Historical Sociology (HS) is a subfield of sociology studying the structures and processes that have shaped important features of the modern world, including the development of the rational bureaucratic state, the emergence of capitalism, international institutions and trade, transnational forces, revolutions, and warfare. HS differs from other approaches in sociology given its distinction between routine social activities and transformative moments that fundamentally reshape social structures and institutions. Within international relations, the relevance of history in the field’s study has been highly disputed. In fact, mainstream international relations (IR)—Neorealism and Liberalism—has downplayed the importance of history. Nevertheless, World History (WH) and HS have exercised a significant degree of influence over certain theoretical approaches to the study of international relations. The history of HS can be traced back to the Enlightenment period and the belief that it was possible to improve the human condition by unmaking and remaking human institutions. HS was then taken up by a second wave of historical sociologists who were asking questions about political power and the state, paving the way for greater engagement between IR and sociology. Third wave HS, meanwhile, emerged from a questioning of received theoretical paradigms, and was thus characterized by theoretical and methodological revisions, but only minor and incremental changes to the research agenda of second wave Historical Sociology.
Besnik Pula and Yannis A. Stivachtis
International relations and history are inextricably linked, and with good reason. This link is centuries old: Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, one of the very earliest and one of the very greatest historical works of all time, is widely regarded as the founding textbook of international relations. Still, those two disciplines are legitimately separate. A somewhat clear boundary between them can probably be drawn around three lines of demarcation: (1) past versus present, (2) idiographic versus nomothetic, and (3) description versus analysis. The utility of history for the analysis of international affairs has been taken for granted since time immemorial. History is said to offer three things to international relations scholars: (1) a ready source of examples, (2) an opportunity to sharpen their theoretical insights, and (3) historical consciousness, that is, an understanding of the historical context of human existence and a corresponding ability to form intelligent judgment about human affairs. This tradition continued well after international relations firmly established itself as a recognized separate discipline some time after World War II, and would remain virtually unchallenged until the 1960s. Since the 1960s, attitudes toward history have diverged within the international relations community. Some approaches, most notably the English school and the world system analysis, have almost by definition thriven on history. History plays a fundamental role in the critical-constructivist approach, while realist scholars continue to draw regularly on history. History is far less popular, though not absent from works belonging to the liberal-idealist approach. Postmodernism is the one approach that is almost completely antithetical to the analytical use of history. Postmodernists have characterized history as merely another form of fiction and question the existence of objective truth and transhistorical knowledge. One cannot exclude the possibility that postmodernism is correct in this respect; however, it is highly unlikely that uncountable generations of people have been victims of mass deception or mass psychosis regarding the utility of history, not least in the analysis of international relations.
Robert A. Denemark
World system history is a perspective on the global sociopolitical and economic system with a structural, long-term and transdisciplinary nature. The intellectual origins of the study of world system history can be characterized by three general trajectories, beginning with the work of global historians who have worked to write a “history of the world.” Attempts were also made by scholars such as Arnold Toynbee to write global history in terms of “civilizations”. A second pillar of world system history emerged from anthropology, when many historians of the ancient world, anthropologists, and archaeologists denied the importance of long-distance relations, especially those of trade. A third pillar emerged from the social sciences, including political science and sociology. One of the central ideas put forward was that sociopolitical and economic phenomena exhibited wave-like behavior. These various intellectual strands became self-consciously intertwined in the later 1980s and 1990s, when scholars from all of these traditions began to cross disciplinary boundaries and organize their own efforts under the rubric of world system history. This period saw Gunder Frank and Barry K. Gills questioning the value of identifying a uniquely modern system based on a transition to capitalism that was said to have occurred in the West. Frank and Gills introduced the “continuity hypothesis,” which suggests that too much scholarly emphasis has been placed on the search for and elucidation of discontinuities and transitions. World system history faces two important challenges from determinism and indeterminacy, and future research should especially address the implications of the latter.