On A New (To Me) Old Method

This project will engage historical sociological methods. While sociology’s empirical roots can be traced to great works of historical sociology (Mahoney and Rueschmeyer 2003), particularly comparative historical sociology, historical sociological methods are relatively new to me.

The good news is that historical sociological methods are, of course, sociological methods.[1] Thus, they take as given much of what informed my earlier work on transracial international adoption and maternal/national/ethno-racial identity construction. For example, in describing how sociologists should consider history in their work, Abrams (1982:8) states:

Doing justice to the reality of history is not a matter of noting the way in which the past provides a background to the present, it is a matter of treating what people do in the present as a struggle to create a future out of the past, of seeing the past not just as the womb of the present but the only raw material out of which the present can be constructed.

Setting aside the “womb” reference (for now), this quote strikes me as a strong general summary of one of my specific findings from that earlier work: today’s transracial international adopters construct identities and families with, and in relation to, the “mistakes” of earlier generations of transracial adoptive parents.

Similarly, I am struck by the emphasis on process in historical sociology. For instance, Skocpol (1984:1) defines historical sociology as works focused on “processes over time, (that) take temporal sequences seriously in accounting for outcomes.” Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (2005:68) write clearly about the ways in which the broader sociological project, with its emphasis on social structures and constructions, is necessarily historical and focused on processes: “It is hard to imagine that sociologists will make much headway in understanding … new social formations without linking past to present, without redescribing the past to inform our understanding of ongoing processes.” Again, as I discovered in my previous work, it was impossible for me to understand transracial international adopters without situating them in multiple unfolding projects – of Chinese-US relations, of Korean adoptees’ etho-national and familial identifications, of American ethno-racial politics, of maternal expectations and discourse – and recognizing the role that they, too, played in the shape and direction(s) of those projects.

Yet, as I begin to delve more deeply into the literature on historical sociology, I am struck by the sense that I’m entering a tradition informed by arguments that I – as a qualitative researcher – haven’t dealt with methodologically. For instance, as a more micro-level sociologist, I have always investigated human agency (with and against constraints) from an interpretive standpoint; attempting to understand the ways that people make meaning as they respond to and (re-) construct their social world(s). Thus, as historical sociology has long focused on macro-level structures – states, institutions, epochs – and “typical” change over long periods of time, I find myself aligned with the somewhat newer wave of historical sociologists, who focus on “multiplicity and agency” (instead of or alongside “structural coherence and individual rationality”) and who consider culture (or cultural components/schemas) as a potential explanatory variable (Clemens 2005:494).

Clemens (2005) describes how the waves’ different foci/considerations yield different types of questions (big vs. small) and levels of analysis (systems/types vs. component parts), in addition to different understandings of the mechanisms[2] (and contingencies) of social change. Arguing in favor of the newer wave, she writes eloquently about embracing multiplicity, culture, and complexity in historical sociology; noting that “actors work with existing templates of action or cultural elements” to construct one pathway out of multiple possibilities[3] (Clemens 2005:505). In making this argument, she attests to the “embededness of social actors rather than the external constraints of social structure,” recognizing that this embededness also refers to relationships. To this latter point, she writes: because “human beings occupy multiple social roIes; their lives are woven across multiple social domains” that provide clues as to “why events of a certain character mobilize or energize some patterns of (action) and not others” (Clemens 2005:506; 509). Significant, of course, is that every step along one path becomes a constraint or opportunity for future movement along another (Clemens 2005:510).

I found the following questions, which Clemens poses midway through her important concluding chapter in the edited volume Remaking Modernity, particularly illustrative of the foci/considerations of the new wave – and, given their utility to my own thinking, helpful to my efforts to position my project within the aforementioned debate:[4]

  • How does the available repertoire of practices or schemas shape the space of possible actions?
  • How are distinctive cultural schemas combined?
  • How are existing schemas linked to new projects or available categories embedded in systems of social relations or practices?
  • How are durable configurations of resources, power, and opportunity constructed?
  • What shapes the perception of components, the archiving of alternatives?
  • Under what conditions and through what mechanisms is bricolage effected and made durable?

