The Historical Method in the Analysis of Social Phenomena

William F. Ogburn
Columbia University


The Historical Method in the Analysis of Social Phenomena.—The historical method varies in meaning according to the different problems of the various sciences. One meaning has great vitality where the problem is to differentiate and ascertain the cultural and the psychological factors present in all social phenomena. The first step is to determine the cultural factor which is done by the historical method. Only after. the cultural factor is known can the psychological factor be understood. The inadequate exposition of the cultural factor is the great weakness of social evolution, biological sociology, and climatic and psychological explanations. Culture and psychology. The relationship between culture and psychology is quite complex; and although determining the psychological factor is the last rather than the first step, nevertheless a knowledge of psychology is of great importance and may indeed help in tracing the history. In modern social problems the historical method is as important as in ethnology, although in the former field it tends to become highly statistical and analytical.

The historical method and science.—There are of course many different kinds of methods used in sociology, as indicated in the terms deductive, inductive, objective, classificatory, descriptive, historical, experimental, analytical, statistical, etc., methods, of course, overlapping somewhat and more or less interrelated. The purpose of this paper is to discuss briefly only one of these methods, the historical. I shall not, in reviewing this method, be interested in presenting merely the formal relationships of the historical method to the different types of sociological problems nor to the various other scientific methods; but I shall be concerned in discussing this particular method, if not comprehensively, at least in those relationships where it has greatest vitality.

There are several different meanings to the word historical. In the branch of study known as history, we think of the historical method as the description of events by the use of documents, records, and authorities. In anthropology, the historical method means the collection and use of cultural facts to explain ethnological phenomena; and it is contrasted with the earlier speculative

( 71) methods on the one hand and with the psychological or racial explanations of cultural phenomena on the other. In economics, how-ever the historical method is largely descriptive and is contrasted with the analytical. Thus the German historical school is interested in describing the historical development of economic institutions while the English classical economists are primarily concerned with analyzing the economic life into the different economic factors and their various interactions. In sociology historical is the term used to characterize the procedure of the historical sociologists, more particularly the method used in studying the history of society, the development of culture, and the evolution of social institutions. In all these fields, then, the historical method has one common element, namely, the collection of cultural facts leading up to the phenomena. In some cases getting the facts means written documents, in other cases it means digging in the soil. Sometimes the method is simply descriptive. In other cases considerable analysis is involved leading to inquiries into causes.

In the usual discussions of history and sociology, the central theme is the merits and possibilities of description on the one hand and law and cause on the other. History is frequently seen as a purely descriptive study while the mission of sociology is said to be the formulation of processes, causes, and laws. This controversy has been ably treated by many writers and it is not proposed to discuss here this important phase of the relationships. We are here primarily concerned with the historical method as it relates to the psychological explanations of social phenomena.

Causes versus historical description.—In that part of sociology that is concerned with the history of social institutions, there has been and is emphasis on recording historical facts. But the collecting of historical data soon led to an inquiry into causes. It is probable that this search for origins and causes was greatly stimulated by Darwin's success in finding the causes of the origins of species as contrasted with the purely descriptive work of earlier biologists. Whatever may have been the reason, the search for causes in sociology seemed to be more pressing or more highly appreciated than mere description and the collecting of facts.

( 72) Since frequently the facts and descriptions did not exist, the inquiry into causes became at times speculation about causes.

Interpretations other than historical.—It so happened that explanations of social origins were not sought so much in history as in climate, race and human nature. There was particularly a tendency to account for culture and social institutions in terms of biology and psychology. So historical sociology yielded ground to biological sociology and psychological sociology. The following illustrations are instances of these types of explanations. Climate is said to explain certain differences between the cultures of the Eskimo and of the Pueblo Indians. Buckle tried to show the influence of the aspects of nature upon religion and art. Teggart, following the lead of others, traced the origin of the state in the migrations to the terminals of the river valleys. Race as a cause of culture is as far removed from the historical method as climatic interpretations, as we see in the racial theories from Gobineau to Madison Grant. The Greek culture is due to the genius of the Greek people and the negro culture is low because of the inferiority of the African race. An illustration of the psychological interpretation is Herbert Spencer's theory of the origin of religion, which he attributes to the experiences of early man with dream phenomena. Bachhofen, McLennan, and others seek the origin of the clan in the sex instinct. All these foregoing examples of the climatic, racial, and psychological causes of cultural changes are illustrations of interpretations other than historical.

