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Social Science History


Protesters hold a banner at the hill of the Acropolis in front of the Parthenon in Athens.
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Staff Contact:

Elizabeth Gardner
Associate Director for Partnerships and Special Projects
Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies
Encina Hall, C-135
Stanford University
Stanford, CA 94305-6055

There are three basic methods by which social scientists subject hypotheses to tests against evidence: 1) lab or field experiments; 2) statistical analysis; and 3) comparative history.  Each of these methods has its advantages, but many of the big questions of social science research--such as why some countries are characterized by persistent autocracy, while others are characterized by stable democracy—lend themselves to large scale, comparative historical research.


The comparative historical approach to hypothesis testing is often called Big History, and its methods of analysis draw from other fields of inquiry that rely on observational data to understand the factors that shape complex systems, and that shift those systems from one equilibrium to another.  Examples include fields such as medicine, epidemiology, astronomy, and evolutionary biology.  These disciplines must employ multi-dimensional analyses, and one of the key dimensions is time.  Doing so allows researchers in these fields to rule out hypotheses because they are inconsistent with the timing of events (e.g., if A happened after B, then A could not have caused B), or because they are inconsistent with comparative evidence (if A did not cause B in other cases, then A likely did not cause B in this case either, even if A preceded B in time).  


Stanford is in a position to emerge as the leading institution in the world for the study of Big History because it has an unusually large, and highly distinguished, group of Big History scholars. Those scholars are, however, spread across a broad range of departments, schools, and organized research units—including Classics, Economics, the Graduate School of Business (GSB) Finance, History, GSB Political Economy, Political Science, the Hoover institution, the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), and the Law School. 


With support from FSI, the purpose of the Social Science History Initiative (SSHI) is to build Stanford’s capacity in Big History.  SSHI does so in three ways.  The first is to increase the range and depth of interactions across Stanford’s disparate social science history faculty by funding conferences, workshops, and seminars.  The second is to provide research support to that faculty, most particularly by funding graduate students or summer salary support for junior faculty.  The third is to draw more social science historians to Stanford—and to do so by involving faculty from other universities in the conferences, seminars, and research projects organized by our current faculty.

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