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I. The Philosophy of HistoryPatrick Gardiner


II. History and the Social SciencesPeter Laslett


III. EthnohistoryBernard S. Cohn


IV. Culture HistoryJoseph H. Greenberg


V. Social HistoryJean Hecht


VI. Intellectual HistoryCrane Brinton


VII. Economic HistoryDouglass C. North


VIII. Business HistoryRalph W. Hidy


The articles under this heading deal with varying conceptions of the nature of history and its subject matter, as does the article on The History Of Science, listed under Science. An analysis of what historians do when they write history and discussions of traditions of history writing in different parts of the world will be found under His Toriography. Major related topics are Arche Ology; Evolution,- Knowledge, Sociology Of,-Periodization,- Time, article on Social Organiza Tion. Other relevant material appears in Eco Nomic Thought; Political Theory; Religion; Sociology, article on The Development Of So Ciological Thought.


The expression “philosophy of history” has come to refer to two quite distinct types of inquiry.

Traditionally, it has been used to refer to attempts to provide a comprehensive explanation or interpretation of the entire historical process. “Philosophies of history” in this sense have been characteristically concerned with such questions as: “What is the meaning (significance, purpose) of history?” or “What fundamental laws govern historical development and change?” Among the chief exponents of this type of theory may be numbered Vico, Herder, Hegel, Comte, Marx, Buckle, Spengler, and—in our own time—Arnold Toynbee and Pitirim Sorokin. Men like these have been in spired by the belief that history presents problems beyond those that occupy the attention of ordinary practicing historians, whose activities, being largely confined to the investigation of particular areas or sections of the past, fail to satisfy the demand for an intellectually or morally acceptable conception of the course of history “as a whole.” By offering accounts of the human past that exhibit it as conforming to certain principles of universal validity, they have sought to meet this demand; at the same time they have often (though not always) claimed that their interpretations may enable us to make predictions or forecasts concerning the future development of society.

The grounds upon which such interpretations have been based, ranging from empirical considerations to notions that are frankly religious or metaphysical, have been various. Nor have they always taken the same form. Marx, for example, portrayed history as following a unilinear pattern in the direction of a particular foreseeable “goal” Speng ler and Toynbee have presented it as conforming to certain regular and recurrent cycles of change; while others, again, have treated it as somehow combining both these features. Common to all, however, has been the assumption that the historical process is more than an agglomeration of events “senselessly” succeeding one another in time: there is an underlying structure or theme waiting to be discovered, in terms of which this apparently arbitrary sequence can be seen to be ultimately meaningful or intelligible.

Even in the nineteenth century, when such speculation was at its peak, there were philosophers and historians—Schopenhauer and Burckhardt, for instance—who challenged its pretensions; and in the twentieth, it has been exposed to a series of logical and methodological criticisms which in their cumulative impact have proved extremely damag ing. In any case, projects of this kind must be sharply distinguished from the type of inquiry that will be chiefly considered here, and which is some times referred to as “formal” or “critical” philosophy of history. Philosophy of history in this sense has developed comparatively recently, its rise broadly coinciding with the decline of its speculative counterpart. It has for its subject matter not the course of historical events, but rather the nature of history conceived as a specific discipline and branch of knowledge. In other words, it may be said to be concerned with such topics as the purposes of historical inquiry, the ways in which historians describe and classify their material, the manner in which they arrive at and substantiate explanations and hypotheses, the assumptions and principles that underlie their procedures, and the relations between history and other forms of investigation. Thus, while the problems with which it deals are not speculative problems of the sort previously mentioned, neither are they problems of the type to which practicing historians typically address themselves in the course of their work: the questions involved arise from reflection upon historical thinking and reasoning and are primarily of an epistemological or conceptual character.

The autonomy of history

Philosophical concern with the nature of historical understanding originated largely as part of a general protest against the tendency (prevalent among followers of the Enlightenment) to regard the natural sciences as representing the paradigm of all true knowledge. Even to some of the earlier speculative philosophers of history, the view that the categories and modes of interpretation employed so successfully in the investigation of physical nature could be validly extended to human studies appeared far from self-evident; in particular, the writings of both Vico and Hegel can be said to embody an implicit challenge to this opinion. Yet the belief that there are no differences in principle separating history from other disciplines and that the historian should strive as far as possible to apply to his own field the methods established in other areas of inductive inquiry was a persistent one: in the eighteenth century, empiricists like David Hume saw no reason to question it, and in the nineteenth it was to be constantly reaffirmed by a host of positivistically minded theorists. And, insofar as it was maintained, there appeared to be no grounds for supposing that the study of history presented any special problems from a philosophical point of view; logically and epistemologically it was on a level with any other form of empirical science.

Dilthey and Croce. The close of the last century, however, witnessed the emergence of a number of thinkers to whom this comfortable as sumption no longer seemed acceptable and who raised awkward questions: among the more influential of the writers involved in the new trend were Georg Simmel, Heinrich Rickert, and (above all) Wilhelm Dilthey (see Hodges 1944) in Germany, and the philosopher and historian Benedetto Croce (1917) in Italy. To summarize what they said would be difficult; they were not lucid expositors of their ideas, and they incorporated into their theories metaphysical conceptions that have lost much of their appeal since they wrote. Nevertheless, they succeeded in focusing attention upon features of the historian’s activity that had been overlooked and ignored by many of their predecessors. It was pointed out, for instance, that the historian’s aims are ostensibly very different from those characteristic of the natural scientist: historians are not concerned with the discovery of universal laws or theories from which predictions can be derived and which can serve as guides to action in practical or technical contexts; on the contrary, their primary purpose is to determine what happened in the past and why. This necessarily involves a concentration upon the concrete particularity of events that are in themselves unique and unrepeatable. The abstract categories of science (“pseudo-concepts,” as Croce called them) are, however, adapted to quite different ends; their proper field of application is the sphere of the universal and unchanging, and they can therefore play no role in history as truly conceived. For the historian is not interested in phenomena regarded as “specimens” or as instances of general truths; as Michael Oakeshott (1933, p. 154) has expressed it, “the moment historical facts are regarded as instances of general laws, history is dismissed.”

There is, moreover, a further point of fundamental importance that such critics have wished to emphasize. Both Dilthey and Croce underlined the distinction, considered by them to be crucial, between the respective subject matters of science and history. In crude terms, this may be represented by the familiar dichotomy of “spirit” and “nature” more specifically, it involves the belief that it is impossible to view the activities of historical agents as mere pieces of observable “be havior,” reducible to (or explicable in terms of) purely physical items. It follows that the prin ciples of knowledge and understanding that are appropriate here cannot be those presupposed by scientific interpretations of the world. For the historian it is essential that he should be able to reconstruct “from within” the reasons, purposes, and emotions that motivated the persons with whom he is concerned and that found outward expression in their deeds. Various notions, such as “reliving” and “Einfiihlung,” or “empathy,” were appealed to in order to characterize this process; but, however described, it was posited as a distinctive feature of historical thinking, sufficient in itself to mark history off from typically scientific modes of inquiry.

Collingwood. The basic contention was perhaps most forcefully and clearly formulated by the English philosopher R. G. Collingwood (1946), who was in his own work deeply influenced by Croce. According to Collingwood, the essential task of the historian is to “rethink” or “re-enact” in his mind the deliberations of historical agents, thereby rendering intelligible the events with which he has to deal in a way that finds no parallel in the physical sciences. This led him to claim, among other things, that the term “cause” has its own meaning in the context of historical narrative, not to be confused with any it may bear elsewhere. Thus, to show what caused a given occurrence in history is not a matter of subsuming it beneath scientific laws or empirical generalizations; rather, it is a question of eliciting its “inner side”—that is to say, the thoughts and reasons that, once uncovered, exhibit what happened as the response of a rational being confronted by a situation requiring a practical solution.

The rise of analytic philosophy Considerations like the above provided the stimulus to much modern philosophical analysis of history. This has turned very largely on the issue of whether, and if so in what way, historical thought has its own distinctive logic that resists interpretation in scientific terms. In general, controversy has tended to center on two main topics. The first concerns the logical character of the explanations historians give of particular events and developments. The second relates to the epistemological status of historical accounts of the past and to the question of whether they possess an objective validity comparable to that claimed for the results of scientific investigation.

Historical explanation. A major difficulty that tends to beset discussions of historical explanation derives from the variety of forms such explanation can assume. It is tempting to imagine that there is a single model to which all explanations in history ultimately conform; to explain an historical occurrence, it may be suggested, is always to exhibit it as being in some sense the consequence of certain other events or conditions. Yet in practice it is far from clear that the narratives historians provide, rich as they are in interpretative devices, invariably follow this neat pattern. For example, we may be told that a particular happening or circumstance was of a certain type (e.g., it is described as repre senting a “political revolution” or an “imperialist war”); or that it was part of a general trend (“The struggle was a phase of evolving nationalism.”); or that it was significant as indicating changes with wider social implications (“The influence of women at court was a symptom of dynastic decline.”). These may all constitute valid ways of increasing or illuminating our understanding of what occurred; they do not, however, appear to do so by providing anything obviously analogous to a causal explanation.

Nevertheless, whatever supplementary methods the historian may use to render the past intelligible, it may still be urged that causality remains the fundamental category of historical understanding. The crucial problem, therefore, is one of eluci dating the notion of causal connection in history (Gardiner 1952; Dray 1957). Has this notion some special application in historical contexts, as Collingwood claimed? Or is it susceptible to an interpretation which demonstrates that historical explanations do not, after all, diverge in any essential manner from those characteristically employed in the natural sciences?

The theory of “covering laws.” The view that no radical differences divide historical from other kinds of explanation has found its chief defenders among philosophers whose general conception of causality largely derives from Hume. Since there are no “necessary connections” between matters of fact, any claim to the effect that a causal relation holds between certain events must contain a covert reference to a natural regularity or law. In other words, to explain an occurrence is to show that it was bound to occur, given the fulfillment of certain antecedent or initial conditions, and given the existence of some law or laws correlating such conditions with events of the type to which the explicandum belongs. According to this account, the historian, along with any other inquirer into causes, cannot avoid appealing to general statements asserting empirically verified uniformities; it is the latter that afford the essential backing or warrant that his explanations require. To point out that his direct concern is with the particular, not the general, is to say something that, though true, does not materially affect the issue. There is no incompatibility between the claim that the historian’s object is to explain particular events and the claim that, in doing so, he necessarily commits himself to the acceptance of certain general truths. To accept the second of these contentions is not even to deny that there may be an intelligible sense in which each historical event is “unique” (though here it is worth emphasizing that, if such events were unique in the absolute and unrestricted man ner sometimes suggested, it would be impossible to say anything about them at all). For all that is required for explanatory purposes is that the oc currence to be explained should resemble other happenings in certain respects or aspects—namely, those that permit the application of relevant generalizations or laws. From this point of view there is no difference in principle between the procedures of the historian and the natural scientist; if a chemist or an astronomer wishes to explain a par ticular phenomenon falling within his field, a similar abstraction is involved.

On the face of it, this theory seems to have much to commend it, agreeably combining concep tual economy with empirical hardheadedness. A closer look may, however, reveal difficulties. In the first place, the theory appears to assume that all causal explanations in history take the form of showing that, given certain initial conditions, a particular event had to occur. But this is far from being universally true: the historian’s object in citing causes is frequently the more limited one of explaining how a certain historical occurrence was possible, not why it was bound to happen; the causes referred to represent the necessary rather than the sufficient conditions of what happened. In itself, this hardly constitutes a conclusive objection; it might, for instance, be replied that the de termination of necessary conditions also involves an implicit reference to laws, and that a more complex formulation of the proposed analysis, capable of accommodating this kind of case, could easily be devised. Where the theory is more clearly vulnerable is in its bland assumption that laws of the type it postulates lie ready to hand and that it is these to which historians refer when they offer their explanations. For when attempts are made to specify general statements connecting “causes” and “effects” in the required fashion, the propositions elicited tend to be so vague and indeterminate as to make it hard to see how they could conceivably perform the explanatory function attributed to them. Nor does historical practice appear to bear out the suggested interpretation. Thus it may be argued that a historian, when confronted by the task of explaining what caused a specific event, such as the French Revolution, does not do so by attempting to subsume it beneath putative laws concerning revolutions in general; on the contrary, he proceeds to an analysis of the particular case, showing through detailed inquiry how various connected sequences of factors combined to give rise to the complex phenomenon under examination.

The theory of “continuous series.” Appreciation of such points has led some modern writers to oppose to the previous “covering law” conception of historical explanation one that has been called “the model of the continuous series.” In the latter view, the historian traces, step by step, the relations between earlier and later phases of historical change, thereby building up an intelligible narrative whose various components can be seen to stand in “intrinsic” or “natural” connections with one another: it is by such careful and particularized investigation, and not by applying universal laws or generalizations, that explanation in history characteristically proceeds. But this account, though plausible in many ways, still leaves a question unanswered. For it may be inquired how we are to understand the individual connections stated to obtain between the events of which the series is composed. To say that they are “intrinsic” or “natural” is surely, if anything, to appeal to the notion of what generally happens or can normally be expected to occur; but is this not to reintroduce the conception of empirical uniformities? It would appear, in other words, that the essential difference between the two interpretative models consists not in the fact that one relies upon the notion of generalizations whereas the other does not, but rather in an (admittedly important) disagreement concerning the kinds of generalizations that are relevant, and the levels of inquiry at which they are employed or presupposed.

The historical point of view

It is perhaps hard to see how any theory of historical explanation could wholly dispense with reference to general statements at some stage of its analysis. What is less clear is whether such general statements have the status and role in history which the use of the term “law,” with its predominantly scientific associations, implies. There is something eccentric in the idea that the construction of an historical narrative involves a continuous resort to generalizations concerning human behavior, if by “generalizations” is meant a set of inductively established or experimentally confirmed propositions that can be precisely listed and formulated. It is not merely that words like “insight” and “judgment,” together with others that are embedded in the vocabulary of ordinary historical criti cism, would seem to have little application to history conceived along such rigorous and tidy lines; the picture further suggests an “external” or “spec-tatorial” approach to the material that appears to obscure a salient feature of much historical writing and understanding. For it is arguable that in order truly to comprehend the policies or decisions of a particular historical figure or the motives or ideals that inspired some large-scale historical movement (whether political, intellectual, or ar tistic), it is necessary to be able to share imaginatively the point of view of the participants; and this in turn requires a firsthand acquaintance with what it is, for example, to appreciate a situation and plan accordingly or to entertain certain hopes, desires, or fears. To speak of historical events as being “naturally” related or as forming an “intel ligible” sequence may well be to imply that what happened was such as to fulfill our normal expectations; but it is important to recognize that, in human contexts, what we expect is closely tied to what we find understandable in the light of our own experience as rational purposive agents. It was this consideration, above all others, that earlier thinkers like Collingwood wished to stress when criticizing positivist attempts to assimilate history to natural science. Though often expressed in misleading or exaggerated terms, it is a point that still retains considerable force.

Is objectivity possible? The claim that the historian stands in an especially intimate relation to his subject matter has sometimes been regarded as indicating a further significant difference between history and the natural sciences. This is the sug gestion that the very nature of the historian’s task and situation precludes him from achieving in his descriptions and interpretations the kind of objec tivity that characterizes scientific work. It is not merely that, as a matter of fact, historians often offer widely dissimilar accounts of the same historical phenomena, even when basing what they say on broadly identical sources; it may be argued that such striking divergences are necessary and inevitable. Thus, suppose it is held—as it was, for instance, by Croce—that historical knowledge es sentially involves the “re-creation” of the past by each historian within his own mind; it then becomes difficult to see how any historical account can fail to be to some extent colored and shaped by the individual interests and personality of its author—a conclusion tacitly accepted by Croce himself when he spoke of all history as “con temporary.”

Even if such “idealist” theories of historical knowledge are rejected, further independent fac tors may be adduced that point in the same general direction. It has been maintained, for example, that the fact that the historian is engaged in discussing human beings and their activities, using everyday language to do so, commits him to introducing considerations which would be manifestly out of place in scientific contexts: there can be no such thing as a purely objective or “value-free” historical account, since language that is adapted to the description of what people feel, think, and do necessarily reflects the element of evaluation and appraisal that pervades the whole texture of human life and experience. Again, attention may be drawn to the manner in which all history is necessarily selective. The historian cannot pack into his account everything he knows about the subject he is studying, nor would he be considered a good historian if he tried to do so; the employment of judgments of relevance, of relative importance or triviality, is fundamental to his under taking. But such judgments are founded upon assumptions and preconceptions of diverse kinds that are inherently disputable and that vary from person to person, society to society, age to age. What is of significance to an historian belonging to one period or milieu may seem unworthy of mention to another whose time and background are different; religious opinions, political beliefs, moral or social ideals, must all, consciously or unconsciously, influence such things as the historian’s presentation of his material, his decisions as to what to include or omit, the weight he assigns to particular factors, and even his critical assessment of evidence and sources.

Subjectivity and historical evaluation . A conclusion frequently drawn from all this, both by philosophers and by practicing historians who have reflected on their craft, is that history is infected by some kind of radical and irremediable “sub jectivity.” Yet the claim in question, together with the arguments used to support it, have tended to be framed in highly general and abstract terms; in consequence, as a number of recent critics have pointed out (see, for instance, Carr 1961), several significant distinctions are in danger of being over looked. It is a mistake, for instance, to suppose that the selection and presentation of material are always determined by “subjective” convictions and preconceptions of the kind stressed above; they may be, and very often are, dictated in a quite in contestable manner by the particular nature of the problem with which the historian is concerned. Likewise, it is one thing to say that an historian’s choice of problem is due to certain personal interests or predilections he may have, and another to argue that these will necessarily affect his manner of solving it; the two have not, however, always been clearly separated. Again, judgments of relative importance may sometimes be made in the light of what has been called the “causal fertility” of events; but the question of whether some specific occurrence was productive of more far-reaching changes than another is an empirical matter, decidable by investigation—it has nothing essentially to do with subjective values or attitudes peculiar to the historian.

Similar possibilities of confusion may arise with regard to the suggestion that the historian’s subject matter is such as to render evaluation unavoidable. No doubt it is true that the purposes and doings of historical agents were to a large extent informed by the values and principles (moral or otherwise) to which they subscribed; but this by itself in no way entails that the historian cannot discuss their activities without engaging in such evaluation on his own account. If, on the other hand, it is the historian’s use of common language that is held to preclude the possibility of his providing “neutral” descriptions, the precise force of this contention (assuming it to be correct) is open to doubt; what, for example, is to prevent historians from devising a reformed terminology to meet the difficulty?

Remaining problems . Taken together, the above and related points may go some way toward reducing the prima facie persuasiveness of the claim that anything akin to objectivity in the scientific sense is unattainable in history. But the issue remains a curiously intractable one, involving various puzzles and ambiguities into whose complexi ties it is impossible to enter here. Nor does it stand alone in this respect. The rich field of the critical philosophy of history contains a host of similarly disputed problems, with roots extending into many adjoining areas of inquiry (Gardiner 1959; see also Stern 1956; Meyerhoff 1959; New York University …1963). From this point of view their further investigation does not only concern the future development of the historical studies: it also has an obvious and important bearing upon some of the fundamental methodological questions that, at the present time, confront the neighboring social sciences.

Patrick Gardiner

[See alsoMarxist Sociology; Positivism; Sociology, article onThe Development of Sociological Thought; and the biographies ofComte; Croce; Dilthey; Hegel; Hume; Marx; Simmel; Sorokin; Spengler; Vico; Weber, Max.]


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Stern, Fritzr. (editor) 1956 The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. New York: Meridian.

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To social scientists, all history is social history, whether historians classify it as social history, political history, economic history, religious history, or history of some other kind. It cannot be said, therefore, that there is a distinct category of historical study which is devoted specifically to the past as the social scientist would deal with it. Rather, a new method of studying history of all kinds is emerging which is intended to satisfy the criteria of the social sciences and which provides or will provide evidence to illuminate the task of the sociologist, the anthropologist, the social psychologist, and so on. The historian working in this way makes use of the theories, categories, and techniques of the social scientist whose work he is trying to parallel. The social scientist, when he turns to accounts of the past for evidence, attempts to master the outlook and methods of the historian. The purpose of the present article is to examine in a summary way the principles which are beginning to govern these activities of historians and social scientists. It must not be supposed, however, that all history is now to be written or ever will be written with the scientific study of society as the end in view. The writing of history is a much more general activity than the systematic study of social relationships. Accounts of the past seem to have been composed in some form or other in every society. In literate societies with a high degree of cultivation, these accounts are rewritten every century or every generation, in some cases every few years, in conflicting versions.

The writing of history is undertaken for many purposes, which themselves would be a legitimate object of a social scientific investigation. These purposes can only be hinted at here. Reconstructions are worked out and interpretations are built up in order to reconcile a national society (or a group of any kind) with its past and with the way in which its present differs from that past. They are needed to make intelligible to every new generation its ordained place in time. They are needed to justify religious beliefs and practices, to provide political rationalizations, to enrich aesthetic and intellectual experience, and merely to satisfy curiosity. Even the simple keeper of the annals of his people or his church does something in all these directions and also does something to ensure, as d’Alembert said in the great Encyclopedie, that the achievements of the past shall not be lost to the men of the future.

The successive authors of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle could not possibly have conceived of a science of society or imagined that the work which they produced could give rise to such an enterprise, let alone that it might provide an alternative to it. But since their time and down to our day, historians have advanced all these propositions about the relationship between history and the social sciences. It has been claimed that there is a distinctive historical method which provides its own account of how society works or, perhaps, its own unique attempt to do all that can be done, in view of the fact that the workings of society can never be more than partially established. According to this view, narration and description are the proper methods to be used (for an argument of this kind, see Collingwood 1946). Since no social situation, no past event, can ever be described in full in all its changing aspects, selection of the typical, after as exhaustive a study as possible, has to govern the undertaking. Some claim that the principles of such selection can be scientific principles, but others deny this, on the grounds that the selection can only be intuitive. Thus, the study of history has been seen as the point of origin of the social sciences; or as the rationale of an alternative type of special explanation; or as all that can be advanced, since social science is a chimera. A very different claim has also been put forward. The domain of the historian has been defined as all the social scientific evidence coming from the past. In this way, the phrases “historical science” and “the historical sciences” have come into being.

All the various claims about the relationship between history and the social sciences raise logical, conceptual, and philosophical issues, some of them of great intricacy [seeHistory, article onThe Philosophy of history]. In the present article recourse will be had to an archaic or even obsolete use of the word “history,” as an aid to understanding history’s present relationship with the social sciences. History will be conceived of here as bearing the very wide meaning it had in the phrase “natural history.” Some biological scientists still call themselves naturalists.

Nowadays “natural history” is a way of referring to biology, botany, zoology, and geology, with a distinct implication of their being pursued rather un-systematically by amateurs, as a diversion. Before and during the scientific revolution, however, “nat ural history” meant all that could be known about nature simply by description, as contrasted with “natural philosophy,” which meant that part of nature which could be understood on principle, scientifically, and which was acquired by the systematicuse of certain techniques of observation. If we substitute the word “societal” for “natural,” the new phrase “societal history” can be used in contrast with the phrase “social science,” in rather the same way “natural history” was used in contrast to “natural philosophy” or “natural science.” Such a usage recognizes that history is legitimately pursued for many purposes other than the complementing of the social sciences. It avoids the difficulties, already described, which attach to the phrase “social history.” It emphasizes that social information which does not yet belong to the analytically formulated and technically cultivated social sciences (and which may never belong there) can nevertheless be apprehended, if not understood, in the historical, narrative, descriptive, intuitive mode.

Societal history, or the “history” of ordinary usage taken in its very widest sense, stands to the social sciences as natural history stands or once stood to the natural sciences. Once this roundabout definition is laid down, it becomes clear that although every form of historical study necessarily belongs to societal history whether or not it would usually be described as social, no form of historical study necessarily belongs to the social sciences. Particu lar types of historical inquiry may be said to be part of the social sciences, nevertheless, if certain conditions, discussed later in this article, are satisfied. We shall, in fact, distinguish those historical studies intended to advance the social sciences as a particular area of societal history and give them a collective name, “deliberative societal history.”

The limitations usually placed upon the simple word “history” will be disregarded in a further way. Archeological evidence is sometimes excluded from history, but it will be included here as part of socie tal history, as will the material gained by anthro pologists and sociologists in direct observation and oral communication. But although societal history is a descriptive undertaking, dealing with a very wide range of sources and with indefinitely exten sible information, it has to satisfy the strictly chron ological criterion rather more exactly than does natural history. It can deal only with those facts which belong to past time and which are to be understood in one-way temporal succession. Even this limitation becomes tenuous in the case of evi dence assembled for the current situation by social scientists, which must all belong to past time, even if it is only the very recent past. But in practice the very near past, as represented by the most recently available social survey data, and so on, is excluded from societal history.

Since their subjects are related in this way, the social scientist and the societal historian are by no means always distinct individuals, any more than are the natural historian and the natural scientist; each individual is more the one than the other— more the sociologist, for example, than the social-structure historian. Some important sociologists (e.g., Max Weber and T. H. Marshall) wrote spe cifically historical works, and most technical works of the social sciences contain some discussion of a historical character. This is true even of economic theory (see, for example, John Maynard Keynes 1930), while the studies of anthropologists and so ciologists sometimes have to present a considerable amount of descriptive and narrative history of the conventional kind. Only theoretical statistical works are likely to be entirely wanting in historical content. There are, moreover, as is well known, books written as history which are rightly regarded as classics of the social sciences (Tocqueville’s works are good examples).

Types of societal history

It is possible to delineate five types of historical undertakings, together with their particular functions in the study of society. They are listed here in descending order of significance to the social sciences, and, of course, they overlap to a certain extent.

Social science works. The first type of historical writing of significance to the social scientist belongs to the literature of the social sciences themselves, since it consists of parts of works written by social scientists. Every such work, as has been said, contains narrative-descriptive components, and these belong to societal history. They are of varying length and importance. There are the short historical descriptions and arguments which are found in such books as Gunnar Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (1944) and in the very long historical citations and discussions which go to make up most of the text of Wittfogel’s Oriental Despotism (1957). Neither this latter book nor any other book of the same type belongs wholly with societal history, since its object is to illuminate a particular institution in its significance for all societies at all times.

Social structural studies. The second type of historical writing of significance to the social scientist is social structural history. It consists of complete works deliberately undertaken by scholars calling themselves historians, rather than social scientists, that provide comparative historical examples which can be used alongside the compartive geographical examples of anthropologists. Such studies may take various forms: they may be comprehensive surveys of particular societies at certain points in the past, or they may contain records of social change over a particular period. But they will always tend to embrace whole national societies or whole cultural areas, rather than dealing in specified institutions alone. Although they belong with the established tradition of social history, they are undertaken, as far as possible, in conformity with two principles not usually made explicit in traditional works. One is that the evidence shall be assembled and analyzed in accordance with the methods and techniques of all the social sciences. The other is that conclusions shall be presented in a form which can be used in social analysis generally.

