Historical Comparative Research

Historical-Comparative Research

This module discusses historical-comparative research and its uses.

Learning Objectives

  • Define and describe historical-comparative research
  • Discuss uses of historical-comparative research and provide examples
  • Explain the three key features of historical-comparative research
  • Describe the methodology and how to conduct to historical-comparative research


Historical-comparative research seeks to provide historically grounded explanations to large scale and significant questions regarding historical phenomena and/or outcomes. This method puts time throughout history and cultural variations at the heart of the research project, including development of the question, collection of data and data analysis. This requires the researcher to be knowledgeable of the history and cultures related to the research question. It is usually accomplished by comparing historical patterns across cases, countries, or cultures.

True historical-comparative research has three key features that distinguish it from other types of research that study topics in a historical context, but do not make use of comparative analyses. First, historical-comparative research seeks to identify and explain the cause of the outcome or phenomena of interest. It goes beyond simply describing or explaining an historical event or outcome. Secondly, historical-comparative researchers will analyze historical sequences and processes over time and study how they unfolded and developed. Other types of research may simply examine a particular outcome or event at certain point in time, while this type of research is concerned with the progression of events and circumstances. Finally, historical-comparative research seeks to examine similar and contrasting cases and make systematic and contextualized comparisons, allowing for greater understanding and the ability to generalize the findings.

Historical-comparative research is commonly used to explore a variety of topics. Researchers use this method when seeking to explain why a particular social outcome has occurred, to compare a topic across societies, or to validate previous explanations of historical phenomena by examining what has taken place more recently. Following are a few specific examples of research questions that could be answered by this method:

  • How does economic development differ among the industrialized nations?
  • What are the fundamental characteristics of countries that have democratic regimes rising to power?
  • How have American beliefs, attitudes and behaviors changed towards homosexuals over the last 50 years?
  • How do the healthcare systems in industrialized nations differ?
  • Are affirmative action policies in the United States still necessary?

Once the research question has been identified, the researcher needs to determine the specific methodology for data collection. Historical-comparative researchers can make use of both quantitative and qualitative methods, often using some combination of methods. There are two main types of data collection methods:

  • Reactive/Obtrusive– Includes the use of surveys, focus groups, experiments and possibly field research when direct data collection is possible
    • Surveys, interviews, and experiments should be used across several time periods or places.
  • Unobtrusive– Includes examining historical works, archival research, and content analysis
    • Includes examination of large volumes of secondary and primary sources of historical information
      • Secondary Sources – writings of historians with specialized knowledge including handbooks, atlases, previous scholarly research, historical non-fiction, museum archives
      • Primary Sources – letters, diaries, movies, newspapers, photos, oral histories, and so forth

The data will need to be analyzed after it is collected. Researchers usually begin by searching for patterns, similarities, and differences. It is also helpful to look for exceptions to developing patterns. The goal is to develop explanations of historical or cultural phenomena and to seek out potential causal factors in the data by comparing across cases or through time.

The following video on social science methods provides a comprehensive discussion of the historical comparative method and expands upon the information in this module. Additional, more detailed, information is provided in the Resource Links in this module.



Suggested Readings

Collier, D. (1993). The comparative method. Political Science: The State of Discipline II, Ada W. Finifter, ed., American Political Science Association.
Lijphart, A. (1971). Comparative politics and the comparative method. American political science review, 65(03), 682-693.
Harvey, P. H., & Pagel, M. D. (1991). The comparative method in evolutionary biology (Vol. 239). Oxford: Oxford university press.
Mahoney, J., & Rueschemeyer, D. (2003). Comparative historical analysis in the social sciences. Cambridge University Press.
Neuman, W. L., & Robson, K. (2012). Basics of social research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches.
Pagel, M. D. (1992). A method for the analysis of comparative data. Journal of theoretical Biology, 156(4), 431-442.
Ragin, C., & Zaret, D. (1983). Theory and method in comparative research: Two strategies. Social forces, 61(3), 731-754.
Ragin, C. C. (2014). The comparative method: Moving beyond qualitative and quantitative strategies. Univ of California Press.
Van de Vijver, F., & Leung, K. (1997). Methods and data analysis of comparative research. Allyn & Bacon.

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