Historiography, Scientific Method, and Exceptional Historical Events

A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University
ABSTRACT - Historiography has not produced a single method but different traditions, and there is much disagreement about the use of history in social science. This paper discusses some of the philosophical issues regarding the historical method, and proposes an approach to the use of historical evidence in constructing and testing scientific theories.
[ to cite ]:
A. Fuat Firat (1987) ,"Historiography, Scientific Method, and Exceptional Historical Events", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, eds. Melanie Wallendorf and Paul Anderson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 435-438.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 14, 1987      Pages 435-438


A. Fuat Firat, Appalachian State University


Historiography has not produced a single method but different traditions, and there is much disagreement about the use of history in social science. This paper discusses some of the philosophical issues regarding the historical method, and proposes an approach to the use of historical evidence in constructing and testing scientific theories.


Historians and philosophers, as well as other social scientists, have regularly mate use of historical evidence to develop their theories and positions. They have also frequently used historical facts and events to assemble support for their arguments, viewpoints, and theories. Throughout the history of such practice, however, two major streams of thought have clashed. One tried to establish a science of history by developing "respectable" rules and techniques of recording and analyzing historical facts (Collingwvood 1956, Dray 1964). The other challenged not only the possibility of a science of history (Stone 1979, White 1973), but even the utility of history in human life (Levy-Strauss 1963, Popper 1962).

Recent discussions on the scientific method, spurred by criticism of Popper's falsificationist approach, and of the positivist/rationalist method in general (Feyerabend 1975, Kuhn 1977, Lakatos 1978), have created renewed interest in the role of history in science. Empiricism, realism and relativism, three major approaches to science, all have developed their perspectives-sometimes more than one--of history (Iggers 1984). The purpose of this paper is to investigate the methodologies of historiography, discuss their relevance for the different approaches to science, and through a critique of these methods and approaches, attempt a formulation for using historical evidence for scientific purposes.


Whatever the tradition of historiography, the historical method represents induction over deduction, and the specific or the individual over the general. There is an agreement among the historians that each historical period and context has its own account of the causes and reasons why events occurred. These cannot be reproduced, and therefore, are not generalizable. One must treat each event in history as unique, within its own specificity (Iggers 1984).

The Annales tradition in historiography could be considered to be closest to accepting the possibility of some level of generalization from historical evidence. Annales has been identified as the empirical-analytical school of historiography. It is built on the efforts of renowned French historians whose aim was to "understand" the past. This "understanding" was a task of causal explanations for these historians. Their purpose was to develop a set of methods in gathering and analyzing historical data. As such, they tried to bring scientificity and respectability to history. They believed that the understanding of history was the basis for understanding humanity.

Other traditions of historiography represent levels of critique and approach from a hermeneu-perspective. They stress the impossibility of understanding the past directly, without the interruption of "interpretation" based on the perspectives and the consciousness of the present. Therefore, in phenomenological research, for example, the understanding of consciousness becomes the primary objective (Husserl 1962). In the cultural history tradition, one must try to understand the culture of the time in order to be able to know the facts that are documented. Documentation, after all, involves the process of how the specific culture perceived the world and its facts.

In the hermeneutical perspective, understanding has a different meaning than it does in the Annales tradition. It is beyond causal explanation. One has to ask, once a causal link has been established, why it occurs. Causes are not sufficient to explain a phenomenon; to achieve true explanation, an understanding, one must know why causation is present. As Iggers points out, '...Fevbre emphasized that the "understanding" (comprendre) of social phenomena could never be reduced to immediate "knowledge" (savoir) but always involved an attempt to explain their relationships. The hermeneutical perspective, in fact, considers this level of "understanding" as explanation. True understanding requires that what is thus explained makes "sense" to the one who is receiving the knowledge.

In hermeneutics, therefore, understanding the past, or for that matter, the present, requires that the ideology or the consciousness be considered. Without consciousness, and the perspective that it instills onto the perceiver, no fact can be registered. Therefore, not only the culture of who documented, but the culture of the user of the document must be regarded.

