Social history

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Social history, often called the new social history, includes the history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life; history of social organization; and history of social movements and deliberate attempts to induce social change, whether from the top down or from the bottom up. Before the 1960s social history meant either the history of social movements, such as the Populist party, or the study of everyday life. The latter was a minor topic in history largely ignore by professionals. 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 organizaed and dominated French historiography, and influenced much of Europe and Latin America. After 1990 it was increasingly challenged by cultural history, which emphasizes language and the importance of beliefs and assumptions and their causal role in group behavior.[1]

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.

see also Social History, U.S..

There is no society for social history, but the field is covered in the Journal of Social History, edited since 1967 by Peter Stearns.[2] 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

Demographic history

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. See Demography, [U.S. Demographic Transition]] U.S. Demographic History, Fertility (demography), Mortality (demography), Infant mortality and Life expectancy

Modernization theory

Modernization theory has been controvbersial in social history. It is widely used and accepted in demographic history, and has been heavily promoted by the Bielefield School in Germany. However younger American scholars were hostile, since it seemed too politically conservative for their tastes.[3]

Ethnic history

Ethnic history covers the history of American 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.[4]

  • The American Conference for Irish Studies, founded in 1960, has 1,700 members and has occasional publications but no journal.[5]
  • The American Italian Historical Association was founded in 1966 and has 400 members; it does not publish a journal [6]
  • The American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic society, founded in 1892; it has 3,300 members and publishes American Jewish History[7]

African American history

African American history studies blacks in the United States. 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; since 1926 it has sponsored Black History Month every Febriary.[8]

Labor history

Labor history, deals with labor unions and the social history of workers. See for example Labor Unions, U.S., History 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.[9]

Women's history

Women's history exploded into prominence in the 1970s,[10] and is now well represeneted in every geographical topic; increasingly it includes gender history.[11]

Family history

Family history emerged as a separate field in the 1970s.[12] The history of childhood is a subfield.[13]

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."[14] The celebratory style of the orthodox school was challenged by a dissident tradition emphasizing the social costs of agricultural progress, notably enclosure, which forced poor tenant farmers off the land. Recently, a new school, associated with the journal Rural History, has broken away from this narrative of agricultural change, elaborating a wider social history. The work of Alun Howkins has been pivotal in the recent historiography, in relation to these three traditions.[15] Howkins, like his precursors, is constrained by an increasingly anachronistic equation of the countryside with agriculture. Geographers and sociologists have developed a concept of a "post-productivist" countryside, dominated by consumption and representation that may have something to offer historians, in conjunction with the well-established historiography of the "rural idyll."


see Annales School


Social history developed within West German historiography during the 1950's-60's 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.[16]

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.[17]

Further reading

For a more detailed guide see the Bibliography subpage

  • Binder, Frederick M. and David M. Reimers, eds. The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History. (2000). 313 pp.
  • Cayton, Mary Kupiec, Elliott J. Gorn, and Peter W. Williams, eds. Encyclopedia of American Social History (3 vol 1993) 2653pp; long articles pages by leading scholars; see v I: Part II, Methods and Contexts, pp 235-434
  • Cross, Michael S. "Social History," Canadian Encyclopedia (2008) online
  • Dewald, Jonathan. Lost Worlds: The Emergence of French Social History, 1815-1970. (2006). 241 pp.
  • Fairburn, Miles. Social History: Problems, Strategies and Methods. (1999). 325 pp.
  • Graff, Harvey J. "The Shock of the '"New" (Histories)': Social Science Histories and Historical Literacies," Social Science History - Volume 25, Number 4, Winter 2001, pp. 483-533 in Project Muse
  • Henretta, James. "Social History as Lived and Written," American Historical Review 84 (1979): 1293-1323 in JSTOR
  • Lloyd, Christopher. Explanation in Social History. (1986). 375 pp.
  • Pomeranz, Kenneth. "Social History and World History: from Daily Life to Patterns of Change." Journal of World History 2007 18(1): 69-98. Issn: 1045-6007 Fulltext: in History Cooperative and Project Muse
  • Stearns, Peter N. "Social History Present and Future." Journal of Social History. Volume: 37. Issue: 1. (2003). pp. 9+. online edition
  • Stearns, Peter, ed. Encyclopedia of Social History (1993) 856 pp.
  • Stearns, Peter, ed. Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350 to 2000 (5 vol 2000), 209 essays by leading scholars in 3000 pp.
  • Timmins, Geoffrey. "The Future of Learning and Teaching in Social History: the Research Approach and Employability." Journal of Social History 2006 39(3): 829-842. Issn: 0022-4529 Fulltext: History Cooperative and Project Muse
  • Wilson, Adrian, ed. Rethinking Social History: English Society, 1570-1920 and Its Interpretation. (1993). 342 pp.
  • Zunz, Olivier, ed. Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History, (1985) online edition


  1. Lynn Hunt and Victoria Bonnell, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn (1999).
  2. See [1]
  3. Chris Lorenz, "'Won't You Tell Me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone'? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Modernization Theory for History." Rethinking History 2006 10(2): 171-200. Issn: 1364-2529 Fulltext: Ebsco
  4. See Immigration and Ethnic History Society
  5. See American Conference for Irish Studies
  6. See American Italian Historical Association
  7. See American Jewish Historical Society and journal
  8. See ASALH
  9. See Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History
  10. See American Women's History: A Research Guide
  11. see Teresa A. Meade and Merry Wiesner-Hanks, eds. A Companion to Gender History (2006)
  12. see Journal of Family History, quarterly since 1976
  13. Peter N. Stearns, "Social History and World History: Prospects for Collaboration." Journal of World History 2007 18(1): 43-52. Issn: 1045-6007 Fulltext: History Cooperative and Project Muse, deals with the history of childhood worldwide. See Peter N. Stearns, Childhood in World History (2005), A.R. Colon with P. A. Colon, A History of Children: A Socio-Cultural Survey across Millennia (2001), and Steven Mintz, Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood (2006).
  14. On British rural history see Jeremy Burchardt, "Agricultural History, Rural History, or Countryside History?" Historical Journal 2007 50(2): 465-481. Issn: 0018-246x
  15. Alun Howkins, The Death Rural England (2003) excerpt and text search
  16. Roger Fletcher, "Recent Developments in West German Historiography: the Bielefeld School and its Critics." German Studies Review 1984 7(3): 451-480. in Jstor]
  17. Chris Lorenz, "'Won't You Tell Me, Where Have All the Good Times Gone'? On the Advantages and Disadvantages of Modernization Theory for History." Rethinking History 2006 10(2): 171-200. Issn: 1364-2529 Fulltext: Ebsco