, present and future in itself rather than as a teleologically or messianically connected frame. ‘Historicalism’ is related to the more familiar term ‘historicism’ but is quite different. The latter was employed by writers such as Karl Popper as a term of abuse to refer to a particular theoretical method for analysing history, whereas ‘historicalism’ is intended here to refer to an increasing distance of people before the activities of humans as agents in history – epistemological abstraction as linking time either from a more reflexive subjectivity or as an objective and material process. Just as globalism has a long history, historicalism has an equally deep history. In this case it is related to the practical possibility of abstraction across time rather than across space, particularly through the changing modes of communication and enquiry. It is a process, for example, made possible by the storage of memory in the form of written texts. Until the early-modern period, historicalism was subordinated by the subjectivity of messianic time and translated into sacred knowledge. Although its symbolic high-point arrives relatively late with the development in the nineteenth century of the formal discipline of History, it is extraordinary that the concept of ‘historicalism’, however it is named, remains a hidden presence, while the concept of ‘globalism’ rolls breathlessly off the tongues of politicians, business persons and commentators. We can see images of globalism everywhere in the form of spherical cloud-covered icons of planet-earth, thus collapsing near and far, but we are unable to envisage the meaning of the concurrent collapsing of past and present. This is despite new sensitivities to questions of time and history.

associated issues

See Gadamer on the historicality of understanding

related areas

See also

critical hermeneutics

critical historicism




James, P., 2006, Globalism, Nationalism, Tribalism: Bringing theory back in. London, Sage.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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