An introduction to comparative-historical sociology

I recently received one of those e-mails that we as professors dream of receiving: an e-mail from a student asking for reading recommendations to get better acquainted with my chosen field of study. In my case, this involved introducing my student to the world of comparative-historical sociology.

The student had simply asked for the names of a few books to read over winter break. However, as I thought about the student’s request more, the list kept growing. I then consulted my colleagues on Facebook to see what they would recommend, to try and make up for some of my blind spots. The list now spread over several pages.

I then went back and tried to organize the material thematically, based on what I thought of as the core questions orienting comparative-historical scholarship. The end result was something closer to a syllabus than a list of a few winter break reading recommendations.

While I sent the list to my student, it occurred to me that the list might be of use to others who want to familiarize themselves with comparative-historical sociology. As such, I am posting the list below.

Needless to say, the list is partial and incomplete. I’m sure I left some crucial works out, not to mention entire bodies of literature. So, if you have suggestions on what you would include in an “introduction to comparative-historical sociology” reading list, feel free to get in touch.


Dear Student,

Welcome to the world of comparative-historical sociology! I’m delighted to hear of your budding interest in this fascinating subfield of sociology.

Below I am including a reading list that, to my mind, could serve as a plausible introduction to the subfield. Note that, since the field is united by a common method, as opposed to an area of study, the empirical content varies widely, spanning the entire globe across centuries, even millennia. By definition, no comparative-historical sociologist will be an expert on all the empirical material we examine. It’s more about the analytical tools we bring to the study of history and society.

I offer you this list with the usual caveat, which is that I have my own personal preferences and biases when it comes to selecting key works, and other comparative-historical sociologists would give you a very different list. As I mentioned, I shared your request with my colleagues on Facebook as a means of remedying that at least partially. However, I have not read a lot of the recommended works, so I can’t always vouch to their quality.

I have grouped this list into a few key themes to try and give it some coherence beyond an alphabetical list of names and titles. The first piece, by Adams, Clemens, and Orloff, is the introduction to their influential 2005 edited volume entitled Remaking Modernity. While it is a polemic of sorts, it also provides a useful periodization of the subfield as it has developed over time. Comparative-historical sociologists often speak of “second-wave” or “third-wave” comparative-historical sociology, much as we speak of “second-wave” or “third-wave” feminism (interestingly, the time periods for these waves match up quite closely…and this is probably not a coincidence).

The second section is simply “Stone-Cold Classics.” By this I mean books that any self-respecting comparative-historical sociologist would have read and recognized as a classic in the field. The third section assembles a group of texts that discuss the method of comparative-historical analysis. The fourth focuses on texts that deal with one of the three classic problems of comparative-historical sociology: the origins and formation of the modern nation-state. The fifth focuses on the second classic problem: the transition from feudalism to capitalism. The sixth focuses on the third classic problem: explaining revolutions. The seventh addresses the growing scholarship on colonialism and empire, which many now recognize not simply as something that happened outside Europe, but also an essential part of modern nation-state formation in Europe itself. The eighth lists works that discuss the two main paths that modern states took: democracy and authoritarianism. The ninth assembles a small sampling of work on the formation of the modern welfare state, focusing primarily on the US. The tenth deals with some of the key dividing lines in modern political and social life: race and nation. The eleventh is a small assortment of works that address the formation and development of another core dividing line, that of class.

Note that this list, as long as it already is, is partial and incomplete. Some of that is due to personal preferences, but some is also due to oversights and the limits of my own knowledge. Nonetheless, I hope you find this list helpful as you begin your exploration of the sub-field. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.

Happy reading! 

–Prof. Eidlin

Part 1: Setting the Stage

These two pieces, published in the first decade of the 21stcentury, both seek to assess the origins and development of the subfield of comparative-historical sociology. Adams, Clemens, and Orloff’s idea of the “three waves” of comparative-historical sociology has become somewhat hegemonic.

Adams, Julia, Elisabeth S. Clemens, and Ann S. Orloff. 2005. “Introduction: Social Change, Modernity, and the Three Waves of Historical Sociology.” Pp. 1–72 in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology (Politics, History, and Culture), edited by J. Adams, E. S. Clemens, and A. S. Orloff. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Mahoney, James and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, eds. 2009. Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. See especially the introduction.

Part 2: Stone-Cold Classics

Don’t leave home without them! These are all books that shaped the field of comparative-historical sociology at a foundational level. Nobody can call themselves a comparative-historical sociologist unless they have at least some familiarity with these titles.

Evans, Peter B., Dietrich Rueschemeyer, and Theda Skocpol. 1985. Bringing the State Back In. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mann, Michael. 1986. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 1: A History of Power from the Beginning to AD 1760. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

            [NOTE: Vol. 1 is the oldest and most-cited volume. Volume 2 (published in 1993) and Volumes 3 and 4 (both published in 2012) are also worth a look.]