The inadequacy of race and climate as explanations.—As time went on the collection of additional data by the historical method showed many of these racial, climatic, and psychological explanations to be fallacious. Thus researches of field workers have disproved the inevitable priority of the clan over the civil type of organization and the necessary precedence of the matrilineal form of tracing descent. Then followed a development of the critical attitude; and its continued application has resulted in a healthy skepticism of such explanation and a greater appreciation of the historical method. Climatic explanations have been pointed out by Goldenweiser to be quite generally an inadequate explanation of culture; and climate is shown to possess chiefly a limiting

( 73) value. Thus the culture on Manhattan Island has undergone the greatest changes within five hundred years. Climate could not account for such changes as the climate is substantially constant over this period. So similarly is race inadequate to account for culture. For instance, there have been great changes in culture in England in the past three hundred years but there could not have been any significant racial change in that time. And in Europe at the present time there are wide divergences in cultural status within areas occupied by the same racial stocks. Culture varies with race constant. Such cases illustrate the inadequacy of race and climate as explanations and suggest the importance of history and culture.

A methodological principle—The value of the historical method is seen most frequently and appears most convincingly in contrast to psychological analyses. The relationships of these two factors have been the theme of discussion in several very able papers, by Kroeber,[1] Lowie,[2] Goldenweiser,[3] Wissler,[4] Rivers,[5] Haeberlin,[6] Ellwood,[7] Hocart.[8]

There are undoubtedly many intricate and complicated relationships between psychology and history. But it seems to me that one conclusion can be drawn that is of the utmost significance and the greatest vitality, despite the fact that the formulation of it seems very simple. This conclusion, which is a methodological rule of guidance, is the principal idea of this paper. It is

( 74) as follows: In segregating and measuring the two factors, the cultural and the psychological, that are present in all social phenomena, the first step is to determine the cultural factor, which is commonly done by the historical method. The psychological factor can only be seen clearly after the cultural factor is known and the historical setting is understood. If the attempt is made to determine the psychological factor before the cultural factor is known, the probability of error is generally so great as to make it untrustworthy.

The value of the historical method in ascertaining the psychological factors.—The point is very clearly shown in the article by Rivers, previously referred to. Westermarck in discussing the institution of blood feud, common among primitive peoples, had attributed it to the motive of revenge.. This was a psychological explanation. Rivers, who had done a great deal of field work in Melanesia where the blood feud exists, showed as a result of careful historical work that in many parts of the world and particularly in Melanesia, the blood feud is not accompanied at all by the motive and feeling of revenge. In some cases the practice was largely ceremonial and in others the motives were essentially religious. Whatever the psychological element in a particular instance may have been, the point is, that it could only be revealed after the historical method has shown the cultural factors.

Psychology and history in mother-in-law avoidance.—The mistake of trying to explain a social phenomenon psychologically before a historical account is given is shown by Lowie,[9] in discussing Freud's[10] psychological explanation of mother-in-law and son-in-law avoidance rules, a custom widely spread among primitive cultures. Freud's explanation is partly on the basis of conflicts in the proprietary interests in the woman on the part of mother and of husband, and also partly on the Oedipus complex motive of the husband and the motive of identification of the mother with the daughter. But Lowie claims this psychological explanation to be inadequate and erroneous, for the reason that in two groups living side by side, the mother-in-law avoidance will be a custom with one group and

( 75) not with the other. Such is the case, for instance, with the Hopi and the Navaho. The Navaho man avoids his mother-in-law but the Hopi man does not. On what grounds can we credit one set of psychological motives to the Hopi and a different set to the Navaho? We do not know what causes these peculiar rules, but the actual historical investigations in ethnology show that Freud's psychological explanation is, at least, inadequate.

The foregoing illustration of parent-in-law avoidance introduces some interesting points regarding the relations of the cultural and the psychological factors in social phenomena. Lowie's test is a very severe one and needs some examination, for, at first glance, it would seem that the psychological factor cannot help to explain social phenomena except in a relatively small number of instances. His test is that unless the social phenomenon is found in all cultures, it cannot be psychologically determined, for aside from race differences we cannot assume that the peoples with one culture possess one set of psychological factors and that peoples with another culture possess a different set. Only a few such universal social phenomena are found in all cultures, such as marriage, the family, leadership, co-operation, etc. These phenomena are surely psycho-logically determined because people could not live without them in any culture. But because the foregoing is true we are not justified in saying that, in other social phenomena less universal, psychological influences are not causative factors. Indeed there are two factors, the cultural and the psychological, in all social phenomena, as illustrated by the relationship x+y=z (assuming the proper constants and the relationship to be linear). Now if no matter how we vary x, the culture, we always get some z representing the family, then the family is psychologically determined.