Marxist analysis lies between the Annales and the hermeneutic traditions. Called historical materialism, the method of history in Marxism accepts the premise that reality is independent of thought, but that thought (consciousness), built upon the material experiences of human beings, interprets and biases documentation of reality. In this interpretation, due to the biases of experiences and interests, a "false" consciousness can develop. Furthermore, documenting the facts as they can be directly measured and operationalized can result in getting caught up with the appearances of things rather than their essences. Understanding requires, therefore, abstraction to draw from the concrete facts that which is essential. From these essences, one can arrive at theories which allow expectations of tendencies in events, none being deterministic, certain or completely reproducible.


All historiographic traditions have been reduced to one by Popper (1962), called historicism, and attacked as tautological and deterministic. This is rather strange, since any reading of historiography as espoused by the great historians of its different traditions define the substance and purpose of history as the very opposite of Popper's identification of historicism. In effect, Popper has created an image of historiography for himself and attacked his own definition of it (Marcuse 1972).

There are, however, several different traditions in the methodology of history, as discussed. The Annales tradition is the closest to positivism, the dominant scientific method approach in the social sciences today. This is due to the importance both positivism and the Annales tradition put on the empirical, concrete facts, measurable for one and documented for the other. This perspective on facts is indeed meaningful for causal explanation, or as I would consider it along with the critics of the Annales tradition, prediction.

Prediction and Positivism

Positivism, the scientific method which predominates our field of study, and the statistical analysis techniques upon which it relies heavily for "scientific" inferences, emphasize the common or, in other words, the norms and averages. As a matter of fact, one could call this tendency the accountancy of recurrences. In this perspective, that which has the highest number of recurrences has the greatest weight and confidence. This approach, as a result, emphasizes predictive validity. We have the greatest confidence in recurrence of what has occurred most often in the past. This is best represented by the averages, or in general, by measures of central tendency. Measures of central tendency, however, gloss over the variant characteristics, compiling all and representing them in terms of the norms. This is exactly why approaches of this kind are antithetical to both explanation and understanding. They can predict, but since the techniques used lack information on or evidence of underlying characteristics, they cannot provide the answer to why the central tendency in one variable is related to the central tendency in another.

Let me put this in plain language by providing a simple example. Take research on repetition and its effect on attitudes. We find that repetition of a persuasive communication, as well as many other stimuli (music, colors, etc.), causes more positive (or less negative) attitudes in the audience (Cacioppo 1979, Zajonc 1968). This, of course, is a conclusion we arrive at as a result of the differences in the means of attitude scale items. But, is this relationship true for all subjects in the sample? Is it likely that repetition may cause more negative attitudes for some (even if a minority) of the subjects? If so, repetition does not explain the change and its direction in attitudes. It only predicts the resulting central tendency.

One can understand, therefore, the criticism empiricist approaches to history and science get from those who perceive the purpose of science to be one of understanding. Causal relationships of the kind mentioned in the above example may be valid given that the underlying relationships and characteristics do not change. But with any change in the foundations upon which "apparent" relationships are built, the causal links lone validity. Prediction, therefore, can guide us only as far as essential changes do not occur. It is clear that such empirical approaches to science go hand in hand with philosophies of "history repeats itself," and "nothing really changes.

Realism and Historical Materialism

To be able to know why one event might have caused another, or to be able to explain what might happen to causal relationships when the conditions that produce them change, there is a need to recognize relationships at more essential levels. This requires abstraction from what is immediately observable or measurable. The basically realist approach in Bagozzi's (1984) holistic construal is an example of such recognition. Realism, as a scientific method approach is one "...that encompasses many of the features of Marxist explanation" (McLennan 1981). As in historical materialism, realism recognizes the possibility of misled perceptions of facts or observables, and that these misconstructions can bias the knowledge of what is real. While Marxist history builds a certain understanding of the historical process and dynamism of social change upon this recognition, however, realism, as a scientific method concentrates on rules of correspondence which claim to make the links between concrete observables (appearances) and abstract concepts (essences) valid.