An example of an experimental work of this kind, using the method of comparison rather than of narrative and dealing with the whole social structure rather than with specific institutions, is Laslett’s The World We Have Lost (1965), which covers English society before and after industrialization and attempts to satisfy the principles just cited. If it is compared with Trevelyan’s English Social History (1942), the difference between social structural history and traditional social history is brought out. A summary of the principles of this emerging form of historical writing is attempted below.

Areas of social activity . The third type of historical writing of significance to the social scientist consists of studies of the past of some isolable area of social activity. The distinctions between these special historical areas consist, to a large extent, simply of their varying subject matter. But a more interesting and important principle of difference is beginning to appear. Part of the definition of a recognized social science is that it should possess its own particular body of theory and technique, although there are differences between various social sciences in this respect. Historical writing within the area of each social science must attempt to make use of its theory and its technique, and in one conspicuous case, that of economic history, it has certainly begun to do so. Only one other isolable historical area shows signs of a similar evolution. and that is demographic history, using the theory and technique of demography. These are the two social sciences which lend themselves most easily to quantification and mathematical analysis; but it need not be supposed that the less effective tools and devices at the disposal of other social scientists are quite without their effect on historical studies. The history of religion and the history of education, for example, can in principle make use of religious and educational psychology and sociology.

The theory and technique of sociology and psychology can in principle be adapted so as to apply to the history of literature and the fine arts, to the history of social and political thinking, and to the history of mathematics and science. All these historical studies may also come to be illuminated by such techniques as content analysis and the other expedients used by sociologists and psychologists to reach an understanding of beliefs, attitudes, opinions, and ideologies in the contemporary world. (For an example of these expedients, see Lane 1962; and for a highly speculative attempt at psychological and intellectual analysis in past time, see Erikson 1958.) A further historical area may soon show signs of independence, making use, where it can, of the theory and techniques of political sociology. This new subject might tentatively be called the history of political systems, communication, and participation. Although such a subject will inevitably have to grow out of voting studies undertaken historically, there are already signs that even in societies without democratic procedures, past and present political behavior can be fruitfully studied (see, e.g., Vincent 1966). The distinction between this nascent subject and political history of the conventional kind will concern us below.

Nevertheless, these studies are difficult to classify, as can be seen from the example of the history of technology, which certainly belongs as much to economic history as it does to the history of mathe matics and science and which may well have its part to play in some other areas as well. These studies, by treating their data and presenting their conclusions in a manner appropriate to their subject, will be of direct use to the social scientist, providing him with comparative historical examples in specialized spheres. Social structural history would ideally represent an amalgamation of all possible studies of this kind, as well as a general framework within which each of them might be pursued.

It is unlikely that many books of this type would actually deal with any one specialized area as a whole, although it is possible that works, especially multivolume collaborative studies, will continue to appear with titles such as “A History of Social and Political Thought.” Most of the narrower studies can have two distinct objectives. The first objective is the social analysis of certain features of historically distant situations, with the issues of the social sciences generally in view. An example of this kind of study is Smelser’s Social Change in the Industrial Revolution (1959). Although a historical monograph, applying theory to a particular topic, the Lancashire cotton factories of the early nineteenth century, it is also intended as a contribution to general social theory. The second objective is to illuminate past events and to revise interpretations of them, with only incidental reference to social analysis of present institutions and attitudes. It is noticeable that the studies carried out so far by the econometric economic historians tend to belong to this second type.

Documentary and preparatory works . The fourth category of historical writing of significance to the social sciences consists of documentary and preparatory works. Studies of this kind have considerable value, especially in the present, developing stage of many of the subjects already described. For example, the discovery and preparation of data for the description of social structure from listings of inhabitants, including familial structure and kinship systems, has been of the first importance for social structural history. The editing and printing of records such as licenses to marry issued by episcopal courts, regular series of documents drawn up in connection with poor relief, and parochial registers containing detailed recordings of baptisms, marriages, and burials all come under this heading and are of great value to demographic as well as social structural history (Wrigley 1966).

Traditional historical studies . The fifth category of historical writing of significance to the social scientist is the residual one and consists of all other historical works, of whatever kind.

Works of traditional history are less likely to be of direct importance to the social scientist than any of those listed in the first four categories. But this does not mean that works which have been or are now being produced in accordance with traditional historical conventions are irrelevant. According to the definition adopted here, they belong to societal history and could have been mentioned as containing documentary and preparatory material. Many of them are, in fact, of great value in the hands of percipient and conscientious social inquirers. Moreover, the realistic and critical historian is often in a position to illuminate the use made of historical evidence by social scientists in a peculiarly effective way. He may even, on entirely historical criteria, demonstrate the inefficacy of explanations used both by his fellow historians and by social scientists. An example of this is the devastating work recently done by Hexter (1961) on the-rise-of-a-class hypotheses. Even if a historical work is composed without any intention of recording or illuminating social change, it may nevertheless do so or it may be shown to have done so by a later critic.

Deliberative societal history

There clearly is a distinction between historical works intended by their authors as contributions to social analysis and those written in indifference to such an aim. Works of the first type constitute the category of deliberative societal history, in contrast with traditional historical studies. Although some of the characteristics of deliberative societal history have been sketched above, the criteria which mark historical work of this kind are not yet clear, distinct, or universally recognized. Never theless, it is already obvious that most traditional historical studies could not conform to the required conditions.

In the first place, many historians would be unwilling to recognize deliberative societal history as a description of their work. Some would reject the whole project of social and political science. Their methods belong to the category of tacit knowledge, not only in the understanding of past events but also in the selection of what will interest, inform, or even elevate their readers. Analysis of society and of social situations is by no means absent, even from writing of this kind, but the emphasis is upon description and narration, and the task is regarded as being entirely literary, with, perhaps, philosophical overtones. History, after all, as well as being the companion to the social sciences, is one of the traditional arts, with its own individual muse. Historians who insist that any human experience is unique are understandably skeptical of attempts at formulating general rules for the study of society and social change.

But even if and when it is not done in conscious divergence from the social sciences, most traditional historical study is still accomplished in ignorance of them. It is undertaken without knowledge of the relevant theories, concepts, and techniques. This is the second reason so much writing of this character is of problematic value to the social scientist.

The interests of the general public, rather than of the academic world or of the social scientists, give rise to the third reason that the relationship between traditional historical studies and the social sciences is so indirect and arbitrary. The demand that history shall be “interesting,” that it shall tell a relevant, informative story with a moral or a message, has effects on the academic historian as well as on the writers of textbooks, the biographers, and the journalists. Tradition has tended to establish in historical studies specific requirements which have been even more limiting. It is expected that a national society will ordinarily be the unit of historical investigation and of historical narrative. The chronological divisions usually have to be those of the conventional political landmarks, and the events, sentiments, and attitudes to be explained have for the most part to be political, chosen for the importance they have for the reader’s sense of citizenship.

These influences continue even when the sub ject matter is no longer of the traditional political character. Hence, many specialized studies still bear titles such as “The History of American Science in the Colonial Period” or “The History of Japanese Education Under the Tokugawa.” It is true that the growing importance of the social sciences in recent years is beginning to remove some of these limitations and that the domination of politics, the state, and the values of citizenship is much less than it used to be. It is also true that economic history shows signs of transcending these limitations altogether, although it still seems to select topics as much for their polemical, and often political, interest as for their economic sig nificance. Quite apart from traditional historical studies, then, none of the subjects we have classed as deliberative societal history can as yet be said to be under the controlling influence of the social sciences.

Quantitative history . Of all recent developments, it is clear that econometric economic history stands in sharpest contrast to traditional historical pursuits. Its rapid development in recent years makes it necessary to consider the question of the use of quantification in historical studies and its effect on their relationship with the social sciences. Douglass C. North sets out the characteristics of econometric economic history, but even among the economic historians there are some who do not consider it history at all or, at most, call it, in Fritz Redlich’s term, quasi history. [SeeHistory, article onEconomic History.]

The insistence on giving a numerical value to everything in a historical situation which is relevant to the problem in hand is one source of the criticism. This has given the title “cleometrics” to the new pursuit and brings it directly into line with trends in the social sciences. Although this pursuit has been severely criticized, I do not believe that its numerative characteristic makes the subject any the less historical.

Even if the numerical equivalents seem quite unreal to the common-sense observer and intro duce a host of uncertainties into the issues which have to be judged, it has to be remembered that all historical judgments are beset with uncertain ties of the same logical kind. Attempting to reckon the percentage of the gross national product of the United States made up by the railroads in 1850 is the same kind of undertaking as estimating the amount of influence which the growth of Christianity had on the decline of imperial Rome. Nor does it appear that the counterfactual type of argument used in cleometrics is necessarily a contra diction of the historical outlook and method. Estimating what might have happened if what did happen had not happened is characteristic of much historical argument of a conventional kind, and all that cleometrics does is to argue confessedly in this way, openly estimating the risk of error.

The truly significant point about cleometrics, for traditional historical studies, is that it attempts to do economic analysis on noncontemporaneous subjects. That is why this type of economic history belongs to the social sciences to an extent that no other historical study yet does. It has ceased to be mere societal history and has become social science. Only the recent advances in the theory of economic growth have made such work possible, and it is clear that the more fragmentary the quantifiable evidence, the more sophisticated the necessary theory is likely to be. For most of the other social sciences having equivalents among types of deliberative societal history, no such advanced theory exists or seems likely to be developed, except perhaps in demography. It must be remembered, also, that vast areas of information from the economic past cannot be dealt with by cleometrics and will never become susceptible to such methods. It seems unlikely, therefore, that the rise of cleometrics is a portent of the future course of the relationship between traditional historical studies and the social sciences. In the foreseeable future only very few historians will be able to call themselves social scientists. Not many more social scientists will, perhaps, be able to apply their theories and practice their techniques on chronologically distant materials. The most important change will come at a more modest level: much more historical writing will surely come under the heading of “deliberative societal history.” The elaboration of so cial structural history will be an important means by which this change will take place.

Social structural history

Two of the characteristics of social structural history have also been made plain: first, it should assemble its evidence and carry out its analysis in accordance with the methods and techniques of the social sciences, and second, it should present its conclusions in a form which can be used in social analysis generally. It has also been suggested that social structural history may dispense with the narrative method, which has in the past been an almost universal feature of historical writing.

Since social description is to be done in wholes, narrative would in any case be a peculiarly difficult form for history written in this way. But although works of this kind will probably tend to consist of contrasts between a “before” and an “after,” the dates selected will represent the median years of particular generations, rather than exact moments. The choice of the generations to be described will itself be a matter of importance and, like everything else, will have to be made with the interests of the social sciences generally in mind, as well as being made in accordance with historical criteria.

The social structural historian should begin his descriptions where the anthropologists and the sociologists do, that is, with the size, structure, and functions of the family in the society in question. Then will come the kinship system, then the other relationships, the geographical, the economic, the religious, the intellectual, that go to make up the community. “Community” here is understood in a plural sense, for the local, the tribal, and the regional associations and finally the national community, if indeed all these existed, are all to be included. Only then, and this is in sharp contrast with the practice of the traditional historian, will he concern himself with political institutions and the state itself.

It is clear that historical writing of this character will be faced with a particularly acute form of the problem which affects all historiography, that of summarizing and abbreviating sufficiently to make its account intelligible. Traditional history has a traditional expedient for this purpose: the choosing of significant instances, which are presented as typical. Since the social structural historian is still writing societal history, rather than social science, he will of course be at liberty to use the same method. But he must be expected to have a much clearer notion of the social theory or the ories which make his chosen instances significant, and he will recognize that total description is a chimera, that all he can ever put on paper is a model of the society he is dealing with. The function of theories and the usefulness of models in pursuits of this kind is to order the data, to select and insist upon the regularities, to simplify drastically by approximation.

In the course of time, then, the social structural historian may find himself having to handle whole sets of theories and several different types of models. By this time the theories and models used by economists and demographers should be familiar to him. But his first concern will be to construct a model of his society in the much simpler sense just referred to; perhaps “miniature” would be a better term. He must, at all points in his descriptions, analyses, and comparisons, have the whole of the society in mind as well as a simplified notion of its over-all workings. He may find it useful to think of two separate models, or miniatures, one static and one dynamic, fitting into each other in the way any theory appropriate to a system in the process of change fits into a theory of that system as it is when at rest. He should at all times be aware of the ways in which his chosen models misrepresent the realities he is striving to deal with, and his duty will be to try to improve them. He should be conscious of the haphazard nature of the theories he has to use and aware of the areas in which, like his companions and predecessors among the traditional historians, he has to rely on intuition and guesswork. He may or may not find general theories of social action, like those of Talcott Parsons, useful to him in his difficult and challenging task. The essential point is that he should recognize that his is a theoretical, as well as an empirically descriptive, undertaking.

Social structural history and the other forms of deliberative societal history which have been defined here are not propounded as alternatives to traditional historical writing which should, and ultimately will, replace it. The writing of history has many functions other than providing social scientists with comparative instances and with a continuum in which they can do their work. history will continue to be written for all the many purposes for which it has always been written, regardless of what the social sciences do and how they may develop. All that has been attempted here is a sketch of the somewhat complex relationship between history as traditionally written and the social sciences as they are now pursued. Let it be stressed again that the historian and the social scientist have often been the same person, and this will probably increasingly be the case in the future. But in the writing of social structural history, the differences between the two roles become especially clear. Complicated and difficult as composing history of this kind may be, it presents a challenge which neither the historian nor the social scientist can any longer afford to ignore.

Peter Laslett


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Although it has appeared sporadically since the early twentieth century, the term “ethnohistory” was first used systematically in the 1940s by some North American cultural anthropologists, arche-ologists, and historians, to describe their writings and research on the history of the aborigines of the New World. In more recent years “ethnohistory” has come to mean the historical study of any non-European peoples. Utilizing documentary, oral, and archeological sources and the conceptual framework and insights of cultural and social anthropology, these studies attempt to reconstruct the history of indigenous peoples before and after European contact.

Ethnohistorians combine their “historical” sources with ethnographic field work among the presentday members of the societies whose past they aim to reconstruct. Their goal is to present “rounded” history, which will take into account the social and cultural systems of indigenous peoples; thus, ethno historians of North America have paid particular attention to the location and migration of Indian tribes, changing cultural adaptions to environment, demographic history, the exact nature of the relations of particular tribes with Europeans, and the effects which activities such as the fur trade and warfare have had on American Indians (“Symposium on the Concept of Ethnohistory” 1961).

Ethnohistory has led mainly to studies of particular cultural units, equivalent to the field anthropologists’ ethnographic accounts. There has been little effort to build a body of generalizations, either through comparison or through the development of concepts or categories of sequences which would make interregional comparison possible. The characteristic approaches and problems of ethnohistory derive from the nature of the indigenous societies being studied, the period, type, and duration of European domination, the kinds of documentation available, and the theoretical orientation of the anthropologists who have studied the region.

Ethnohistory differs from the work of conventional colonial historians in several respects. The ethnohistorian usually has firsthand field experience in the area; this experience increases his knowledge of the indigenous society and how it actually functions or functioned. Thus, his interpretation of documentary evidence is deepened. The ethnohistorian tends to think in systemic, functional terms rather than in terms only of accident and particulars. He tries to use his general knowledge of social and cultural organization and constructs his units in terms of such concepts as “segmentary lineage-based societies,” “peasant societies,” and “patrimonial societies.” The ethnohistorian tries to perceive historical events from the position of the aborigine rather than that of the European administrator, even when he is using the administrator’s documents. He is more interested in the impact of colonial policy and practice than in the genesis of these policies in the metropolitan society.

History of the approach

One of the major sources of the field of anthropology was a concern with the history of man in general, the comparative study of societies and institutions, and the reconstructions of the history of particular societies. Voltaire, Gustav Klemm, Sir Henry Maine, J. F. McLennan, J. J. Bachofen, N. D. Fustel de Coulanges, L. H. Morgan, and E. B. Tylor drew heavily on historical materials to establish a comparative science of society and culture. These early anthropologists utilized information about classical civilizations, Hindu India, European barbarians, medieval European institutions, and missionary and traveler accounts of primitive societies. In their broad-ranging and speculative reconstructions of the history of man, they discovered and labeled some of the basic features of primitive and peasant societies. [See the biographies ofBachofen; Fustel de Coulanges; McLennan; Maine; Morgan, L. H.; Tylor; Voltaire.]

Subsequently, the broad schemes of “evolution ary history” put forward by these early anthropologists were rejected; however, they did illustrate how documentary material, illuminated by comparative theory, may be used to understand particular sequences of social and cultural change.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the diffusionists, e.g., Ratzel and Graebner, and then the distributionists, e.g., Wissler, Kroeber, and Lowie, denied the possibility of the use of direct historical methods to reconstruct the history of aboriginal societies. Kroeber believed that for the study of “poor dateless primitives … we do not possess even one document written before our day” ([1901-1951] 1952, p. 65). Lowie, in his attack on Swanton and Dixon’s use of oral traditions and travelers’ accounts in their history of North American Indian migrations (Swanton & Dixon 1914), utterly denied “that primitive man is endowed with historical sense or perspective” (Lowie [1917] 1960, p. 206). Lowie believed that the anthropologist’s “historical problems can be solved only by the objective methods of comparative ethnology, archeology, linguistics and physical anthropology” (ibid., p. 210).

The American distributionist, or “historical,” school was based on the attempt to discover items of culture and society from the “memory culture” of surviving elderly members of American Indian tribes. These social and cultural items or traits—-items of material culture and linguistic data—were plotted geographically, in attempts to infer historical or chronological relationships between tribes. The distributionists were not concerned in any de tailed fashion with the history of particular tribes. Typical of this approach, Sapir’s “Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method,” published in 1916, devoted only two pages out of 87 to the use of documents and indigenous oral traditions. Dependence on distribution studies of individual traits or complexes (e.g., the Sun Dance, particular tales and myths) and lack of systematic use of documents and oral histories weakened the work of the American historical school, and they tended to produce timeless descriptions of phenomena on an areal basis or descriptive synchronic accounts of particular memory cultures.

In England in the 1920s Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown also rejected historically oriented research in anthropology. Both argued that documents for the study of primitive society were unavailable. Radcliffe-Brown contended that the nature of social anthropology and history were antithetical: social anthropologists, as distinguished from ethnologists, were to be concerned with the development of generalizations about the structure of society derived from the comparative study of primitive societies, without reference to their history. Synchronic, or cross-sectional, studies of societies were carefully distinguished from diachronic studies, or studies of societies as they changed through time; the latter could lead only to explanations of uniqueness. Until the 1950s most British social anthropologists kept to Radcliffe-Brown’s strictures and avoided diachronic studies. [See the biographies ofMalinowski; Radcliffe-Brown; Sapir.]

British and American anthropologists continued to study social and cultural change without reference to historical materials, even when, as in the case of Lucy Mair’s study of the Baganda (1934) or Monica Hunter Wilson’s of the Pondo (1936), documentary sources were readily available. Gluck-man’s study of the Zulu political system (1940) and Nadel’s Black Byzantium (1942) did use historical materials to develop a model of political structures before European incursions. However, these studies are not histories but analytical abstractions from historical sources to illuminate structural principles. The one outstanding exception during this period is E. E. Evans-Pritchard’s study of the bedouin of Cyrenaica (1949). In this study Evans-Pritchard analyzed the process by which a lineage-based society developed centralized political roles and institutions. The Sanusi, an order of Muslim religious leaders, had moved into Cyrenaica in the early nineteenth century and provided needed religious and trade functions in the society. Geographically and structurally they located their religious centers at boundaries of existing lineage and tribal territories. Largely through the pressure of Turkish and, subsequently, Italian administra tors who tried to rule the bedouin, the heads of the religious order, as the only visible leaders, were impelled into society-wide political roles. Evans-Pritchard used available colonial records and reports, published narratives, oral traditions, and the memories of participants in the events which make up the historical narrative. The Sanusi of Cyrenaica is based on Evans-Pritchard’s understanding of the operation of an acephalous lineage-based political system, and it is this which gives him the structural principles on which he organized his historical narrative and provides a model for the study of the process of internal structural change in such a society under the impact of foreign rule.

In the United States in the period from 1910 to 1930 a few anthropologists, notably John R. Swanton, in his studies of the Indians of the American southeast (1922; 1946), and Frank G. Speck, working on the tribes of the northeastern United States (1928), used direct historical methods to reconstruct the tribal pasts. For this task they drew on their field work among the remnants of the tribes of the areas and made intensive use of a wide range of documentary materials. [See the biography ofSwanton.]

Fittingly, the clearest early examples of systematic ethnohistorical work are found in a volume of studies dedicated to Swanton and published by the Smithsonian Institution in 1940. William Fenton used seventeenth-century and eighteenth-century documents to trace location and movement of Iroquois bands (1940); William Duncan Strong demonstrated that documentary materials could be used with archeological data to provide a continuous record from present into the past of particular sites (1940); Julian Steward’s study of Great Basin societies combines ecology, history, archeology, and ethnography and yielded insight into structural and cultural processes (1940). These three studies indicated the ethnohistoric approach that was to become formalized in the 1950s. [See the biography ofStrong; Ecology, especially the article onCultural Ecology.]

The accumulation of ethnographic data made it clear that early assumptions about the stability of cultures and societies before European contact were false. Anthropologists began to recognize that in stead of a precontact situation of stagnation in aboriginal societies, changes of three types had occurred. First, there were small-scale cyclical changes, exemplified by the growth and fission of extended families and lineages. There were also larger cycles of political and cultural expansion as lineages within tribes came to dominate similar units; however, many societies could not develop institutions to contain reassertion of independence of such units, so that large-scale tribal organizations would develop for a time under one or another section of a tribe, only to break apart into smaller units again. The third type of change involved large-scale tribal migrations, leading to greatly changed political, social, and ceremonial orders.

In addition to these internal processes of change, ethnohistorians have demonstrated the indirect effects of outsiders—Europeans and Arabs, for example—on indigenous societies and cultures even before the period of European domination. The slave trade in both east and west Africa, the trans-Sahara trade in west Africa, and the ivory trade in east and central Africa led to major political changes in African societies. The fur trade in North America led to major intertribal warfare, the development of ideas of property, and the emergence of a stratified social system based on differential possession of or access to furs. The introduction of the horse to the Great Plains of North America changed the way of life of many tribes who then bordered the region. In each case the culture and society that anthropologists assumed were static and stable and from which one could measure or describe change were in themselves changing because of outside influences (Ewers 1955; Leacock 1954; Jones 1963; Dike 1956).

The passage of the Indian Claims Act in 1946 by Congress led to a marked rise in ethnohistorical research in the United States. Under the provisions of this act Indian tribes could sue the federal government for recompense for lands taken from them after the Indians had signed treaties protecting their rights. Anthropologists were employed as experts by both Indian tribes and the government, to establish location, extent, and nature of aboriginal control over various territories and the exact nature of treaty obligations. This drew the attention of many ethnographers, who previously had paid little heed to the extensive archival resources of the federal government and the various states in their study of the American Indian. Ethnohistory, the principal journal in the field, was founded in 1954 partly to provide an outlet for materials and interest developed by the Indian claims cases.

The expansion of field-work opportunities in Latin America and Asia and the emergence of many states from colonial rule has been a tremendous stimulus to ethnohistorical work since the end of World War II. In many of these areas there are long literary traditions and a wealth of documentary material. In Latin America, for example, certain areas have been covered in historical sources for a four-hundred-year period (for a brief review of the literature, see Adams 1962; Armillas I960; Gibson 1955). In east and southeast Asia there have been important ethnohistorical studies of kinship and clan structure (Freedman 1958; R. J. Smith 1962), land tenure (T. C. Smith 1959), the recruitment and training of indigenous bureaucra cies (Ho 1962; Marsh 1961; Silberman 1964), urban social history and mobility (R. J. Smith 1963), immigrant communities (Skinner 1957), and indigenous political systems (Gullick 1958). Ethnohistorical studies of south Asia and the Middle East are beginning to appear (Cohn 1962a; 1962b; Polk 1963).

In European studies there has been a long tradition in the study of classical, medieval, and early modern society, enlightened by sociological and anthropological method and concepts. Most of this work has been carried out by social, economic, and legal historians rather than by anthropologists themselves. The ethnohistorical study of classical society has attracted considerable attention (Kluckhohn 1961). M. I. Finley, on the basis of the Odyssey, has written an essay on the culture and social structure of the Greeks of the heroic era; in this he consciously used the ideas of Malinowski, Mauss, and Radcliffe-Brown (Finley 1954). E. R. Dodds, in his analysis of Greek literature, has drawn on some of the concepts of psychoanalytically oriented anthropology (1951). Marc Bloch’s great works on feudal society (1939–1940) and the rural structure of medieval France (1931) illustrate the possibilities of an ethnohistory of medieval Europe.

The writing of British social history from the time of Maitland (1897) and Vinogradoff (1905) has been marked by the conscious and unconscious use of social anthropology. Modern subjects that have received sophisticated ethnohistorical treatment include the blood feud of the Franks (Wallace-Hadrill 1959), Anglo-Saxon kinship (Lancas ter 1958), and marriage systems of the early modern period (Stone 1965, pp. 589-671; Habak-kuk 1950). Although social anthropologists have done considerable field work in European peasant societies, few examples of systematic and careful ethnohistorical work have appeared. An exception is the work of Lawrence Wylie, a student of French literature and civilization, who on the basis of field work among French peasants has been able to show the usefulness of oral traditions and documents for studying the changing value systems of a peasant village (Wylie 1965).

In areas without long written traditions, careful and important ethnohistorical work has begun. The Journal of African History, founded in 1960, demonstrates the utilization of official records, recorded African traditions, and Arabic and Copticmate rials. The institutional history of the Maori from the eighteenth century is being written (Vayda 1961; Biggs 1960). The Journal of Pacific History was recently established as an outlet for the growing ethnohistorical research on the Pacific area.

Sources and methods

Written documents . In his use of written documents, the ethnohistorian initially has the same problem and uses the same techniques as conventional historians. The ethnohistorian who has been trained as an anthropologist and has carried out field work is often highly frustrated when he has to depend on documents. The research problems of the ethnohistorian usually pertain to local history or “subhistorical” problems. He is not concerned with major, well-documented events, which a political historian deals with; very often he wants to know the minutiae of the past, e.g., the kinship connections of shadowy historical figures in an indigenous society, the movement and location of particular lineages at particular times, the symbolic meanings of a coronation ceremony in an African kingdom, the population of an American Indian group in the seventeenth century.