Let us consider, however, another relationship. Suppose that whenever we have a culture with matri-local residence we always have mother-in-law avoidance and that whenever we have a culture without matri-local residence we do not find mother-in-law avoidance, then we may say that rules of residence determine the avoidance rules, that is, the social phenomenon is culturally deter-mined. With a variation in x we find always a variation in z. But it must not be forgotten that this is also a psychological cause;

( 76) y is still in the equation. Freud's Oedipus complex and identification may still be the psychological factor that is a cause of mother-in-law avoidance, which may not be effective except in matri-local residence.

It is important to know, say, that out of many cultural situations only a particular one, matri-local residence, will occasion these avoidance rules. Such information may indeed satisfy the interest of the culture historian. But such a fact, important though it is, may not satisfy the sociologist or the psychologist. It is an incomplete account because it does not tell us about the psychological factor, y, in the equation. It should be remembered that not only is the cultural situation, x, a variable, but the psycho-logical factor, y, is also a variable. Lowie seems to imply that, there is only one type of variability in the psychological factor, y, that interests us, namely, the variability by groups. If this variation from one group to another were the only variability of the psychological factor, then we would be right in assuming it a constant except for possible racial differences. But the psychological factor varies in two other regards. It varies by individuals within the group, as, for instance, from mental defect to genius. This type of variation does not apply in the case of mother-in-law avoidance; but it is a very important type of variability in modern social problems. Also the psychological factor varies within a particular individual (and hence in groups of individuals). For instance, each individual possesses a great variety of psychological mechanisms. His psychological equipment consists of many different reflexes, instincts, capacities, etc. And it is interesting to the sociologist, for instance, to know what part of the psychological equipment is a factor in such a strange custom, say, as couvade, just as it is important for the sociologist to know what are the motives involved in crime. So we are interested in knowing what particular psychological factors, of the many possible ones, are active in producing parent-in-law avoidances. Is it the Oedipus complex, proprietorship, or the identification motive? It is important to point out again that the historical method resulting in a detailed description of the cultural situation would help greatly in ascertaining the particular psychological factors involved. This Freud has not done.

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I have dwelt unusually long on the analysis of the avoidance problem, not of course because of the intrinsic importance of the problem itself, but because it seemed to be an illustrative type. The relationships between the cultural factors and the psychological factors in parent-in-law avoidance illustrate the relationships existing in general in problems involving psychology and the historical method. While both the cultural factor and the psycho-logical factor are present in all social phenomena, there are some problems where we are probably much more interested in the historical factors than in the psychological; but there are also some problems where we are greatly interested in the psychological factors.

Our interest in culture is usually great where the psychological factor is least particularistic in its cultural expression. Anger may be expressed in many different ways, such as brawls, games, arguments, dueling, and war. To find the factor of anger in war may not impress us as so important as the discovery of the economic factor. So also with inventiveness, which is apparently not particularistic in its cultural expression. At one age, with steam engine and boat, inventive ability will produce the steamboat. At another age with different cultural elements the same inventiveness will produce, say, paper, gunpowder, or the wireless telegraph. The same inventive ability will not everywhere and at all times produce the same invention; the particular invention will be determined by the status of the existing culture at the time. So there are phenomena where our interest is largely in the historical; other illustrations are, for instance, the rise of capitalism, or the origin of constitutional government, or changes in the modern family.

But there are other problems where we have considerable curiosity in regard to the psychological factor. We may wish not only to know that exogamy had its origins in residence rules and property rights, but we may wish to know more about the psycho-logical factors involved. Similarly, animism is perhaps a result of the cultural development of religion and science, but our under-standing is also helped by knowing that the animistic world is the result of the operation of the psychological mechanism of projection.

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We must conclude, therefore, that the cultural factor and the psychological factor are both important. Our interest may at one time lie more in ascertaining the cultural factor and at another time more in ascertaining the psychological factor. Our thesis is, however, that the historical method helps us to ascertain both factors. We can seldom be certain about the psychological factor until we know the cultural conditions and the history, and indeed unless we know them we are very likely to go wrong with our psychology. It thus comes about that the historical method is not only the correct procedure for determining the cultural factor but also for ascertaining the psychology of the phenomenon.

