Specific Generalities: Historical vs. Sociological Generalization

What counts as a “general” story? What determines what findings are bigger or more important than others?

I think historical research and sociological research tend to answer this question in two very different ways. For sociologists, a general story, claim, finding, whatnot is generalizable to different cases and contexts. Structural holes shape competition in inter-firm networks, but they also shape competition in interpersonal networks. And so on. Because of this, any case can be interesting if it serves as a model for other similar cases might work.

In history, or at least my outsider impression of it, an important story is one that is empirically “big.” If a claim characterizes a long period of time or covers an event that touches a lot of people, then it’s a big, important, general claim. This doesn’t mean that you can’t study a small event – a single protest, a single court case, whatever – but you make claims about its importance by arguing that the small event characterizes a big system or process. What you don’t claim, or at least don’t always claim, is that your small event is a case of a whole class of phenomena.

So, for example, I think of my own work on the history of national income statistics as being a “big story” because national income statistics are a worldwide phenomenon and they shape our understanding of the economy as a whole, and thus they are a small part of a massive story. But what can be harder for me is to treat the history of national income statistics as a case of something else – for example, pitching my story as a case of how ideas and knowledge practices shape politics, comparable to Somers and Block’s work on Malthus and so on. In sum, two different approaches, two different kinds of generality.

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