Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

About Researching the Real World



© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 June, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
All rights belong to author.


A Guide to Methodology

5. Document analysis and semiology

5.1 Introduction
5.2 Document analysis for what?
5.3 Establishing the nature of documents and categorising them (external analysis)
5.4 Approaches to document analysis
5.5 Evidence of occurrence
5.6 Content analysis
5.7 Qualitative document analysis
5.8 Historical research

5.8.1 Historism
5.8.2 Historicism
5.8.3 Critical historicism

5.9 Hermeneutics
5.10 Semiology

5.11 Critical media analysis
5.12 Aesthetics. art criticism, art history

5.8 Historical research

5.8.3 Critical historicism

A third approach, referred to as critical historicism (or sometimes historicalism  argues that, while an interpretive process is important, to impose a current perspective on the past is to risk missing an understanding of the events of the past.

Historicalism/critical historicism takes the view that the past and present mediate one another. What this means in practice is that to understand the past, one has to assess what events meant at the time and how that informs our current understanding; it involves some critical engagement with both the documents from the past and the written accounts of historians.

Given that historicalism is not a widely or consistently used term, this analysis of historiography will use the term 'critical historicism' rather than 'historicalism'.

Critical social research encompasses an historical element as part of the deconstructive process, see Critical Social Research, Section 1.6.8 and Section 5.7

Eric Hobsbawm (1981), one of the foremost critical historicists argued that what he calls traditional history, which is close to the definition of historism (see Section 5.8.1), has been good at detective work in identifying what are reputable historical sources (an important prelude to any historical study). However, the downside is that such an approach tends to take reputable data as given and uses it to reconstruct the historical chronology. Hobsbawm argued instead for Marx's own approach, which analyses the nature of change, how societies have emerged the way they have and avoids reductionism to some simplistic explanation.

In his substantial account of the last 2500 years of word history Peter Frankopan (2015), for example, did not simply provide detail of the numbers killed by the Black Death plague, nor a modern perspective on how it was spread (along trade routes across Asia and Europe by fleas hosted by rats and camels) but explored how it was perceived at the time as the apocalypse and how subsequently it led to a fundamental shift in the power of workers, who being in such short supply were able to negotiate far higher incomes, better conditions and freedom from medieval obligations. He also showed, for example, how the Mongol invasion was not the rape and pillage era that popular history from a Western perspective portrays but the construction of one of the worlds largest, stable, cleverly administered empires. In breaking down myths about history, he noted, for example, of the mid-15th Century:

The task now was to reinvent the past.  The demise of the old imperial capital presented and unmistakable opportunity but the legacy of ancient Greece and Rome to be claimed by new adoptive heirs—something that was done with gusto. In truth, France, Germany, Austria, Spain, Portugal and England had nothing to do with Athens and the world of the ancient Greeks, and were largely peripheral in the history of Rome from its earliest days to its demise. This was glossed over as artists, writers and architects went into work, borrowing themes, ideas and texts from antiquity to provide a narrative that chose selectively from the past to create a story which overtime became not only increasingly plausible but standard.

Frankopan's analysis reveals the myth creating process having demonstrated how Western Europe had, hitherto, been a peripheral player in the history of the World prior to the discovery of the Americas and the sea route round Africa to India.

Analysis of myths, was the focus of Lee Harvey's (1987) detailed analysis of the Chicago School of Sociology. He examined the historical documentary evidence to deconstruct popular myths about the Chicago School of sociology, which had been a major contributor to the development of sociology in the United States in the 20th Century. Popular accounts had the Chicago School, inter alia, as primarily participant observers, influenced by the social philosophy of George Herbert Mead and subsequently adopting symbolic interactionism while espousing antipathy towards quantitative analysis and its main proponents of the Columbia School. Harvey, used documentary evidence from the Chicago University Regenstein Library Special Collections Department and in-depth interviews with living members of the School to demonstrate that the populist construction of the Chicago School was heavily flawed.

In her study of the early days of the Russian revolution, Laura Douds (2017) examined the relevant published histories and documents written at the time, notably those in newly published collections of archival documents to show that the Soviet republic, in its early months, was governed by the Council of People's Commissars as a dual-party coalition cabinet composed of Bolsheviks and Left Socialist Revolutionaries. In her critical historicist account, she addresses the myth, previously stated in 1921, but accurate a century later, that 'Up to now, the entire great historical epic of the Russian social revolution has mistakenly been identified only with Bolshevism' (Shteinberg, 1921).