Psychology as an aid to the historical method.—Knowledge of the psychological factor, of course, depends also upon a knowledge of psychology. For if we did not know psychology we would not recognize the psychological factor when a historical analysis uncovered it. Thus, a cultural analysis of certain taboos regarding the dead might not reveal to us the true psychological factor unless we had knowledge regarding the ambivalence of the emotions. Indeed it is quite possible that a knowledge of psychology may help us to get the history of the phenomenon. The helpfulness of such a knowledge is certainly true in criminal procedure. A crime is committed and we wish to know who is guilty. In getting the facts and the history of the crime, every detective and criminal lawyer knows the value of motives as guides in the search for facts. But an acquaintance with historical sociology and anthropology led me to think that a great number of mistakes have been made through too much leaning on psychology and too little on history, and that a too facile use of speculative, popular psychologizing is dangerous. It is, apparently, easier to impute motives than to go through the hard work of getting facts.

The historical method and social evolution.—To what fields of sociology is the historical method most applicable ? It has already been implied that the, historical, method is particularly useful where it is desirable to know both the cultural and the psychological factors. It seems to me to be especially valuable in the field of social evolution and in the explanation of the changes in social institutions and their development. Let us look briefly at

( 79) the study of social evolution. Most of the unsatisfactory early work on social evolution was defective because the attempt was made to determine causes of development before the facts of development were known. In other words the history was not known. Further pursuit of history naturally tends to remedy such defects.

Furthermore, most of the writers on social evolution seem to assume that culture has evolved because man has evolved, if not in bodily form certainly in mind, that is, mind in its biological aspects. This is a biological interpretation, not a historical interpretation, and it seems to me that biological facts to substantiate the theory are not yet positively known to exist. I do not consider it as proved that there has been any evolution of man or his mind since the last ice age. If this biological stability of man should be true, then we should have to abandon a biological interpretation of social evolution, and fall back on a historical explanation. It is indeed quite conceivable that if the cave men of the last ice age had had as much native mental ability as modern men, then the development of social institutions and the evolution of society would have gone forward very much as it has and no more rapidly. In other words, it is quite conceivable that social evolution can be explained on historical grounds alone. And certainly before accepting the biological account of social evolution, in lieu of lack of biological proof, I should want to know first the historical factors.

Such a position is justified by a consideration of the work done on the evolution of one social institution, namely, the family. Early writers on the family seemed to have assumed that a development from promiscuity through group marriage, the clan, exogamy and pologamy to monogamy, was due to an evolution in stability of the sex instinct. But later historical work shows that no such evolution has taken place. The development of the family need not imply, a biological, change in the nature of the sex instinct. Certainly the need in social evolution is more history and less biology.

The historical method and race.—Another proper field for the application of the historical method, it seems to me, is the prob-

( 80) -lems of race and culture. To attribute cultural differences to race is a very common practice. From the point of view of methodology it is immensely difficult to get a technique which will show conclusively and in detail how race is responsible for cultural differences. It is very easy to say that race accounts for cultural differences (much easier than to work out the cultural facts); but to attribute these differences to race is not to prove the proposition. On the other hand, the historical method has frequently shown that differing cultures are due to cultural causes and not racial factors. The point may be . illustrated by a consideration of French and American traits. The French are said to be thrifty while Americans are said to be extravagant and wasteful. These traits are sometimes explained, as racial traits. It is, of course, very difficult to trace out the psychological mechanisms that made for thrift and extravagance and measure them, whether they be an instinct of accumulation, or self-display, or repression devices. On the other hand the historical factors are very convincing, particularly when we know that Americans and French are not widely differing racial types. The Americans have natural resources abundant in proportion to population and a high development of the industrial revolution, which the French have not. Both these two factors, natural resources and the factory system, lead to the rapid accumulation of much wealth. One would expect, I think, in such different cultural situations that the same people would in one case be thrifty and in another extravagant. In other words, history would seem to account for the phenomenon. Similarly, other problems of race and culture can best be approached by first seeking out the historical facts.

The historical method and modern social problems.—It is not necessary to give further illustrations to show that the historical method is peculiarly applicable to the history of society. To what extent, we may ask, is the historical method applicable to that field of sociology which we designate as modern social problems. There are certainly many social problems to which the historical method is applicable. As illustrative we choose the phenomenon of the I.W.W. The peculiar activities of the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, called sometimes I.W.W.-ism,

( 81) have been explained psychologically. Life for those casual laborers who became I.W.W., life without women, without children, without church, without community life, and without organized recreation, is said to lead to a repression of instincts that breaks out in unrest and turmoil so characteristic of the I.W.W. This may be true, but it certainly is not the whole story of the I.W.W. for the casual laborers had been living this sort of life for decades in the logging camps before the Industrial Workers of the World were ever heard of. Why did a psychological situation lead to the I.W.W. after 1905, the date of the origin of the I.W.W., but not before. Evidently some further historical factor must be known before the phenomenon is explained.

