Comparative Historical Method

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Comparative Historical Method


in linguistics, a system of research techniques used in establishing relationships among languages and in studying the development of related languages. (See.)

Comparative Historical Method


a scientific method in which comparison is used to reveal the general and the particular in historical phenomena and to gain an understanding of the various historical stages of development of one and the same phenomenon or of two different but contemporaneous phenomena; a variety of the historical method (seeHISTORICISM).

The comparative historical method makes it possible to reveal and compare a given historical object’s levels of development and the changes the object has undergone and to determine the trends of the object’s development. Several forms of the method may be distinguished. One is comparison and contrast, a method that reveals the characteristics of dissimilar historical objects. Another is historical-typological comparison, which explains the similarity of genetically diverse phenomena with reference to identical conditions of genesis and development. Yet another is historical-genetic comparison, which explains the similarity of phenomena with reference to their common origin. Finally, there is comparison, which traces the mutual influence of various phenomena.

The comparative historical method dates at least as far back as Aristotle and his analysis of political form in the classical world. However, it gained general acceptance only in the 19th century, especially in linguistics, sociology, jurisprudence, literary theory and criticism, ethnography (the evolutionary school’s favored method), and cultural studies.

In 19th-century bourgeois sociology, interest in the comparative historical method is associated with A. Comte and H. Spencer, both of whom considered it the fundamental method of sociological research, treating it within the framework of the evolutionist, linear-progressive conception of development. M. M. Kovalevskii used the method. E. Dürkheim regarded comparative sociology as the essence of sociology in general. In this period, sociologists made attempts to use the comparative historical method in conjunction with statistical methods (A. Quételet, Belgium) and in conjunction with analysis of the structure and evolution of systems. However, the study of structures and systems was linked with criticism of the comparative historical method. Early functionalists, such as B. Malinowski, contrasted the two methods, stressing the functions of social systems as opposed to their dynamics and development. The prevailing tendency at present is, first, the attempt to combine the comparative historical method with structural-functional analysis and, second, the elucidation of the processes of change in various social structures. Much the same has taken place in linguistics, owing to the impetus given by the work of F. Saussure. E. Troeltsch and M. Weber subjected the cultural-historical school of W. Dilthey to criticism, which led, in their own theories, to the transformation of the comparative historical method into a comparative-typological method, a method Weber used in his analysis of social structures and world religions.

In the second half of the 20th century, after a period of neglect, interest in the comparative historical method has reappeared in several of the social sciences. The comparative study of diverse cultures, values, and norms is embodied in the theory of cultural-historical types, advanced by P. Sorokin and A. Toynbee; in their interpretation, however, cultures are seen as closed entities, and their development and the process by which one evolves into another are neglected. Comparative research is also embodied in the study of several social institutions—in the USA, for example, in R. Benedict’s and M. Mead’s work on the family. This tendency to redefine the comparative historical method is characteristic of cultural anthropology and linguistics.

The founders of Marxism used the comparative historical method in their study of socioeconomic formations and the various political and economic structures within a single such formation; they also used it in analyzing social institutions, such as the state, the family, and the army, and in analyzing social movements and ideologies. In so doing, they employed it in conjunction with study of the structure and functions of historical phenomena. Marxist methodology has given rise to comparative historical research in history, ethnography, and literature, which, in turn, has led to the emergence of several specific disciplines, such as comparative linguistics and comparative literary theory and criticism.


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The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
Theoretically, comparative historical method applies explicit comparisons examining similarities and differences between social, economic and political milieus, units or institutions, for the purpose of developing greater understanding of causal influences.
the influence of an industry-specific as opposed to a general union structure on democracy, decision-making, and rank-and-file action) as well as calls to extend the comparative historical method to other ports and other periods.
Murphy utilizes a comparative historical method that investigates the contexts and controversies of three North American colonies in relation to developments in seventeenth-century England.
Racist features are entirely absent in the work of a scholar such as Bruno Nettl, who uses the comparative historical method at all times.

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