Often it is difficult to identify adequately the individuals and groups the ethnohistorian is concerned with. As an anthropologist, he expects to build inductively, from disparate bits of information, a picture of a functioning system; but he can not generate his own data by asking people questions and observing their behavior in the context of living experiences. The documents he deals with are rarely written by the people whose social structure or culture he wants to study but are accounts by observers, naive and biased, who often only half understood what they were recording. If he uses administrative records, not only must he know, as a good historian, who wrote the minutes or the statements of decisions taken and why they wrote them; he must place the data in a broader context of administrative policy. Certain official records, such as tax records, land surveys, and documents from actual legal proceedings, as distinguished from decisions and policies, frequently yield the best data. These materials are less finely filtered through the cultural screen of the administrators. The ethnohistorian must constantly try to understand the categories of the administrator and outside observer, as well as the indigenous classification systems. The interpretation of official or nonofficial documents, of policy statements and other primary data, requires an understanding of the culture and society of colonial administrators. This in itself is difficult, for the gross features of the metropolitan society may be misleading. The ethnohistorian has to know what particular group in the society the administrator came from, whether his values, education, and social and political philosophy differed from the rest of the society, and if so, how. The ethnohistorian must understand the structure of the colonial administration and know the partisanship of the men responsible for the documents he studies. He must understand the relationships between the decision makers in the metropolitan center, the administrators in the colonial center, and the men in the field. He has to know how administrators collected data and information and whom they dealt with and employed from the indigenous society. He must perceive which notions developed about the indigenous society were mistaken, how they affected decisions and observations, and how decisions which may have been based on such misinformation affected the indigenous society. The ethnohistorian’s task is to use conventional historical methods but to ask different questions and to keep in mind his concern with the indigenous society (Curtin 1964).

There are, for almost every region, extensive published collections of source material; for example, Thwaites’s 73-volume series (Jesuits Letters From Missions 1896-1901) for North America, the collections of Theal (1883) and Brasio (1952–1960) for southeast Africa, and parliamentary papers of Great Britain for India and Africa. The main resources, however, are to be found in the national and regional archives and local administrative and record offices of the area being studied.

In areas such as Uganda, the emirates of northern Nigeria, and the Malay States, where Europeans ruled indirectly and tried to maintain the indigenous political system, documents were produced by members of the society themselves. Political and social development can be traced through the eyes of some of the indigenous peoples.

Oral traditions. In recent years, particularly in the study of the history of African societies, the ethnohistorian and the anthropologist with a historical interest, have demonstrated convincingly how oral tradition can be recorded, collated, checked, and utilized for historical purposes (Abra ham 1961; Vansina 1961; M. G. Smith 1961). Oral traditions cover a wide variety of subject matter and can be found in a variety of forms. Societies with centralized political institutions and conquest states have often produced well-developed oral histories, and frequently there are specialists whose concern it is to memorize and transmit these traditions. In the use of this form of oral tradition, great caution is obviously necessary, since the history reflects as much about present social and political structure as it does about the past and is constantly being changed to account for changing situations (Barnes 1951; Cunnison 1951).

Oral history reflects the social units within the society; villages and lineages will have accounts of their past, which perform the specific function of relating groups to each other and which validate or correct local claims and support relationships. The ethnohistorian is often confronted with an extraordinary multiplicity of conflicting accounts of the past, even from the same village (Cohn 1961). Tribal segments, royal lineages, and courts may have well-preserved histories, which function as charters to justify contemporary social structure.

As Vansina (1961) demonstrates, historical narratives are not the only aspect of oral tradition that can be recorded, collated, and utilized; sacred formulas, names, poetry, genealogies, folk tales, myths, and legal precedents are useful to the ethnohistorian. In the interpretation of oral tradition, stress must first be put on the cultural context in which the tradition is found. Vansina defines oral tradition as “testimonies of the past which are deliberately transmitted from mouth to mouth.” As he does in the case of written documents, the researcher must always ask what function the tradition performs in the contemporary society. Even material which is demonstrably false can be of great value, as it might incidentally contain historical facts.

Where outsiders have been recording indigenous oral traditions for a long time (as, for example, among the Maori), the relationship between the oral tradition and contemporary political structure can be used to understand not only the past referred to in the tradition but the actual political situation existing at the time the tradition was recorded.

Field work . Field work is essential to the work of the ethnohistorian. The basic anthropological orientation, which differentiates the ethnohistorian from the conventional colonial historian, is developed through the experience of systematic field ob servation and the collection of data from living people; the aim of field work is to present a description and analysis of a functioning social system.

Field work, then, is a major part of the ethnohis-torian’s training; through field work he develops a sensitivity to the structure of a society that is difficult to achieve from study of documentary evidence alone. Ideas relating to historical relationships and processes may actually be tested in the field, where aspects of the society and culture are still in operation. [SeeField Work.]

Ethnohistory and anthropology Thus far diachronic studies have not yielded theoretical formulations. While synchronic studies are useful in enabling the ethnohistorian to infer social processes from documentary evidence, the contribution that diachronic studies will make to theory building or even to the development of descriptive generalizations regarding society and culture is harder to demonstrate. Even in the most rigid synchronic ethnographic study, the ethnog rapher must deal with the dimension of time. At the very least, he is dealing with three generations and with individuals whose lives have covered a sixty-year period. Invariably the field ethnographer asks questions about the past; he must confront the question of norms and changing norms, accidental social arrangements, and enduring aspects of the social structure.

Through historical study the anthropologist may identify changes within the system which are the result of flux, accident, or cyclical sequences and those which are due to structural realignments. Nadel and others have argued that to know the direction of social structural change, one needs time depth (Nadel 1957, chapter 6; Levi-Strauss 1949). Thus, for example, careful statistical study frequently shows that there are in some, if not all, societies degrees of latitude or freedom in an indi vidual’s choice of residence, whether it be virilocal or uxorilocal, and these choices may be related to other variables. Synchronic studies may account for these relationships, but if we want to account for change, then historical methods for studying a society—primitive, peasant, or industrial—are the prerequisite for the development of adequate theories (Evans-Pritchard 1961; M. G. Smith 1962; Thomas 1963).

Historians and anthropologists The development of nineteenth-century “scientific history”—the study of the past divorced from the values and passions of the historian’s times, the idea that historical facts could be determined and, if chronologically ordered, would speak for themselves—has led, with some notable exceptions. to the historian’s consciously eschewing concepts and generalizations that might guide and illuminate his description and analysis of the past. In the twentieth century, though, historians have become increasingly aware that they do use and have to use generalizations if they are to do more than edit texts. H. Stuart Hughes (1960, pp. 25-26) has pointed to at least four levels at which historians generalize. First, they generalize semantically; by using words, such as “nation,” “revolution,” “development,” “trend,” and “social class,” historians implicitly abstract, generalize, and compare. Second, “conclusions” in the form of a grouping of statements about a man, a period, or a movement are generalizations. Third, schematizations, inherent in such ideas as “urbanization” and “indus trialization,” by which bits and pieces of historical study are organized in terms of process or structure, are generalizations and are close to the kinds of generalizations social scientists make. Finally, there are the broad, all-inclusive systematizations of history or metahistory, associated with the work of men like Spengler and Toynbee. It is at this fourth level, that is, in the conscious use of concepts regarding process and structure in society and culture, that the social scientist and the historian can best interrelate their study. If the characteristic activity of the historian is the study of the past and if his organizing principle is a time sequence, then he must borrow organizing principles from other disciplines, both the humanities and the social sciences. In major subfields of history, this process of borrowing is explicit, for example, in economic history, where the concepts and methods of economics are consciously used to provide the concep tual framework. Intellectual and social history have borrowed from psychology, sociology, and anthro pology.

In the last thirty years there have been several efforts to utilize the anthropologist’s approach in the study of history; the anthropology which has proven most congenial to historians is cultural anthropology. The concept of culture as an all-embracing idea covering behavior and values of a particular people at a particular time fits well with historians’ predilections. Hughes puts it well when he says: “…the approach of the cultural anthro pologist so closely resembles that of the historian as frequently to seem identical with it. Like the historical scholar, the student of exotic cultures adopts a highly permissive attitude towards his data; he is perfectly happy in the realm of impre cision and of ’intuitive’ procedures; and he tries to grapple with what he regards as the central problems of the societies with which he is concerned” (Hughes 1960, p. 34; see also Ware 1940; Social Science Research Council 1954; Gottschalk 1963). Books such as Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) and attempts on the part of anthropologists to do national character studies are taken by historians as models (for example, see Potter 1954) because the approach, rather than the techniques, methods, and concepts, of the cultural anthropolo gist is useful to historians. With notable exceptions, such as Marc Bloch, historians have not been eager to combine field work with historical research to find still extant in societies traces of previous industrial and agricultural techniques or surviving forms of social organization [see the biography ofBloch].

It is, however, in the study of the preindustrial and modernizing societies of today and of the historical societies that characterized the whole world before the beginning of the nineteenth century that the anthropologist and the historian would appear to need each other.

Bernard S. Cohn

[See alsoArcheology; Ethnology; Historiography.]


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Culture history is the subdivision of general history that is concerned with the historical development of nonliterate peoples, present and past. It is almost always practiced by cultural anthro pologists, if we include under this designation such specialists as archeologists and anthropologicallin guists. This definition implies that there is no real difference in principle between the history of the professional historian and the culture historian. Sometimes an attempt is made to distinguish between the two by contrasting the use of written documentary sources as the chief or only kind of evidence admitted by the historian proper with the variety of other, more conjectural methods used by the student of nonliterate cultures. This point of view has occasionally been taken either by historians who wished to resist extension of the field of history through these methods or by “schools” of anthropologists, such as the earlier social functionalists, who admitted the value of “genuine” history based on documentary evidence, while rejecting the “conjectural” culture history of historically minded anthropologists.

It is clear, however, that such a distinction can not be maintained on principle. As noted in stand ard handbooks of historiography, the task of historical investigation involves the use of all types of evidence regarding the past. Thus E. Bernheim ([1905] 1926, p. 62) states that all peoples can be subject to historical investigation and that the principles of historical investigation are every where the same but that differences in the nature of the evidence require specialized knowledge and training. Thus, “…it is in the interest of a scientific division of labor to assign the history of primitives and prehistoric peoples to the ethnologist and archeologist.” Besides, even where documentary evidence exists in abundance, as it does from the ancient classical world, nondocumentary techniques, such as archeology and comparativelin guistics, have made essential contributions and are used by professional historians. On the other hand, anthropologists have come to realize that they are by no means limited to nondocumentary methods. For many parts of the world there are frequently historical documents that may shed valuable light on cultural changes undergone during the centuries between first contact with the West and professional anthropological field study. In some in stances, there may even be indigenous historical records neglected by the historians because the area is outside of the normal purview of their interests. This was the case, for example, with the Islamized peoples of the Sudan.

The aim, then, of culture history, is in no essential respect different from that of conventional history, particularly when the latter is viewed in its most general aspect as not merely political history but as history of all aspects of culture. It may be added that for his primary goal, the understanding of cultural development, the culture historian will need certain noncultural data, such as environmental changes, human racial differentiation as the result of isolating mechanisms paralleling ethnic differentiation, and inferences concerning ancient demographic factors. The differences between culture history and conventional history is then one of degree rather than kind. Since he necessarily relies to a greater extent on nondocu-mentary sources, the culture historian will be concerned with groups and not individual actors, and the time scale will often be relative rather than absolute. However, with the development of radio active and other methods of absolute dating, even this latter difference tends to be effaced.

General methodology

All historical investigations proceed by inferences, often very complex, from evidence existing in the present. The relation between the evidence itself and the fact of which it is a trace is of two main logical types: cause and effect, as when an artifact is taken as evidence for the human activity that produces it, or symbol and referent, as in verbal accounts (whether written or oral) in which the evidence is a description of the fact. Traces differ, as will be seen later, in still other respects. Particularly in culture history, where documentary evidence is usually minimal or lacking, the general strategy of the historical enterprise is based on the circumstance that the same event may leave multiple traces, each of which provides independ ent evidence for the fact.

For example, if at some time in the past one people has borrowed the cultivation of a food plant from another, it will have taken over the genetic varieties utilized by the donors and the same or similar methods of cultivation. They may have borrowed the word for the plant itself or other terminology connected with its cultivation. These aspects are independent, in that some might have been present in the original event without the others and since their present outcomes are distinct, e.g., the genetic plant varieties now utilized, the observable agricultural methods, and one or more words in the present language. Each of these evidences may be said to belong to a different system, because for its interpretation we must put it into a context of different facts. Thus the data concerning a particular genetic variety of plant are significant in the light of the totality of varieties, their geographical distribution, and the reconstructed genetic history of the species itself in relation to the wild ancestral form. The agri cultural methods are part of an ethnologic distribution. The linguistic terminology is part of a language and must be evaluated interms of appearance or nonappearance in related languages deriving from a linguistic classification itself based on linguistic evidence.

Each of these traces, then, is interpreted in terms of the system to which it belongs. Although the details of method differ for each system, they all have in common the important characteristics of being comparative and involving assumptions regarding diachronic processes.

It has sometimes been felt that certain types of historical inferences involve a comparative method, for example, those based on language or ethno logical trait distributions, while archeological artifacts or documents give direct testimony concerning the facts for which they are evidence. There is at best, again, merely a difference of degree of complexity and not of kind. An archeological implement must be compared with other implements with regard to form, function, place, and time before it can be assigned any historical meaning. This is true for written documents, as we are reminded emphatically by the historians Langlois and Seignobos, who state that a document “in respect of which we necessarily are in total ignorance of the author, the place, and the date is good for nothing” ([1898] 1925, p. 87).

Another fundamental set of considerations in volved in the construction of such interpretive systems refers to process. By a process is meant a class of similar changes. To draw an example from textual analysis, if the same word appears twice within a few lines of a manuscript that is being copied, a scribe, in looking back through the manuscript, will sometimes mistake the second occurrence for the first and so eliminate the intervening material. Such an error is called haplology and may be called a process. Since manuscripts of all periods, places, and languages are subject to haplological change, like other such processes it may be considered as a class in abstraction from its specific temporal and spatial loci. If two manu scripts share the same haplologies along with other specific changes, one may conclude that they have both been copied from the same version and thus do not furnish independent evidence regarding the original text. By such reasoning, manuscripts may be arranged in a genealogy and their comparative study can lead to the reconstruction of the lost original. In reasoning by means of process, such factors as the frequency with which instances are likely to occur, whether two identical instances will tend to occur independently, and the length of time required for their occurrence are all among the fundamental considerations. For example, another process in manuscript transmission is the inter polation of marginal explanatory glosses into the body of the text. Obviously, it is more likely that a particular haplological error will occur twice independently than that an interpolation involving precisely the same words will occur at all.

Human activities are not the only processes relevant to cultural-historical reconstruction. For example, the patination due to the weathering of artifacts is a process of change and allows us to draw very approximate conclusions regarding age. The point here is that the historical conclusions to which we are led by particular existing evidence is dependent on our assumptions about the processes of change it has undergone since the time it came into existence.

Specific methods

A number of the independent methods mentioned earlier may now be considered in greater detail.

Verbal evidence

All verbal evidence has as its source linguistically formulated descriptions by ob servers of the original event or events. Whether this primary source is oral or written in its first form makes little or no difference; it is subject to the same possibilities of error through observer bias, inaccuracy, or prevarication. The differences between written and oral sources stem from the mode of subsequent transmission. The advantage of writing is that, because of its semipermanence, it will go through fewer reproductions and will be less changed in the course of such reproductions. Since it will thus be closer to the original report, it will be easier to reconstruct the exact verbal form of the report. The form in which the historian encounters the report is not in itself deci sive. Thus, literary sources often contain accounts written down at some time from oral tradition, so that the report has been transmitted orally during the earlier part of its career and in writing later on. The opposite also occurs when literary formulations become the subject of folkloristic transmission.

The critical use of written documents, the chief source of the historian’s history, falls under the methodology of history proper and is thus only briefly discussed in the present connection. It is relevant, however, to point out that the culture historian’s written documentation is most frequently that of the outside observer, such as the explorer or missionary, rather than the participant. It is therefore subject to errors based rather on the outsider’s inability to comprehend the cultural frame of reference of the actors than on bias. Therefore, the inaccuracies are characteristically of a different kind from those of the internally placed participant. Thus, contrary to the latter, the outside observer will not tend to conceal military defeats or the historical illegitimacy of the power exercised by a ruling dynasty.

Anthropologists take as their point of departure the notion of primitive peoples as peoples without written history; but beginning about 1950 it became apparent that the extent and the value of both external and, in certain cases (e.g., west Africa), internal documentary sources had been seriously underestimated. The Indian land claims cases in the United States also led to much documentary research into land occupation and use patterns of the aboriginal period. Such interests led to the development of ethnohistory as a sub-discipline of anthropology [seeHistory, article onEthnohistory].

The other chief source of verbal reports is oral tradition, which includes not only orally transmitted narrative history but other kinds of spoken material containing historical information, e.g., proverbs and epic poetry. This source is perhaps the most controversial. Thus, G. P. Murdock (1959) discounts it as altogether unreliable, while J. Van-sina (1961) makes it the very keystone for his reconstruction of the history of a number of African peoples. As Vansina has pointed out, oral tradition must be used critically, and, indeed, it requires a methodology very similar in principle to that required for the study of documentary sources. More perhaps than any other source, it has been employed uncritically in the past. Oral traditions have been published without indication of the individual, place, or date from which they derive, of facts, if any, regarding the manner of their earlier transmission, and without variant versions. As for manuscripts, it is possible to develop a genealogy of lines of independent transmission and reconstruct the archetype or original version, a method similar in basic respects to that developed by the Finnish school of folklorists for oral literature in general. The time depth and chrono logical precision of oral traditions are necessarily limited, but within these limitations they can give important and reliable information when treated critically.


Among the remaining research methods, which have in common the reasoning from trace as effect to historical cause, archeology is to be distinguished from the rest in that it deals with material objects as evidences of cultural ac tivities of the period in which they were produced rather than with existing cultural phenomena viewed as developments from, and hence evidences for, earlier cultural traits. Thus, subsequent modifications of form, if any, are normally the result of natural forces independent of man. The strength of archeology is the reliability and concreteness of its evidence and the definiteness of its spatial attribution. Its necessary limitations stem from the fact that it is confined to material culture and de ductions that can be made therefrom. The set of artifacts found at a particular site and stratigraphic level, sometimes called a component, is taken as the material expression of the life of a local community. Often very similar assemblages are found over a continuous area with indications that they all date from roughly the same chronological period. Such a unit, often called a phase, may be conjectured to represent some sociocultural unit, such as a tribe. The interpretation of archeological evidences regarding a phase has both cultural and social aspects. From settlement patterns, density of remains, the functions of the artifacts themselves, and evidences regarding contemporary cli mate, fauna, and flora, the attempt is made to reconstruct the basic technologic and demographic patterns with whatever further, usually less certain, inference can be made regarding other as pects of culture, such as social structure or religion. There has also been an attempt to identify and determine the geographic boundaries of ethnic groups. Contemporary evidence shows that such conclusions are subject to a considerable margin of error, since, on occasion, ethnic groups with highly similar material cultures may differ fundamentally in language and other cultural aspects and constitute politically independent groupings.

The second fundamental aim of archeology is to reconstruct the time-space relationships of the sociocultural entities inferred from material remains. The basic problem is, of course, chrono logical rather than spatial. Relative dating methods include the stratificational (when in the same site more recent material is superimposed on more ancient), estimates of length of occupation from the nature of the deposits, inferences regarding the rough contemporaneity of sites with similar material, cross-dating from traded objects whose date and provenience is known from documentary sources, and geochronology. Where other methods fail, the evolutionary assumption that simpler types precede more developed has been utilized. Such conclusions are most plausible where we are dealing with mechanical inventions that presuppose other less complex devices that enter into them or where a more efficient device requires the development of some specific and recondite skill, e.g., smelting metal as compared with the utilization of stone. In recent years the development of methods of radioactive dating, such as carbon-14, has revolutionized archeology by providing absolute dates.

Beyond the placing of archeological units in space or time, there are inferences regarding the historical relationship of particular cultural traits, complexes, or cultures as a whole. With the pre requisite of space-time continuity established or reasonably to be conjectured, cultural similarities are interpreted as resulting from such historical processes as geographic migration of a people or by diffusion, in which the traits are borrowed through contact with a neighboring people. Such integral spread or adoption of cultural features is often called genetic. Sometimes however the connection is not genetic, although historical. For example, trade objects may be distributed along recognizable trade routes, which indicate cultural connections, although the objects themselves are not actually produced in all of the sites in which they are found. There are of course cultural resemblances that are nonhistorical in origin and are the result of independent parallel developments. What is to be assumed a similarity will, of course, depend on the definitional criteria adopted. Under more general criteria things will be considered similar that are rejected under narrower criteria. The disputed cases are character istically those that combine generality of criteria with absence of well-proved space-time continuity, e.g., Egyptian and Mayan pyramids.

A further major contribution of archeology has been to furnish materials from the distant past that complement the documentary history of more recent periods and permit speculation about the long-term “evolutionary” trends of cultural development. Thus, archeology provides support for the ories regarding the evolution of technology and systems of economic subsistence. [SeeDomestication; Hunting and Gathering, article onNew World Prehistoric Societies; Urban Revolution.]

Trait distribution

Another basic method for reconstructing history that employs cultural materials is the study of the geographical distribution of cultural traits, which reads historical depth into spatially arranged data. In the broadest sense, comparative linguistics is but one example of this approach, but since it is the least controversial, has the most explicitly developed method, and contributes most largely and reliably of all cultural distributional methods, it will be discussed first.

Comparative linguistics. We may consider that every language is a cultural subsystem, that such subsystems are distributed over geographical space, and that each meaningful item in a language is a cultural trait that involves form (“sound”) and function (“meaning”). The first step in comparative linguistics is the classification of language into mutually exclusive families, each consisting of related languages. A family of languages is a set of distinct languages presumed to have arisen from a single earlier language (the so-called protolan-guage) through a course of differential changes. In the initial period of such changes, when the differences are still small and mutual intelligibility still obtains, localized variants are called dialects. Dialects, as they diverge more and more in the course of time, cease to be mutually intelligible and rank as separate languages. The languages resulting from such an earlier process are said to have a common origin and form a family of related languages. This process may occur a number of times successively and still give recoverable results. Thus, Proto-Indo-European developed dia lects that became the ancestral languages of the various branches of Indo-European, e.g., Celtic, Germanic, Slavic, Indo-Aryan, Italic. Italic, like the others, in turn split into separate languages, e.g., Latin, Oscan, Umbrian, Venetic. Of those, only Latin survived, and it in turn has developed into the modern Romance languages.

The comparative method reconstructs this course of events by classifications, such as the one just briefly sketched. Through the observation and evaluation of resemblances involving sound and meaning and, further, through the regularities inherent in processes of linguistic change, most conspicu ously phonetic change, the further step is taken of reconstructing as far as possible, and often in considerable detail, the phonetic system, grammar, and vocabulary of the ancestral language. Only exceptionally, as in the case of Latin as ancestral to the Romance languages, is there independent written evidence regarding this language.

Thus every family of languages at whatever level of classification implies an ancestral language that is capable of at least partial reconstruction. Such an ancestral language implies a community of people as its users, a degree of cultural homogeneity, such as is normally found among speakers of the same language at the present time and for past documented history, and a placement within geographical and chronological limits. It is clear that the determination of spatial-temporal location of a sociocultural unit speaking a language whose features have been largely reconstructed and historically related to later or contemporary speech communities is in itself an important cultural-historical datum.

Nonlinguistic inference. The reconstructed lin guistic facts are themselves cultural-historical facts, but what is of wider interest to the culture historian are the nonlinguistic cultural inferences that flow from such linguistic facts, as, for example, words that show the probable acquaintance of the speakers with certain technological items or religious concepts. Such items of protovocabulary are reconstructed word-forms, continued in a sufficient number of later instances to allow us to infer their approximate phonetic shape and meaning and to assign them to the ancestral language. It is a further advantage of the comparative linguistic method that it almost always allows us to distinguish between resemblances among languages that result from continuation of an actual item in modified form (cognates) and resemblances among languages, whether related or not, that result from the borrowing of words from one language by another where the speakers have been in contact. It is also often possible through purely linguistic methods to arrive at conclusions regarding the direction of borrowing.

Accordingly, there are three chief types of in ference regarding nonlinguistic cultural phenomena that can be derived from the comparative study of language: those drawn from facts concerning the classification and distribution of languages, those based on protovocabulary, and those based on interlinguistic contacts. From the detailed classification and subclassification of the members of a linguistic family, combined with their present geographical distribution or, where available, from the evidence of documentary history, their past distribution, it is possible to draw probabilistic conclusions regarding the area occupied by the ancestral speech community. From this will also follow certain hypotheses regarding subsequent mi-grational spread resulting in the distributions found in later historical periods. The fundamental assumption made is that every genetic branch of a linguistic stock, regardless of its present population size or geographical extent, provides, by its location, equal and independent evidence regarding the original center of linguistic distribution. The procedure implicit in this assumption may be called the “center of gravity” method. The best possible guess is the average of positions of each genetic branch. The center of each of these branches that enters into such a calculation may itself require calculation in terms of its subbranches, if any. Thus, if we had no written records to show whether English had originated in the British Isles, North America, South Africa, or Australia, the classification of English as a Germanic language within Indo-European, the fact that its closest relative within Germanic is Frisian, spoken by a small fishing population on the Dutch and German coasts, and the distribution of other subbranches of Germanic in Germany and Scandinavia would point to England as the immediate point of disper sal and to the continent of Europe as the location of ultimate origin. In fact, considering the level of classification represented by dialect variation, since the deepest and most fundamental dialect divisions exist in the British Isles, one can assume that this is the center of dispersal and that the rest of English distribution results from the relatively recent spread of certain older dialects from this center. An important independent check involves an application of the protoword method. Part of the reconstructed vocabulary of the proto-language may reflect the geographical environment of the original area of settlement but must be interpreted in the light of paleoclimatic and pale-ontological knowledge. This method requires considerable caution in its application because of the possibility of parallel semantic changes and because it is often necessary to argue from the negative standpoint of the absence of a given ter minology. Both points can be illustrated for a hypothetical example of a language family in which it is impossible to reconstruct an original word for “ocean,” thus leading to the conclusion that the protocommunity lived inland. It may either be the case that there was such a word but it has inde pendently been replaced by different terms in each linguistic branch or that it survived but transferred its meaning to “lake” several times independently through movements inland, so that the meaning of the term has been incorrectly reconstructed. The possibility of the reconstruction of a whole set of semantically related terms obviously strengthens such a case greatly.

