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This page Social history is part of the politics series.Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.
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This page Social history is part of the politics series.
Illustration:Liberty Leading the People (1831, detail) by Eugène Delacroix.

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Social history, often called the new social history, is a broad branch of history that studies the experiences of ordinary people in the past. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars, and still is well represented in history departments. In the two decades from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of professors of history in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%. In the history departments of British universities in 2007, of the 5723 faculty members, 1644 (29%) identified themselves with social history while political history came next with 1425 (25%).

Contents

Old and new social history

The older social history (before 1960) included numerous topics that were not part of the mainstream historiography of political, military, diplomatic and constitutional history. It was a hodgepodge without a central theme, and it often included political movements, like Populism, that were "social" in the sense of being outside the elite system. Social history was contrasted with political history, intellectual history and the history of great men. English historian G. M. Trevelyan saw it as the bridging point between economic and political history, reflecting that, "Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible." While the field has often been viewed negatively as "history with the politics left out" (Social History, G. M. Trevelyan), it has also been defended as "history with the people put back in."

New Social History movement

The "new social history" exploded on the scene in the 1960s, quickly becoming one of the dominant styles of historiography in the U.S., Britain and Canada. The French version, promulgated by the Annales School, was very well organized and dominated French historiography, and influenced much of Europe and Latin America. Jürgen Kocka finds two meanings to "social history." At the simplest level, it was the subdivision of historiography that focused on social structures and processes. In this regard it stood in contrast to political or economic history. The second meaning was broader, and the Germans called it "Gesellschaftsgeschichte." It is the history of an entire society from a social-historical viewpoint.

In Germany the "Gesellschaftsgeschichte" movement introduced a vast range of topics, as Kocka, a leader of the Bielefeld School recalls:

In the 1960s and 1970s, "social history" caught the imagination of a young generation of historians. It became a central concept -- and a rallying point -- of historiographic revisionism. It meant many things at the same time. It gave priority to the study of particular kinds of phenomena, such as classes and movements, urbanization and industrialization, family and education, work and leisure, mobility, inequality, conflicts and revolutions. It stressed structures and processes over actors and events. It emphasized analytical approaches close to the social sciences rather than by the traditional methods of historical hermeneutics. Frequently social historians sympathized with the causes (as they saw them) of the little people, of the underdog, of popular movements, or of the working class. Social history was both demanded and rejected as a vigorous revisionist alternative to the more established ways of historiography, in which the reconstruction of politics and ideas, the history of events and hermeneutic methods traditionally dominated.

Americanist Paul E. Johnson recalls the heady early promise of the movement in the late 1960s:

The New Social History reached UCLA at about that time, and I was trained as a quantitative social science historian. I learned that "literary" evidence and the kinds of history that could be written from it were inherently elitist and untrustworthy. Our cousins, the Annalistes, talked of ignoring heroes and events and reconstructing the more constitutive and enduring "background" of history. Such history could be made only with quantifiable sources. The result would be a "History from the Bottom Up" that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World. Much of this was acted out with mad-scientist bravado. One well-known quantifier said that anyone who did not know statistics at least through multiple regression should not hold a job in a history department. My own advisor told us that he wanted history to become "a predictive social science." I never went that far. I was drawn to the new social history by its democratic inclusiveness as much as by its system and precision. I wanted to write the history of ordinary people—to historicize them, put them into the social structures and long-term trends that shaped their lives, and at the same time resurrect what they said and did. In the late 1960s, quantitative social history looked like the best way to do that.

The Social Science History Association was formed in 1976 to bring together scholars from numerous disciplines interested in social history. It is still active and publishes Social Science History quarterly. The field is also the specialty of the Journal of Social History, edited since 1967 by Peter Stearns It covers such topics as gender relations; race in American history; the history of personal relationships; consumerism; sexuality; the social history of politics; crime and punishment, and history of the senses. Most of the major historical journals have coverage as well.

However, after 1990 social history was increasingly challenged by cultural history, which emphasizes language and the importance of beliefs and assumptions and their causal role in group behavior.

Subfields

Demographic history

The study of the lives of ordinary people was revolutionized in the 1960s by the introduction of sophisticated quantitative and demographic methods, often using individual data from the census and from local registers of births, marriages, deaths and taxes, as well as theoretical models from sociology such as social mobility. H-DEMOG is a daily email discussion group that covers the field broadly.

Demographic history is the study of population history and demographic processes, usually using census or similar statistical data. It became an important specialty inside social history, with strong connections with the larger field of demography, as in the study of the Demographic Transition

Black history

Black history or African-American history studies African Americans and Africans in American history. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History was founded by Carter G. Woodson in 1915 and has 2500 members and publishes the Journal of African American History, formerly the Journal of Negro History. Since 1926 it has sponsored Black History Month every February.

Ethnic history

Ethnic history is especially important in the U.S. and Canada, where major encyclopedias helped define the field. It covers the history of ethnic groups (usually not including blacks). The Immigration and Ethnic History Society was formed in 1976 and publishes a journal for libraries and its 829 members.