Moore, Barrington. 1966. Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lord and Peasant in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press.

Skocpol, Theda. 1979. States and Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Tilly, Charles. 1990. Coercion, Capital, and European States, AD 990-1990. Cambridge, Mass.: Basil Blackwell.

Part 3: Comparative-Historical Method

How do we actually do comparative-historical sociology? What differentiates it from mere storytelling? What makes it scientific? Here are a few influential articles and books that answer these questions.

Griffin, Larry J. 1995. “How is Sociology Informed by History?” Social Forces 73(4):1245-1254.

Moore, Barrington. 1978. “The Suppression of Historical Alternatives: Germany 1918-1920.” Pp. 376–97 in Injustice: The Social Bases of Obedience and Revolt. White Plains, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe.

Pierson, Paul. 2003. “Big, Slow-Moving, and…Invisible.” Pp. 177–207 in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social SciencesMacrosocial Processes in the Study of Comparative Politics, edited by J. Mahoney and D. Rueschemeyer. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

            [NOTE: Several other chapters in Mahoney and Rueschemeyer are good for an examination of comparative-historical method].

Przeworski, Adam and Henry Teune. 1970. The Logic of Comparative Social Inquiry. New York: Wiley-Interscience.

Sewell, William H. 1996. “Three Temporalities: Toward an Eventful Sociology.” Pp. 245–80 in The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences, edited by T. J. McDonald. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Skocpol, Theda and Margaret Somers. 1980. “The Uses of Comparative History in Macrosocial Inquiry.” Comparative Studies in Society and History22(02):174–97.

Weber, Max. 1949. “Objective Possibility and Adequate Causation in Historical Explanation.” Pp. 164–88 in The Methodology of the Social Sciences, edited by E. A. Shils and H. A. Finch. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Part 4: Modern State Formation

While most of us take for granted the idea that we live in nation-states, meaning geographically bounded and administratively centralized political entities, the truth is that the nation-state is a relatively recent phenomenon in human history. How and why the world came to be organized in this way is a major preoccupation of comparative-historical sociology. In addition to everything listed in the “Stone-Cold Classics” section, the books below are also worth a look.

Note that these books all focus almost exclusively on early modern Europe, where the modern nation-state first emerged. Barrington Moore is a notable exception for his comparison of state formation in Europe, the US, and Asia. More recently, scholars have turned their attention to how state formation developed in other parts of the world, but this usually gets discussed under the rubric of “colonialism and empire.” Of course, one of the key arguments in the literature around colonialism and empire is that these processes were essential parts of state formation in Europe itself. See Part 7 for more on this.

Adams, Julia. 2005. The Familial State: Ruling Families and Merchant Capitalism in Early Modern Europe. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Anderson, Perry. 1974. Lineages of the Absolutist State. London: NLB.

Ertman, Thomas. 1997. Birth of the Leviathan: Building States and Regimes in Medieval and Early Modern Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mann, Michael. 1993.The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lachmann, Richard. 2000. Capitalists in Spite of Themselves: Elite Conflict and Economic Transitions in Early Modern Europe. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Spruyt, Hendrik. 1994. The Sovereign State and Its Competitors: An Analysis of Systems Change. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Part 5: Transitions from Feudalism to Capitalism

Similar to nation-states, most people take for granted the existence of capitalism, and tend to project capitalist forms of economic organization backwards in time, to give the sense that humans have always organized their economic activity along capitalist lines. But again, capitalism as a form of social organization is relatively recent in human history, constitutes a sharp break from the past, and was the product of specific historical events. This scholarship, which tends to be Marxist in orientation, seeks to explain the emergence of capitalism from the previous form of economic organization, known as feudalism.

Arrighi, Giovanni. 1994. The Long Twentieth Century. New York: Verso.

Braudel, Fernand. 1992 (1979). Civilization and Capitalism, 15th-18th Century, Vol. I: The Structure of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Brenner, Robert. 1976. “Agrarian Class Structure and Economic Development in Pre-Industrial Europe.” Past & Present70(1):30-75.

Marx, Karl. 1976. Capital, Volume 1, Part 8: The So-Called “Primitive Accumulation.” London: Penguin.

Multiple Authors. 1985. The Transition from Feudalism to Capitalism. London: Verso.

Wood, Ellen Meiksins. 2002. The Origin of Capitalism: a Longer View. London: Verso.

Part 6: Revolutions and Social Movements

Social change, when it occurs, does not usually happen incrementally. More often, it is part of a major social, political, and economic upheaval: a revolution. Even when social change does not reach the level of a full-blown revolution, it is often a contentious affair, which bursts asunder the regular rhythms of everyday life. There is a rich scholarship within comparative-historical sociology which seeks to understand why and under what conditions movements and revolutions occur, why they succeed or fail, and what their effects are.

