On sources and narratives in historical social science: a realist critique of positivist and postmodernist epistemologies*

Critics of the interdisciplinary enterprise of historical sociology commonly contend that the narrational accounts of past social phenomena provided by historians are inadequate to the task of theory-building and testing. In support of this negative assessment, opponents will adduce informational deficiencies in the available data (the standard positivist appraisal of historical evidence), or cite the interpretive anarchy that seemingly prevails at the narrative phase of emplotment (the skeptical, postmodernist contention that historiographic texts ‘construct’ rather than veridically represent the events they artfully contrive to signify). Both of these lines of criticism are unbalanced, and therefore seriously misleading as regards the epistemic foundations of historical-sociological inquiry. The ‘social authenticity’ and ‘informational density’ of historical evidence does allow for veridical reconstructions of the past, while the reflexive interpretive protocols of source criticism and the sociology of knowledge can be deployed to provide warrant for discriminating arbitrations between competing theories and narratives. The various epistemological deformations in the study of human affairs that have been encouraged by the old idiographic–nomothetic polarity – chronic ahistoricism within the social sciences, the atheoretical predilections of much conventional historiography – are rectifiable through the consolidation of a fully integrated sociological history, a unified and inclusive historical social science.