Historical research

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Historical research is a qualitative technique. Historical research studies the meaning of past events in an attempt to interpret the facts and explain the cause of events, and their effect in the present events. In doing so, researchers rely heavily on primary historical data (direct accounts of events, archival data - official documents, personal records, and records of eyewitnesses) and less frequently on secondary historical data (information from persons who didn’t witness the event; e.g. textbooks, newspapers, encyclopedias).


Historical research data is subject to external criticism (verification of genuineness or validity of the source) and internal criticism (exploring the meaning of the source). Historical research has time and place dimensions. Simple chronology is not considered historical research because it does not interpret the meaning of events.


There was skepticism towards historical inquiry in post-war sociology. History and sociology became more linked in the 1950’s, and historical sociology was accepted during the 1970’s. Some of the leading historical sociologists from the 1960's into the 1980s were Barrington Moore, Jr., Charles Tilly and Theda Skocpol. They based their work on Karl Marx, Max Weber and Durkheim. Weber developed early historical research with his comparisons of religious and economic systems around the world, e.g. he studied the cultural differences between China and Western Europe, compared religions such as Hinduism and Ancient Judaism.

Principal Use

Historical research is used to compare records of historical events and the activities surrounding them. This type of research also helps to organize historical events sequentially, and to preserve historical data so it doesn’t get lost.


  • The research is not involved in the situation that is studied
  • The researchers do not interact with the subjects of study
  • Analysis of historical data may help explain current and future events


  • Historical data is incomplete and vulnerable to time (documents can be destroyed by wars or over time)
  • It can also be biased and corrupt (e.g. diaries, letters, etc. are influenced by the person writing them)
  • Historical research is a complex and broad category because the topics of research (e.g. the study of a society) are affected by numerous factors that need to be considered and analyzed

Examples in Informatics

One example from the textbook is the documented expedition of Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto who discovered the Mississippi river. Historical research uncovered this story based on primary historical data – in this case, records from the members of the expedition, as well as documents and letters from the Spanish archives.

Others have studied the historical progression of societies, e.g. Karl Marx observed the historical progression of economic systems from primitive to feudal, and then to capitalism. Other examples would include the study of historical events like wars, revolutions, etc.


  1. Deflem, M. (2007). Comparative and historical sociology: lecture notes. http://www.cas.sc.edu/socy/faculty/deflem/zcomphistnotes.html
  2. Ferrarotti, F. (1997). The relation between history and sociology: synthesis or conflict? International Journal of Contemporary Sociology, 34(1):1-16.
  3. Gay, L., Mills, G., and Airasian, P. (2006). Educational research: competencies for analysis and application, 398-411.
  4. Leedy, P. D., & Ormrod, J. E. (2005). Practical research: planning and design (8th Edition.).
  5. Mouzelis, N. (1994). In defense of 'grand' historical sociology. British Journal of Sociology, 45(1):31-36.
  6. Skocpol, Th., and Somers, M. (1980). The uses of comparative history in macrosocial inquiry. Comparative Studies in Society and History, 22(2):174-197.
  7. Historical comparative research. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Historical_comparative_research