Nicholas Hoover Wilson and Damon Mayrl, "After Positivism: New Approaches to Comparison in Historical Sociology" (Columbia UP, 2024)


The scientific method that aspiring social scientists are taught in graduate school seems pretty straightforward: you start with a hypothesis, figure our how you’re going to operationalize and measure your variables, pick cases that provide a tough test of your hypothesis, then collect your data, analyze it, and report your findings. However, for comparative-historical social scientists, things are rarely so cut-and-dried: it takes a lot of ‘soaking and poking’ before you can answer relatively straightforward questions like “what is this a case of?” and “what is your dependent variable?”

Moreover, the entire idea of trying to impose a template developed for experimental studies on comparative and historical data by arbitrarily slicing an integrated reality up into variables and trying to isolate one-directional causal effects doesn’t seem appropriate for the dynamism and complexity of social reality.

Today, I’m talking to the Nicholas Hoover Wilson and Damon Mayrl, the editors of a new edited volume that charts a different path. The contributors to After Positivism: New Approaches to Comparison in Historical Sociology (Columbia UP, 2024) provide new ways of thinking about the purposes of comparison in historical social science, what the ‘units’ of historical analysis are, and how historically-oriented social scientists should go about conducting comparisons.

Nicholas Wilson is an associate professor of sociology at Stony Brook University, and the author of Modernity’s Corruption: Empire and Morality in the Making of British India (Columbia 2023). Damon Mayrl is associate professor of sociology at Colby College, and the author of Secular Conversions: Political Institutions and Religious Education in the United States and Australia, 1800-2000.

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Geoffrey Gordon

Geoffrey Gordon holds a PhD in political science. Follow him on Twitter: @geofflgordon.
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