The Slow History Case Study Methodology

Suppose you want to understand human society. You should; you're in one!

What I mean by "understanding" is a strong enough independent understanding of the dynamics of society to be able to navigate its complexities under your own power, rather than relying on the trustworthiness and functionality of the social systems and received traditions around you to guide you. This becomes increasingly important in the modern era as those systems and traditions break down.

The classic method for understanding human society, at least for great men in the areas relevant to great ambitions, has always been to read the thoughts and deeds of past great men, to understand what they did, why they did it, what kind of challenges they faced. Having a detailed corpus of such information and some creative skill, one is much better prepared to handle the complexities of the world than if one is going in blind. Detailed understanding of how great men navigated history becomes a map that can be used for navigation of your own history.

And of course this principle generalizes. To do great science, one ought to read the great scientists. To improve your local community, study the best communities and the less-than-great communities that fell into decay, and how they worked. To have a great family, study the most functional families you can find information on, and examples of them going wrong. Information isn't always easy to get, but actual example data of the kind you will want to navigate is always the best thing to train on.

If we're going to be building up a map of the challenges and solutions of history, there are a lot of methodology questions to answer before doing so. Do we simply take the mainstream historians at face-value? Do we read the contemporary sources and commentators? Do we examine purely the economic and material conditions? Do we look only at ideologies and psychological condition of the time? How much to the existing social institutions matter? Do we attribute everything to the whims of great men? Do we use common sense or mathematics, formal models, and logic? Do we read particular highly trustworthy books, or try to piece together facts from all available sources? Can we infer general principles from one case, and apply them to another? Should we focus our efforts on a deep dive of a particular person or event, build a breadth-first survey of all of history, or do deep-dive surveys of particular factors across many civilizations? Methodology for this problem is complex and not obvious.

In our studies here, we have built up a method that works for us on the kind of studies we do, though it is not fully developed and mature yet. We will describe it, but leave the justification with respect to the above questions for another time.

We call it the "Slow History Case Study Method". "Slow History" for Moldbug's hip rebranding of actually reading old books, and "case study" because we structure our inquiries as case studies into particular people, events, and institutions. Without further ado, the recipe:

  • Have some purpose for which historical knowledge would be useful. For example, maybe you want to understand how serious political power transfers and institutional restructurings work, for which looking at past sovereign power transfers and organizational restructurings would be useful.

  • Pick some particular event, person, or coherent trend in history for the subject of an in-depth case study. For example, if we take the above, we might want to study one of Charlemagne, Hitler, Mussolini, the early Christian church, the Meiji restoration, and other such events.

  • Set out major research questions with respect to that subject. What are the key unknowns and things to look at to inform our particular goals with this? For example, how did the Meiji restoration happen? Was it done with a single unified coalition like Hitler, or was it a natural reconfiguration from many independent forces?

  • Start a document, preferably a simple text file, will all your notes on the subject, and record every significant piece of evidence, and what you learned form it there.

  • Trust modern historians to some extent on raw facts, but not on broader narrative. Look around Wikipedia and other useful orienting sources to piece together basic timelines and associations, but don’t just take their word for everything. Your trust for even the facts should run out when the narrative becomes politicized. When there is a lot of political ideology riding on some "facts" going one way or another, there's just too much incentive to distort information, so that information is more likely to be unreliable.

  • Even though we use modern historians for basic facts, try as much as possible to drill down to the level of particular primary or contemporary sources, especially highly-talented commentators who are speaking from their own perspective about things they witness first-hand. For example, for Charlemagne, we ought to read his personal biographer, Einhard. For 19th century history, many men traveled around and left very insightful documentation.

  • As you piece together your evidence, build timelines, associations, particular challenges faced and skills acquired by the people involved. The point here is to structure what you know before you are able to make key insights that make it all fall into place. This means information structure that relies on only very solid theory, like the relationship between time and causality, basic facts about how humans learn and act.

  • When this interpretation-less report is filled out to a greater extent, broader narrative, key causal, and essential interpretations become viable, and you can try to build hypotheses. These are not always possible, sometimes you need more info than you have, or the situation is actually just random and chaotic, but your goal with all of this is to pull out the key elements of the story such that you can see similarities between this situation and other situations you will analyze or find yourself in later.

  • Your research should then turn to focus on the validity of the hypothesis, and the questions it raises. Once the data suggests your hypothesis, validate it by gathering more data, and checking its predictions, so that you can be confident in your read, and refine it.

  • At some point, you get bored, satisfied in your inquiries, or run out of time and decide to move on.

  • To wrap up, produce two documents, or one big document with a summary subsection:

    1. Executive summary focusing on the key facts, key inferences, and key narratives. For publication to users of the information and the curious, omitting irrellevent details. Could be posted on a blog.

    2. Comprehensive notes that record everything you looked at and what you learned from it, for close collaborators and your future self, who may want to pick up where you left off.

Such structured inquiries will leave you with a much better understanding of the subject, and ability to speak and think fluently about it, which is key to using it later in practical contexts.