Sociology was created to explain historical change, although social sciences’ “founding fathers” disagreed over the nature of that change. Dealing, by the way, mainly with topics which now we can easily associate with economic sociology and political economy (capitalism and labor), Karl Marx, Karl Polanyi, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber saw the discipline of sociology as historical. While much of modern-day sociology engages in a more presentist approach, especially textbooks and academic journals, Richard Lachmann (University at Albany-SUNY) explains in his new book What is Historical Sociology? that the historical approach to sociology retains the research agenda paved by pioneer sociologists.
Historical sociology, to answer the question posed in the title, is the study of changes in societies over time, the historical events and contingencies that allowed for those changes, and the trajectories for further societal development that those changes create. According to Lachmann, historical sociology is a “way of doing sociology that recognizes change as the true subject of the discipline” (p. 140).
This erudite, concise and readable book explores what sociologists gain by treating temporality seriously, what we learn from placing social relations and events in historical context. In a series of chapters, Lachmann skillfully explores how the historical approach has been used to study seven different sociological topics—capitalism and its development, social movements and revolutions, empires, states, social stratification, gender and family, and culture—as well as in predictive or counterfactual studies.
The book’s goal is not to present a comprehensive history of historical sociology; rather, readers will encounter critical analyses of exemplary works and see how authors engaged past debates and their contemporaries in sociology, history and other disciplines (ranging from Marx, Weber, and Durkheim to Charles Tilly, Randall Collins, Immanuel Wallerstein, Theda Skocpol, and George Steinmetz) advance our understanding of how societies are created and remade across time.