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Research Methods in the Social Sciences

Historical Design*

Definition and Purpose

The purpose of a historical research design is to collect, verify, and synthesize evidence from the past to establish facts that defend or refute your hypothesis. It uses secondary sources and a variety of primary documentary evidence, such as, logs, diaries, official records, reports, archives, and non-textual information [maps, pictures, audio and visual recordings]. The limitation is that the sources must be both authentic and valid.

What do these studies tell you?

  1. The historical research design is unobtrusive; the act of research does not affect the results of the study.
  2. The historical approach is well suited for trend analysis.
  3. Historical records can add important contextual background required to more fully understand and interpret a research problem.
  4. There is no possibility of researcher-subject interaction that could affect the findings.
  5. Historical sources can be used over and over to study different research problems or to replicate a previous study.

What these studies don't tell you?

  1. The ability to fulfill the aims of your research are directly related to the amount and quality of documentation available to understand the research problem.
  2. Since historical research relies on data from the past, there is no way to manipulate it to control for contemporary contexts.
  3. Interpreting historical sources can be very time consuming.
  4. The sources of historical materials must be archived consistentally to ensure access.
  5. Original authors bring their own perspectives and biases to the interpretation of past events and these biases are more difficult to ascertain in historical resources.
  6. Due to the lack of control over external variables, historical research is very weak with regard to the demands of internal validity.
  7. It rare that the entirety of historical documentation needed to fully address a research problem is available for interpretation, therefore, gaps need to be acknowledged.


Sample Historical Studies