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Social History & Historiography in the 20th Century

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Today, many universities have researchers who focus on social history, but this wasn't always true. In this lesson, we'll look at the place of social history in historiography and see what defines this field.

Studying Society

Who makes history, and what events matter to understanding the past? These questions have been at the foundations of history as a discipline from the beginning. For a very long time, most people agreed that history was made by men in power, and the events that mattered included wars and government policies. That was history.

Unfortunately, that concept of history failed to recognize that the past consisted of more than just powerful political leaders doing political things. History also included ... everyone else. All of society was part of history, but was not regarded as significant to history. That mentality changed in the 1960s with the emergence of a new focus in the teaching and study of the past, known as new social history, or sometimes just social history.

Social History

So, what is social history, exactly? In the simplest terms, we can identify this movement as the history of societies. Social history is focused on the average members of society, and often places a large degree of emphasis on the working class. As opposed to traditional political histories, social historians see economic and social conditions as the key factors that promote historical change, and they study these from the bottom of society upwards, not from the top down. In short, historical change begins with the average people in society, not with their political leaders.

Social history strives to examine underrepresented populations.
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What may really define social history, however, is its focus on systems, processes, and structures. Social history is concerned with the mechanisms of human organization, interaction, and construction of social units. As a result, this field is fairly focused on frameworks and structures, which is one way we can distinguish it from cultural history, a focus on cultural production and identification that is much more vague and abstract. Both deal with society as actually experienced by real people, but social history tends to do so through the structures and mechanisms of social organization.

A History of Social History

It's worth noting that the new social historians of the 1960s were not the first to develop an interest in society. We can find some very important works on social structures and common people back in the late 18th century, when English scholar Thomas Malthus conducted some of the first notable studies on demographics and population characteristics.

An interest in the relationship between society and economics was firmly developed in France by the 1920s, promoted by a group of scholars known as the Annales school. The Annales school started combining techniques from geography, history, economics, and sociology to study the complex systems of society and the economy. Their work was some of the first to truly appreciate the significance of these topics in studying human history.

Social history is concerned with structures of society, from class to family structure.
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The Annales scholars were not alone in their interest in studying society. There were a number of influential academics around the world who pursued this topic, but they were disorganized. What we now call old social history was really just a hodgepodge of methods, techniques, approaches, and focuses. It represented a vague assemblage of historians whose work didn't fit into accepted political histories that viewed the past purely from a top-down perspective.

This is what defined the emergence of new social history in the 1960s and 1970s. In these decades, scholars started reconciling all their different ideas into a more concrete, structured framework of analysis. The new social history was more unified in methodology and ideology and became, for the first time, a recognized subset of historical research. They focused on underrepresented populations, those ignored by traditional historical research, and examined structures of society ranging from class to family.

Subfields

With its own origins in a diverse array of topics, social history has always been a field that embraces a number of subjects. There are a wide number of subfields within social history, all of which examine society from slightly different angles. Here are a few of the prominent ones.

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