Douds (2017, p. 1) explained:

History is seldom kind to minority partners in coalition governments and the explosive breakdown of the Bolshevik-Left S.R. [Social Revolutionary] partnership, following the assassination of the German ambassador Wilhelm von Mirbach by Left S.R.s in July 1918, has cast a long shadow over assessments of the period of co-operation. The view of an unworkable Soviet coalition characterized by overwhelming discord has dominated subsequent accounts. Retrospectively, the Left S.R.s were condemned by all sides: moderate socialist contemporaries denounced them for joining with the Bolsheviks at all and, after the rupture in their relationship, they were also scorned by the Bolsheviks.

Contemporary and historical accounts from all political persuasions maintained that the coalition was unworkable, cynical, temporary, 'uncommunist' and rancourist. The Left S.R.s were referred to variously as henchmen, lackeys, naïve zealots, youthful extremists, as ineffective and wavering. There is a repeated claim that the coalition, in which both sides were distrustful of the other, was inevitably doomed.

Although the Left SR have had a degree of rehabilitation since the collapse of the USSR, they are still seen as having little or no influence during the brief coalition. Douds, however, argued that a closer analysis can reveal the subtle ways in which a minor coalition partners can work to influence policy formation and implementation.

Evidence indicates that during its four-month existence the Bolshevik-Left S.R. coalition government functioned more successfully than has previously been acknowledged. It was not in a constant state of disabling conflict and disarray. Certainly there were disagreements, particularly when Left S.R.s pursued their self-appointed role of 'restraining' Bolshevik arbitrariness, but this did not mean that joint work ground to a halt. In areas where the programmes and ideals of the two parties overlapped, fruitful collaboration strengthened the functioning of the Soviet government. (Douds, 2017, np)

Douds provides detailed accounts and evidence to allow her to conclude:

It can be see, then, that the depth and breadth of Left S.R. participation in the supreme central (as well as regional and local) organs of government was considerable, and there is no suggestion that their aim, or that of the Bolsheviks', was for a temporary or superficial alliance. According to Oliver Radkey the influence of the Left S.R.s in the Sovnarkom was negligible because the 'cast had already hardened when the Left S.R.s entered the government and they were unable to change it',…but research suggests that the party made a significant contribution to the work of the council of people's commissars and were able to have a qualitative influence on the shape, scope and tempo of policy, if sometimes indirectly and subtly.  

The Coalition came to an end when the Boilsheviks signed the Brest Litovsk Treaty peace treaty with the Germans, which the Bolshevik leadership regarded as crucial to buy time. The Left S.R.s opposed it and the Treaty also created a devastating internal split within the Bolshevik party. Like the Left Communists within the Bolshevik party, the Left S.R.s were unable to accept Lenin's choice of a humiliating peace with the imperialists, which they regarded as undermining the October Revolution.

After the resignation of the Left S.R.s from Sovnarkom, its policy towards the countryside also began to change direction, and the tendency towards the use of force to solve the urgent urban hunger crisis grew. This reinforced the split between the Bolsheviks and the Left S.R.s. In frustration the Left S.R.s turned to terrorism to try to end the peace, a tactic that spectacularly backfired and led to the final break in Bolshevik-Left S.R. relations.

However, the coalition had been far from inconsequential. Doud cited Lenin, reflecting on this period of collaboration, who remarked in an obituary for Prosh Proshian in December 1918

that he 'learned to value his co-operation during our work together in the Council of People's Commissars, at the end of last year and the beginning of the present year, when the Left Socialist Revolutionaries were in alliance with us'. Lenin praised Proshian for his 'deep devotion to the revolution and to socialism'. He added, admiringly, that 'I particularly recall a conversation with Comrade Proshyan not long before the Brest peace. It seemed then that there no longer remained any substantial differences between us'. Lenin 'did not at all deny that we had come closer in our practical work', but 'the Brest peace brought about a complete divergence'. 'Nevertheless, up to July 1918', Lenin went on, 'Proshyan succeeded in doing more to strengthen the Soviet power than he did after July 1918 to undermine it'....This sentiment might be extended to the contribution of all Left S.R. participants in the early Soviet government.

Douds concluded that it 'It is clear that the Soviet political system evolved in an ad hoc manner during the early months of its existence and was not immediately formed as an authoritarian, one-party dictatorship.'

However, the break-up of the Bolshevik-Left S.R. alliance had consequences beyond marking the moment when the Soviet political system became a one-party dictatorship. 'After the withdrawal of the Left S.R.s from government the Bolshevik party was able to launch a campaign to divide and plunder the Russian peasantry, to launch the 'Red Terror' and to bring the soviets gradually under party control'.


Next 5.9 Hermeneutics