social history

social history
Any study of the past which emphasizes predominantly ‘social’ concerns. Since much modern social history deals with the very recent past there is considerable overlap with the substantive concerns of sociologists.
As a recognizable specialism, social history blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s, a self-conscious reaction against what was taken to be the élitism and empiricism of established practice in political and economic history. For many practitioners, the new social history was synonymous with ‘expressing the voice of the common people’, and this is reflected in the rapid expansion of interest in the values, life-styles, and everyday experiences of ordinary men and women. This new substantive terrain was explored by an expanded range of methods and techniques (including, for example, those of oral history ) and an explicit attention to theory. A proliferation of new journals (for exampleSocial History, History Workshop Journal, Journal of Social History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History) sprang up to act as outlets for the new materials uncovered in this way.
The majority of contemporary practitioners would (understandably) expand upon the above sketch in heroic terms, and would undoubtedly be correct in pointing to the narrowness of most institutionalized history up to the 1950s, compared to which the new concern with the ‘social’ comes as a breath of intellectual fresh air. However, a significant minority of social historians themselves have voiced concerns about the extent to which their speciality has rapidly become diluted by indiscriminate importing of concepts, theories, and methods from cognate disciplines (notably sociology). For example, among other complaints it has been alleged that too much contemporary social history is itself empiricist, and consists merely of mindless accumulation of data on a particular subject of popular concern merely because these data exist, rather than the pursuit of interesting historical problems or questions; that the obsession with model-building has led to indiscriminate application of (what are recognized elsewhere to be) problematic concepts and arguments derived from functionalism, modernization theory, structuralism , and so forth; that the babies of politics and economics have been thrown out with the bath-water of élitism; and that there is a widespread tendency to make unsubstantiated (usually trite) generalizations about the ‘mentality’ or ‘collective mind’ of the masses during some (usually ill-defined) period of interest. In short, for some critics at least, contemporary social history has become a sort of retrospective cultural anthropology, with a premium placed on the use of exotic sources and grandiose (often untestable) generalizations. (For a bad-tempered and polemical-but none the less telling-critique along these lines see, ‘A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians’, History Workshop Journal, 1979.)
However, this is surely to paint too negative a picture of what is undoubtedly a growing and dynamic interdisciplinary area, having some overlap with, and being of considerable relevance to, sociology itself. A much more positive picture of the methods of social history is painted in Arthur Stinchcombe's Theoretical Methods in Social History (1978). Of direct relevance to sociology are the large number of excellent social histories of working-class culture (see, for example,, Work and Revolution in France, 1980;, Working Class Community in Industrial America, 1979;, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn, 1976); of politics and class formation (, Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism, 1981;, Worker's Control in America, 1979;, The Glassworkers of Carmaux, 1974); of the formation of nation-states (, ‘State and Nation in Western Europe’, Past and Present, 1965;, ‘The Role of State Violence in the Period of Transition to Capitalism’, Social History, 1979;, Bureaucracy, Aristocracy and Autocracy, 1958); and of social change and the family (, ‘Modernization and Family History’, Signs, 1976;, Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism, 1976;, Women, Work and Family, 1978). Feminist social historians have been particularly influential and have moved women's history well up the research agenda (see, for example, the excellent studies by, Limited Livelihoods, 1992, and, Family Fortunes, 1987). In all of this it is, of course, a moot point where social history ends and sociology-especially historical sociology -begins. See also cliometrics.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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