Comparative history

Comparative history

Comparative history is the comparison of different societies which existed during the same time period or shared similar cultural conditions. The comparative history of societies emerged as an important specialty among intellectuals in the Enlightenment in the 18th century, as typified by Montesquieu, Voltaire, Adam Smith, and others. Sociologists and economists in the 19th century often explored comparative history, as exemplified by Alexis de Tocqueville, Karl Marx, and Max Weber. In the first half of the 20th century, a large reading public followed the comparative histories of Oswald Spengler[1], Pitirim Sorokin[2], and Arnold J. Toynbee[3]. Since the 1950s, however, comparative history has faded from the public view, and is now the domain of specialized scholars working independently.[4] Recent exemplars of this approach include American sociologist Barrington Moore and historian Herbert E. Bolton; British historians Arnold Toynbee and Geoffrey Barraclough; and German historian Oswald Spengler. Several sociologists are prominent in this field, including Max Weber[5], S. N. Eisenstadt[6], Seymour Martin Lipset, Charles Tilly[7], and Michael Mann[8].

Historians generally accept the comparison of particular institutions (banking, women's rights, ethnic identities) in different societies, but since the hostile reaction to Toynbee in the 1950s, generally do not pay much attention to sweeping comparative studies that cover wide swaths of the world over many centuries.[9]


Atlantic history

Atlantic history studies the Atlantic World in the early modern period. It is premised on the idea that, following the rise of sustained European contact with the New World in the 16th century, the continents that bordered the Atlantic Ocean—the Americas, Europe, and Africa—constituted a regional system or common sphere of economic and cultural exchange that can be studied as a totality.

Its theme is the complex interaction between Europe (especially Britain and France) and the New World colonies. It encompasses a wide range of demographic, social, economic, political, legal, military, intellectual and religious topics treated in comparative fashion by looking at both sides of the Atlantic. Religious revivals characterized Britain and Germany, as well as the First Great Awakening in the American colonies. Migration and race/slavery have been important topics.[10]

Although a relatively new field , it has stimulated numerous studies of comparative history especially regarding ideas[11], colonialism[12], slavery, economic history, and political revolutions in the 18th century in North and South America, Europe and Africa.[13]

Modernization models

Beginning with German and French sociologists of the late 19th century, modernization models have been developed to show the sequence of transitions from traditional to modern societies, and indeed to postmodern societies. This research flourished especially in the 1960s, with Princeton University setting up seminars that compared the modernization process in China, Japan, Russia and other nations.[14][15][16][17]

Modernization theory and history have been explicitly used as guides for countries eager to develop rapidly, such as China. Indeed, modernization has been proposed as the most useful framework for World history in China, because as one of the developing countries that started late, "China's modernization has to be based on the experiences and lessons of other countries."[18].

Comparative politics

The field of comparative history often overlaps with the subdivision of political science known as comparative politics.[19][20] This includes "transnational" history [21] and sometimes also international history.[22]

Military history

Military historians have often compared the organization, tactical and strategic ideas, leadership, and national support of the militaries of different nations.[23][24]

Historians have emphasized the need to stretch beyond battles and generals to do more comparative analysis.[25]


The study of slavery in comparative perspective, ranging from the ancient world to the 19th century, has attracted numerous historians in recent years.[26]


Much of Economic history in recent years has been done by model-building economists who show occasional interest in comparative data analysis. However more traditional research methodologies have been combined with econometrics, for example in the comparison of merchant guilds in Europe.[27]

Quantitative methods

Since the work of Sorokin[28], scholars in comparative history, especially if sociologists and political scientists, have often used quantitative and statistical data to compare multiple societies on multiple dimensions [29][30]. There have been some efforts made to build mathematical dynamic models, but these have not come into the mainstream comparative history [31].


  1. ^ Spengler (1918)
  2. ^ Sorokin (1950); Sorokin (1959)
  3. ^ Toynbee (1934-61)
  4. ^ Barraclough (1979), chapter 1.
  5. ^ Stephen Kalberg, Max Weber's Comparative-Historical Sociology (University of Arizona Press, 1994)
  6. ^ Eisenstadt, (1968)
  7. ^ Tilly, (1984
  8. ^ Mann (1993)
  9. ^ William H. McNeill, Arnold J. Toynbee: A Life (1989) ch 1
  10. ^ William O'Reilly, "Genealogies of Atlantic History," Atlantic Studies 1 (2004): 66–84.
  11. ^ Robert Palmer, Age of Democratic Revolution (2 vol 1966)
  12. ^ Stoler (2001)
  13. ^ Wim Klooster, Revolutions in the Atlantic World: A Comparative History (2009)
  14. ^ Cyril Edwin Black, ed. The Modernization of Japan and Russia: a comparative study (1975)
  15. ^ Cyril Edwin Black, The dynamics of modernization: a study in comparative history (1966)
  16. ^ Gilbert Rozman, Urban networks in Ching China and Tokugawa Japan (1974)
  17. ^ Gilbert Rozman, The Modernization of China (1982)
  18. ^ Qian Chengdan, "Constructing a New Disciplinary Framework of Modern World History Around the Theme of Modernization," Chinese Studies in History Spring 2009, Vol. 42#3 pp 7-24; in EBSCO
  19. ^ Doyle (1986)
  20. ^ Meritt and Rokkan, (1986)
  21. ^ McGerr, (1991)
  22. ^ Iriye, (1989)
  23. ^ Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000 (Random House, 1987)
  24. ^ Victor Davis Hanson, The Father of Us All: War and History, Ancient and Modern (Bloomsbury Press, 2010)
  25. ^ Robert M. Citino, "Military Histories Old and New: A Reintroduction," American Historical Review Vol. 112, no. 4 (October 2007), pp. 1070–1090 online version
  26. ^ David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (1966); Seymour Drescher, Abolition: A History of Slavery and Antislavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Paul Finkelman, and Joseph Miller, eds. Macmillan Encyclopedia of World Slavery (Macmillan, 2 vol 1998)
  27. ^ Regina Grafe, and Oscar Gelderblom, "The Rise and Fall of the Merchant Guilds: Re-thinking the Comparative Study of Commercial Institutions in Premodern Europe," Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Spring 2010, Vol. 40 Issue 4, p477-511,
  28. ^ Pitirim A. Sorokin, Social and Cultural Dynamics (4 vol 1932
  29. ^ Richard L. Merritt, and Stein Rokkan, eds. Comparing Nations: The Use of Quantitative Data in Cross-National Research (Yale UP, 1966)
  30. ^ See Bruce Russett, Harvey Starr, and David Kinsella, World Politics: The Menu for Choice (2010) p. 432
  31. ^ Peter Turchin, History and Mathematics: Historical Dynamics and Development of Complex Societies (Moscow: KomKniga, 2006).


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