For reconstructing the time as against the place of the ancestral speech community, the only method of absolute chronology that has been proposed is that of glottochronology (see Hymes 1960). The method is based on the assumption that every language has a basic vocabulary that is composed of certain elements, such as pronouns, low numerals, and parts of the body, and that this basic vocabulary has a relatively low and constant rate of replacement by new forms, whether by internal changes or by borrowing. The rate of replacement is estimated from test cases involving historical documentation with a known chronology, e.g., Latin to French. If we assume random and independent loss for related languages at the same rate as for the test cases, then from the proportion of cognates in the list for any pair of languages the date at which the ancestral language began to diverge can be estimated. The estimate in current use is that in one millennium 14 percent of the 100-word list is lost. This method has been widely applied but has also suffered severe criticism, both regarding the empirical results obtained in the test cases and the mathematical assumptions. It is, however, quite possible that when subjected to necessary revisions, it will give useful results.

The protoword method also permits inference from reconstructed vocabulary regarding the culture of the ancestral speech community. Thus the essentially village, neolithic nature of the Proto-Indo-European culture is shown by the existence of reconstructed terms for a number of domesticated plants and animals, the words for “plow,” “village,” etc. Other reconstructible parts of the ancestral vocabulary of Indo-European include the kinship terminology and the names of certain divinities.

Culture contact. The remaining major source of cultural-historical information based on linguistic data is the study of linguistic-contact phenomena. The most important data are furnished by loan words because they frequently have specific cultural content and because the direction of borrowing can be determined in favorable cases. One type of linguistic-contact study is that which concen trates on the contact of one language with another over an extended period. Such an investigation may be considered the linguistic analogue of ac culturation studies. It is often possible to distinguish different periods of contact based on the “stratigraphy” of the changes undergone in the borrowing language. An over-all study of this kind will also show the specific aspects of culture in which bor rowings are most numerous and fundamental and thus provide important evidence concerning the nature of the culture contact.

Instead of considering the language communi ties and the nature of their linguistic contacts as the primary interest, we may focus our attention on a specific cultural item. For example, we may examine the linguistic evidence in its bearing on the details of the spread of tobacco. Since a cultural item may be borrowed without the word being borrowed and because the direction of borrowing cannot in every case be discovered, linguistic evidence will not usually provide a complete history of diffusion, but it will furnish many important detailed hypotheses.

The detection of borrowed words may sometimes show that speech communities not now in contact must have been so in the past. Sometimes the contact must have been with an earlier protocom-munity. Thus, Finnish has a number of words bor rowed from very early Germanic that approximate reconstructed Proto-Germanic forms.

In addition to borrowings, where languages have been in intimate contact with a large bilingual population over a considerable period, there will be a tendency to convergence in the sound system and grammatical structure. Thus, a number of Balkan languages of diverse branches of Indo-European share such features as a postposed definite article (Rumanian, Albanian, Bulgarian), a future formed from an auxiliary “to wish” (Rumanian, Albanian, Serbo-Croatian, Bulgarian, Greek), and other details. These are not borrowings, since, for example, the verb “to wish” is in each case the indigenous word. Thus, areas of mutual linguistic influences can be determined that parallel the notion of culture area in cultural an thropology.

The independent nonlinguistic methods involve the mapping of the distribution of cultural traits. The main conclusions drawn are that highly de tailed traits, e.g., specified art motifs, if found in a restricted geographical area, have a common historic origin. The place of origin and process of spread are difficult to recover on purely distributional evidence. One widely accepted principle of inference is that a trait is older in an area in which it is more elaborated and more integrated in the cultures in which it is found or exists in a greater variety of forms, since such developments require time. Another is known as the age-area hypoth esis: other things being equal, a more widely distributed trait is older, since such spread requires time.

Reconstructing social systems. One class of methods using nonlinguistic cultural data involves an extension of the comparative linguistic method. The attempt can be made to reconstruct aspects of the culture of the ancestral speech community by a comparison of nonlinguistic traits of the speakers of the languages. This method has met with limited success in the case of comparative Indo-European mythology. Just as the names of divini ties may be reconstructed by linguistic compari sons, so the plots of myths involving the divinities may be compared in order to reconstitute their original forms. Such attempts encounter the difficulty that for nonlinguistic aspects of culture, there is no systematic way to differentiate between resemblances resulting from diffusion and those stemming from common origin. The method developed by Murdock (1949) belongs here. Since only certain changes of type are regarded as pos sible and since social structure is presumed to be, like language, relatively impervious to external dif-fusional influences, the comparison of social structures of linguistically related peoples leads to the reconstruction of the type of social structure of the ancestral population and its subsequent changes. Unlike language, where there are thousands of independent vocabulary elements, there are relatively few types of social structure; therefore, the same type of social structure is not probative of historical connection between two peoples. Lin guistic comparison is thus a method for recon structing the social structure of peoples known to be related on other grounds and not primarily a method of discovering historical relationships not otherwise known.

Biological history. The study of certain non-cultural phenomena may be coordinated with that of culture history. Thus the genetic history of human populations is clearly relevant to culture history. The isolating mechanisms that produce partly or fully discrete breeding populations are in general congruent with those producing cultural and linguistic isolation. For example, the linguistic distinction of Eskimo-Aleut from the remaining language groups of the indigenous Americas paral lels a physical distinction and is the common result of the same isolating factors. There is thus the possibility of mutual corroboration for historical inferences in both areas. For example, the genetic distinctness of the African and Oceanic Negro, which now seems assured on genetic grounds, is in agreement with the linguistic evidence, which is also negative on the same point.

Domestication. A further important noncultural source of cultural-historical conclusions is the study of domesticated plants and animals. Given a genetic classification of species and varieties or races and their relationship to wild forms, the basic principle is one parallel to the center-of-gravity method discussed above in relation to linguistic classification. Thus, the center of origin should be in the same area as the wild forms, and the earlier and more basic genetic differentiations of the domesticated forms should have taken place at earlier centers of cultivation. Here again, the history of plant and animal domestication is in itself impor tant as culture history and provides further independent evidence regarding contacts of people.

The potentialities of the methods outlined here have been only very partially realized. The reasons for this are both theoretical and technical. Since they were applied on a grand scale but based on limited range of evidence and an unsophisticated methodology by the cultural-historical schools of the early twentieth century, in the reaction that followed, interest was focused on structural-functional problems to the relative neglect of culture history. Moreover, practical difficulties are raised by the wide variety of methods required that can not easily, if at all, be controlled by a single spe cialist. The most noteworthy attempt thus far is that of Murdock’s study of Africa (1959), which utilizes evidence from archeology, linguistic classi fication, social structure, and plant genetics. But even this study does not take into account many further lines of evidence, such as loan words and the distribution of art styles.

Joseph H. Greenberg

[Directly related are the entriesArcheology; Diffusion; Ethnology; Folklore; Linguistics, articles onhistorical linguisticsandthe speech community. Other relevant material may be found inHistoriography, article onafrican historiography; and in the biographies ofGraerner; Koppers; NordensktÖld; Ratzel; Schmidt.]


Bernheim, Ernest (1905) 1926 Einleitung in die Ge-schichtswissenschaft. 4th ed. Berlin: Gruyter. → Translation in text provided by Joseph Greenberg.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1953 Historical Linguistics and Unwritten Languages. Pages 265-286 in A. L. Kroeber (editor), Anthropology Today. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Hymes, Dell H. 1960 Lexicostatistics So Far. Current Anthropology 1:3—44.

Langlois, Charles V.; and Seignobos, Charles (1898) 1925 Introduction to the Study of History. London: Duckworth. → First published in French.

Murdock, George P. 1949 Social Structure. New York: Macmillan. → A paperback edition was published in 1965 by the Free Press.

Murdock, George P. 1959 Africa: Its Peoples and Their Culture History. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Sapir, Edward (1916) 1949 Time Perspective in Aboriginal American Culture: A Study in Method. Pages 389-462 in Edward Sapir, Selected Writingsin Language, Culture and Personality. Edited by David Mandelbaum. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Vansina, Jan (1961)1964 The Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Chicago: Aldine. → First published in French.

Willey, Gordon R.; and Phillips, Philip 1958 Method and Theory in American Archaeology. Univ. of Chi cago Press.


Ideally considered, social history is the study of the structure and process of human action and interaction as they have occurred in sociocultural contexts in the recorded past. In practice, however, it has seldom been conceived in such analytical terms and has by no means always been envisaged in such comprehensive ones. Its investigators, in fact, have been content for the most part to chronicle, recount, and describe. They have been sharply divided, moreover, as to the proper scope of social history. Some have held that it embraces the whole range of life and culture in societies that have existed in historical time. Others have insisted that its concern is most properly confined to a residuum left by the abstraction of the polity, the economy, and large areas of culture, such as religious beliefs and technology. Still others have restricted it more narrowly to a heterogeneous lot of domestic and communal institutions, customs, attitudes, and arti facts. Numerous minor variations of these basic definitions also have been propounded. This diver sity of views as to the scope of social history has engendered much confusion concerning the nature of the discipline.

The sources of social history are virtually omni farious. They include such diverse materials as official reports, legal documents, newspapers, pamphlets, art objects, graffiti, literary works, and arti facts. One important category of materials is personal papers, such as letters, diaries, and journals, which reveal in depth and detail highly intimate areas of human experience. But there are no materials that social history can claim as peculiarly its own—another cause of confusion regarding its nature.


Ever since Herodotus reported the folkways of the Scythians and Tacitus described the institutions of the Germanic tribes, historians have written accounts that are identifiable as social history of one variety or another. Until the eighteenth century such accounts invariably appeared as insignificant fragments embedded in general works. Then, how ever, as acute concern with the institutions of the past was created by the growing desire to place the study of man and society on a solid empirical basis, social history emerged as a distinctive genre.

Although Justus Moser is traditionally credited with having been the progenitor of the genre and his Osnabröckische Geschichte (1768) is often ac claimed as its first intensive treatment of the commonality of a region, Voltaire was really the pri mary agent of its emergence. In The Age of Louis XIV (1751) he treats French society as a totality. Essaying to present a comprehensive view, he examines numerous facets of its life and culture, such as its wars, finances, administration, science, literature, art, customs, and religion. Moreover, he attempts to identify the ethos that animated the whole. Essentially the same approach is employed in his Essai sur I’histoire generate et sur les moeurs et lesprit (1756), a series of disparate and uncon nected discourses in which he surveys “the genius, manners, and customs of the principal nations” that flourished between the time of Charlemagne and the era of Louis xiv. Implicit in both works is the assumption that since mankind effected the transition from the “barbarism” of the Middle Ages to the “enlightenment” of the eighteenth century, the historical process advances by stages.

“Kulturgeschichte” as social history

The pioneer works by Voltaire inaugurated the development of Kulturgeschichte, which, although nominally preoccupied with the description and dissection of cultural patterns, is vitally concerned with social types and institutions. Basic among the postulates of Kulturgeschichte are the notions that each society, although characterized by multiformity of life and thought, possesses an essential unity, that it is pervaded by a peculiar ethos, and that it inevitably passes, like an organism, through a series of developmental phases. These postulates were strongly supported in the eighteenth century by major ideological currents. One was that congeries of ideas conventionally denominated romanticism, which, as in Johann Gottfried von Herder’s Outlines of a Philosophy of the History of Man (1784–1791), attributed to each people certain basic psychological peculiarities that, through the operation of a characteristic spirit, produce a unique set of social and cultural forms. Another was the concept of progress, which, as in A. R. J. Turgot’s On the Progress of the Human Mind (1750) and Condor-cet’s Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind (1795), implied that history is a cumulative process and that each of its stages is a necessary antecedent of the next. These currents of thought were fused in the idealism of Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, which during the early nineteenth century provided similar support. As conceived by idealism, history is a plan whose inner logic obliges it to unfold step by step, each step representing a progression, each being an epoch endowed with a distinctive character that penetrates every detail of life.

Buttressed by the influence of this concept, Kul turgeschichte developed rapidly. Sometimes it was less dynamic and comprehensive in practice than in theory, epochal and thematic works being no rarity among those that bore its stamp. As a rule, however, it traced societal development over a protracted temporal span. An early, embryonic example of the genre is Henry Hallam’s View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages (1818), which includes surveys of social institutions, lit erature, education, and commerce. More fully endowed with its essential attributes are Francois Guizot’s history of European civilization (1828) and Jules Michelet’s universal history (1831), which dilate on ideology and values. With the publication of Jacob Burckhardt’s The Age of Con-stantine the Great (1853), a study of the decline of the Roman Empire, the genre reached maturity; with the appearance of his Civilization of the Ren aissance in Italy (1860), a study of the birth of modernity, it achieved its full fruition.

Burckhardt’s treatment of the Italian Renais sance is in many respects an excellent example of the kulturgeschichtliche method. Concerned with the development of the cities of northern Italy between the fourteenth and sixteenth centuries, he centers his attention on the cultural configuration that evolved there, tracing the various mutations that it underwent as medieval elements were gradually replaced by modern. Its genesis he attributes to the prevailing illegitimacy of political power. He identifies its ethos as an ineluctable individualism that manifested itself in distinctive patterns of vision, thought, and norms. Closely interwoven with his delineation of these cultural patterns is a de tailed survey of the concomitant social order. He explains how the dominant patriciate arose from a fusion of nobility and burghers; he describes the origins, growth, and characteristics of other new groups, such as humanists and artists. His examination of behavioral patterns illuminates a wide variety of interrelated matters, like the frequency of violence, the prevalence of corruption, the liberty accorded women, and the intensity of competition. Similarly enlightening is his depiction of significant social types, such as the despot, the polyhe-drous man, and the perfect courtier. In sum, as he charts the phases of a changing society, he effectively portraysits full complexity.

There are other works that, although of lesser stature, are equally representative of Kulturge-schichte in its heyday. One of them is Gustav Frey-tag’s enormously popular Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit (1859–1867), a detailed and intimate survey of the social and cultural life of the German people from the earliest times to the mid-nineteenth century. Another is Wilhelm Riehl’s well-received Culturstudien aus drei Jahrhunderten (1859), a miscellany of essays on sociocultural themes. A later example of distinction is Karl Lamprecht’s Deutsche Geschichte (1891–1909), which traces the course of social and cultural change through a sequence of six periods of German history.

Lamprecht represented a positivistic variety of Kulturgeschichte, which, inspired by the progress of natural science, especially the elaboration of the evolutionary hypothesis and the application of the concept of natural selection, rested on the premise that a veritable historical science could be constructed by diligent scholarship, i.e., that the laws governing the historical process could be ascertained. The means of realizing this possibility, it assumed, was the application of the methodology of the social sciences to the whole course of human history. It thus bore a strong affinity to historical sociology, which from Auguste Comte through Her bert Spencer to Franklin Giddings sought to discriminate the principles and successive phases of sociocultural evolution. One of the earliest exponents of this position was Henry T. Buckle, whose History of Civilization in England (1857–1861) exerted considerable influence, especially in the United States and Russia. The most important of its later advocates included Lamprecht himself and his disciples Kurt Breysig, who, in Der Stufen-Bau und die Gesetze der Welt-Geschichte (1905), pre sumed to formulate 24 laws of history, and James Harvey Robinson, whose New History (1912) pointed the way to the contrivance of similar fabrications. These were the last paladins of Kultur geschichte; the vitality of the genre did not long survive them.

Unschematic social history

Simultaneously with the development of Kultur geschichte, which had begun with Voltaire, there also evolved an unschematic species of social history. Characterized by a virtual absence of concern with sociocultural morphology and dynamics, its objective is essentially the depiction of life in society. It varies widely as to the range of life that it considers, sometimes presenting a societal conspectus, as in Sir Albert Richardson’s survey of England under the Georges (1931) and Sir Arthur Bryant’s essays on England during the reign of Charlesn (1935), and sometimes confining its inquiry to a narrow sector, as in Warwick Wroth’s London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Cen tury (1896) and Robert J. Allen’s Clubs of Augus tan London (1933). Social history likewise varies greatly in seriousness of purpose and therefore in scholarly level, as is evident in the considerable qualitative difference between such works as F. Karl Biedermann’s sober and solid study of Germany in the eighteenth century (1854–1880) and Max von Boehn’s light and airy sketch of England during the same period (1920). Moreover, it varies markedly in degree and character of interpretation; some studies, like Arthur W. Calhoun’s history of the family in the United States (1917–1919), are almost wholly devoid of tendentiousness, others, like Ulrich B. Phillips’ classic work on slavery in the American South (1918), argue, or at least suggest, a cogent thesis. Diversity, in short, is one of the principal attributes of social history.

Typical of the genre in essentials is Ludwig Friedlander’s Roman Life and Manners Under the Early Empire (1862–1871), which treats Roman society from the reign of Augustus to the reign of Commodus. Beginning with a panoramic view of the imperial city, its sights and sounds, Fried-lander proceeds to survey the court, the various social classes, the diurnal routine, the position of women, the experiences of the traveler, the means of communication, the spectacles, and the prolifer ation of luxury. Although he also considers art, religion, and philosophy, his primary objective is the recreation of past life, its vivid and realistic por trayal. Those of its aspects that constitute the cardinal features of his tableau are a rather arbi trary selection. They are dealt with in a succession of virtually independent essays whose order follows no particular principle. The essays are almost entirely descriptive; when here and there Friedlander interjects interpretive comments, they are fragmentary, belletristic, and simple: homiletic judgments, comparisons between Roman and later times, general observations on human progress. Another essential characteristic of the essays is their complete disregard of social change and development; they treat two centuries of history as a static unit.

A number of influences contributed to the rise of this unschematic type of social history. Despite a long historiographical ancestry composed of rudimentary prototypes, such as the account of the plague at Athens given by Thucydides, it received its first really significant impetus when the example of Voltaire sanctioned the historical investigation of every aspect of society. Something of the early effect of that example is apparent in the latitude of Arnold Heeren’s Ideen uber die Politik, den Ver-kehr, und den Handel der alten Welt (1793–1812), which examines agriculture, trade, finances, and manufactures as well as law, constitutional systems, and politics. This new breadth of scope was soon further extended by the inclusion of the ordinary people of the past among the subjects of historical inquiry. Long before the influence of Marx produced a school that made those strata its primary focus, they were extensively treated in studies like John Wade’s History of the Middle and Working Classes (1833) and James A. St. John’s History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece (1842). Their inclusion in the historian’s purview had a twofold origin, deriving in part from romanticism, which placed strong emphasis on the folk in all its aspects, in part from the social problems created by industrialization and from the resultant quest for panaceas.

No less important than this expansion of scope were the effects of the influence subsequently exerted by other disciplines. As legal and economic history developed into distinctive fields of inquiry, scholars like Sir Henry Maine, Sir Paul Vinogradoff, Sir Frederic Seebohm, and Gustav Schmoller adopted a new approach. Thoroughly convinced of the sterility of studying legal and economic institutions in vacuo, they investigated them in relation to the rest of the social structure. The adoption of this practice gradually produced an intensified awareness of the social aspect of all institutions. Moreover, it created a strong tendency to consider social and economic history as closely conjoined and complementary fields, as in such works as Henri Pirenne’s Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade (1925) and Henri See’s Es-quisse d’une histoire économique et sociale de la France (1929).

But the two disciplines were not conceived to be of equal consequence. As a result of the protracted and pervasive vogue enjoyed by the concept of economic determinism, which found its fullest expression in Marxian historiography, social history was regarded as ancillary to economic history. Only toward the middle of the present century did the conjunction of social and economic history tend to dissolve, as advances in theory and technique gave the latter a new preoccupation with problems of its own.

The Bloch-Febvre movement

While the conjunction of social and economic history was at its closest, a movement was launched that sought to disrupt it. Led by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre, the movement represented a convergence of the traditions of Kulturgeschichte and unschematic social history. Much of the inspiration that actuated it derived from Émile Durkheim; some may also have come from Max Weber and Ernst Troeltsch, whose practice belied their belief that history and sociology are immiscible (see Troeltsch 1922; McGrew 1958).

The aim of the movement was ambitious. Im bued with the conviction that the comprehension of sociocultural contexts demands they be studied as totalities, it aspired to convert social into societal history. It envisioned such history as a reconstruction of past epochs that would include their entire physical, ideational, and normative milieus and that would be at once more “scientific” and more “human” than the treatment they have usually received, an ideal that bears a strong resemblance to the objective of much recent cultural anthropology. Illustrative of the success with which that ideal could be translated into reality is Marc Bloch’s own masterpiece, Feudal Society (1939–1940). The principal means that the movement prescribed for the achievement of such success was the creation of a coherent synthesis out of data drawn from sociology, psychology, economics, and geography. But it also ordained that the data to be accorded the most serious consideration were survivals from an earlier time, a variety of evidence whose value was first fully appreciated by Giovanni Battista Vico (1725) and a century later first fully used by Wilhelm Riehl. Assuming that such survivals, whether archeological, cartographical, linguistic, or folkloric, were much more reliable than documentary material, it held that they could provide the basal insight necessary to recreate the past. To give expression to this approach, Bloch and Febvre founded in 1929 the Annales d’histoire Économique et sociale, which has both perpetuated and diffused the influence of the movement. That influence, which remains strongest in France, where it is at present represented by such scholars as Charles Moraze and Robert Mandrou, has contributed heav ily over the decades to the weakening of the traditional position enjoyed by political history.

The dominance of political history

Almost from the inception of both Kulturge schichte and unschematic social history, their practitioners were obliged to strive against the dominance of political history. The completeness of that dominance in the nineteenth century is strikingly reflected in Edward A. Freeman’s terse definition of history in general as “past politics” (1886). Its vestiges in the mid-twentieth century may be seen in Geoffrey R. Elton’s insistence (1956) that political history provides the best possible framework for the marshaling of historical data.

As long as this dominance subsisted unimpaired, one of its major manifestations was a strong resistance to any broadening of the scope of historical studies and to any deviation from Leopold von Ranke’s prescription of their proper concerns, which he held to be factual accretion, not generalization; narration, not analysis; individuals, not groups; notables, not nonentities. This resistance affected the development of social history in significant ways. Beginning with August Bockh’s seminal Die Staatshaushaltung der Athener (1817), which treats both state and society with about equal thoroughness, it was not unusual for research undertaken in that discipline to appear as a volume, either monographic or comprehensive. But the amount of space allocated to the fruits of such research in works of general narrative history was extremely small. An outstanding case in point is the celebrated third chapter of Thomas B. Macaulay’s History of England (1849–1861), which serves as a diminutive mise-en-scene for a massive political survey. Similarly, only five of the 21 chapters that comprise William E. H. Leck’s great work on eighteenth-century England (1878–1890) are concerned with nonpolitical institutions. An even smaller proportion, 7 out of 55 chapters, exists in G. M. Trevelyan’s history of England during the reign of Queen Anne (1930–1934), although the author is known primarily as a social historian. This engrossment of general narrative history by politics constituted a major impediment that the advocates of social history had to overcome in order to advance their discipline. Not until the early twentieth century did they achieve a substantial measure of success. The essence of that success was a marked expansion of the scope of general history. Very frequently, however, the new breadth amounted to no more than a compartmentalized presentation of diverse aspects of society, with political matters still receiving the largest share of attention. Even much later, when the space allotted to such matters had finally been greatly reduced, there were relatively few attempts to achieve the sort of highly fused synthesis advocated by scholars like Marc Bloch and Henri Berr, whose views may be gleaned from Berr’s prefatory article to his Revue de synthèse historique (“Sur notre programme” 1900).

Underlying this disparity in the attention accorded political and social history was the difference in the prestige enjoyed by the two disciplines. Political history was highly esteemed. Regarded as edifying as well as informative, it was taken seriously; viewed as a custodian of national tradition as well as an inculcator of patriotism, it was considered valuable. In contrast, social history commanded much less respect. Whether Kulturge-schichte or the unschematic variety, it was thought of primarily as entertainment that might invoke nostalgia, gratify curiosity, and generate fantasies. As the new disciplines of sociology and anthropology developed, their insistence that society was more important, more fundamental than the state contributed somewhat to the reduction of this differential in prestige. But it survived for a protracted period. Moreover, it created an antagonism between the two disciplines that erupted most forcibly in the years 1888 to 1891, when Eberhard Gothein engaged in heated controversy with Dietrich Schafer over whether society or the state ought to be the subject of historical research (Gothein 1889; Goldfriedrich 1902). The antagonism has long been extinct; the difference in prestige, although much diminished, continues.

Current trends


Although at present there is little concern regarding the relative prestige of social history, there is much disquiet at its unsatisfactory state. This disquiet is occasioned by its amorphous, invertebrate character, which derives very largely from the absence of a corpus of theory capable of providing concepts and hypotheses; its indeterminate confines, whose nature arises from the persistent disagreement over scope and from the lack of a peculiar type of source material; its insufficiently rigorous discipline, which, tolerant of impressionistic portrayal, imprecise assessment, and ill-supported assertion, stems from its strong humanistic heritage; and its penchant for description and eschewal of analysis, which proceed from the Rankean prescript.

The hostility to sociology

These defects could be remedied to a large extent through an extensive and systematic application of sociological concepts and techniques. But for the most part historians are unwilling to adopt this course, which would effectively transmute social into sociological history. Their unwillingness originates in a deeply rooted hostility to sociology that has existed for a century, except among such deviates as the exponents of positivistic Kulturgeschichte and the epigoni of Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre. That hostility arose out of profound apprehension and prejudice. Historians feared sociology’s synoptic pretensions and its putative design to reduce their discipline to the secondary role of fact collection. Moreover, they abhorred its techniques and aspirations as pseudoscientific. Finally, they disdained its achievement as negligible and its subordination of empirical research to the construction of grandiose abstractions as only the philosophy of history in a new guise. The transformation that sociology has undergone since about 1940, when it entered its modern age, has almost entirely dispelled their apprehension and extinguished their disdain; but the strong humanistic bias that inspired their aversion for its concerns, techniques, and objectives continues to foster hostility.

The hostility of sociologists

This hostility has had its counterpart among sociologists. Resentful of the ancient heritage, academic respectability, superior prestige, and large-scale pretensions of history, they long entertained a strong animus against it. Two pretensions in particular contributed to this animus, because they seemed to be in serious conflict with the claims of sociology. One was history’s pre-emption of all recorded behavior as its proper sphere; the other was the pedagogic role that it assumed as grand interpreter of human experience. But if history was disliked as a rival discipline, it was also looked upon as an inferior one. Sociologists regarded its data as of dubious validity; they considered its concern with discrete facts as obsessive and its refusal to seek uniformities as unscientific. As sociology’s claims to intellectual and institutional legitimacy gained greater recognition, all these attitudes tended to soften; but the residues are substantial.

