Academic Essay: Exploring the purpose of historical sociology (By: Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud)

Historical Sociology is a branch of sociology, which states and highlights on how the different societies of the world advance and develop through history. It entails at how the existing social structures, which most of the sociologists believe as natural are in fact shaped by complex social processes. Sociology and history are two different specific academic disciplines, and the relationship between the two disciplines is multifaceted and far from harmonious.

Although, the origins of the Historical Sociology can be referred about two hundred years old, there are still many aspects that make it much complicated to distinguish between the two disciplines. And to further explain the concept of these subjects, it leads to theoretical and methodological uncertainty as it generates a number of opposing topics.

Some theorists believe and consider that Historical Sociology is a recognized field, there are others who believe and consider that history and sociology are not an established field but difficult to distinguish. The controversy between history and sociology and their concerning relationship has put into social contemporary debates among both the sociologists and the historians. If the two principles of the social studies are defined differently, each has its own definition and introduction.

For instance, sociology is the systematic and scientific study or the academic study of social behaviour and other human social lives. Whilst, sociologists who are the experts in this academic study do research studies about people and society, as they normally form groups of different numbers, such as smaller or bigger groups and study how these groups interact with one another.

Both societies and communities consist of married people, teenagers, children and elderly, sociologists study these different groups as well as their cultures and economic situations. This field emphasis to study scientifically societies, both as individual and group entities and as an element of global perspective. On the other hand, history is the study of human past events that relates to a particular subject, place and the organization.

For that reason, Historical Sociology focuses upon to re-evaluate the history of the past in order to understand how societies function. According to Abrams (1982). the history of sociology is a history of repeated attempts to give the idea of action, a central and active place in interpretations of the relationship, of individual and society, which repeatedly end up negating themselves and producing a sociology in which action is subordinated to system’’.

Therefore, this essay will illustrate on how societies develop through history, the relationship between the society and history. The essay will also demonstrate the research study of Ferdinand Tonnies of the ancient and modern types of society and culture.  The Purpose of Historical Sociology focuses on how societies develop through history. Although, humans have established many types of societies throughout history, sociologists who refer Historical Sociologists define the types of societies through historic analysis of the historical societies of the world.

For example, defining and explaining hunting and the gathering societies, it is obvious when it comes to the Historical Sociology to prominently focus, how that particular society survived through hunting animals, and gathering crops from plants. In that perspective, human societies in the past only depend on their environments. And this is how Historical Sociologists reported and interpreted the lives and conditions of those societies.

As Joseph M. Bryant (1994) points out, the work of historians and sociologists has two components; he initiated what he firstly called ‘’the reportage’’, which means reporting or to report available information and to research data, which is a secondary obtainable data, such as how the ancient societies hunted animals and fish from the sea as well as their gathering mechanism from trees. This includes the technology and techniques they have used to feed themselves and their children in order to survive.

Secondly, he initiated ‘’the interpretation’’ which means the necessary tools needed so as to find the meaning and the significance of the collected information and data. This is the importance of the report to make it viable meaning to make sense of the information and data that has been collected. Wright Mills (1959) indicated and argued that ‘’the significance to understand the intersections between history and biography in order to make sense of the individual agency’’ this refers how the capacity of the individuals, which they want to act independently through their own choices and how structure limited the choices they want to make.

For instance, when the very same animals that these ancient societies use to hunt moved from their places, and at the same time plants, which they use to gather died, because of that structure, societies relocate and move from previous famine and resource scarcity to an area where resources are available. Consequently, hunting and gathering societies are mobile societies as they move from one place to another in order to search for food and water, mostly these societies are nomadic.

Normally, societies learned from their history as hunter and gatherers never produced a surplus of goods, while pastoralists stored food for future use. So as the other types of societies, such as horticultural societies, which relied on domesticating animals, agricultural societies, which rely on farming through advanced technology to cultivate crops, then the feudal societies, which based on ownership of land, unlike the agricultural societies or todays farmers, the cultivate long belonged to lords not the farmers.

This led the economic system of capitalism ideology, which is present at the time. Previously, it replaced the feudalism and later marked open competition in a free market, in which the means of production are privately owned. There come the industrial societies based on fuel driven machines and mass production, and currently in our modern world, we are post-industrial societies.

One of the essential issues of the Historical Sociology is the social transitional theory of eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. According to Gerard Delanty and Engin F. Isin (2003) they both have pointed out that the older form of society may not be conceived specifically in relation to the European Middle Ages, but such a fundamental transition is in every case identified as culminating in, coinciding with or occurring in the course of the European modern period that opened roughly five hundred years ago.

‘’The social forms involved in this transition have been variously described in terms of such oppositions as traditional and modern’’ (p. 85). This ‘’traditional and modern’’ refer how societies develop through time, and how history entailed about the past events, while sociology scientifically focus to understand how these changes happened and what circumstances made them to happen.

It is obvious, without acknowledging history, the academic discipline of Sociology cannot certainly provide any answers from the questions of the contemporary world. As Philip Abrams (1982), indicated ‘’whether it is a matter of conflict in the Middle East or in Northern Ireland, or racism in urban ghettoes, of poverty and social problems with Clyde or the Tyne, or of the fall of governments in Italy or Chile, we tend to assume that an adequate answer, one that satisfactorily explains whatever it is that puzzles us, will be one that is couched in historical terms.

This appeal to history is not a natural human inclination, but it has become almost natural to the modern Western mind. The idea of that ‘in my beginning is my end’, that the present needs to be understood as a product of the past, is one we have come to take for granted’’ (p. 1). This last quoted sentence of ‘’in the begging is my end’’ that the present needs to be understood as a product of the past’’ refers that lessons can be learned from history, because societies develop through history.