Notably, Clemens (2005) also describes how the foci/considerations reflected in the aforementioned questions sit uneasily alongside the comparative tradition of historical sociology. According to Skocpol (2003:408), the comparative historical research approach is “macroscopic in scope and grounded in contextualized case comparisons and careful process tracking.” Mahoney and Rueschemeyer (2003:8) add to this definition by describing the work of comparative historical researchers: “comparative historical researchers ask questions and formulate puzzles about specific sets of cases that exhibit sufficient similarity to be meaningfully compared with one another.” Fundamental to these questions and puzzles are a deep concern for “explanation and the identification of causal configurations that produce major outcomes of interest” (11).

Building on this, Amenta (2003:93) situates theory development at the center of comparative historical research; arguing that the methods’ strengths are rooted in the use of comparison “to rule out certain answers, (appraise) the mechanisms of theoretical arguments by tracing over time (processes) …, and (develop) new theoretical arguments.” Obviously central to comparative historical sociology, then, is the desire and ability to test hypotheses of causation by “(examining) the historical processes by which” social entities come to be/pass (103).

For some comparative historical sociologists (e.g., Mahoney and Rueschemeyer 2003), it is the interpretive – rather than the causal – interests of the new wave that render such comparison difficult. Additional concerns, about “whether and how studies that focus on microlevel units can be accommodated within the macro-oriented field of comparative historical analysis,” also seem to exist (5). In contrast, Clemens writes of a different issue related to integrating comparison into the new wave: if your focus/consideration is contingency and reconstitution, can you find “clearly bounded social units” to compare (Clemens 2015:511)? Yet, she cites Brubaker (2005), a favorite theorist from my earlier work on transracial international adopters’ fluid ethno-cultural identifications, as a good example of how such units can be found: through “a distinct comparative strategy focused not on societal whole but on campaigns or attempts” (Clemens 2005:513).[5]

As I consider the role of comparison in historical sociology – and my project – I find these insights helpful. While my project is currently framed as an analysis of an 80-year-period of placement to one region in the United States, I do intend to investigate the child placements of different NYC organizations to different Upstate regions. Given a family connection (more to come), I am also hoping to one day investigate how/when/why some children from Scotland were placed out Upstate, as well.  Thus, there may just be potential for interpretation, multiplicity, and comparison in this project. We’ll see.

Works Cited

Abrams, Philip. 1982. Historical Sociology. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Adams, Julia, Elisabeth S. Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff. 2005. “Introduction: Social Theory, Modernity, and the Three Waves of Historical Sociology.” Pp. 1-72 in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology, edited by Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Slemens, and Ann Shola Orloff. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Amenta, Edwin. 2003. “What We Know About the Development of Social Policy: Comparative and Historical Research in Comparative and Historical Perspective.” Pp. 91-120 in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschmeyer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Brubaker, Rogers. 2005. “Ethnicity Without Groups.” Pp. 470-492 in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology, edited by Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Slemens, and Ann Shola Orloff. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Clemens, Elisabeth S. 2005. “Afterword: Logics of History? Agency, Multiplicity,and Incoherence in the Explanation of Change. Pp. 493-515 in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology, edited by Julia Adams, Elisabeth S. Slemens, and Ann Shola Orloff. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mahoney, James and Dietrich Rueschmeyer. 2003. “Comparative Historical Analysis: Achievements and Agendas.” Pp. 3-38 in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschmeyer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Mills, C. Wright. 1959. The Sociological Imagination. New York: Oxford University Press.

Skocpol, Theda. 1984. “Sociology’s Historical Imagination.” Pp. 1-21 in Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, edited by Theda Skocpol. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Skocpol, Theda. 2003. “Doubly Engaged Social Science: The Promise of Comparative Historical Analysis.” Pp. 407-428 in Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences, edited by James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschmeyer. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


[1] Likewise, and, in the spirit of Mills (1959), all sociologists should be used to situating their work in relevant historical contexts.

[2] I found Clemens (2005:496) reference to Marx’s dialectics helpful here: consistent with the emphasis on “relatively coherent social types,” the social change mechanisms of the earlier wave include such things as “the limits of coherence (and) the presence of contradictions or the generation of strain, which drive differentiation and social evolution.”

[3] This is a particularly important point. “(W)ith the foregrounding of historically constituted agency, processes of social reproduction and change appear as chains of probabilities. From this society at this point in time, not all things are possible, but more than one trajectory of change is conceivable (Clemens 2005:507).”