To explain the origins and persistence of such hostility on both sides, historians and sociologists alike have emphasized that a fundamental antithesis exists between their disciplines. Drawing their principal argument from the neoidealism formulated by Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert toward the end of the nineteenth century, both sides have maintained that history is idiographic, hence concerned with the unique, the singular, the individual, which makes descriptive treatment in evitable; whereas sociology is nomothetic, hence concerned with the recurrent, the repetitive, the regular, which makes generalization and abstraction possible. They have likewise contended that history’s perspective is diachronic, since it considers data in temporal sequence, while sociology is synchronic, since it considers data without reference to time. Then, too, they have argued that the techniques of historical research are particularly suitable for investigation of the past, whereas the techniques peculiar to sociology are applicable only to contemporary phenomena.

The rapprochement of history and sociology

On both sides, however, there has long been a spirited minority, which, denying these contentions and repudiating the hostility that underlies them, has resolutely advocated close communion between history and sociology. From time to time during the past half century, its efforts to promote such communion have produced intensive discussion, punctuated by exhortatory and programmatic pronunciamentos. The most recent efforts have received powerful support from the growing sentiment in favor of interdisciplinary exchange in general, which has exalted the mutual advantages to be derived from close cooperation between history and all the social sciences. They have likewise received considerable support from sociologists who have lately become uneasy over the ahistorical orientation of their discipline. That orientation, which was deliberately adopted when sociology was striving for intellectual autonomy and creating a unified system of theory, has been emphatically rejected by the empiricist C. Wright Mills and his followers, who have held a knowledge of the past to be valuable, if not essential, for an understanding of contemporary society and its problems. Much more important is the increasing number of proponents of systematic theory who, captained by scholars like Robert K. Merton and Bernard Barber, have not only strongly recommended the data of history and the course of social changeas worthy of investigation but have also energetically encouraged a rapprochement between historians and sociologists.

Although such a rapprochement remains no more than a possibility, some progress has been made in that direction. As certain relatively simple sociological concepts have gained currency among scholars in general, they have been employed half consciously by historians. Then, too, some scholars in areas like political, intellectual, and religious history have toyed with such concepts, permitting them to serve as stimuli to the imaginative faculty in research as well as in synthesization. Again, still others have adopted them deliberately and applied them directly, albeit in an irregular, immethodical manner. As a result of these practices, recent historiography includes a substantial segment of partially sociologized work. Representative of such work are the writings of Georges Lefebvre, Albert Soboul, and Pierre Goubert.

Sociological history

Few social historians have gone further than this piecemeal, ad hoc use of sociological theory. Those few, however, who have employed theory both extensively and systematically have produced genuine sociological history. Their work is well exemplified by Elinor G. Barber’s The Bourgeoisie in Eighteenth Century France (1955), which forcefully demonstrates the full potentialities of the approach. Utilizing concepts drawn from structural–functional theory, this pioneer study skillfully analyzes the changing position of the middle strata of French society during the decades prior to the revolution of 1789. At the outset, it identifies the prevailing stratificational system as a composite in which caste elements were predominant and open class elements were secondary; accordingly, social mobility was given only limited approval. Then, having carefully examined the composition and internal differentiation of the bourgeoisie, it demonstrates the harassing strains experienced by the socially mobile class, which sought to reconcile a partial abandonment of traditional Catholic values with a partial adoption of modern secular ones, and an acceptance of a hierarchical class structure with a determination to rise. These conflicts, it likewise shows, produced in many of the bourgeoisie a strong ambivalence concerning the choice of an appropriate style of life—guilt, uneasiness, and apprehension attaching them to the traditional pattern of their class, ambition driving them to adopt the pattern of the nobility, whose ranks they sought to enter. Finally, after examining the channels whereby they might ascend to noble status, the study analyzes their plight when such mobility became increasingly difficult to achieve, showing how their frustration intensified the strains created by their conflicting values and how in consequence they were impelled to reject the whole class structure. Thus Elinor Barber, by considering familiar data within a new framework, achieves a superbly articulated interpretation of unusual depth and subtlety and provides an entirely fresh perspective.

Some sociologists, animated by their recently found interest in historical data, have likewise undertaken studies of this type. The possibility of their eventually pre-empting the area of social history is raised anew by such works as Robert N. Bellah’s Tokugawa Religion: The Values of Preindustrial Japan (1957), Neil J. Smelser’s Social Change in the Industrial Revolution (1959), Sey mour M. Lipset’s The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective (1963), and Charles Tilly’s The Vendee (1964). It is this challenge from the outside no less than the current defects within that makes it imperative for social historians to put themselves under the tutelage of sociologists in order to transform their discipline.

J. Jean Hecht

[Other relevant material may be found in the biographies ofBloch; Condorcet; Febvre; Lamprecht; Macaulay; Mills; Pirenne; Robinson; SÉe; Turgot; Voltaire.]


Allen, Robert J. 1933 The Clubs of Augustan London. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Barber, Elinor G. 1955 The Bourgeoisie in Eighteenth Century France. Princeton Univ. Press.

Bellah, Robert N. 1957 Tokugawa Religion: The Val ues of Preindustrial Japan. Glencoe, 111.: Free Press.

Biedermann, F. Karl 1854-1880 Deutschland im achtzehnten Ja.hrhund.ert. 2 vols. Leipzig: Weber.

Bloch, Marc (1939–1940) 1961 Feudal Society. Univ. of Chicago Press. → First published as La societe féodale: La formation des liens de dependence and La societe féodale: Les classes et le gouvernment des hommes.

BÖckh, August (1817) 1886 Die Staatshaushaltung der Athener. 3d ed., 2 vols. Berlin: Reimer.

Boehn, Max Von 1920 England im achtzehnten Jahrhundert. Berlin: Askanischer Verlag.

Breysig, Kurt 1905 Der Stufen-Bau und die Gesetze der Welt-Geschichte. Berlin: Bondi.

Bryant, Arthur 1935 The England of Charles 11. London and New York: Longmans.

Buckle, Henry T. (1857–1861) 1913 The History of Civilization in England. 2d ed., 2 vols. New York: Hearst.

Burckhardt, Jacob (1853) 1949 The Age of Constantine the Great. London: Routledge. → First published as Die Zeit Constantin’s des Grossen.

Burckhardt, Jacob (1860) 1958 The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. New York: Harper. → First published as Die Cultur der Renaissance in Italien.

Calhoun, Arthur W. (1917–1919)1945 A Social history of the American Family From Colonial Times to the Present. 3 vols. New York: Barnes & Noble. → A paperback edition was published in 1960.

Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicolas Caritat (1795) 1955 Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind. New York: Noonday. → First published in French.

Elton, Geoffrey R. 1956 England Under the Tudors. London: Methuen.

Freytag, Gustav (1859–1867) 1930 Bilder aus der deutschen Vergangenheit. New ed., 3 vols. Berlin: Deutsche Buchgemeinschaft.

Friedlander, Ludwig (1862–1871) 1908-1913 Roman Life and Manners Under the Early Empire. 7th ed., rev. & enl., 4 vols. London: Routledge. → First published as Darstellungen aus der Sittengeschichte Roms.

Guizot, Francois P. (1828) 1896 General History of Civilization in Europe. Edited, with critical and sup plementary notes, by George Wells Knight. New York: Appleton. → First published in French.

Hallam, Henry (1818) 1904 View of the State of Europe During the Middle Ages. 2 vols. New York: Appleton.

Heeren, Arnold H. L. (1793–1812) 1824-1826 Ideen iiber die Politik, den Verkehr, und den Handel der alten Welt. 4th ed., 3 vols. Gbttingen (Germany): No publisher given.

Herder, Johann Gottfried Von (1784–1791)1800 Out lines of a Philosophy of the History of Man. London: Hansard. → First published in German.

Lamprecht, Karl G. 1891-1909 Deutsche Geschichte. 12 vols. Berlin: Gartner.

Lecky, William Edward H. (1878–1890) 1892-1893 A History of England in the Eighteenth Century. New ed., 7 vols. New York: Appleton.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1963 The First New Nation: The United States in Historical and Comparative Perspective. New York: Basic Books.

Macaulay, Thomas B. (1849–1861) 1953 History of England From the Accession of James Ii. 4 vols. New York: Dutton.

Michelet, Jules (1831) 1962 Introduction a I’histoire universelle. Paris: Colin.

MÖser, Justus (1768) 1819-1824 Osnabriickische Geschichte. 3d ed., 3 vols. Berlin: Nicolai.

Phillips, Ulrich B. 1918 American Negro Slavery: A Survey of the Supply, Employment and Control of Negro Labor as Determined by the Plantation Régime. New York: Appleton.

Pirenne, Henri (1925) 1956 Medieval Cities: Their Origins and the Revival of Trade. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday. First published in French.

Richardson, Albert E. 1931 Georgian England: A Survey of Social Life, Trades, Industries and Art From 1700 to 1820. New York: Scribner; London: Batsford.

Riehl, Wilhelm H. 1859 Culturstudien aus drei Jahrhunderten. Stuttgart (Germany): Cotta.

Robinson, James Harvey (1912) 1958 The New history: Essays Illustrating the Modern Historical Outlook. Springfield, Mass.: Walden.

St. John, James A. 1842 The History of the Manners and Customs of Ancient Greece. 3 vols. London: Bentley.

See, Henri 1929 Esquisse d’une histoire economique et sociale de la France. Paris: Alcan.

Smelser, Neil J. 1959 Social Change in the Industrial Revolution. London: Routledge; Univ. of Chicago Press.

Tilly, Charles H. 1964 The Vendée. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Trevelyan, George M. 1930-1934 England Under Queen Anne. 3 vols. London and New York: Longmans.

Turgot, Anne Robert J. (1750) 1929 On the Progress of the Human Mind. Hanover, N.H.: Sociological Press. → Originally a lecture given in Latin at the Sorbonne.

Vico, Giovanni B. (1725) 1948 The New Science. Ithaca, Ny.: Cornell Univ. Press. → First published in Italian. A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Doubleday.

Voltaire, Francois M. A. (1751) 1962 The Age of Louis Xiv. New York: Dutton. → First published in French.

Voltaire, Francois M. A. (1756) 1835 Essai sur I’his toire generate et sur les moeurs et Vesprit. 4 vols. Paris: Treuttel.

Wade, John (1833) 1835 History of the Middle and Working Classes, With a Popular Exposition of the Economical and Political Principles Which Have Influenced the Past and Present Condition of the Industrious Orders. 3d ed. London: Wilson.

Wroth, Warwick 1896 The London Pleasure Gardens of the Eighteenth Century. London and New York: Macmillan.

Works About Social History

Berger, Bennett 1957 Sociology and the Intellectuals: An Analysis of a Stereotype. Antioch Review 67:275–290.

Briggs, Asa 1962 Sociology and History. Pages 91-98 in Alan T. Welford et al. (editors), Society: Problems and Methods of Study. New York: Philosophical Library.

Cahnman, Werner J.; and Boskoff, Alvin (editors) 1964 Sociology and History: Theory and Research. New York: Free Press.

Cobban, Alfred 1961 History and Sociology. Historical Studies 3:1–8.

Eliot, Thomas D. 1922 The Use of History for Research in Theoretical Sociology. American Journal of Sociology 27:628–636.

Freeman, Edward A. 1886 The Methods of Historical Study. London: Macmillan. → See especially Lecture 1.

Ginsberg, Morris 1932 Studies in Sociology. London: Methuen.

Goldfriedrich, Johann A. 1902 Die historische Ideenlehre in Deutschland. Berlin: Gartner.

Gothein, Eberhard 1889 Die Aufgaben der Kulturgeschichte. Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot.

Hertzler, Joyce O. 1925 The Sociological Uses of history. American Journal of Sociology 31:173–198.

Holloway, S. W. F. 1963 Sociology and History. history 48:154–184.

Mcgrew, R. E. 1958 History and the Social Sciences. Antioch Review 18:276–289.

Mckinney, John C. 1957 Methodology, Procedures, and Techniques in Sociology. Pages 186-235 in Howard Becker and Alvin Boskoff (editors), Modern Sociological Theory in Continuity and Change. New York: Dryden.

Mantoux, Paul 1903 Histoire et sociologie. Revue de synthese historique 7:121–140.

Merton, Robert K. 1961 Social Conflict Over Styles of Sociological Work. Pages 21-44 in World Congress of Sociology, Fourth, Milan and Stresa, 8-15 September 1959, Transactions. Volume 3: Abstracts of Papers and Discussions. Louvain (Belgium): International Sociological Association.

Perkin, Harold J. 1953 What Is Social History? John Rylands Library, Manchester, Bulletin 36:56–74.

Perkin, Harold J. 1962 Social History. Pages 51-82 in H. P. R. Finberg (editor), Approaches to History: A Symposium. London: Routledge.

Sur notre programme [by Henri Berr]. 1900 Revue de synthese historique 1:1–8.

Troeltsch, Ernst 1922 Der Historismus und seine Probleme. Tübingen (Germany): Mohr.

Wolff, Kurt H. 1959 Sociology and History: Theory and Practice. American Journal of Sociology 65:32–38.


The term “intellectual history” is fairly well established in the United States, though the American Historical Association’s Guide to Historical Literature (1961) uses it sparingly, preferring such rubrics as “cultural history” or “social ideas.” There are in common use in the Western world, however, many other terms: history of ideas, Geistesgeschichte, Ideengeschichte, histoire de la pensée, and various others. In its widest sense, intellectual history may be said to have as its subject matter whatever record is left of the activities of the human mind. Its most important and most available materials are the products of philosophers, artists, writers, scientists, recorded in their works and in the special histories of specific disciplines—philosophy, literature, religion, the sciences, the arts. But intellectual history is not merely a summary or even a synthesis of such materials; it commonly also attempts to trace and understand the dissemination of the work of cultural leaders—their “ideas”—in a given society; and it also seeks to understand the relation between such ideas on one hand and, on the other, “drives,” “interests,” and nonintellectual factors generally, in individual and in social psychology. At its narrowest, intellectual history attempts to tell who produced what intellectual or cultural achievement when and how; at its broadest, it can come close to being a kind of retrospective sociology of knowledge, even a retrospective general sociology.

Yet intellectual history is not to be understood as a kind of master history. It takes the products of the human intellect as its source materials; it does not in itself exhaust the possible play of the historian’s own intellect on all the diverse materials left by the past. All historical writing, of course, requires from the historian at least minimal attention to the record of man thinking. Especially in modern works in such fields as social and economic history, awareness of the role of ideas is increasing. Usually, however, intellectual history can, if only roughly, be delimited by its major concern with the written or spoken word, and even, to use a term still somewhat suspect among historians, with “theory.” There remains then the difficulty of clearly distinguishing between intellectual history and, for example, the history of philosophy, the history of literature, the history of science, and of other branches of culture. It is not quite enough to say that intellectual history is the all-inclusive history of all these. Sometimes an intellectual historian, like Preserved Smith in the two volumes of his History of Modern Culture (vol. 1, Origins of Modern Culture, 1543-1687; vol. 2, The Enlightenment, 1687-1776 1930-1934), left unfinished at his death, does attempt such a difficult all-inclusive task, and some of Smith’s topical headings—“The Propaganda of the Enlightenment,” “Persecution and Tolerance,” “Humanitarianism,” “Morals and Manners”—show that he did not limit himself to the discussion of clusters of ideas and their affiliation. But generally the historian of philosophy, for instance, is primarily if not exclusively concerned with explaining to philosophers or to students of philosophy the ideas of other philosophers. He may indeed criticize these ideas, that is, evaluate, praise, blame; he may, though he need not, attempt to find some explanation of these ideas in a given philosopher’s personal history and in his total environment; but he may also treat ideas as breeding ideas in a vacuum—or in a “mind.” The intellectual historian, concerned, as he very often is, with the same set of philosophical ideas, must also do some of what the historian of philosophy does; but his main concern must be with what happens to these ideas among ordinary educated people and even among ordinary uneducated people.

Perhaps the point can be made more clearly from the history of science. It is possible to write a history of science, and a very scholarly one, in which the aim of the historian is to record discoveries, inventions, theories; place them in chronological sequence; and even explain their dissemination among scientists. Such, in fact, was the whole work of the distinguished historian of science George Sarton. An intellectual historian concerned at all with natural science would certainly have to master much of the foregoing; but he would also have to ask himself what happened to these scientific theories when they passed into circulation among the many. You could write a good history of what the work of Darwin has meant to the science of biology in its present state without a word about what is commonly called “social Darwinism” but you could not write a good intellectual history of the nineteenth century without very serious attention to social Darwinism. The difference between what the work of Freud means to practicing psychoanalysts, and indeed to psychiatrists who are not orthodox Freudians, and what Freud’s work has meant to novelists, playwrights, painters, essayists, and the general public is very great indeed. The intellectual historian will have to deal with all these last, even though for the professional psychoanalyst this Vidgar-Freudismus is a shocking perversion of the master’s true meaning. Much of this is well treated in Erik Erikson’s Insight and Responsibility (1964).

This difference, then, between concentrating on, placing emphasis on what ideas mean to the expert, the professional in a given field, and what they mean to the many to whom they somehow do filter down is the basic distinction between the historian of a special intellectual discipline and the historian of ideas.

Some component of intellectual history is to be found in historical writing as far back as the Greeks. Herodotus, when he discussed the religious beliefs of the Egyptians, and Thucydides, when he contrasted the national character of the Athenians and the Spartans, were both writing intellectual history. The vein of philosophical history that attempts to discern what Alfred Kroeber called “configurations of culture growth” was never quite pinched out even in the Middle Ages, as witness the sequence Augustine–Orosius–Otto of Freising, and has widened greatly in our own time. Machiavelli’s Discorsi has as its major theme an attempt to explain the influence of the religious beliefs of the Romans on their political achievements. With the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, intellectual history, still unnamed, assumed a prominent place in historiography, if only as “philosophy teaching by example.”

The actual designation “intellectual history,” or history of ideas or of thought, and its general acceptance as a form of historical writing date from the late nineteenth century and the organization of professional academic history. In the United States the term was made popular by James Harvey Robinson, whose Mind in the Making (1921) was a best-selling sketch of Western intellectual history based largely on his famous Columbia University course on “the history of the intellectual classes.” In Germany Dilthey was in many ways a precursor of modern intellectual historians, and Max Weber, although formally listed as a sociologist, set the mold for much work in the field. Indeed, his Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism may be taken as a most representative piece of intellectual history. Among the works of professional historians, Friedrich Meinecke’s Die Entstehung des Historismus and the Austrian Friedrich Heer’s monumental Europäische Geistes-geschichte are evidence that the field is solidly established in Germany and Austria.

Professional historians in both France and Great Britain have been more reluctant to write intellectual history, at least under that name. In France historians interested in synthesis, such as Henri Berr and Lucien Febvre, have certainly made contributions to the field; and literary scholars like Paul Hazard, whose European Mind, 1680-1715 is now standard, have written in the mainstream of intellectual history. British historians like J. B. Bury, R. H. Tawney, and Christopher Dawson have paid full attention to the intellectual element in history, but intellectual history has been written primarily by literary men like Leslie Stephen, whose History of English Thought in the Eighteenth Century is a classic. The philosophy of history is represented in Great Britain by H. T. Buckle (History of Civilization in England), Charles Collingwood (The Idea of History), and Arnold J. Toynbee, whose 12-volume Study of History, as summarized in two volumes by D. C. Somervell, has had a very wide audience, especially in the United States. Croce set the pattern for a whole generation of historians in Italy. Croce must be listed first as a philosopher, but almost all his writing as a historian shows the hand of the intellectual historian. Among his many writings in the field, we may note La Spagna nella vita italiana durante la Rinascenza and Storia della etè barocca in Italia.

Among the first few generations of professional historians throughout the Western world, there was considerable resistance to the formal field of intellectual history as not “scientific” enough. As compared with the concreteness of the materials of institutional, economic, and conventional social history, the materials of intellectual history seemed vague and difficult to pin down as part of “real” life. Moreover, what the intellectual historian probably has to call—for want of a better term—the “spirit of the age” or the “climate of opinion” of the late nineteenth century, at least among scholars, tended to minimize, if not to deny, the driving force of “ideas,” particularly philosophical ideas or ideals, in human life.

Although traces of this resistance to intellectual history still exist, the subject has now attained academic respectability; indeed, in the United States it has become fashionable. It is proving to be one of the most effective bridges between historians and the practitioners of the social sciences, groups still rather definitely separated by mutual distrust in most Western countries. The problems that the intellectual historian must face, while often essentially philosophical, are increasingly like those confronting the social scientist. The intellectual historian is bound to try to be a thinker rather than a storyteller. Indeed, he hardly has a story to tell. Passage from general sociology and the sociology of knowledge to intellectual history has become both easy and frequent; it is equally easy—some would say too easy—to go from depth psychology to historical writing. It seems likely that many historians for a long time to come will proudly and a bit defensively call themselves humanists and scorn the social sciences; the intellectual historian, however, cannot really practice his craft if he shares this scorn.

Types of intellectual history

No rigorous classification of the kinds of intellectual history is possible. We shall here attempt a rough classification into three types, with the necessary warning that any given work may display some touches of all three.

First, there is intellectual history that tries to establish the “facts” about who wrote what when, in what form it was published, as well as similar facts about what was produced in cultural media other than words, particularly if these other media served for “propaganda.” A good example of this kind of intellectual history is afforded by the work of Charles H. Haskins, notably the articles collected as The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century (1927) and Studies in Medieval Culture (1929). Haskins was an impeccably trained medievalist of the old school who did much work in institutional history. What interested him in intellectual history was chiefly the ways in which Greco-Roman works —the actual manuscripts—survived, were copied, indeed often came back into Western culture via translations into Arabic and thence into medieval Latin. He was certainly not indifferent to the content of the manuscripts he so carefully studied— in fact his very use of the term “Renaissance” in his title involves another level of historical generalization, another kind of intellectual history. Still, his main task was to establish by research in the original sources a straightforward account in the Rankean tradition of wie es eigentlich gewesen.

Spadework of a similar kind is, of course, always essential. For the modern intellectual historian there are even many problems of “fact” that must be cleared up before he can go on to other problems—problems such as who wrote certain pseu donymous or anonymous works, problems of clandestine publication, authenticity of memoirs, and the like. In this classification too belongs the effort to establish the facts (sometimes capable of being put statistically) of the dissemination in specific circumstances of certain works and even of the ideas contained in them. Ancillary to this effort is work close to demography, such as the study of the degree of literacy in a given population. In actual practice many of these investigations can hardly be separated from studies of problems in the sociology of knowledge, from simple literary ones of “influence of A on B” to more sophisticated attempts to- analyze the relations between words and deeds. But the establishment of the facts is essential spadework in intellectual as in any other kind of historical writing.

Second, there is the more difficult kind of intellectual history, also concerned rather more with establishing than with evaluating or synthesizing facts, to which American usage in particular tends to apply the term “history of ideas.” We are here concerned with what can be called the cartography of ideas or (perhaps) semantics. The school formed around Arthur O. Lovejoy at Johns Hopkins affords a good example of this approach. Lovejoy identified as a “cluster of ideas” such complex and usually very common terms as “nature,” “reason,” “ro mantic.” His major task was that of analyzing the constituent elements of these clusters of ideas. His Great Chain of Being (1936), for example, traces in Western culture the history of one such cluster of ideas, that of a hierarchy of interrelated living beings from barely sentient ones to the highest and best developed. Although other historians have not always matched the scholarly subtlety of Lovejoy and his colleagues—who have found some sixty shades of meaning for the word “nature”— this sort of analysis is an essential part of intellectual history. It can be applied to the work of a given thinker: what did Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau understand, “really mean,” by “social contract,” or just what did Nietzsche intend the “superman” to be and do? It can also be applied to distinguish between different uses, different emotional effects, of certain words or phrases in given times and places. For this a very neat example is the difference between the effect of the word “federalist” when used in France and in the United States in 1793—or, indeed, when used in New England and in Virginia at the same time.

Both these first two kinds of intellectual history are essential to the third, which is the central concern of intellectual history in our time. Its task may be put with undue simplicity as the study of the relation between what men say and what they do. “Do” has its obvious complexities; but “say” too is mere shorthand for all that goes on in the cerebral cortex, and unless modern psychology is wholly on the wrong track, in less noble parts of the human central nervous system. A very good if rather worn example of this kind of intellectual history is afforded by the old debate over the influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution (see Church 1964). One extreme position in this debate, taken for instance by Felix Rocquain in L’esprit revolutionnaire avant la revolution, is that hard, specific grievances were all-important in producing the revolution and that the work of the philosophes was of little, if any, importance. Rocquain’s position has significance for later intellectual historians as a probable reflection of Marxist ideas and is certainly a reflection of the distrust felt by French political radicals in the 1870s for any form of “idealism.” The opposite extreme position is commonly taken by conservatives who dislike the French Revolution and who subscribe to one form or another of the conspiracy theory of history. Freemasons, philosophes, Illuminati, Jacobins, are variously singled out as the fanatics of the Enlightenment responsible for everything that happened during the revolution. Taine’s famous metaphor in his Origines de la France contemporaine is typical: if you see a healthy man take up a full glass, drain it, and then fall down foaming at the mouth in convulsions, you know there was a poison in the glass; the man was the Jacobin, the glass contained the ideas of the philosophes. In between these extremes the debate, which is by no means ended, shows many variants of interpretation of the nature and extent of the effect of the Enlightenment on what really happened.

The intellectual historian who attempts to judge the nature of the effects of an idea or cluster of ideas on human events is confronted with the old problem of value judgments. It is all very well to use, as we have used above, the metaphor of intellectual history as the “cartography of ideas.” But the map maker does not judge, evaluate, criticize, or even comment on the actual piece of the terrestrial globe he is mapping; only the traveler using the map as guide may indeed feel and say “This is lovely” or “This is ugly” as he looks at the landscape. The historian, strive though he may to be like the map maker, can hardly avoid being like the traveler.

To use once more the field of the Enlightenment as an example, intellectual historians have not only varied greatly in their interpretations of what certain eighteenth-century political thinkers meant, but in whether what they meant was productive of good or bad. Rousseau’s Social Contract is a good focusing point for this problem. One school, represented by Jacob T. Talmon, in his Rise of Totali tarian Democracy, finds that Rousseau himself meant the work to set up a sovereign power whose will was absolute and that the effect of the work on political activists like Robespierre and Babeuf was certainly to justify their arbitrary “democratic totalitarianism.” An opposite point of view is represented by the distinguished German philosopher Ernst Cassirer, whose Question of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, translated with an illuminating introduction by Peter Gay, holds that Rousseau meant the general will to represent a kind of idealized moral imperative and that its real influence has indeed been to promote the democratic and individualistic freedoms.