  • The American Conference for Irish Studies, founded in 1960, has 1,700 members and has occasional publications but no journal.
  • The American Italian Historical Association was founded in 1966 and has 400 members; it does not publish a journal
  • The American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic society, founded in 1892; it has 3,300 members and publishes American Jewish History
  • The Polish American Historical Association was founded in 1942, and publishes a newsletter and Polish American Studies, an interdisciplinary, refereed scholarly journal twice each year.
  • H-ETHNIC is a daily discussion list founded in 1993 with 1400 members; it covers topics of ethnicity and migration globally.

Labor history

Labor history, deals with labor unions and the social history of workers. See for example Labor history of the United States The Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History was established: 1971 and has a membership of 1000. It publishes International Labor and Working-Class History.

Women's history

Women's history exploded into prominence in the 1970s, and is now well represented in every geographical topic; increasingly it includes gender history.

Gender history

Gender history focuses on men's history, the gender roles and homosexuality, in terms of actual behavior. However the "construction" of gender roles is usually part of cultural history.

Family history

Family history emerged as a separate field in the 1970s, with close ties to anthropology and sociology.

The history of childhood is a subfield.

History of education

Most histories of education deal with institutions or focus on the ideas histories of major reformers, but a new social history has recently emerged, focused on who were the students in terms of social background and social mobility. In the U.S. attention has often focused on minority and ethnic students. In Britain, Raftery et al. (2007) looks at the historiography on social change and education in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with particular reference to 19th-century schooling. They developed distinctive systems of schooling in the 19th century that reflected not only their relationship to England but also significant contemporaneous economic and social change. This article seeks to create a basis for comparative work by identifying research that has treated this period, offering brief analytical commentaries on some key works, discussing developments in educational historiography, and pointing to lacunae in research.

Historians have recently looked at the relationship between schooling and urban growth by studying educational institutions as agents in class formation, relating urban schooling to changes in the shape of cities, linking urbanization with social reform movements, and examining the material conditions affecting child life and the relationship between schools and other agencies that socialize the young.

The most economics-minded historians have sought to relate education to changes in the quality of labor, productivity and economic growth, and rates of return on investment in education.

Urban history

The "new urban history" emerged in the 1960s seeking to understand the "city as process" and, through quantitative methods, to learn more about the inarticulate masses in the cities, as opposed to the mayors and elites. A major early study was Stephan Thernstrom's Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (1964), which used census records to study Newburyport, Massachusetts, 1850-1880. A seminal, landmark book, it sparked interest in the 1960s and 1970s in quantitative methods, census sources, "bottom-up" history, and the measurement of upward social mobility by different ethnic groups.

Rural history

Agricultural History handles the economic and technological dimensions, while Rural history handles the social dimension. Burchardt (2007) evaluates the state of modern English rural history and identifies an "orthodox" school, focused on the economic history of agriculture. This historiography has made impressive progress in quantifying and explaining the output and productivity achievements of English farming since the "agricultural revolution."

Social history in Europe

France

Social history has dominated French historiography since the 1920s, thanks to the central role of the Annales School. Its journal '"Annales focuses attention on the synthesizing of historical patterns identified from social, economic, and cultural history, statistics, medical reports, family studies, and even psychoanalysis.

Germany

Social history developed within West German historiography during the 1950s-60s as the successor to the national history discredited by National Socialism. The German brand of "history of society" - Gesellschaftsgeschichte - has been known from its beginning in the 1960s for its application of sociological and political modernization theories to German history. Modernization theory was presented by Hans-Ulrich Wehler (1931- ) and his Bielefeld School as the way to transform "traditional" German history, that is, national political history, centered on a few "great men," into an integrated and comparative history of German society encompassing societal structures outside politics. Wehler drew upon the modernization theory of Max Weber, with concepts also from Karl Marx, Otto Hintze, Gustav Schmoller, Werner Sombart and Thorstein Veblen.

In the 1970s and early 1980s German historians of society, led by Wehler and Jürgen Kocka at the "Bielefeld school" gained dominance in Germany by applying both modernization theories and social science methods. From the 1980s, however, they were increasingly criticized by proponents of the "cultural turn" for not incorporating culture in the history of society, for reducing politics to society, and for reducing individuals to structures. Historians of society inverted the traditional positions they criticized (on the model of Marx's inversion of Hegel). As a result, the problems pertaining to the positions criticized were not resolved but only turned on their heads. The traditional focus on individuals was inverted into a modern focus on structures, the traditional focus on culture was inverted into a modern focus on structures, and traditional emphatic understanding was inverted into modern causal explanation.

Hungary

With the collapse of Communism in Hungary in 1989. Marxist historiography collapsed and social history came into its own, especially the study of the demography patterns of the early modern period. Research priorities have shifted toward urban history and the conditions of everyday life.

Canada

Social history had a "golden age" in Canada in the 1970s, and continues to flourish among scholars. Its strengths include demography, women, labour, and urban studies.

List of historians

See also

social, history, private sphere, public sphere




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