Sociologists generally are accustomed to studying social phenomena at one time—the present. But social phenomena do not appear spontaneously and autonomously. Historical analysis can indicate the possibility that certain consequences can issue from events that are comparable to other events of the past: history as something more than a simple compilation of facts. It can generate an understanding of the processes of social change and document how a myriad factors have helped shape the present.
Historical research carried out by sociologists and other social scientists is a critical investigation of events, developments, and experiences of the past; a careful weighing of evidence of the validity of sources of information on the past; and the interpretation of the evidence. As a substitute for direct data from the people or events being studied, contents from a wide variety of historical documents and materials are used as a method of data collection. These documents and materials include census data; archives of various types; official files such as court records, records of property transactions, and tax records; business ledgers; personal diaries; witness accounts; propaganda literature; and numerous other personal accounts and letters. The researcher uses these data sources to carry out what is generally referred to as secondary analysis; that is, the data were not generated or collected for the specific purpose of the study formulated by the researcher. Of course, the usefulness of the historical method depends to a large extent on the accuracy and thoroughness of the documents and materials. With accurate and thorough data, the researcher may be able to gain insights, generate hypotheses, and even test hypotheses.
Official records and public documents have provided the data for sociological analyses attempting to establish long-term legal trends. For example, William J. Chambliss (1964) showed in a classic study how and why vagrancy statutes changed in England according to emerging social interests. The first full-fledged vagrancy law, enacted in 1349, regulated the giving of alms to able-bodied, unemployed people. After the Black Death (bubonic plague) and the flight of workers from landowners, the law was reformulated to force laborers to accept employment at a low wage. By the sixteenth century, with an increased emphasis on commerce and industry, the vagrancy statutes were revived and strengthened. Eventually, vagrancy laws came to serve, as they do today, the purpose of controlling people and activities regarded as undesirable to the community. Similarly, Jerome Hall (1952) has shown, on the basis of historical records, how changing social conditions and emerging social interests brought about the formulation of trespass laws in fifteenth-century England.
The historical method is also used to test theories. For example, Mary P Baumgartner (1978) was interested in the relationship between the social status of the defendant and the litigant and the verdicts and sanctions awarded them. She analyzed data based on 389 cases (148 civil and 241 criminal) heard in the colony of New Haven between 1639 and 1665. She found, not unexpectedly, that in both the civil and the criminal cases, individuals who enjoyed high status received more favorable treatment by the court than their lower-status counterparts.
Another example of using historical data to test theories was Lawrence M. Friedman and Robert V Percival’s (1978) survey of the caseloads of two California trial courts at five points between 1890 and 1970. As described in Chapter 6, the authors hypothesized that, over time, trial courts have come to do less work in settling disputes and more work of a routine administrative nature. They concluded that the dispute-settlement function of the trial courts has declined noticeably over time, a conclusion that has since been repeatedly questioned.
In addition to relying on official documents, the historical method may also be based on narrations of personal experiences, generally known as the life-histories method. This technique requires that the researcher rely solely on a person’s reporting of life experiences relevant to the research interest with minimal commentary. Often, life histories are part of ethnographic reports. In such instances, they are referred to as “memory cases” (Nader and Todd, 1978:7). This method is useful to learn about events such as conflict or dispute that occurred in the past, particularly when there are no written records available.
Despite this advantage, this method also has certain pitfalls. In particular, life histories tend to be tainted by selective recall: Subjects tend to remember events that have impressed them in some way and tend to forget others.
The life-history method still serves several functions. First, it provides insights into a world usually overlooked by the objective methods of data collection. Second, life histories can serve as the basis for making assumptions necessary for more systematic data collection. Third, life histories, because of their details, provide insights into new or different perspectives for research. When an area has been studied extensively and has grown “sterile,” life histories may break new grounds for research studies. Finally, they offer an opportunity to view and study the dynamic process of social interactions and events not available with many other kinds of data.
A noteworthy difficulty of historical methods overall lies in the limited accuracy and thoroughness of the documents and materials involved. Because the data are “compiled” by others with no supervision or control by the researcher, the researcher is at the mercy of those who record the information. The recorders use their own definitions of situations; define and select events as important for recording; and introduce subjective perceptions, interpretations, and insights into their recordings. For example, how do the recorders define a dispute? In many instances, a dispute enters officially into the court records when it is adjudicated, and a settlement is imposed after full trial. But as Chapter 6 noted, not all disputes are adjudicated. Many are settled informally in pretrial conferences, or judges may intervene in other less formal ways as well.
Therefore, a researcher must ascertain the reliability and validity of documents. Historical documents should be verified for internal consistency (consistency between each portion of the document and other portions) and external consistency (consistency with empirical evidence, other documents, or both). Although the historical method provides details of events that are often unmatched by other methods of data collection, it is desirable (when possible, of course) to combine this method with other data-collection methods.