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

Historism involves a view of history as 'fact', ignoring the role of the interpretive subject/historian.

explanatory context

Types of historism


Traditional historism

Traditional or naive historism adopts an approach to history which sees history as an 'absolute fact', as self evident and independent of an interpretive process. This approach was supposedly developed by L. von Ranke and the 'historical school'. The approach argues for value-free knowledge of historical phenomena with disregard for the role of the knowing subject, asserting that the object of history may 'speak for itself'. History becomes the history, or the past, i.e. history-as-a-sequence-of- (unproblematic) events. Traditional historism of L. von Ranke and the 'historist school' was concerned with chronological narrative based on 'given', available historical sources.


Traditional history has been criticised by proponents of a more recent form of historism, known as the new history. New historians characterise the traditional approach as the activity of 'empathetic, intutive and imaginative' workers involved in piecemeal examination of evidence in a manner akin to the legal profession, where evocative force is more important than exactness.


New history

Historism also manifests itself in so-called 'new history' which, while attempting to apply nomological standards to historical evidence and thus avert mythical interpretation, fails to escape the positivist primacy of empirical grounding and merely contrives a sophisticated obscuranticism of the theory-laden nature of observation.


The 'new history', particularly as practiced in the United States, attempts to 'scientise' traditional history, which is characterised as the activity of 'empathetic, intuitive and imaginative' workers involved in piecemeal examination of evidence in a manner akin to the legal profession (see Hexter, 1968).


The 'new historian', on the contrary, is more systematic (and presumably less creative and imaginative), attempting to stick to a rule book of procedures that enable closer scrutiny of work done. In terms identical to those developed in sociology, the ideal 'new historian' provides descriptions of methods of data collection and analysis that enables 'objective' evaluation and replication and also adopts precise criteria of inference and verification.


For example, in attributing causality, the 'new historian' adopts the criteria widely propounded by quantitative sociologists of the 'Columbia School' (Lazarsfeld and Rosenberg, 1955; Lazarsfeld et al. 1972; Boudon, 1974; Labovitz and Hagedorn, 1971) of time priority, non-spurious correlation and plausible theory.


The key to the 'new history' is operationalisation. Where traditional historians have been sloppy in their conceptual development, the 'new historians' are principally concerned with operationalising concepts.


Reflecting debates in sociology, the 'new history' is, because of its concern with operationalisation and measurement, closely aligned to quantification. In the same way that Lundberg (1936) argued that at base all sociology is quantitative in approach even if it does not always use numerical data and therefore what is needed to make sociology more scientific is tighter conceptualisation, which may be achieved through operationalisation procedures, so the proponents of 'new history' argue that historians have in essence always used quantification procedures to analyse social change. It is of no importance in the long run whether quantitative or qualitative analysis follows (i.e. whether statistics or descriptive accounts are used) so long as concepts are clearly operationally defined.


This perspective on history, then, is clearly historist as it simply refines the naive positivism of the architypal historism of L. von Ranke and the school, which was concerned with chronological narrative based on 'given', available historical sources. The 'new history' utilises the same kind of resources, albeit with a more generalised view of history in mind than mere accounts of the decision processes of kings and politicians, and merely constructs explicit categories from observable data. There is no concern for the interpretive process. This is simply subsumed under operationalism so that qualitative reflection becomes merely non-numerical nomological conjecture, rather than fundamentally questioning nomothetic orientations. In short, the operationalisation process involved in the 'new historical' approach does not transcend the theoretical base that directs the enquiry as such. Despite care to obviate errors, there is no way such an approach can construct a presuppositionless history.

analytical review

There is a problem with the term historism in as much as it is not used consistently. For example, Alan Musgrave (Cheyne and Worrall, 2006, p. 263) refers to historism in ways that might seem to more close resemble historicism.

He writes:

For two hundred years or more we have been faced with the thesis that there is a radical difference between historiography and the natural sciences. It is claimed that the methodology which is valid for historical researchis, in general, completely different from scientific method. In particular causal laws play no role in historical narrative—historicity and causal regularity are incompatible. I call this thesis methodological historism.

Musgrave is using the term historism to refer to any approach that denies causal laws in history (on the basis that history is about unique events). The core definition above limits historism to that form of history that assumes that there is a past that can be discovered, as opposed to interpreted, rather than that historism denies causal laws.


associated issues


related areas

See also



Boudon, R., 1974, The Logic of Sociological Explanation, Harmondsworth, Penguin.

Cheyne, C. and Worrall, J., (Eds.), 2006, Rationality and Reality: Conversations with Alan Musgrave, Dordrecht, Springer.

Hexter, J.H., 1968, 'Historiography: the rhetoric of history', in Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 6, pp. 369–94.

Labovitz, S. and Hagedorn, R., 1971, Introduction to Social Research, New York, McGraw-Hill.

Lazarsfeld, P. and Rosenberg, M., (Eds.) 1955; The Language of Social Research: A reader in the methodology of social research. New York, The Free Press.

Lazarsfeld, P., Pasanella, A.  and Rosenberg, M., (Eds.), 1972, Continuities in the Language of Social Research. New York, The Free Press.

Lundberg, G. , 1936, ‘Quantitative methods in social psychology’, American Sociological Review, 1, pp 38–60.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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