Types of studies

It must be admitted that into whatever subclassifications intellectual history is broken down, it is a sprawling field, with a very great range of subject matter and treatment. It can be concerned with tracing over a long period a recurring theme of man’s thinking. Such “thread” accounts are Lovejoy’s above-mentioned Great Chain of Being or J. B. Bury’s Idea of Progress. It can adopt the approach of comparative history, which tries to discern common as well as unique elements in ideas and attitudes expressed at different times and in different places. An interesting and highly controversial instance of this approach is the work in American intellectual history of Richard Hof-stadter, who finds common elements, such as belief in the “conspiracy theory” of politics, in groups commonly held to be quite unlike—Populists, Progressives, and McCarthyites. At least as contro versial, if not of such timely interest, is Carl Becker’s Heavenly City of the Eighteenth-Century Philosophers, in which, as the title implies, the author finds significant intellectual attitudes common to medieval Augustinians and the philosophes of the Enlightenment.

Histories of Utopias—both the writings usually so classified in histories of literature and the actual experiments with group living in communities under the influence of Utopian thinking—are ob viously subjects for the intellectual historian. Although there is an enormous body of historical and literary writing about Utopias, the subject has not had a first-rate general treatment in all its phases, a difficult and challenging task. Many wide topics in intellectual history, however, have had such treatment. This is especially true of the history of Christianity and, indeed, of the history of religion generally. While the historian of formal philosophy can always limit himself to the analysis of ideas in and for themselves, a process which is not intellectual history, the historian of religion can hardly avoid taking up the relation between religious be liefs and the behavior of human beings, as well as the history of institutions founded on these beliefs. Much in this field that can be classified as intellectual history has been the work of sociologists, particularly in Germany. Although Harnack is commonly listed as a historian, Troeltsch and Weber are listed as sociologists.

An important problem in intellectual history, that of the cultural generation, has been neglected by historians; it has had its best specific treatment in a short article by Karl Mannheim, “The Problem of Generations” (1928). There are interesting reflections on the problem in Ortega y Gasset, Man and Crisis (1933, pp. 30-85 in 1959 edition), a translation of his En torno a Galileo.

It would be hard to deny an element of intellectual history to all the interpretative “leads,” the suggestive “ideas” in the folk sense of that word, that have enriched historical writing. There are recent examples, such as the Pirenne thesis that the real break between late Roman culture and that of the Middle Ages was not caused by the Germanic invasions of the fifth and sixth centuries but by the Arab invasions several centuries later, followed by the Viking incursions; Marc Bloch’s interpretation of French agrarian history in Les caracteres originaux de I’histoire rurale frangaise; the contrasting conceptions advanced by Tawney and Trevor-Roper on the composition and the role of the “gentry” in early modern England (Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism is an English variation of the work of Max Weber); Braudel’s use’of leads from human geography in his study of the Mediterranean; Meinecke’s clear definition of one kind of historicism; the very familiar Turner thesis of the role of the frontier in American history; and so on down to theses involving apparently very minor concrete details, such as that brought out by Lynn White on the wide-reaching effects of the early medieval invention of the horse collar or that advanced by Walter Webb on the changes in the American great plains made possible by the availability of inexpensive barbed wire.

The task of the intellectual historian is difficult. He must try to get source materials for the opinions and attitudes of at least a sampling of those strata in a given society that he thinks are touched by the ideas he discusses. With the invention of printing and especially with the development of the mass media and, in our own day, opinion polling, he gets almost too much material. For earlier periods he has to scrape together what he can, much helped by what several generations of workers have accumulated under such headings as social history, history of morals, Sittengeschichte, and the like. The very great body of what is commonly called “literature” from the Egyptians, Greeks, ancient Chinese, and others down to the present is, of course, a mine of information on the opinions and attitudes of fictional men and women who were not “intellectuals” and who may often have been “typical” of their culture.

Finally, intellectual history has necessarily close relations with some of the social sciences, notably sociology and what is usually called cultural an thropology. The practitioners of cultural anthro pology are now venturing increasingly into the study of developed societies with abundant recorded history. For these, and for some of the other social sciences, intellectual history—and, indeed, other kinds of history—can supplement observation and experimentation by providing materials essential for the understanding of development through time, materials comparable in no mere figure of speech to those that paleontology and historical geology contribute to the earth sciences.

Crane Brinton

[See alsoScience, article onThe History Of Science; and the biographies ofCroce; Dilthey; Febvre; Mannheim; Marx; Meinecke; Robinson; Sarton.]


Amebican Historical Association 1961 Guide to Historical Literature. New York: Macraillan.

Barnes, Harry E. (1937) 1961 Intellectual and Cultural History of the Western World. 3d rev. ed., 3 vols. New York: Reynal-Hitchcock. → A paperback edition was published by Dover in 1965.

Brinton, Crane (1958) 1963 Ideas and Men: The Story of Western Thought. 2d ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Brinton, Crane 1964 European Intellectual History. New York: Macmillan. → Contains a selective bibli ography.

Church, William F. (editor) 1964 The Influence of the Enlightenment on the French Revolution: Creative, Disastrous, or Non-existent. Boston: Heath.

Ekirch, Arthur A. Jr. 1963 American Intellectual history. New York: Macmillan.

Erikson, Erik H. 1964 Insight and Responsibility: Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight. New York: Norton.

Haskins, Charles H. (1927) 1957 The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. New York: Meridian.

Haskins, Charles H. (1929)1958 Studies in Medieval Culture. New York: Ungar.

Ideas in Cultural Perspective. Edited by Philip Wiener and Aaron Noland. 1962 New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers Univ. Press. → Essays from the Journal of the History of Ideas arranged to illustrate problems of method in intellectual history and its various fields.

Lovejoy, Arthur O. (1936) 1961 The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Mannheim, Karl (1928) 1952 The Problem of Generations. Pages 276-320 in Karl Mannheim, Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. New York: Oxford Univ. Press. → First published in German.

Ortega Y Gasset, Jose (1933) 1962 Man and Crisis. New York: Norton. → First published as En torno a Galileo.

Randall, John H. Jr. (1926) 1940 The Making of the Modern Mind: A Survey of the Intellectual Background of the Present Age. Rev. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Robinson, James Harvey (1921) 1950 The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform. With an introduction by Stuart Chase. New York: Harper.

Smith, Preserved (1930–1934) 1962 A History of Modern Culture. 2 vols. New York: Collier. → Vol ume 1: Origins of Modern Culture, 1543–1687. Volume 2: The Enlightenment, 1687–1776.

Social Science Research Council, Committee On His Toriography 1946 Theory and Practice in historical Study. Bulletin No. 54. New York: The Council.

Social Science Research Council, Committee On His Torical Analysis 1963 Generalization in the Writing of History. Edited by Louis R. Gottschalk. Univ. of Chicago Press.


Economic history is broadly concerned with the performance of economies in the past. The issues that are relevant to an economic historian range as widely as an interest in the growth, stagnation, or decline of economies; the well-being of individual groups in the economy during the course of economic change; and the interrelationship between economic organization and performance. This last issue necessarily focuses on the institutional structure of the society. As a result, economic history frequently spills over into the allied fields of social and political history. However, the major issues of economic history fall into two rather broad categories— (1) the over-all growth of the economy over time and the determinants of that growth (or stagnation or decline) and (2) the distribution of income within that economy in the course of its growth or decline. The latter concern covers the whole range of issues of the well-being of diverse groups in the society during the course of economic change in the past.

The distinguishing feature of economic history as compared with the discipline of economics itself is its paramount concern with problems of the past rather than of the present. It is distinguishable from general historical inquiry not only by its specialized concern with economic aspects of past societies but also by its appeal to a systematic body of theory as a source of generalization and by the equally systematic use of quantitative methods of organizing evidence.

Recent changes in the discipline. The use of the above characteristics to separate economic history from general historical inquiry reflects a distinct change in the discipline in recent times. In the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences, John Clapham could describe the discipline as “a branch of general institutional history, a study of the economic aspects of the social institutions of the past” (1931, p. 327). In his article, Clapham made clear that economic theory had a minor role in economic history and “the relationship of economic history to social history is much closer” (1931, p. 329). Essentially, the field was a branch of historical inquiry employing the methods of the historian.

In the intervening years, the discipline has gradually adopted more of the methodology of the social sciences. While this revolution in economic history is far from over, and while today much if not most economic history is still written by scholars trained as historians, the direction of change is unmistakable. The pioneering studies in this transformation include Clapham’s emphasis on measurement (1926–1938); Eli Heckscher’s plea for an increasing use of economic theory in economic history (Lane & Riemersma 1953); and the studies of the International Committee on Price History (Cole & Crandall 1964), including William Beveridge’s work on England (1939), Earl Hamilton’s on Spain (1934), N. W. Posthumus’ on Holland (1943), and Arthur Cole’s on the United States (1938). Occasional efforts to systematically apply principles of economic analysis to problems in economic history were highlighted by T. S. Ashton’s work on the English industrial revolution (1948) and Walt W. Rostow’s effort to analyze the British economy of the nineteenth century (1948).

In the period since World War II, and particu larly since 1950, the professionally trained economist has led the new development of the field. In some instances, such as the work of the Entre preneurial Center at Harvard, research was inspired by Joseph Schumpeter’s emphasis on the creative role of the entrepreneur in economic development (1939). The direction of research under Arthur Cole’s leadership of the center was an early (and perhaps premature) attempt to synthesize the social sciences in order to establish a more comprehensive theoretical framework for economic historians (Harvard University …1949). [SeeHistory, article onBusiness History.]

Three developments have furnished the major stimuli to the redirection of economic history. First there has been the growing interest of economists in the study of economic growth. Since World War II economists have devoted a major share of their attention to attempting to understand the sources of economic development and to account for the widely divergent patterns of economic growth between the high-income countries of the Western world and the low-income countries of the under developed parts of the world. The study of economic development has led economists to isolate important elements and determinants of economic development, even though they do not fit as yet into an over-all general theory. These elements include the problems of adapting and modifying technology from one economy to another having different factor endowments; the importance of investment in human capital; and the study of the development of efficient factor and product markets. The research of the economist on the sources of increased productivity, which underlies economic development, has revolutionary implications for re-examining the way in which economic historians have accounted for development in the past. [SeeAgriculture, article onProductivity and Technology; Economic Growth; Productivity.]

The second source of change has been the growing interest of economists in the more precise testing of their hypotheses. The development of operational propositions which can be tested has become a major concern of economists and is being extended to problems in economic history. This involves the sophisticated use of statistical techniques and methods as well, of course, as the careful use of economic theory. [SeeEconometrics.]

The third source of change has been the growing volume of quantitative information about the past. This concern with measurement of the performance of economies in the past has been largely the work of economists—or, in recent years, of economic historians trained in economics. The development of national income accounting has contributed significantly to the measurement of the performance of economies in the past. Simon Kuznets has played a pioneering role in both the development of national income accounts and their systematic application to the measurement of the past performance of economies (1956–1963). The pioneering studies in price history have been supplemented in many Western countries. The quantitative studies of the National Bureau of Economic Research in the United States have been paralleled in many other countries. The result is an enormous increase in quantitative information, which provides the economic historian with empirical data that he may put to systematic use in testing his propositions.

Taken together, these three developments have led to a growing reorientation of economic history toward the employment of scientific methodology and the systematic use of quantitative measurement. With these essential tools, the economic historian may be able to provide far greater understanding of the past than he has heretofore done. Therefore this article essentially offers a methodological prescription for the present and the future instead of surveying the past literature of the field. While the illustrations are drawn from American economic history, the underlying principles they illustrate are universally applicable.

Explanation in economic history . The primary objective of the economic historian is explanation. He seeks to understand the way economies have operated or the way the welfare of people in the society has been affected by economic phenomena. In this respect, explanation in economic history does not differ significantly from scientific explanation in the natural and physical sciences. It not only involves the careful unearthing of facts and evidence about the phenomenon to be explained but also requires the application of generalizations to reduce the shapeless mass of evidential information to an orderly explanation. Therefore, explanation in economic history, as in the sciences, involves the statement of the essential background conditions—that is, singular statements of facts which provide the setting for the particular pattern of events to be explained—followed by the application of general principles which will provide the explanation.

The economic historian, then, is concerned with determining the extent to which his explanation fits the empirical evidence he is able to obtain. Ideally, this empirical evidence is quantitative in nature; it may be, however, only a number of qualitative statements to which he assigns particular weights. To the extent that the empirical evidence runs contrary to his generalizations, the economic historian should re-explore the background conditions which he has assumed or modify and develop new generalizations which will be more consistent with the available empirical evidence. This process of give-and-take between the development of generalizations, the specification of background conditions, and the testing of the generalizations against systematic empirical evidence is the way by which the economic historian attempts to provide the explanation of historical phenomena.

The body of theory that the economic historian employs is that of economics. This theory rests upon a number of basic axioms and postulates from which are derived subsidiary propositions that express the general form of the functions used in constructing models. These models represent broad generalizations of economic behavior. [SeeEconomics.] This body of economic theory has emerged in the past two centuries in the course of a continual interchange between the development of generalizations and their testing against empirical evidence. While economic theory provides certain basic models of economic behavior, application of these models to given historical situations requires the specification of the particular functional forms, parameters, or changes in parameters which may not be known to the economic historian. Therefore, the model that he constructs is one in which these forms and shifts of functions must be discovered and specified. The empirical verification of historical models requires the testing of the functional relationships implicitly or explicitly embodied in the explanation in order to see whether the parameters of these equations are consistent with available data.

For example, hypotheses that attribute the failure of the southern United States to industrialize before the Civil War to the small size of southern markets for manufactured goods rest upon assumed shapes of the supply functions of manufacturing industries at that time and can be tested, at least in part, by standard statistical procedures. Likewise, the contention that the discontent of farmers in western Massachusetts in the post-Revolutionary War period was due to the severe burden imposed upon them by a whiskey tax can be tested by measuring the elasticity of the demand for whiskey at that time. This information is needed to determine the incidence of the tax.

Causal explanations implicitly involve counterfactual propositions. That is, they imply that “had conditions been different” the causal sequence in ferred in the proposition would not have taken place. A statement that the industrial revolution in Britain was induced by the expansion of population implies the counterfactual proposition that in the absence of this population increase the industrial revolution would not have occurred. A statement that the monopoly practices of the “robber barons” at the end of the nineteenth century significantly lowered the income of workers and farmers implies the counterfactual statement that in the absence of monopoly profits the incomes of farmers and workers would have been significantly higher.

The testing of hypotheses. The testing of explanations in economic history can take several forms. These include examination of (1) the empirical validity of the background conditions; (2) the logical consistency of the model; (3) the empirical validity of functions that relate the back ground conditions to the conclusions; (4) the empirical validity of the conclusions. The most appropriate point at which to test a given explanation depends on the issues under consideration and the availability of data. Thus, an explanation of the causes of farmer discontent in the late nineteenth century in the United States which asserts that the source of this discontent was the more rapid fall of farm prices than of prices of other goods can be refuted by empirical data showing that farm prices fell no more rapidly than other prices (North 1966). A hypothesis which maintains that slavery would have fallen under its own weight without a civil war rests upon the economic viability of slavery as an institution. It can be refuted by a subsidiary hypothesis if, under testing, the latter shows that slavery was a profitable institution (Meyer & Conrad 1958). It should be noted that a confirmation of the profitability of slavery will refute the earlier hypothesis; but if slavery should prove to have been unprofitable, it still would not prove the institution was nonviable, since Southerners may have wanted to buy and hold slaves for noneconomic reasons.

The economic historian may also be able to test a given counterfactual proposition. Thus, an argument that the railroad was indispensable for U.S. economic development in the nineteenth century could be refuted by testing the counterfactual prop osition on which it rests—that is, by showing that the cost of moving goods by the best alternative form of transportation would not have been substantially higher than the cost of moving goods by railroad. Such a test involves the determination of the supply function of rail and nonrail transport services (Fogel 1964). Similarly, the statement that the robber barons significantly lowered the income of farmers and workers by monopoly practices could be refuted if it were shown that the total amount of monopoly profit at that time, if redistributed among farmers and workers, would not have significantly raised their incomes (North 1966)—and under the further assumption that the misallocation of resources under monopoly conditions would not have significantly affected this.

Methodological techniques illustrated . An extended illustration can illuminate the whole process of research and testing and the problems involved. The hypothesis that British imperial policy significantly lowered the income of the American colonists in the period 1763-1775 will serve as the example. This hypothesis implies as a counterfactual statement that in the absence of specific British policies the income of the colonies would have been significantly higher. The information needed to obtain a precise answer to this question is the actual income of the colonists between 1763 and 1775 as against the hypothetical income the colonists would have received during this period in the absence of the British policies (i.e., as an independent country outside British regulation and protection). Since the actual income of the colonists is not known, the problem cannot be attacked directly, but it might be resolved indirectly by measuring the net difference in income that would have occurred had the specific policies been eliminated.

The researcher requires first an intimate knowledge of the structure and characteristics of the colonial economy and the specific aspects of the Navigation Acts and other British imperial policies that impinged upon the colonial economy. It should be noted that even the process of selection of facts as a part of the background conditions involves theorizing, since it is impossible to separate out relevant and important facts from irrelevant ones without a theory concerning the way an economy operates. Thus, when the economic historian discards as relatively unimportant the British restrictions on colonial manufacturing, he does so first because economic theory tells him that any economy characterized by a scarcity of labor and capital relative to land—the situation of the American colonies—will not typically engage in manufacturing because its costs will be higher than those of competing regions. He is furthermore supported in his initial assumption through examination of data on the economy of the United States after independence, which shows that manufacturing did not loom large even when the ex-colonists were free to engage in it. On the other hand, he will be impressed by the fact that tobacco and rice were enumerated (i.e., had to be shipped to England), and the requirement that imports move through Britain probably had a significant effect upon colonial income.

While the general shape of the relevant demand curves would stem from basic economic axioms (i.e., that the demand curves would be negatively sloped), it now becomes necessary to obtain a specific measure of the elasticity of demand and sup ply for tobacco in order to assess exactly the extent of the burden involved. By getting data on the spread between Virginia and Amsterdam prices of tobacco before and again after the revolution, the economic historian is able to show how the price spread narrowed. However, in order to be able to find out how much more tobacco would have been bought at the lower price that would have prevailed without British restriction, he must know the elasticity of demand. Since the data needed to compute that elasticity are not available, the historian may have recourse to other studies of commodities which appear to have similar characteristics and which give him the assumed elasticity of demand. He must also know how much more to bacco would have been supplied had a higher price prevailed (i.e., he must know the elasticity of supply). Here he may get a proxy by seeing how much the tobacco supply expanded after the revolution in response to a higher price. Alternatively, he might look at the conditions of supply in Virginia and Maryland to see to what extent the supply of inputs of land, labor, and capital was capable of providing more tobacco and whether at the same cost or at rising costs.

The economic historian must examine all other aspects of the colonial economy on which British policy impinged. The intimate knowledge of those facts of the period which theory attests to be relevant will lead him not only to assess individual burdens but also to recognize that there were benefits to being a part of the British imperial system which will have to be calculated in similar fashion. Thus, he will have to measure the extent to which income from shipping was increased by inclusion within the British imperial system. Similarly, he will have to measure the extent to which the colonists would have had to underwrite their own defense in the absence of British protection. He may find that a proxy for these counterfactual conditions can be found in the period from 1785 to 1793, after the colonies became independent. That is, he is assuming that the period 1785-1793 approximates in significant aspects the way the economy would have operated had it been free and independent in the years 1763–1775.

This illustration not only provides a capsule in dication of the necessary and essential methods by which the economic historian may do meaningful research, but it also provides some indication of the problems and difficulties involved in his task. Has he really specified and taken into account all of the indispensable conditions? Was he correct in ignoring the Stamp Act as not imposing significant burdens upon the colonists? Are his assumed elasticities of supply and demand the correct ones, or can additional evidence be garnered which would indicate that they were different from those he specified? Were the conditions between 1785 and 1793 really a proxy for those from 1763 to 1775, thereby enabling him properly to employ this period as a proxy to the counterfactual situation? In fact, what he is doing is comparing a condition that existed—that is, income of the colonists between 1763 and 1775—with the hypothetical model of what would have occurred in the absence of British policies. This hypothetical model of a situation that did not in fact exist is essentially a general equilibrium model, and therefore it is essential to his argument and his conclusions that the repercussion effects of those things which he does not take into account or which he argues are of small magnitude are in fact immaterial and would not significantly alter the conclusions he reaches.

Advances in economic theory will lead to reappraisals of the economic past. Like the traditional historian, the present-day economic historian will frequently be guided by his ideological preconceptions in making a choice of issues to be examined; but his testing of the resultant hypotheses should be neutral with respect to current ideological biases and should result in a continuous narrowing of the range of disagreement and an increasing understanding of the past.

It can be seen from the above illustration that the limitations of inquiry in economic history are those imposed by the limitations of existing theory and of available evidence.

The uses and limitations of theory . While economic theory provides generalizations that can be applied to a broad range of issues in economichistory, particularly to those dealing with the welfare of groups at particular times in the past, there is no general theory of economic growth to which the economic historian can turn in exploring this major aspect of economic history. While research in the study of economic growth of the past twenty or thirty years casts doubt upon many of the im plicit or explicit hypotheses of economic historians, there is still no over-all framework which the economic historian can neatly apply. So, in this field, as in so many other aspects of economic history, the scholar must essentially develop his own theo retical framework. Similarly, where the economic historian wishes to explore the theoretical border lines between economic and social history, he must rely on the other social science disciplines or develop a framework of his own to explore these relationships. There is no reason, of course, why the economic historian should be limited to received theory in economics. He is free to develop and apply theory of his own. However, caution in such an endeavor is obviously essential. The likelihood that the economic historian who is untrained in the principles of economics can derive theoretical propositions of any significance is very slim indeed. There is as wide a gap between common-sense observations in economics and economic generalizations as there is between common-sense observations in the physical sciences and the general laws of those physical sciences. We would not expect a layman to be able to derive from simple observation of physical properties the general laws of physics; nor can observations of economic phenomena lead an untrained economic historian to develop valid generalizations with respect to economic theory. Economic theory has evolved in the give-and-take between the development of generalizations and their testing over a long enough period of time, and it cannot and should not be ignored in the course of analysis. The economic historian trained in economic theory will be well aware of the pitfalls inherent in economic analysis. Therefore, if he wishes to develop his own theoretical framework, he will take careful account of the work that has gone on before and the degree to which previous generalizations are supported by available evidence.

The limitations of empirical evidence . Limitations of empirical evidence pose equally serious problems for the economic historian. He is faced with discrete, nonrepetitive, past performance: the artifacts and evidence that remain are his material. Therefore, it is essential that he attempt systematically to develop evidence about the past from this fragmentary information. As indicated above, that which comes closest to providing him with accurate tests is quantitative evidence which precisely defines and isolates the particular phenomena that he wants to measure. Quantitative information in such ideal form seldom exists, and the economic historian is forced to make use of the more fragmentary evidence which has typically survived from the past. Making the most of the evidence requires a knowledge of statistical theory so that he can use to the best effect whatever data are available.

The illustration used above indicates some of the ways the economic historian can employ bits and pieces of quantitative information when the ideal data are not available. In the above case, neither the actual national income of the colonists between 1763 and 1775 nor the hypothetical income in the absence of British policies is known. But the net difference in income can be derived even without the absolute figures. A complete series of prices and quantities for tobacco, rice, and other affected commodities is also not available, but proxies for these can be obtained that provide reasonably good measures for the unknowns with respect to the shape of the relevant demand and supply curves.

The further back in time the economic historian explores, the more inadequate the data are likely to be. However, the quantitative information may be far more abundant than economic historians have heretofore believed, since hypotheses dictate the search for data, and it is only in recent years that self-conscious employment of theory has characterized research in the field. The quantitative information available about the past has usually not been mined because its relevance has not been ap preciated. In the absence of quantitative data, the economic historian is forced to fall back on the use of qualitative description embodied in other kinds of information: but it should be noted here that he does not thereby escape the essential rules of statistical inference. That is, it remains imperative that he demand that the qualitative information meet the same rules of statistical sampling and representativeness required in the use of quantitative knowledge. In this respect, Clapham’s warning in the article on economic history in the Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences is still timely.

Every economic historian should, however, have acquired what might be called the statistical sense, the habit of asking in relation to any institution, policy, group or movement the question: how large? how long? how often? how representative? The requirement seems obvious; but a good deal of the older politico-institutional economic history was less useful than it might have been through neglect of it. (1931, p. 328)

The writing of economic history . While explanation of the economic past is the ultimate objective of the economic historian, and an awareness of the principles of scientific method is an essential requirement in the pursuit of this objective, characterization of the discipline solely in these terms would give a distorted picture of the field. The traditional craft of the historian—the careful unearthing of evidence and the assessment of its reliability—is fully as important in economic history as it is in general history. The present-day scholar has inherited a rich store of descriptive material and data about the economic past which has been mined and assayed largely by historians. The present-day analytically oriented economic historian who ignores this treasure-trove from the past does so at the risk that he will be unaware of essential background conditions when he constructs his model. It is incumbent upon him not only to be thoroughly versed in the traditional literature in the field but also to be possessed of that fine sense of the detective, which has always been the trademark of the good historian.

Finally, the economic historian is attempting to provide a systematic and integrated explanation of the economic past, and this inevitably involves something more than the development and testing of a single hypothesis. It is a relatively easy task for any well-trained economic historian to test (and typically in recent research to destroy) a specific explanation about the past, but it is well for him to remember that the ultimate objective he seeks is far more difficult—to construct a unified expla nation of the economic past. This involves the development of a set of consistent hypotheses together with the essential background conditions, both woven together in the fabric of a narrative. Such a story not only possesses the characteristics of good narrative but also makes clear the essential background conditions and states clearly the hypotheses involved, so that it is consistent with the principles of scientific explanation and so that its several parts can be tested by other economic historians.

Douglass C. North

[Directly relevant are the biographies ofClapham; Heckscher; Schumpeter. For discussion of the approaches of some other economic historians, see the biographies ofAshley; Bucher; Cunningham; Ehrenberg; Hammond, J. L. and Barbara; Levas-Seur; Plrenne; Polanyi; Rogers; See; Tawney; Unwin; Usher; Webb, Sidneyand Beatrice; Weber, Max.]



Ashton, T. S. (1948) 1964 The Industrial Revolution: 1760–1830. Rev. ed. Oxford Univ. Press.

Beveridge, William H. 1939 Prices and Wages in England From the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century. New York and London: Longmans.

Clapham, John H. (1926–1938) 1950-1952 An Economic History of Modern Britain. 3 vols. Cambridge Univ. Press. → Volume 1: The Early Railway Age: 1820–1850. Volume 2: Free Trade and Steel: 1850–1886. Volume 3: Machines and National Rivalries (1887–1914) with an epilogue (1914–1929).