Relativism, Cultural History and Hermeneutics

Relativism rejects the possibility of any correspondence between the observables and the abstract concepts to the satisfaction of all. Since nothing is conceived independent of the relative experiences of different individuals and cultures, and therefore, nothing can be generally real to all, there is not one but many realities. Cultural history reflects this approach to the study of historical events. Hermeneutics, on the other hand, is somewhere between realism and relativism in this respect. There is a recognition that there might be a reality independent of thought and consciousness, but it is highly questionable if this reality can ever be understood without interpretation. Meanings, which enable making sense of life and the world, cannot be achieved without interpretation and reflection (Gadamer 1976). The essence of life, transition from individual experience in society to encountering society, is possible only through such achievement of meaning.

The brief discussions on the intersection between approaches to science and the traditions of historiography avail to us a foundation upon which we can build a formulation for using historical evidence for scientific purposes. The discussion has brought out several essential issues pertinent to an understanding of science and history.


It has been espoused throughout the history of science that the scientific purpose is one of understanding. There were, however, different purposes expressed for this understanding. Curiosity, control over the environment, control over events that affect society at large, and indirectly, the individual, have been some of these purposes. Knowledge may allow realization of all these purposes, but only understanding, that is, making sense of what is known, allows the conception of the purpose itself.

For understanding, in the hermeneutical sense, first some explanation of phenomena is necessary. As I discussed earlier, explanation requires knowledge of the variations in events rather than central tendencies. In history, the variations are the exceptions, and they present the greatest potential for explanation. The rule, the general, can be explained by knowing what it is that allows the exception.

Let us turn to our example on repetition and attitude change, and assume that we investigate why, in contrast to the central tendency, some subjects do not change their attitudes or develop more negative attitudes following repeated exposure to a persuasive communication. We might find that these are subjects who had well rooted negative attitudes in the first place. This immediately produces several potential explanations of why repetition causes more positive attitudes. By further investigations of exceptions, these explanations could be narrowed down to one.

In the above example, of course, there is a possibility to incorporate into the process of seeking explanations methods, such as experiments, which are used in the positivist approach.

Since these methods will give us only predictions based on central tendencies, however, the need for interpretation will always remain. No method should be excluded a priori from seeking explanation. But in the last analysis, no method gives us a definite explanation.

This is especially true for events too large for us to control and experiment with (Bendix 1984), or with events that cannot be repeated (McLemore 1984). Consider, for example, the transformation from agricultural to industrial society, or the roles that men and women have come to play in society. These are events that cannot be replicated for research purposes, but each is extremely important for an understanding of human life today. The positivist approach cannot, by investigating the rules and the central tendencies, tell us much other than that these did occur. We can only get a description of the phenomena, but no explanation, and therefore, no understanding

Understanding of the historical process in such instances can be achieved by recognizing the exceptions and interpreting them in light of other evidences which are dialectically related to the exceptions. This is the method which principally was used by Darwin in developing his theory of natural selection. He recognized the exceptions in the species and interpreted them in view of the fact that different exceptions occurred in different environments. Einstein recognized the exception in rules of geometry beyond limited regions of space and interpreted it in light of puzzles of his day, namely, constancy of the speed of light and the meaning of moving (Zukav 1979).

What was common and a rule would not have allowed such insights. These insights are in the domain of discovery, but their justification for an understanding can also only occur through the interpretation of exceptions, and not by accounting the norms. Remember that we justify Einstein's theories by testing expectations it produces, such as the time difference measured in clocks in space and on Earth. What that difference means is only understood through its interpretation based on our knowledge of Einstein's theory.

Similarly, we cannot understand the role that women have come to play in human society and explain the reasons to enable understandings by repeating the common experiences of men and women in history. To understand, we must seek the exceptions and interpret them in light of other historical events. We must consider the island of Kanhabaque where the roles are switched, and by recognizing the potentialities beyond the common, enlarge our pool of meanings to capture horizons we could not do so before.


The dominant contemporary method in science, and similarly, the dominant contemporary tradition in historiography, both of which depend upon the collection of empirical facts and repetition of common occurrences, can describe events and history for us. This may be beginning of knowledge and foundation of raised curiosity. However, these approaches are not sufficient for explanation, or, in its true sense, understanding. For understanding, interpretation is an imperative. Interpretation, however, can be problematic due to the biases of perspectives gained on the basis of past experiences, interests, and values. The inquisitive and scientific mind can find some relief from the perils of interpretation by a continuous questioning of the common occurrences, and by putting what is common to the test through examination of exceptions for a new understanding.


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