Calhoun, Craig. 2012. The Roots of Radicalism: Tradition, the Public Sphere, and Early Nineteenth-Century Social Movements. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Castañeda, Ernesto and Cathy Lisa Schneider, eds. 2017. Collective Violence, Contentious Politics, and Social Change: A Charles Tilly Reader. New York: Routledge.

Castells, Manuel. 1983. The City and the Grassroots: A Cross-Cultural Theory of Urban Social Movements. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goldstone, Jack A. 1991. Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Goodwin, Jeff. 2001. No Other Way Out: States and Revolutionary Movements, 1945-1991. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gould, Roger V. 1995. Insurgent Identities: Class, Community, and Protest in Paris from 1848 to the Commune. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Markoff, John. 2015 (1996). Waves of Democracy: Social Movements and Political Change, Second Edition. New York: Routledge.

Paige, Jeffery M. 1998.Coffee and Power: Revolution and the Rise of Democracy in Central America. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Paschel, Tianna. 2016. Becoming Black Political Subjects: Movements and Ethno-Racial Rights in Colombia and Brazil. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Trotsky, Leon. 2017 (1932). History of the Russian Revolution. Chicago: Haymarket Books.

Part 7: Colonialism and Empire

As mentioned above, almost all of the classic comparative-historical scholarship on state formation focuses on early-modern Europe, where the nation-state form first emerged. However, more recent scholarship has sought to bring the rest of the world into the study of state formation. Part of this has taken the form of studying the emergence of modern states in other parts of the world, in so doing challenging existing theories of state formation. Other branches of this scholarship have sought to show the degree to which state formation in early-modern Europe in fact was inextricable from these countries’ colonial and imperial projects.

Barkey, Karen. 2008. Empire of Difference: The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Charrad, Mounira. 2001. States and Women’s Rights: The Making of Postcolonial Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Eisenstadt, S. N. 2010 (1963). The political systems of empires. London: Free Press

Go, Julian. 2011.Patterns of Empire: The British and American Empires, 1688 to the Present. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Kumar, Krishan. 2017. Visions of Empire: How Five Imperial Regimes Shaped the World. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Lange, Matthew. 2009. Lineages of Despotism and Development: British Colonialism and State Power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mahoney, James. 2010. Colonialism and Postcolonial Development: Spanish America in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Mamdani, Mahmood. 1996. Citizen and Subject: Contemporary Africa and the Legacy of Late Colonialism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Mann, Michael. 2012. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 3: Global Empires and Revolution, 1890-1945. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Mann, Michael. 2012. The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 4: Globalizations, 1945-2011. New York: Cambridge University Press. 

Rodney, Walter. 1972. How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications.

Steinmetz, George. 2007. The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa, and Southwest Africa. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wyrtzen, Jonathan. 2016. Making Morocco: Colonial Intervention and the Politics of Identity.Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Part 8: Democracy and Authoritarianism

Once modern nation-states emerged, there was the question of how and why they developed in certain ways. Barrington Moore’s Social Origins was the classic study of the two main “paths to the modern world,” namely dictatorship and democracy. Others have followed in Moore’s path, tracing the paths that have led countries to adopt more democratic or more authoritarian political regimes.

Collier, Ruth B. and David Collier. 1991. Shaping the Political Arena: Critical Junctures, the Labor Movement, and Regime Dynamics in Latin America. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Marx, Karl. 1996. “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.” Pp. 31–127 in Marx: Later Political Writings, edited by T. Carver, R. Geuss, and Q. Skinner. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Przeworski, Adam. 1985. Capitalism and Social Democracy. Cambridge, UK ; Paris: Cambridge University Press/Éditions de la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme.

Riley, Dylan J. 2005. “Civic Associations and Authoritarian Regimes in Interwar Europe: Italy and Spain in Comparative Perspective.” American Sociological Review70(2):288–310.

Riley, Dylan J. 2010. The Civic Foundations of Fascism in Europe. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Rueschemeyer, Dietrich, Evelyne H. Stephens, and John D. Stephens. 1992. Capitalist Development and Democracy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shefter, Martin. 1977. “Party and Patronage: Germany, England, and Italy.” Politics and Society7(4):403–52.

Part 9: State Policy Formation and Development

Aside from the question of what form government took in modern nation-states, there was also the question of the content of modern government. Simply put, what do modern nation-states do? Over time, states have taken over a wide array of tasks once handled privately, involving organizing society and the economy—including, even especially, the so-called “free market.” On a social level, social expectations of what constituted a decent life changed (led in part by social mobilization), and states sought to do more to guarantee a decent life for their citizens. Of course, this also led to follow-up questions about who would qualify as a citizen, who would be excluded, how these benefits would be distributed and provided, and more. Economically, states sought to channel and direct economic development as it exploded in the 19thand 20thcenturies, through to today. Understanding how states resolved these questions of social and economic development sconstitutes a vibrant area of comparative-historical research.