Clapham, John H. 1931 “Survey of Development to the Twentieth Century” and “Economic History as a Discipline.” Volume 5, pages 315-320 and 327-330 in Encyclopaedia of the Social Sciences. New York: Macmillan. → Definitive of earlier views of the discipline; includes a bibliography. These are two parts of the article “Economic History.”

Cole, Arthur H. 1938 Wholesale Commodity Prices in the United States: 1700–1861. 2 vols. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cole, Arthur H.; and Crandall, Ruth 1964 The International Scientific Committee on Price History. Journal of Economic History 24:381–388. → A review of the work of the committee and a bibliography.

Fogel, Robert W. 1964 Railroads and American Economic Growth: Essays in Econometric History. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press.

Hamilton, Earl J. (1934) 1965 American Treasure and the Price Revolution in Spain: 1501—1650. Har vard Economic Studies, Vol. 43. New York: Octagon. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Harvard University, Research Center In Entrepre Neurial History1949 Change and the Entrepreneur: Postulates and Patterns for Entrepreneurial History. Edited by Arthur Cole. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Heckscher, Eli F. (1929) 1953 A Plea for Theory in Economic History. Pages 421-430 in Frederic C. Lane and Jelle C. Riemersma (editors), Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings in Economic History. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. → First published in a supplement to the Economic Journal.

Kuznets, Simon 1956-1963 Quantitative Aspects of the Economic Growth of Nations. Parts 1–8. Economic Development and Cultural Change 5, no. 1:5-94, no. 4 (Supplement); 6, no. 4:part 2; 7, no. 3:part 2; 8, no. 4:part 2; 9, no. 4:part 2; 10, no. 2:part 2; 11, no. 2: part 2.

Lane, Frederic C; and Riemersma, Jelle C. (editors) 1953 Enterprise and Secular Change: Readings inEconomic History. Homewood, 111.: Irwin. → Contains a number of useful articles on earlier views of methodology.

Meyer, John R.; and Conrad, Alfred H. 1957 Economic Theory, Statistical Inference and Economic History, journal of Economic History 17:524–544.

North, Douglass C. 1966 Growth and Welfare in the American Past: A New Economic History. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.

Posthumus, Nicolaas W. (1943) 1946 Inquiry Into the History of Prices in Holland. Volume 1: Whole sale Prices at the Exchange of Amsterdam, 1585–1914. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill. → First published in Dutch.

Rostow, Walt W. 1948 British Economy of the Nineteenth Century: Essays. Oxford: Clarendon. → A pio neering effort to apply Keynesian theory to analyzing the British economy in the nineteenth century.

Schumpeter, Joseph A. 1939 Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process. 2 vols. New York and London: McGraw-Hill. → An abridged version was published in 1964.


There is an extensive literature in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of history on the methodological problems of writing history. Two of the most lucid as they bear upon explanation in economic history are Hempel 1942 and 1962. See also Nagel 1952. For the application of these principles specifically to economic history, a pio neering article is Meyer & Conrad 1958.

Hempel, Carl G. 1942 The Function of General Laws in History. Journal of Philosophy 39:35–48.

Hempel, Carl G. 1962 Explanation in Science and history. Pages 7-33 in Robert G. Colodny (editor), Frontiers of Science and Philosophy. Univ. of Pittsburgh Press.

Meyer, John R.; and Conrad, Alfred H. 1958 The Economics of Slavery in the Ante Bellum South. Journal of Political Economy 66:95–130.

Nagel, Ernest 1952 Some Issues in the Logic of Historical Analysis. Scientific Monthly 74:162–169.


It is impossible to enumerate the large and ever-increasing body of statistical studies now appearing. The most convenient major sources are the statistical abstracts which so far have been done for three countries.

Mitchell, Brian R. 1962 Abstract of British Historical Statistics. Cambridge Univ. Press.

U.S. Bureau Of The Census 1960 Historical Statistics of the United States; Colonial Times to 1957: A Statis tical Abstract Supplement. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Urquhart, M. C; and Buckley, K. A. H. (editors) 1965 Historical Statistics of Canada. Cambridge Univ. Press.


Although business history in the broadest sense encompasses all the activities of businessmen in the past, the academic discipline, as developed by historians, has certain distinguishing characteristics. To date it has been primarily concerned with the written record of decision making by individuals seeking private profit through production of goods and services.

Business history in practice rests basically on one assumption and one derivative from it. The key assumption is that man enjoys a measure of freedom of will and, accordingly, that his individual decisions affect the course of historical events. From that is derived the conviction that human decisions, made with an eye to producing profit, have significantly shaped the stream of economic and social change over a long period of time and in many parts of the world.

In business history, change is regarded as continuous, interacting in character, variable in rate, and open-ended—but always initiated by man. Through a complex of interrelated decision-making processes, businessmen are seen to have contributed, together with other individuals and groups in society, to the generation of changes in their environment, both internal and external to their own institutions.

Certain methodological characteristics of business history follow from the foregoing assumptions and ideas. It emphasizes microeconomic elements in the past more than its parent discipline, economic history, and concentrates more on the process of change and the generation of change. To date, business historians have employed impersonal analysis of economic performance in the past less than those who have utilized the techniques of economists to evaluate trends in quantitative terms or to “fill in” gaps in historical knowledge. In fact, the tools of sociology, anthropology, and psychology are frequently as relevant to the questions business historians ask of data as is economic analysis, particularly with reference to motivation of men and their relation to the society in which they live. Concentration on businessmen as decision makers and as builders or destroyers of institutions, as well as on the ideas and accumulated knowledge affecting the place, timing, and conduct of business activities, has, of course, also differentiated business history from economic history.

The tools employed by the professional business historian depend on his objective and on the approach to the businessman that he selects. Each major approach involves a different context for viewing businessmen and business of the past. Concern with the businessman as an individual in society is the approach of the biographer of a businessman. Viewed in the framework of one or more organizations for the production of profit, with all that this implies for policy formulation and implementation, the businessman is the province of company histories and industry studies. Some students have chosen the functional areas of business development, such as finance, production, and marketing, as the subjects of historical research. Others have emphasized the implements and institutions of business. Still other scholars have concentrated their research on the interaction between businessmen and their environment in terms of its influence on developments both inside and outside the world of business.

These varied approaches indicate that business history embraces many diverse areas of study, accommodates many interests, and calls on numerous disciplines. It therefore attracts researchers from many areas of history, economics, and other scholarly disciplines, as well as those whose qualificafications are based on other credentials. In the latter category are amateur historians with business experience and publicists employed to write business history for nonacademic purposes. Although a number of these contributions meet good scholarly standards and many contribute useful information, most significant works in business history are produced by scholars trained in one or more of the traditional disciplines. By no means all of this latter group, however, would claim to be professional business historians. In many instances their forays into the field are one-time expeditions, using the subject matter of business history to explore an area related to their primary interests.

Professional historians both benefit and suffer from the amorphous nature of their field. They have benefited most from outsiders’ contributions to such areas as the theory of the firm and have suffered most from the popular identification of their field with histories of firms written by amateurs without scholarly standards. In part, this has been the price of progress, for business history has matured slowly as an academic discipline and until recently has concentrated on the study of business administration through the medium of company histories.

Since professional business historians have been located chiefly in schools of business administration, it is not surprising that the variety of their approaches to research and teaching has been governed in large measure by the applications that could be made of their work in such institutions. As the curricula of schools of business have broadened from functional specialties to such larger preoccupations as the responsibilities of businessmen in society and the challenge of undeveloped and underdeveloped areas to private enterprise, new applications of business history have been found. Some of these coincide with objectives of historians concerned with all phases of social and economic change. In many business history courses, histories of firms have been supplemented by industry histories, by studies of the leadership styles and personal qualities of businessmen in the past, by analyses of government-business relations viewed in broad perspective, and by increasing concern with the historical problems and lessons of economic growth. Thus the field of business history has been in the process of change since it was first recognized as an academic discipline.

Initial development by Gras at Harvard

Business history began as an area of academic research and teaching at the Graduate School of Business Administration of Harvard University. Dean Wallace B. Donham believed that scholarly histories of “specific situations as they came to businessmen in their communities in the past” were essential in order that those situations might be compared “understandably” with “current conditions” (Redlich 1962, pp. 61-62). Donham had in mind the use of business history for training prospective business administrators, the utilization of the case method, and the comparison of past techniques, decisions, and their implementation with those of the present.

To initiate such teaching, research, and writing, in 1927 Donham chose N. S. B. Gras, a scholar already manifesting an interest in the role of business and businessmen in history. In his classes at the University of Minnesota he had encouraged students to do research in this field and had embarked on assessing business activities in several areas. He was trained in economic theory as well as economic history, and he had read widely in the literature of sociology and social theory.

Given his training and experience, Gras at first visualized business history quite broadly. From his reading in social, political, and economic history he gathered data on the environments in which businessmen had operated, as well as information on the creation and evolution of business instruments and institutions. Gras accepted the concept of capitalism and made the study of the evolution of capitalism one of his major concerns. But neither in the publications of economic theorists and economic historians nor in the works of Marx, Engels, Sombart, and others did he find a satisfactory explanation of the changing character of capitalism over time. While recognizing that environmental factors influenced businessmen to some degree, he rejected economic determinism; he remained convinced that men have enjoyed some freedom of will and that, by choosing courses of action from a range of alternatives, they have changed the course of history.

Accordingly, to understand the process of change in the business sector of society, Gras believed scholars must study and analyze the decisions of men reflected in the policies and practices of firms, the basic units of business systems. In the studies of Richard Ehrenberg (1902–1905) he had examples of how meaningful histories of firms could be written. From such biographies of firms, written and to be written, Gras hoped to be able to learn how capitalism had evolved as a system.

With these ideas in mind, Gras embarked on an ambitious program for the development of business history at the Harvard Business School. With the aid of associates, notably Henrietta M. Larson, he started developing cases for the course he taught. That offering embraced discussion and analysis of activities of businessmen from the European Middle Ages to the twentieth-century United States; lectures on background materials alternated with class discussion of both specific and general situations. At the same time, to encourage publication of the current results of research, Edwin F. Gay, then a professor at Harvard, as editor, and Gras as managing editor, began issuing the Journal of Economic and Business History (JEBH) in November 1928. Some members of the group also undertook book-length biographies of businessmen and firms.

Soon after the beginning of this program, economic and other factors induced Gras to modify his approach to the new area of study. The financial crisis of 1929 and ensuing depression brought a drastic diminution in supporting funds. The JEBH ceased publication in 1932, a year after Gay and Gras disagreed on editorial policies and the latter became sole editor; not until 1938 did the business history group at the Harvard Business School assume responsibility for issuing the Bulletin of the Business Historical Society, known as Business History Review (BHR), a quarterly since 1954, and it was a much less ambitious periodical than the earlier one. Meanwhile, money to underwrite research in depth could be found only in limited amounts, often restricted to study of the families and firms providing the financial support. Simultaneously, the use of the case method in the course, as well as the lack of published information on the decision-making process and the policies of businessmen, fortified Gras’s tendency to concentrate on biographies of businessmen and of firms.

In spite of serious difficulties during the 1930s, Gras and his group established the contours of the new field. They, as well as others, published their research findings in both the JEBH and the Bulletin. In the Harvard Studies in Business History, under the editorship of Gras, appeared books dealing with merchants, an investment banking firm, a commercial bank, and an advertising agency. In 1939 Gras and Larson published the teaching materials assembled for the course—Casebook in American Business History—and Gras issued his preliminary synthesis of business history in Business and Capitalism.

In little more than ten years Gras had modified his concepts and had put a particular stamp on business history. Instead of realizing his early expectation of studying and writing the history of business within a broad political, social, and economic framework, he gradually came to visualize the field more narrowly. To him, business history became “primarily the study of the administration of business units in the past,” administration being in two parts—policy formulation and management or execution of policy (Gras & Larson 1939, p. 3). From such statements, as well as the subject matter of the books published, many observers adopted the idea, unfortunately not yet fully abandoned, that to Gras business history was “company history” and nothing more.

Actually, Business and Capitalism indicated that Gras was seeking, through business history, an explanation of the changes in the character of private capitalism over a thousand years. Influenced by Karl Biicher and others, Gras related the evolution of stages in capitalism to changes in business systems, identifying each stage with dominant business types and groups—petty, mercantile, industrial (specializing), financial, and national. When he started writing the book, he did not think all the stagesmentioned actually fitted the history of private enterprise in every national economy, but after its publication the idea became more than a tentative hypothesis in his mind. To supplement Business and Capitalism, he began writing a multivolume history of industries in the United States, a task never completed. However, Larson pubhshed her Guide to Business History in 1948, and the Business History Foundation, Inc., an organization chartered in New York by Gras and Larson in 1947 to forward research and writing on the history of business (chiefly on that of large-scale enterprise), is still active.

Subsequent broadening of approaches

Starting with the Casebook and Business and Capitalism as the bases of courses in other institutions, historians soon began to utilize a variety of approaches to the history of business. Some accepted Gras’s ideas generally, but increasingly used his stage theory for comparative purposes and not as a rigid framework for analyzing the history of businessmen and business institutions. Other scholars reacted more critically, explicitly and implicitly, to Grasian thought. Some regarded his stage theory as outmoded; they considered it too rigid and not sufficiently effective as an analytical tool. Others were convinced that his definition of the subject was too narrow; they thought the history of business and businessmen was more than the history of business administration and that Gras gave too little attention to the motivation and environment of businessmen. Many disagreed with the broad generalizations, especially those on the period since 1870, which Gras made on the basis of research by his group and by predecessors among economic and social historians. Still others sought a less positivistic and more theoretical base for analyzing the behavior and achievements of businessmen in history. Almost all were more interested in analyzing the activities of businessmen or in seeking explanations of changes in business than in the history of capitalism as such.

Entrepreneurial studies. One group of scholars, the most influential, sought understanding of change in the history of business through the concept of entrepreneurship. Arthur H. Cole reviewed the historical changes in that concept in his presidential address to the Economic History Association (1946). A year later, in a paper presented to the same body, Joseph A. Schumpeter built onto the idea of innovation that of the creative entrepreneur as the main force in generating change in business (1947). Jointly the two initiated the Research Center in Entrepreneurial History at Harvard in 1948. Led by Cole, and ably supported by Thomas C. Cochran, Leland H. Jenks, Fritz Red-lich, and several others, the group brought together numerous scholars to enunciate their ideas and to discuss historical tools and techniques as well as concepts. Over a ten-year period the center helped to train a number of young historians and published many of the products of discussion and research in Explorations in Entrepreneurial History.

Cole has provided his personal interpretation of the significant findings of the center (1959). First, he assessed the relationship of the entrepreneur to his organization, to the process of social conditioning, and to elements important “for the proper functioning of an entrepreneurial flow.” Then he turned to analysis of five categories of “entrepreneurial realities” drawn from historical data: the social order, underdeveloped areas, technological change, business organization, and the state. Each of these had three subsegments of illustrative material which not only summarized existing substantive knowledge about types of entrepreneurial activity but also presented other historians of business with examples which could be utilized in class, tested by research, and added to as the study of businessmen and their institutions continued.

Even before Cole’s synthesis appeared, both older scholars and a new generation of historians of business began to fuse the center’s products with those of the Grasian group. Some welcomed the center’s analysis of business history in a broad sociological as well as economic context. Many noted with approval that Cole defined entrepreneurship as “the purposeful activity (including an integrated sequence of decisions) of an individual or group of associated individuals, undertaken to initiate, maintain or aggrandize a profit-oriented business unit for the production or distribution of goods and services” (1959, p. 7). That definition, business historians generally thought, embraced both policy formulation, which they now visualized as closely related to Schumpeterian creative entrepreneurship, and management (implementation of policy), which was seemingly included in an “integrated sequence of decisions.”

In addition to concepts, ideas, and information adduced by the Gras and Cole groups, business historians have turned to other disciplines for tools and techniques. From writers on economic growth (Hirschman 1958) and on the theory of the firm (Boulding & Spivey 1960), as well as from anthropologists, sociologists, and social psychologists (Hagen 1962), scholars interested in the history of business have borrowed and tested concepts, theories, and research methods. They have been particularly interested in any study dealing with motivation of the businessman and his “need of achievement” (McClelland 1961).

In the 1950s and 1960s research continues to reflect the mixture of approaches noted early in this article. Some scholars focus on a businessman as an individual in society (see, for example, Nevins 1953). There have been numerous semipopular histories of firms (see, for example, Lief 1958; Blochman 1958). In some instances histories of firms written by insiders have been distinguished by thorough research and a comprehensive analysis (see, for example, Beaton 1957).

Studies of firms and industries. Since 1950 academicians have added significantly to the list of firms that have been studied in detail. Several large firms have submitted to detailed scholarly portraits. In large measure these works exhibit the increased sophistication arising from the fusion of ideas noted earlier. The most distinguished study of the much-examined late medieval period deals with the rise and decline of the Medici Bank (de Roover 1963). In their histories of large firms some students have focused their attention on the response and adjustment of businessmen to changing environment (Cochran 1948). One outstanding study is devoted to grand strategy on a global scale (Wilson 1954). Noteworthy have been the analyses of policy and its implementation on the part of firms in the petroleum industry, in particular those sponsored by the Business History Foundation (History of Standard Oil …, 1955-1956; Larson & Porter 1959). Recent histories of American railroad companies tend to present them broadly as common carriers operating for a profit within an environment experiencing rapid change (Overton 1965). Among studies of financial institutions, several life insurance companies have received detailed attention (Williamson & Smalley 1957). A midwestern historian has provided the best portrayal of a public utility (Miller 1957).

The history of small business has attracted fewer scholars than has that of large-scale enterprise. Only rarely has a small firm been appraised in detail (for one example, see Marburg 1956). More attention has been given to generalizations based on a study of a significant sample of firms within an industry, such as that of metal fabricators in New England (Soltow 1965).

Few historians have attempted histories of entire industries in recent years. Among the few examples are those on rubber (Woodruff 1958) and brewing (Mathias 1959), both within the British economy, and, outstanding in scope and economic analysis, that on the American petroleum industry —the authors having at hand at the inception of the research numerous histories of firms as well as special studies (Williamson & Daum 1959-1963).

Recent trends. A growing number of business historians have centered their interest on what has been labeled “business in history.” They seek to understand the interaction between businessmen and business institutions on the one hand and pertinent, influential segments of the environment on the other. They are concerned with analyzing both the process and the results of the process. Most prominent in this area have been studies of government-business relationships, well exemplified by many articles found in the BHR (and elsewhere). For example, one author has focused on the roles of business institutions and values in relation to evolving political institutions in Africa, Asia, and Latin America (Robinson 1962). Another has evaluated the relationship of business to the emergence of the Nazi dictatorship (Schweitzer 1964). A third has assessed the connection between a defensive national economic policy, coupled with a desire for political unity, and Canadian regulation of business (Aitken 1964). A similar but more specific approach to the history of government-business relations is exemplified in a study of the evolution of American petroleum pipelines and related public policy (Johnson 1956).

Comparative studies in business history have become more common in recent years, providing new and meaningful interpretations for business historians. Most noteworthy among studies dealing with early industrialization is the pioneer monograph on managerial techniques of British entre preneurs (Pollard 1965). One author has analyzed causation and cycles in centralization and decentralization in administration of large-scale enterprise (Chandler 1956; 1959; 1962; 1965). Another has studied evolution of systematic methods for coordinating production flows (Litterer 1961a; 1961b; 1963). Still another can be cited for his evaluation of evolving financial reporting by American corporations within a changing environment (Hawkins 1963). One of the most significant books analyzes the attitudes and ideas of a broad group of railroad executives (Cochran 1953).

Most of these recent articles and books manifest more refined analysis than characterized the written history of business in earlier years, but conceptualization of thought in the field has grown slowly and theoretical works have been few. Fritz Redlich has written more in this area than has anyone else, and his essays dealing with the entrepreneur have now been collected (1964). His contributions range from an analysis of the “daimonic” in business history to categorizations of entrepreneurial types. To date, only one author has attempted to advance a theory of the growth of the firm (Penrose 1959).

No widely accepted synthesis of business history has yet been achieved, even for the United States, the country in which literature on the subject is most voluminous. To be sure, some narrations of national business achievement have been produced (Chamberlain 1963; Walker 1949), and some periods in the history of business have been objectively appraised (Cochran 1957).

In spite of vastly increased study of the history of business and of business in history, scholars still evince a marked lack of interest in numerous important topics. Business failures, labor-management relations, small business, and other likely subjects are receiving little, if any, attention. More over, although the preliminary moves mentioned above have been made, attempts to conceptualize and to theorize on the history of business have been few.

Formal courses in business history have been developed slowly but steadily. By the mid-1960s more than three-score universities, colleges, and schools of business in the United States listed courses in the field, but the focus on topics involving business history was their single common denominator; content and emphasis varied widely. Meanwhile, academicians in other countries, notably in the United Kingdom, Holland, West Germany, Australia, and Japan, have inaugurated research and/or teaching programs in business history, bringing the world total of institutions sponsoring such efforts to more than one hundred. Participants in such activities find continuous additions to their body of information in the Business History Review, Tradition (published in West Germany since 1956), Business Archives and History (published in Australia since 1956), Business History (published in the United Kingdom since 1958), and pertinent articles in many other periodicals.

The broadening of horizons noted in this article has destroyed the exclusiveness of the original small pioneering band of professional historians and to a degree has outmoded the original frame work that once gave their study of the subject great unity. The results of this change are still far from clear, and the need for a new synthesis has become increasingly apparent. Nevertheless, the governing assumptions about the nature of economic change and the significance of the businessman in it still hold. The increasingly varied approaches and applications of business history are in the tradition of the evolutionary development that has characterized the field since it was first recognized as an academic discipline.

Ralph W. Hidy

[See alsoEntrepreneurship; and the biographies ofGras; Schumpeter.]


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Bruce A. Van Sledright

Bruce A. Van Sledright


The learning of history is a complex undertaking. Cognitive research done since 1980, much of it in Great Britain and North America, has indicated that it is more difficult to learn and understand history than previously thought. Before the 1980s it was generally assumed that a gradual process of committing historical narrativesconstructed around key events, details, names, and dates (substantive knowledge)to memory would eventually result in a sturdy understanding of the past. The body of research compiled since 1980, however, demonstrates that learning history, if it is to lead to deeper understanding, involves not only the repeated study of such narratives, but also the acquisition and use of a set of domain-specific cognitive strategies (strategic knowledge). Applying these strategies serves as the means by which the past is learned and understood. Researchers and educators frequently refer to the application of these domain-specific strategies to the process of exploring and interpreting the past as historical thinking. Before examining in more detail the implications of this research for learning history, it is important to understand the nature of the domain that learners are attempting to comprehend.

History as a Subject Domain

History is a thoroughly interpretive discipline, closer in many ways to the humanities than to the social sciences. To understand the past, learners cannot conduct controlled experiments to recreate it and then study its effects. Nor can they travel back in time to witness events firsthand. And even if time travel were possible, learners would still be required to interpret the complex events that they were witnessing.

Access to the past is thus indirect, largely governed by artifacts and residue left behind by those who lived it. These include diaries, letters, journals, public records, newspapers, archeological artifacts, pictures, paintings, chroniclers' and historians' interpretations of past events, and the like. Those who make a living inquiring into the past divide the artifacts and historical residue into two types, primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include, among other things, diaries and personal journals compiled by people who actually witnessed or participated in an incident about which they report. Secondary sources include history textbooks or historical narratives written by someone not present at an event but who has studied and interpreted the primary sources that remain. Historical sources form a type of evidence chain or trail that must be painstakingly pieced together into carefully argued interpretations of past events. This piecing-together that learners and inquirers do as they make sense of the past's artifacts and residues has been a central subject of cognitive research studies.

Substantive Historical Knowledge and Understanding

Defining the nature of substantive historical knowledge is rife with debate. Largely, the debate turns on the matter of what constitutes historically significant events and occurrences. For roughly the first half the twentieth century, those who wrote American history, for example, seemed content to concentrate on political, military, and economic achievements in the United States. It was believed that those achievements were the most historically significant. During the 1960s, however, a new generation of historical scholars began to redefine significance in terms of what was often called "history from the bottom up." This generation (sometimes referred to as social historians) began inquiring into the influences on the American past of a variety of sociocultural groups that had often been rendered historically invisible by previous generations of scholars. These groups include antebellum slave communities, labor movements and their leaders, women, immigrants, and small, often marginalized, social organizations. The social historians maintained that these overlooked groups could be seen as powerful participants in, or resistors of, important changes and developments in American history, thus (at least in part) accounting for how change occurred as it did. To ignore such groups would be to misunderstand history. The work of social historians, with their proliferating foci and perspectives on events, has made constructing grand political-military-economic historical narratives less easy to accomplish.

This shifting terrain concerning issues of historical significance has raised difficult questions about what history students should learn. The late twentieth-century increase in the multiculturalization of the United States, for example, has only added to this concern by also raising questions about whose history children should learn. Some participants in the debate, such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., believe that all U.S. children should acquire the same "common cultural" core of substantive historical knowledge. Schlesinger defines this core largely in terms of those political, military, and economic events that made the United States the most powerful nation on earth. Knowledge of these events would be delivered by traditional, uplifting narratives of American success stories. Current social historians, and those who champion a more multiculturalist portrait of America, consider such definitions of core substantive historical knowledge misleading at best, and dangerous at worst, because they risk characterizing the contributions of those groups of people thought to be less significant as meaningless.

This debate has continued into the twenty-first century. What, and whose, history students have opportunities to learn about in school vary depending on how school officials define what is historically significant. To the extent that they define it in traditional narrative terms, children's opportunities to learn substantive historical knowledge are often determined by the content of school history textbooks, which, for publishers, in their efforts to find a palatable middle ground to bolster sales, means opting in the direction of more traditional narrative treatments. To the extent that a more multiculturalized view of substantive knowledge is in play, students are more apt to study history from multiple sources, such as trade books, historical fiction accounts, and primary sources, that explore the lives of those not frequently included in the more voluminous textbook treatments.

Strategic Historical Knowledge

Much of the cognitive research done since 1980 has centered on the nature of expertise in historical thinking, and on how novices (e.g., grade school students, college undergraduates) differ from experts (e.g., historians). This research indicates that the process of thinking historically that enables deep historical understanding requires certain strategic-knowledge dispositions. These dispositions include the capacity to: (a) read, make sense, and judge the status of various of sources of evidence from the past; (b) corroborate that evidence by carefully comparing and contrasting it; (c) construct context-specific, evidenced-based interpretations; (d) assess an author's perspective or position in an account being studied; and (e) make decisions about what is historically significant. These capacities are exercised while taking into conscious account the way the learner is, by necessity, also imposing his or her own view on the evidence being interpreted.

