Specialized Fields of Historical Study: Types & Resources

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson we will look at the specialized sub-fields within the discipline of history. We will identify their characteristics, and learn how they are unique. We will also briefly examine common resources for study.

Digging Deeper: The Diversity Within History

Think back to your high school history classes. Chances are, you probably learned about America's 'founding fathers,' the Civil War, and World War II. You may have learned that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, or that the attack on Pearl Harbor took place on December 7, 1941. History was pretty simple and straightforward.

Postsecondary-level history, and particularly graduate level and beyond, is a little different. When we dig a littler deeper, we understand how diverse and broad the discipline is. See, within the discipline of history, there are all kinds of specialized sub-fields. Postsecondary history students, especially graduate level and doctoral level, typically have an area that they specialize in. For example, these students might specialize in social history, military history, economic history, or women's history, and the list goes on and on. Let's look and identify the characteristics of several specialized fields and discuss the types of resources that are commonly used.

Sub-fields of History

We'll start with social history. Whereas traditional history has focused on 'great men,' like presidents, generals, war heroes, businessmen, etc., social history focuses on the little guy, i.e., ordinary people. So take the American Revolution, for example. Traditional history would focus on men like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whereas social history would emphasize the ordinary men and women who lived during that time and were involved in the Revolution.

Social history takes a big-picture approach. Sometimes it emphasizes social trends and movements, and how they are guided by the masses, rather than just a few leading figures. In attempting to focus on the average person, it often covers minorities, women, and people of lower classes as a whole. An examination of child labor during the early 20th century would be an example of social history. Social history can be considered history from the 'bottom up.' It is sometimes called 'new' social history because when it first appeared it was innovative, and even radical. It became popular during the 1960s and 1970s, and today is well-represented in academic circles.

An examination of child labor in the early 20th century would be considered social history.
child labor

Cultural history is a little bit like social history, but it focuses on the broader history of culture. For example, the lifestyle people had during the 1920s would be considered cultural history. Or let's say, a historian is researching rock and roll music during the 1950s. That would be considered cultural history. Art, music, fashion, and architecture are popular components of cultural history.

Military history speaks for itself. It is the history of military conflicts. Military history is concerned with why and how wars are fought, the central figures in war, and the weaponry and equipment used in war. Those who study military history are often well-versed in military tactics and theory. Sometimes those interested in military history are involved in historical reenactment, where they dress the part of soldiers from various past wars.

Economic history emphasizes the role of economics as a decisive force in historical cause and effect. A course in American economic history, for example, would cover the formation of the National Bank, industry and commerce in early America, the rise of big business (like Standard Oil and U.S Steel), the prosperity of the 1920s, the Great Depression, etc. The Marxist approach is a popular view among many economic historians. According to this view, materialism and the conflict between the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' plays a central role in the unfolding of history.

Because traditional history has often focused on men, a new branch of history called women's history has emerged, emphasizing the contributions of women and focusing on themes specific to women. Prostitution in the 'Wild West,' or first-wave feminism would be themes relevant to women's history. Like social history, women's history grew out of the political climate of the 1960s and 1970s. Women's history is closely tied with gender history, which is examines the history surrounding gender roles and constructs. By the way, you may know that February is 'Black History Month,' but did you also know March is 'Women's History Month'?

An examination of the first wave of feminism would be a theme well-suited to womens history.
Womens history

Intellectual history is super big-picture. It seeks to track the movement of ideas - of intellectual schools of thought over time. Let's break this down. So for example, intellectual history would examine the conflict between Marxism and capitalism over time, or between conservative and liberal political views throughout the 20th century. The impact of the Enlightenment on modern democracy would be considered a theme within intellectual history.

There are other sub-fields as well. For example, recently environmental history has become popular. This specialization emphasizes the history of how humans have interacted with their natural surroundings. Political history deals with the history of politics; diplomatic history deals with the history of diplomacy. Some of these speak for themselves. As the discipline of history continues to branch out, new sub-fields are constantly being born.

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