historical generalization

historical generalization

any generalization about the past, which may or may not be true, e.g. ‘the Danes plundered before they settled’. Such generalizations may be tested against the evidence, and may apply universally to the past, or to an aspect of the past. This is an important sense in which historiography and sociology may claim to be 'S cientific’. It should also be noted that, contrary to some suggestions (see EMPATHIC UNDERSTANDING), such testable generalizations may refer to ‘meaningful’ as well as non-meaningful relations.

Historical generalizations have sometimes been seen as very different from scientific generalizations in that they do not assert fully-fledged universal conditional statements (see COVERING-LAW MODEL) which are intended to apply within their respective frames of reference (e.g. ‘that all mammals suckle their young’) utterly universally, i.e. to have an application to present and future events as well as to past events. Thus, scientific generalizations have been contrasted with merely ‘accidental generalizations ’ (e.g. a statement that all the stones in a particular box are black).

However many historical generalizations are not merely ‘accidental generalizations’ in the above sense, since they may refer to significant regularities in the past which have explanations and implications and may also have a universal basis (e.g. the general tendencies associated with PATRIMONIALISM or BUREAUCRACY). That events in history do sometimes have important ‘accidental’ causes (e.g. ‘Cleopatra's nose’) is not in dispute. Nor are historical generalizations usually easily reached, the reasons being:

  1. the complexity of the variables involved;
  2. the ability to manipulate the variables is limited to ‘quasi-experimentation’ (see COMPARATIVE METHOD);
  3. the limitations of available historical data, and uncertainties and disputes in their interpretation.

However, this need not imply that significant historical generalizations cannot be made or that generalizations with a more universal basis are confined only to the physical sciences. In one respect, historical generalizations may be more easily reached than universal generalizations in the sciences in that, by definition, the past is completed and thus not subject further to the vagaries of human choice and future cases.

Collins Dictionary of Sociology, 3rd ed. © HarperCollins Publishers 2000
References in periodicals archive ?
Few today would follow the thinking of Luce's time that historical generalization provided laws of human action just as scientific investigation created laws of the physical universe.
An uneven but ongoing process of commodification is foundational to capitalist development; its historical generalization throughout the informational sphere constitutes a landmark of the contemporary political economy.
Though "history repeats itself enough to make possible a range of historical generalization," and generalizations multiplied "can generate insight into the shape of things to come," there is always a danger of being misled by historical analogies, and the imperfections of historical generalizations, and beyond that, when a prediction is better founded, it is always possible that we will take steps to avert feared consequences.
Concerned with the nature of historical generalization based on isolated evidence, he describes how historians of ancient slavery have often relied on similar evidence in order to construct narratives with strikingly different emphases.
Getting at the truth of history, or at least some of that truth, demands that one continually reexamine the truisms of historical generalization in favor of the day to day.
True, this historical generalization falls short of explaining the underlying mechanisms of services and products that have been around for years.
Two things have happened, it strikes me, if I may now really move to a Hegelian level of historical generalization. Two things have happened simultaneously in the 20th century.
It is in this area that a nuanced application of such theoretical concepts might have lifted Cobb's discussion of the (very) contemporary South beyond the level of anecdote to that of the important historical generalization.
In the process of historical generalization, specific data are combined into progressively more general classes, for example when the myriad events in Russian history between 1598-1613 become the "Time of Troubles" and this in turn is nested into the "Muscovite period." As in the case of Linnaen biological classification, some information is obscured by movement up the scale of categories.
At his best, McInerney is less interested in historical generalization than in the details of idiom and style and the idiosyncrasies of character that give history its texture.
One needs a much longer perspective, perhaps of decades, to attest to the validity of this sweeping historical generalization; the experience accumulated since the late 1970s is recent and devoid of the historical depth needed for such a momentous judgment.
Wooldridge presents his educational psychologists as counter examples to our attempts at historical generalization: paradoxically, they were "liberals who believed in the inequality of man, progressives who believed in eugenic reform, hereditarians who believed in the welfare state and elitists who believed in relentless social mobility" (p.

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