Chibber, Vivek. 2011. Locked in Place: State-Building and Late Industrialization in India. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Marshall, T. H. 1992. Citizenship and Social Class. edited by R. Moore. London: Pluto Press.

Orloff, Ann S. 1993a. “Gender and the Social Rights of Citizenship: The Comparative Analysis of Gender Relations and Welfare States.” American Sociological Review58(3):303–28.

Orloff, Ann S. 1993b. The Politics of Pensions: A Comparative Analysis of Britain, Canada, and the United States, 1880-1940. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Orloff, Ann S. and Theda Skocpol. 1984. “Why Not Equal Protection? Explaining the Politics of Public Social Spending in Britain, 1900-1911, and the United States, 1880s-1920.”American Sociological Review49(6):726–50.

Prasad, Monica. 2006. The Politics of Free Markets: The Rise of Neoliberal Economic Policies in Britain, France, Germany, and the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Quadagno, Jill S. 1988. The Transformation of Old Age Security: Class and Politics in the American Welfare State. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Skocpol, Theda. 1995. Protecting Soldiers and Mothers: The Political Origins of Social Policy in United States. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Weir, Margaret, Ann S. Orloff, and Theda Skocpol. 1988. “Understanding American Social Politics.” Pp. 1–27 in The Politics of Social Policy in the United States, edited by M. Weir, A. S. Orloff, and T. Skocpol. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.

Part 10: Race and Nation

A key aspect of creating the modern, territorially-defined nation-state involved defining who would be part of these nation-states—and who would be excluded. While societies had long been ordered along tribal or familial lines, the modern idea of “the nation” was something new. It was, to quote Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase, an “imagined community” of people who, though not necessarily related by blood, felt some sense of a common bond due to shared ideas and histories. Explaining the process of how these bonds were forged is another core question among comparative-historical sociologists.

While part of the differentiation among nations had to do with different sets of shared ideas and histories, another key part of it had to do with ideas of common “blood” or shared ancestry. This laid the basis for modern notions of “race” and “ethnicity.” These differentiations also served to distinguish between different groups within nation-states, determining who could belong to the nation, or even to humanity. As discussed extensively in the works mentioned above in the “colonialism and empire” section, a key part of the expansionary ideology of colonialism was the idea of a racial hierarchy that made those whose territory was to be colonized and their people enslaved somehow subhuman. While direct colonialism is largely a thing of the past, these racial hierarchies persist, and indeed remain a central, enduring feature of modern capitalist societies. While comparative-historical sociology has been rightly criticized for its blind spot on questions of race, more recent scholarship has sought to correct this oversight, while the discipline has also “rediscovered” the historical aspects of the work of classical sociologists of race like W.E.B. Du Bois.

Anderson, Benedict. 1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Du Bois, W. E. B. 1999 (1935). Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. New York: Simon and Shuster.

Gellner, Ernest. 1983. Nations and Nationalism.Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Loveman, Mara. 2014. National Colors: Racial Classification and the State in Latin America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Mann, Michael. 1993.The Sources of Social Power, Vol. 2: The Rise of Classes and Nation-States, 1760-1914. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Marx, Anthony W. 1998.Making Race and Nation: A Comparison of South Africa, the United States, and Brazil. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wimmer, Andreas. 2012. Waves of War: Nationalism, State Formation, and Ethnic Exclusion in the Modern World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2016. Traces of History: Elementary Structures of Race. New York: Verso.

Part 11: Labor, Class Formation, and Class Conflict

Not coincidentally, the modern nation-state emerged alongside the development of capitalism as an economic and political system. This meant that the very states that were being united based on common membership in an idea of “the nation” were simultaneously being divided along class lines, as the move from farm to factory over the 18thand 19thcenturies created a large and ever-growing proletariat. But simply being thrown together into similar “class situations” did not mean that these new groups of workers would necessarily think or act as a class. Different groups of workers would think or act differently depending on the historical and organizational environment in which they lived. Understanding how and why workers organized in the ways they did, and what effects their organization had on economic and political development, is a core concern of many comparative-historical sociologists.

Biernacki, Richard. 1995. The Fabrication of Labor: Germany and Britain, 1640-1914. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Kimeldorf, Howard. 1988. Reds or Rackets? the Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Silver, Beverly J. 2003. Forces of Labor: Workers’ Movements and Globalization Since 1870. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Stepan-Norris, Judith and Maurice Zeitlin. 2003. Left Out: Reds and America’s Industrial Unions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Voss, Kim. 1993. The Making of American Exceptionalism: The Knights of Labor and Class Formation in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

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