[4] I love to think about my own work through the questions of others. Sometimes, the very structure of another’s seemingly unrelated question can propel me to new insights about what to look for and consider in my research. For example, I found these historical sociological questions from Adams, Clemens, and Orloff (2005:43) and Clemens’ chapter to be interesting in both content and form: How are class-based identities historically constructed and reconstructed, and what might that mean for politics, work, family life, community action, and so on? How are institutions of credit or property rights constructed? How might network ties rooted in party membership be transformed into resources for entrepreneurial endeavors? Out of which cultural materials and lineages do people assemble the alluring and aversive images of Western modernity that inform their political and other practices?

[5] In the case of Brubaker (2005), these attempts were “efforts to activate ethnic cleavages or to define interest or identities in order to ‘make groups’” (in Clemens 2005:513).

The Project

From 1850-1930, large cities on America’s east coast relied heavily on a system of “placing out” (i.e., the provision of care outside of institutions) for dependent children. The most well-known mechanism of placement during this period is the “Orphan Train”: a rail-based system that moved dependent children from northeastern cities to potential adoption placements on working farms in the developing Midwest. Yet, history has long ignored the fact that many of these children never made it to the Midwest; instead, they were placed on in-state farms. In fact, in-state placements were both central to the development of the orphan train period and significant in number. For example, The Children’s Aid Society, the New York City organization with the busiest placement office, developed its Midwestern program around lessons learned in 1850, when they began placing orphans with Upstate New York farm families (da Costa Nunez and Sribnick 2013). Additionally, in 1893, at the peak of the placing out phenomenon, this same organization sent more New York City orphans to Upstate New York farms than it did to any other region of the country (Holt 1992).

Given that in-state placements complicate much of the orphan train narrative—a narrative that privileges Westward expansion and the role of physical distance in successful urban-to-rural placements—we jeopardize our understanding of the placing out phenomenon as a whole when we ignore them.[1] Likewise, because in-state placements juxtaposed urban centers against neighboring rural areas, such ignorance limits our understanding of the phenomenon’s role in the interactional development of regional identities, cultures, communities, families, and economies within single states.[2] Finally, and perhaps most significantly, when we ignore in-state placements we deny the impacted orphans their rightful place in this forgotten period of American history.

This blog represents initial thoughts from a research project designed to unearth, explore, understand, and generalize from the particularities of in-state placements. Focused exclusively on the placement of orphans from four New York City organizations with Upstate New York farm families, this project reflects the principles of social history and historical sociology. As a work of social history, it aims to lift up the voices of those previously ignored in the telling of America life (Skocpol 1987). In this way, the project builds on Birk’s Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest, a new detailed narration of the placing out phenomenon in one region of the United States. As a work of historical sociology, it also looks for causal mechanisms of social change processes (Abrams 1982). In this effort, the project reflects Zelizer’s Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children, which describes the placing out phenomenon as central to the sentimental revaluing of children in America. Through this interdisciplinary lens, the project stands to reveal how, when, and why New York City orphans were placed with Upstate New York farm families, as well as the regional implications of those placements.

Works Cited

Abrams, Philip. 1982. Historical Sociology. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Birk, Megan. 2015. Fostering on the Farm: Child Placement in the Rural Midwest. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.

Da Costa Nunez, Ralph and Ethan G. Sribnick. 2013. The Poor Among Us: A History of Family Poverty and Homelessness in New York City. New York: White Tiger Press.

Holt, Marilyn Irvin. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press.

Reef, Catherine. 2005. Alone in the World: Orphans and Orphanages in America. New York: Clarion Books.

Skocpol, Theda. 1987. “Social History and Historical Sociology: Contrasts and Complementarities.” Social Science History 11.1:17-30.

Zelizer, Viviana A. 1985. Pricing the Priceless Child: The Changing Social Value of Children. New York: Basic Books, Inc.


[1] Placing an orphan a great distance from his/her urban home was thought to facilitate a clean break from the stigma and entanglements of his/her birth family.

[2] Reef (2005) uses census data to evidence the scope of the placing out phenomenon: in the period between 1850-1900, one-fifth to one-third of American farms registered children who were not the biological offspring of the farm-owning adults.