Therefore, the Abrams theory of the Historical Sociology argues that many of the serious problems in which sociologists usually come across or previously faced on their secondary researches require to be solved historically. In this argument to oversimplify, Historical Sociology is the study of anything that happened or whatever happened in the past, just to discover or find out the reality of how different societies of the world changed and behaved through time.

For example, the above mentioned types of societies such as hunters and gathers who existed 12, 000 years ago, because human societies have evolved throughout history. However, there are still some sociologists who do not believe history nor what has happened in the past, these sociologists never focus on the dimensions of social life. According to Dennis Smith (199) ‘’some sociologists are non-historical; empirically, they neglect the past; conceptually, they consider neither the time dimension of social life, nor the historicity of social structure’’ (p. 3).

Again in his book about the rise of historical sociology Dennis Smith stated that ‘’ similarly, some historians are non-sociological; empirically, they neglect the way processes and structures vary between societies; conceptually, they consider neither the general properties of processes and structures, nor their relationships to acts and events. By contrast, Historical Sociology is carried out by historians and sociologists who investigate the mutual interpenetration of the past and present, events and processes, acting and structuration (p. 3). This will clarify the purpose of Historical Sociology and how this academic discipline study the past and find how societies change and work.

If we link the research study of types of societies into Historical Sociology, we will realize how societies develop throughout history. For instance, if we go back hunting and gathering, or in the event that societies had certain characteristics, which based on their civilization and way of life at the time. Families had their own structures, and that was the primary institution of routine life, such as how to share food, when to eat, when to socialize, how children to be dealt with and who is to protect the family. Those societies have their strategic planning on moving from one place to another, especially when droughts occur.

Because, the animal moved from that area, rivers and dams dried and plants died. These are the social order of interdependent societies, because of the limited resources, lack of skills. Having said this, the division of labour based on sex. For instance, men are physically stronger than women, so they went for hunting animals all day long in order to bring food back to their families (children and the elderly). Whilst, women uses to gather from plants. This hunting and gathering brought the first social revolution, horticultural societies, as time goes by, societies improve themselves, because the experience of life.

Horticultural societies used simple tools to cultivate plants, the tools they used were simple, and people no longer depend on gathering plants and hunting animals. They could grow their own food, and if the food itself exhausted or animals moved they no longer need to move until the soil has become infertile. There were other societies who geographically cannot support crops, because of rainfall and the climate, those societies learned how to domesticate and breed animals for food. Then the second social revolution took place, which was agricultural societies.

In this civilization people learned and improved their skills from pastoral, horticultural, hunting and gathering lives. This time agrarian societies utilized the power of animals, so that larger areas of lands were cultivated, productivity increased and people settled. This is where towns and cities formed in the first place. Then the people begun to develop skills on their own, ‘’job specialization emerged’’, writing started, and first wheel was invented. Most interestingly, this is where the inequality of men and women started, because men are physically powerful than women, and there is no gathering this time at all, for that reason men got more prestige than women.

Then the third social revolution took place, the industrial societies. Industrialization begun in the mid of the seventeenth century, where the first machine was invented in Britain. Historical Sociologists believe that the transition to industrialism is worth to study, because it is the construction of the social structures of the modern world. As Philip Abrams (1982) pointed out ‘’one cannot do historical sociology in a vacuum.

Living and acting within the social structures of the industrialism sociologists have easily assumed that the construction of those structures, the transition to industrialism, is the one thing especially worth studying’’ (p. 18). This ‘’construction of those structures’’ refers in Historical Sociology the Industrial Revolution that took place in Great Britain did social changes to such a massive scale. For the reason that, the system of production and the consequent technological and mechanization changed the face of the social structure of the European societies as well as their physical environment.

According to Abrams (1982) ‘’sociology as a whole is about that transition is more than any other historical process. The distinctive categories and concepts of the discipline, its critical problems and theories are all coloured by the underlying assumptions that industrialization is the general historical process we most need to understand’’ (p. 18). This explains that the most influential sociologists and historians were those who wrote about the transition to industrialism.

In conclusion, the essay explained and elucidated the main purpose of the Historical Sociology, which is to study in the past in order to familiarize and discover how different types of societies lived and changed. The essay also interpreted how societies develop through history as well as the relationship between societies and history. This is about civilizations and the history of the different types of the societies. Finally, the essay demonstrated the research study of Ferdinand Tonnies who was a German Sociologist and Philosopher, on his theory of society and culture and how he explained the types of society.

Ferdinand categorized societies into two different types of societies. The first type of society is the Gemeinschaft societies, these societies have lived in villages that everyone knows everyone else. They are interdependent and there is a kinship and lifelong relationships. If we define this into Historical Sociology currently, this ancient people who lived centuries ago such as the times of horticultural, pastoral, agriculture or hunting and gathering are still live some parts of the world outside the Western world. Despite the technology and modernity and how they changed everything from their culture and way of life.

The second type of society is Gesellschaft societies, which is modernized. People are nothing or less in common with one another. Family relationships are weak as people are self-interest oriented and individualist. Gesellschaft societies are the capitalist Western culture, where everyone is responsible by his/her self. Industrialized societies develop and became different from their counterpart less-industrialized societies, where individual achievements are counted over kinship ties. Hence, as Dennis Smith mentioned (1991) Historical Sociology is much broader than sociology, which sometimes neglect the past and not consider the time dimension of social life as well as the historicity of social structure. On the other hand, it is much broader than history, which neglect the way processes and structures vary between societies.


Mohamed Hagi Mohamoud. Department of Politics and International Studies. The University of Warwick.


Reference List

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Smith, D. (1991). The Rise of Historical Sociology. Oxford, UK: Polity Press.


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