Or consider certain questions raised regarding the position of women in society. Are the differences between men and women biological or cultural ? There certainly are biological differences but very probably many of the apparent differences are due to cultural factors. Thomas,[11] Coolidge,[12] and others have shown that some of these differences, for instance, are due to man's economic position as holder of the purse strings. Whatever the result may be, it seems the most fruitful procedure first to show historically the cultural factor.

There are, however, in our modern social problems a great many instances where the psychological factor is most important as a methodological guide. Crime is sometimes of this type. Some individuals commit crime because they are psycho-pathological. Their psycho-pathological condition is the cause of the crime, and the particular psychological condition can only be understood from a knowledge of abnormal psychology. In such cases, we have the cultural factor very nearly constant, and the variability lies in the psychological equipment of differing individuals. That is, a large number of individuals will live in the same cultural environment, say the slums, but of those living thus only a certain number will be criminals, and these may be at the lower end of the curve of distribution of psychological traits, which deviations we call psycho-pathological. It is true that in another environment they may

( 82) not have become criminals, but it is also true that in the same environmental situation not all individuals become criminals, but certain psycho-pathological types.

So also with the phenomenon of radicalism, there are psycho-logical factors as well as cultural. The cultural situation of the proletariat tends to produce radicals; but so, also, often does an inner mental conflict, even in individuals who are economically well off. But even in all these cases where the importance of the psychological factors is great we are largely aided in ascertaining the psychological factors by a prior determination of the cultural facts. Consider, for instance, strikes of the modern industrial world. What are the psychological factors that produce strikes ? We surely cannot tell without history. Strikes may occur for a great variety of motives; but the particular motives of a particular strike can only be known from a history of the strike.

The historical method as related to the statistical and analytical methods.—In some social problems, the historical method is resolved into other techniques which it is convenient to call by different names, such as the statistical or the analytical. For instance, in studying the business cycle, the problem is not so much to determine whether it is psychologically or culturally determined, nor what the psychological or the cultural factor is; but the problem is to find which of several possible cultural factors are effective and the degrees of their effectiveness. For instance, is the business cycle due to fluctuations in the quantity of money and credit, to overproduction, to fluctuations of crops, or to climatic changes ? Such inquiries become highly analytical and when refined become largely statistical. There are many such problems where we are not particularly concerned with the psychological factors, although of course they are present; but the real problem is to measure the relationships of several different cultural factors. Of course, a history of business cycles is of great help in tracing the particular economic factors; but history is of most value when it has become analytical and statistical. Thus the historical method tends to grow into statistics and analysis.

Conclusion.—In conclusion, then, the historical method is particularly fruitful in the study of the history of society and is

( 83) also valuable in the analysis of social phenomena when we are trying to ascertain the cultural, psychological, biological, and climatic factors. The historical method is usually not only the best first procedure in such analysis, but is a remarkable safeguard against mistakes in diagnosing for the other factors. The historical method, in its extreme simplification, means getting the cultural facts. But such undue simplification does injustice, for instance, to the method as it bears on the complicated relationships of sociology and psychology. The historical method has wide applicability not only to social evolution but to modern social problems. In the latter fields it tends strongly to develop into analytical and statistical methods, with the purpose of discovering causes and laws.


  1. A. L. Kroeber, "The Superorganic," American Anthropologist, XIX, 163—213; "The Eighteen Professions," American Anthropologist, XIX, 283—89; "The Possibility of a Social Psychology," American Journal of Sociology, XXIII, 633—51.
  2. Robert H. Lowie, "Psychology and Sociology," American Journal of Sociology, XXI, 217—29; Culture and Ethnology.
  3. A. A. Goldenweiser, "History, Psychology, and Culture," The Journal of Philosophy, Psychology, and Scientific Method, Vol. XV, Nos. 21, 22; "The Superorganic; a Rejoinder," American Anthropologist, XIX, 447—49.
  4. Clark Wissler, "Psychological and Historical Interpretations for Culture," Science, XLIII, 193—201.
  5. W. H. R. Rivers, "Sociology and Psychology," Sociological Review, IX, 1—13.
  6. H. K. Haeberlin, "The Anti-Professions," American Anthropologist, XIX, 756—59.
  7. Charles A. Ellwood, "Theories of Cultural Evolution," American Journal of Sociology, XXIII, 779—801.
  8. Hocart, "Ethnology and Psychology," Folk Lore, LXXV, 115—38.
  9. R.H. Lowie, Primitive Society, pp. 84—97
  10. S. Freud, Totem and Taboo, pp. 19-29.
  11. W. I. Thomas, Sex and Society.
  12. Mary R. Coolidge, Why Women Are So.

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