Learning to think using these cognitive strategies is no small task. First, as historian David Lowenthal has observed, the past is a foreign country, difficult to penetrate from the locus of the present. Reconstructing historical context is troublesome because it often remains virtually impossible for "moderns" to get inside and understand the experiences of those "ancients." Second, evidence is often sparse, and thus so open to competing interpretations that understanding events by building context-sensitive, well-corroborated interpretations is tenuous at best. Third, any attempt to construct a history of events operates on a necessary connection between a past reality and present interpretations of that reality. This connection is, however, denied because there is no method for bringing that past reality back to life to establish the full accuracy of a contemporary interpretation. There are only chains of people's interpretations of the past, some more recent than others. Learning to use the strategies of thinking historically that enable an understanding of the past hinges on the cultivation of a number of such counterintuitive cognitive processes.

Development of Historical Thinking and Understanding

Most of the more recent North American research on learning history has focused on either expert-novice studies, as noted, or on the relationship between how teachers teach history and how students learn to think historically. Views on how the historical thinking and understanding develop have largely been extrapolated from the expert-novice research cited above, and from studies that show how teaching can influence development among novices. Educational researchers in Great Britainwho were initially influenced in the 1970s by Piagetian developmental theories, but later abandoned them for the most parthave done considerably more work in this area. One of the more promising lines of research is called Project Chata. Chata is an acronym for Concepts of History and Teaching Approaches. The goal of Project Chata is to "map changes in students' ideas about history between the ages of seven and fourteen years. The project focused on second-order procedural understandings like evidence or cause " (Lee and Ashby, p. 201).

Preliminary results of the research on the progression of students' ideas about historical evidence and its relationship to the past indicate that naive views of history begin with the understanding that the past is simply a given. As students grow more sophisticated in their understanding, this simplistic view is abandoned, though history remains relatively inaccessible. They follow this with the belief that the past is determined by stories people tell about it. As sophistication grows, students note that reports on the past are more or less biased. This idea gives way to noting that the viewpoint or perspective of a reporter or storyteller becomes important. Finally, students develop an understanding that it is in the nature of accounts to differ, because varying reporting criteria are used by storytellers and chroniclers.

Project Chata researchers have also studied students' development of ideas about causal structure and historical explanations. They observe that: (1) students' ideas about explanation vary widely, with some younger children having more sophisticated ideas than older children; (2) students' ideas about causation in history and their rational explanations of causal structures do not necessarily develop in parallel; (3) student's ideas about causal structures and explanations in history may develop at different intervals, with some ideas occurring in big gains in younger children and others occurring later; and (4) progression in students' ideas about causation and explanation occurred most markedly in schools where history was an identifiable subject matter.

Some Pedagogical Implications

A tentative theory of how to teach learners to think and understand history can be fashioned from the current corpus of research studies. This results in certain propositions. First, learners construct deeper historical understandings when they have opportunities to consciously use their prior knowledge and assumptions about the past (regardless of how limited or naive) to investigate the past in depth. Second, as learners explore the past, attention must be paid not only to the products of historical investigation, but to the investigative process itself. Third, developing historical thinking and understanding necessitates opportunities for learners to work with various forms of evidence, deal with issues of interpretation, ask and address questions about the significance of events and the nature of evidence, wrestle with the issues of historical agency, and cultivate and use thoughtful, context-sensitive imagination to fill in gaps in the evidence chain when they appear.

Applying this theory in the classroom would mean approaching history effectively from the inside out. Teachers would structure learning opportunities by posing compelling historical questions that have occupied the attention of historical inquirers (e.g., Why did so many colonists starve at Jamestown in the winter of 16091610? How did antebellum slave communities construct oral cultures and to what effect?). Students would adopt investigative roles, obtaining and scouring evidence (much of it obtained off the Internet from rich archival sources now online); reading, analyzing, and corroborating that evidence; addressing perspective in accounts; dealing with questions of agency and significance; and building their own interpretations of events as they addressed the questions posed.

See also: Civics and Citizenship Education; History, subentry on Teaching of; Learning, subentry on Causal Reasoning; Literacy, subentry on Narrative Comprehension and Production; Technology in Education, subentry on Trends.


Ashby, Rosalyn, and Lee, Peter. 1987. "Children's Concepts of Empathy and Understanding in History." in The History Curriculum for Teachers, ed. Christopher Portal. London: Falmer Press.

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Holt, Thomas. 1990. Thinking Historically: Narrative, Imagination, and Understanding. New York: College Entrance Examination Board.

Lee, Peter, and Ashby, Rosalyn. 2000. "Progression in Historical Understanding Among Students Ages 714." In Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg. New York: New York University Press.

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Lowenthal, David. 1985. The Past Is a Foreign Country. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press.

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Schlesinger, Arthur M., Jr. 1992. The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. New York: W.W. Norton.

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Takaki, Ronald T. 1993. A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Boston: Little, Brown.

Vansledright, Bruce A. 2002. In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press.

Wilson, Suzanne. 1990. "Mastodons, Maps, and Michigan: Exploring Uncharted Territory While Teaching Elementary School Social Studies." Elementary Subjects Center, No. 24. East Lansing: Center for the Learning and Teaching of Elementary Subjects, Michigan State University.

Wineburg, Samuel. 1996. "The Psychology of Teaching and Learning History." In Handbook of Educational Psychology, ed. Robert C. Calfee and David C. Berliner. New York: Macmillan.

Wineburg, Samuel. 2001. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bruce A. VanSledright


History has played a dominant role in the broader social studies curriculum in the United States and in other countries for at least the past 100 years. For example, in most school districts in the United States, state, national, or world history is taught in grades four through six, grade eight, and at several points in high school. In England, history forms the backbone of the social studies curriculum from primary through secondary schools. History is also a curriculum staple in continental European countries, among post-Soviet republics, in China, and in such places as post-apartheid South Africa.

History in the school curriculum has not been without a number of recurrent debates and controversies. Many of them stem from disputes over the goals and purposes school history should serve (e.g., political socialization and nationalist identity formation versus teaching historical habits of mind). Other issues arise in connection with questions about how, from the vastness of history itself, to define what constitutes historically significant events that should be taught. The proper role of integrating social science disciplines (e.g., geography, economics, political science) in the teaching of history is also a point of debate. Finally, various parties argue over maintaining a relative balance between transmitting historical knowledge derived from the work of historians and teaching students to learn to think and investigate the past the way historians do. Taking time to do both often creates time-use dilemmas within an already surfeited school curricula. Choosing between them repeatedly pits those who would use history for sociopolitical ends against those who see history's importance as a means of teaching critical reasoning and a fuller understanding of the past.

Political Socialization of Historical Thinking and Understanding

The interest in securing a firm place for history in the curriculum frequently stems from its sociopolitical uses. This is especially true in the teaching of national histories. As George Orwell reminded readers in his book, 1984, control of the present (and the future) depends in good measure on control over the past. In many countries, a principal goal of teaching the nation's history is deeply linked to socializing future citizens, as defined by whomever controls the sociopolitical agenda at the time, conservatives, liberals, revolutionaries, or others. Perhaps no other school subject serves this political socialization purpose more than the study of history.

As political parties change or revolutions occur, new regimes attempt to rewrite history in general, and school history in particular, in order to cast themselves and their new politics and policies in a favorable light. Those disempowered by political change often resist such efforts to recast the past. Various groups use history in an effort to shape (or reshape) the nationalist identities of youth around whatever the prevailing view privileged by those in power is at any given time. In post-Soviet eastern European countries, for example, a major educational agenda has been to rewrite history textbooks and reconfigure the history curriculum since 1990.

Prior to the mid-1970s, little systematic research had been done on how history was taught in schools and what students learned from studying it. Since then, there has been a surge of interest in studying school history teaching and its learning outcomes, particularly among researchers in England and in North America. As a result, a sizable body of scholarship has emerged. Much of it challenges the practice of using school history to advance sociopolitical ends. In general, the research indicates that the sociopolitical use of history in schools warps students' views of what history is as a discipline and a subject matter, tends to turn history into a lifeless parade of someone else's facts, and otherwise drives away students' motivation to learn the subject. History education researchers have attempted to divert the teaching of history away from an exercise in socializing students to particular partisan views; instead suggesting the aim of history as an investigation of the past and the social world.

If one of the principal goals for teaching history is to socialize grade-school students to accept certain views of a nation's accomplishments as defined by those in power, thus shaping their nationalist identities, teaching history should take on a transmission approach. In other words, it is likely that in history classrooms teachers would lecture or tell stories about the past via lessons drawn from textbooks sanctioned by those in political control. Research bears out this image. For much of the past century, the teaching of history in schools in many places around the world has been dominated by textbook recitations and teacher lectures or storytelling. This has been especially true in the United States.

There have been moments of change is these traditional practices such as during the "New Social Studies" movement in the United States during the 1960s and early 1970s. During this period, historians and social scientists constructed curriculum units that were designed to assist students in learning more about how historical knowledge was constructed in the discipline. Teachers were to guide students in the process of investigating the past via study of primary sources, much the way historians do. However, such efforts to promote pedagogical and curricular change in history typically have not had lasting effects in the United States, and the traditional lecture-textbook-recitation-recall approach has remained dominant.

In England, the Schools Council History project had more lasting results. Educational and instructional changes there during the 1970s and 1980s in some ways mirrored the efforts of historians working under the auspices of the New Social Studies in the United States. The goal was for teachers to learn to teach students the reasoning process of historical investigators. Not only were students to study important ideas in English history, but also to learn how to read primary sources, judge their status relative to other sources, draw inferences about the past from them, and construct historical accounts of their own making. Research on the results of approaching history that way were generally favorable, indicating that students typically progressed in their capacity to learn to think historically as modeled by experts in the discipline itself. Data also indicated that students developed deeper understandings of English history. The project largely succeeded in changing the way teachers taught history because teacher educators and teachers along with education researchers were all involved in changing pedagogical and curricular practices.

In 1988 the Thatcher government attempted to reverse this trend. Alarmed that children in British schools, in their view, were not receiving adequate instruction in the stories of British national and international successes, the education establishment mandated significant changes in the British national history curriculum. Those changes called for more emphasis on teaching stories drawn, for example, from the days of the British empire. Less stress was to be placed on teaching historical-reasoning processes. The changes brought on by the Schools Council project and by the work of teacher educators and researchers however, had been institutionalized in many places. Reverting back to teaching history in lecture-textbook-recitation fashion became difficult. Many of Great Britain's history programs in schools therefore remain among the few in which history is taught more as a way of learning to think historically (as a way of knowing) than as a socialization exercise in memorization and recall of a nation's grand accomplishments and celebrations.

This debate continues. Cognitive scientists interested in history education and researchers in general who study how history is taught and to what result stress the importance of teaching history more closely aligned with the way in which history operates as a distinctive discipline. Researchers such as Peter Lee and Rosalyn Ashby point to gains in students' capacity to learn important thinking processes and habits of mind as they learn to understand the past more deeply. Those who are more interested in the power of using history to forge particular nationalist identities among youth remain skeptical of teaching history as an exercise in educating thinking processes and critical habits of mind. Generally, they prefer an approach that favors transmission of favored views of the past via lectures and textbook recitations, and a focus on stories that celebrate chosen accomplishments and historical successes.

Historical Significance

The debates about the purposes, goals, and uses of school history are exacerbated by the problem of choosing what constitutes historically significant events worth teaching. The very breadth and vastness of the past from which school history lessons must be chosen coupled with the finiteness of the school day and the press for curricular room by other subjects makes this issue difficult. It would be convenient if those who devise the history curriculum in the schools could turn to the discipline and to historians for help in addressing which events and historical actors of significance to choose. The debate within the discipline over what constitutes historical significance is perhaps even more intense than in school history. This has been especially true since about 1970 and advent of postmodernism with its deep skepticism about the veracity of Western knowledge-production projects rooted in the scientific method. The issue of historical significance has been further exacerbated by the multiculturalization of many Western societies, rendering questions about "whose" history to teach as important as "which" history.

The problem of defining historical significance leaves history teachers, curriculum designers, educational policymakers, and politicians without much firm ground upon which to anchor their decisions about which or whose history to teach. The inability to resolve this issue, however, gives history education researchers some support in their efforts to press the importance of teaching history primarily as an exercise in habits of mind.

Time in the Curriculum

Teaching history as both knowledge about a nation's history and its place in world history, and as an approach to learning a way of reasoning about the past requires more time than doing one or the other. Debates between advocates for the importance of subjects other than history can have the effect of reducing the time teaching history might otherwise have in the overall school curriculum. To the extent that politicians exercise greater control of textbooks and history curriculum and assessment approaches (e.g., in states, provinces, or countries where a centralized curriculum dominates), teaching history is often pressed into the service of socialization. History taught as historical reasoning and understanding tends to languish in the context of overabundant time pressures.


In some countries, educational policymakers and curriculum developers see the teaching of history as an opportunity to integrate the social science disciplines into history syllabi. Issues arise over the right mix and relationships of such disciplines as geography and political science to the teaching of history. Some express concern that such interdisciplinary approaches effectively water down the actual teaching of history, reduce its value for students, and contribute to confusion about how to conduct appropriate assessments of student learning. Others argue that history already draws from the social science disciplines; therefore, calling attention to its interdisciplinarity makes good sense, opening up learning opportunities for students. Much like the controversies over historical significance, this issue of interdisciplinarity has not been resolved. The time factor also plays a role in this debate.


The aforementioned issues and debates also intersect with questions about how to properly assess what students learn from being taught history. During the last quarter of the twentieth century, many Western countries moved closer to centralizing assessment practices in many school subjects including history. What consequences these tests hold vary from county to country. In the Unites States, a national test of history learning (the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, which also tests other subject learning as well) was developed in the 1980s. It tests students' capacity to both recall elements of American history as well as construct short answer responses to written prompts. As of 2001 this test was voluntary and was considered to hold low stakes for participants. However, the U.S. Congress is engaged in a debate to make the NAEP a required national test, thus making it a high-stakes test with sanctions and resource allocations related to outcomes.

Between the late 1980s and 2001 the history portion of the NAEP was given three times. During the administrations of George Bush and Bill Clinton, the data suggested that students in grades four, eight, and twelve recalled low to moderate levels of historical knowledge about the United States. Some critics, such as Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn Jr., argued that this level of recall meant that students effectively knew very little about their country and thus required even heavier doses of American history to overcome the deficits in their knowledge. Based on the growing number of in-depth studies of teaching and learning history, educational researchers such as Linda Levstik countered with the claim that more history, particularly if taught as lecture and textbook recitation, would do little to solve the problem. Reminiscent of the debates described above, the U.S. researchers called for immersing students in a pattern of historical study characterized by investigating history using strategic knowledge borrowed from expertise displayed by historians as a means of developing more powerful substantive understandings about the American past.

This debate over the most productive pedagogical approach to teaching history (e.g., more drill in the substantive knowledge of history versus instruction into and exercise of historical thinking practices to foster deeper knowledge about history) continues largely unabated.

See also: Assessment, subentry on National Assessment of Educational Progress; Curriculum, School; Elementary Education; Geography, Teaching of; Secondary Education; Social Studies Education.


Ahonen, Sirkka. 1995. "Clio Throws Away the Uniform: History Education in Transition in Estonia and Eastern Germany 19891990." In International Yearbook of History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, Peter Lee, and John Slater. London: Woburn.

Carretero, Mario, et al. 1994. "Historical Knowledge: Cognitive and Instructional Implications." In Cognitive and Instructional Processes in History and the Social Sciences, ed. Mario Carretero and James F. Voss. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Cuban, Larry. 1991. "History of Teaching in Social Studies." In Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning, ed. James P. Shaver. New York: Macmillan.

Cuthbertson, Greg, and Grundlingh, Albert. 1995. "Distortions of Discourse: Some Problematical Issues in the Restructuring of History Education in South African Schools." In International Yearbook of History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, Peter Lee, and John Slater. London: Woburn.

Dickinson, Alaric; Gordon, Peter; Lee, Peter; and Slater, John, eds. 1995. International Yearbook of History Education. London: Woburn.

Dominguez, Jesus. 1995. "History Teaching in Spain: The Challenge of a New Curriculum." In International Yearbook of History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, Peter Lee, and John Slater. London: Woburn.

Lee, Peter. 1995. "History and the National Curriculum in England." In International Yearbook of History Education, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Gordon, Peter Lee, and John Slater. London: Woburn.

Lee, Peter, and Ashby, Rosalyn. 2000. "Progression in Historical Understanding Among Students Ages 714." In Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg. New York: New York University Press.

Levstik, Linda. 2000. "Articulating the Silences: Teachers' and Adolescents' Conceptions of Historical Significance." In Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg. New York: New York University Press.

Levstik, Linda, and Barton, Keith. 1997. Doing History: Investigating with Children in Elementary and Middle Schools. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Novick, Peter. 1988. That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Ravitch, Diane, and Finn, Chester, Jr. 1987. What Do Our 17-Year-Olds Know? A Report on the First National Assessment of History and Literature. New York: Harper and Row.

Shemilt: Denis. 1980. History 1316 Evaluation Study. Edinburgh, Eng.: Holmes McDougall.

VanSledright, Bruce A. 2002. In Search of America's Past: Learning to Read History in Elementary School. New York: Teachers College Press, Columbia University.

Wertsch, James. 2000. "Is It Possible to Teach Beliefs, as Well as Knowledge, About History?" In Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives, ed. Peter N. Stearns, Peter Seixas, and Sam Wineburg. New York: New York University Press.

Wineburg, Samuel. 2001. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Bruce A. Vansledright

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Pollution is not a new phenomenon. In fact, it is older than most people realize. Archeologists digging through sites of Upper Paleolithic settlements (settlements of the first modern humans, between forty thousand and ten thousand years ago) routinely find piles of discarded stone tools, and the litter from the making of these tools. One could even argue that the first use of wood-burning fire ushered in the era of air pollution. Lead pollution from Roman smelters can be traced all across Europe. Yet all this early pollution was limited in its effects on the environment. As humans moved from nomadic to settled societies, however, pollution increased in magnitude, becoming a real problem for the environment and its human and nonhuman inhabitants.

Although pollution of major proportions has been a problem since the centuries preceding the Middle Ages, it is worth noting that after World War II, the type of pollution involved changed significantly. Industries began manufacturing and using synthetic materials such as plastics, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and inorganic pesticides like dichlorodiphenyl trichloroethane (DDT). These materials are not only toxic, they also accumulate in the environmentthey are not biodegradable. Thus, increased rates of cancers, physical birth defects, and mental retardation, among other health problems, are now being observed. A worrisome loss of biodiversity exists in the environmentanimal and plant species become extinct at an alarming rate. There is an increased risk of catastrophic industrial accidents, such as the one that occurred in Bhopal, India. The tremendous cleanup costs of hazardous waste dumps, and the difficulty in disposing of these chemicals safely, assure that water, land, and air pollution will continue to be a problem for generations to come. Throughout history and to this day, pollution touches all parts of the environmentthe water, the air, and the land.

Water Pollution

Water is essential to life. That is why most human settlements always began near a water source. Conflicts over control of such sources started in ancient times and continue today, as evident in the Middle East, for example. Israel's National Water Carrier project was the target of attacks by neighboring Arab countries and an escalating factor in the tensions that led to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Unfortunately, the importance of clean water was not understood until the second half of the nineteenth century, a relatively recent development. In ancient Rome, sewers carried human waste into the Tiber River. By 312 b.c.e. the river was so polluted the Romans had to construct aqueducts to obtain clean drinking water. The pollution of water with raw sewage was the catalyst for many typhoid and cholera outbreaks throughout the centuries, in many parts of the world. Even today, in numerous developing nations, cholera still kills tens of thousands each year because clean drinking water is not available, or accessible, to everyone.

The connection between water pollution with human waste and the outbreaks of diseases such as cholera was not understood until the 1850s. In 1854, a devastating cholera outbreak gripped the Soho part of London, centering around the Broad Street well. A physician named John Snow, in what has become one of medicine's most celebrated sleuthing cases, deduced that the cause of the outbreak was contamination of the Broad Street well. Since no one believed him, Snow suggested taking off the well pump's handle. Once the well was not in use, the epidemic ended. The cause was later traced to washing a sick baby's dirty diapers in a cesspool that seeped into the well. Unfortunately for Soho, calls for eliminating cesspools from the vicinity of wells in that area went unheeded for quite some time.

In the United States, human waste was carried in American rivers for centuries. Not only were freshwater sources used as sewage dumps in most of the Western world (certain Asian countries used human waste as fertilizer, instead), but industrial waste was also discarded in rivers and streams. Leather tanning waste and butchering waste were frequent early polluters of water sources too. As the Industrial Revolution progressed, water pollution became a major crisis. Factories found water sources, especially rivers, a convenient means of waste disposal. The trend continued well into the twentieth century. The Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire several times since the 1930s, a result of oil slicks and flammable industrial waste dumped in it. Coupled with widespread and human waste contamination of rivers, a fire on the Cuyahoga in 1969, led to the enactment of the 1972 Clean Water Act (CWA). The CWA prohibits pollutants' discharge into navigable waterways, and there is no doubt it has improved water quality in the United States considerably. However, there is no realistic standard as to how clean is clean, and the act has been criticized for leading to wasted money without effective controls and monitoring systems. There is also the difficulty inherent in controlling nonpoint source pollutionpollution from diffuse or not-easilyidentifiable sourcesa harder task than controlling point source pollution, which can be predicted, controlled, and monitored.

The postWorld War II era saw an explosion of industries and technological advances in developed nations, ranging from engineering to medicine. Many advances that occurred during wartime proved invaluable in peacetime. Antibiotics saved millions of lives, as did pesticides such as DDT, a compound that greatly reduced the incidence of typhus during the war, and later helped control malaria worldwide. But many industrial waste byproducts found their way into the water, either through direct dumping by companies, or through leaching into groundwater from dumping sites. These by-products caused massive wildlife dieoffs, and are also blamed for elevated cancer rates, birth defects, and a lower IQ in people who subsisted on water polluted by heavy industries.

In 1962 scientist Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, an explosive exposé condemning the use of long-lasting pesticides in general, and DDT in particular. Her carefully researched material and its masterful presentation were the driving forces behind the emerging environmental movement in the United States and around the world. The book focused attention on the problem of pollution in the environment. It is believed that many pollution control laws, including CWA, were influenced by Silent Spring. The use of DDT in many nations was subsequently banned. Globally, DDT is currently approved only for control of insect-borne diseases such as malaria, while safer alternatives are being researched.

Air Pollution

The growth of population centers coupled with the switch from wood-burning to coal-burning fires created clouds of smoke over cities as early as the eleventh century. Air pollution regulations first appeared in England in 1273, but for the next several centuries, attempts at controlling the burning of coal met with notable failure. The problem was not confined to London, nor was it confined to England. As the Industrial Revolution swept across countries, and as coal became common in private residences, smoke and industrial pollution claimed more and more lives. In the United States, Donora, Pennsylvania, became famous for a tragedy that symbolized the dangers of industrial air pollution. On October 26, 1948, a thick, malodorous fog enveloped the small industrial town. Unlike usual fogs, it did not burn off as the day progressed. Instead, it stayed on the ground for five days. Twenty people died in Donora and 7,000 were hospitalized with respiratory problems. The cause was a weather anomaly that trapped toxic waste emissions from the town's zinc smelting plant close to the ground. The Donora disaster brought air pollution into focus in the United States, and paved the way for the Clean Air Act, enacted in 1963 and strengthened in 1970.

Between December 5 and 9, 1952, 4,000 people died in London as a result of smog trapped in a thermal inversion (a condition where the air close to the ground is colder than the layer above it, and is therefore unable to rise above it). This incident brought about England's Clean Air Act in 1956.

Smoke from coal-fired power plants creates the related problem of acid rain. Gases (sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) released by burning fossil fuels make the rain more acidic and therefore corrosive. Acid rain kills plants and trees and damages structures. It also accumulates in rivers and streams, and has resulted in lakes that are already devoid of life in large parts of eastern North America and Scandinavia.

All around the world, the advent of the internal combustion engine-powered vehicles compounded air pollution, adding particulate and gaseous contaminate to the air people breath. The use of leaded gasoline raised lead levels in populations around the world. Leaded gasoline was phased out in the U.S. starting in 1976, but is still in use in many parts of the world In 1987, scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer and recognized a serious threat to the layer that protects the earth from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. The Montréal Protocol, drafted in 1987, addressed the damage caused to the ozone layer by a chemical group known as CFCs, which were common in aerosol spray containers and air conditioners. The Montréal Protocol set as a goal the elimination of CFCs in consumer and industrial products. The global climate change accord signed in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1992 addressed the so-called "green-house gases," gases which trap heat in the atmosphere and lead to a global warming trend. The Rio Accord, and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) call for a reduction in greenhouse gases emissions but little progress has been made as the United States, a major generator of greenhouse gases, never signed the treaty and President George W. Bush has rejected the Kyoto Protocol outright.

Land Pollution

At the beginning of the twentieth century, William T. Love imagined a model community in New York, on the edge of Niagara Falls. Love dug a canal to supply water power to what he envisioned would be a combination of industrial and residential areas in his community.

Love was unable to complete his project. During the 1920s the canal he dug was turned into a landfill operated by the Hooker Chemical Company. In 1953 Hooker sold the site to the Niagara Falls Board of Education for $1, with the disclaimer ". . .that the premises above described have been filled . . . to the present grade level thereof with waste products resulting from the manufacturing of chemicals. . . ." The city built an elementary school on the site. Houses were later added. Over the years, the underground containers filled with approximately 21,000 tons of chemical waste corroded. In 1977 a record rainfall brought about a tragic consequence: The waste began to leach into people's homes, backyards, and playgrounds. Love Canal has been officially associated with high rates of birth defects, miscarriages, and other severe illness resulting from land contamination.

The tragedy of Love Canal is perhaps the most famous incident of chemical waste dumps harming people, but it is definitely not the only one. Health effects range from cancer to birth defects. The practice of chemical dumping persisted for years in the early twentieth century, in many places, without a thought to the possible risks or consequences of these actions. When Love Canal leached its deadly contents, the United States took notice. In 1980 Congress enacted the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA), the first U.S. federal law to address toxic waste dumps. CERCLA, also known as Superfund, is the emergency fund to clean toxic waste dumps when the owners of the dumps are unknown or unable to pay for a necessary cleanup. While Superfund is helping clean up many hazardous sites, litigation over liability led to delay and costly legal battles over who pays for cleanups. Another criticism is that Superfund lacks clear standards as to what constitutes a "clean" site.

Across the globe, developing countries have been buying hazardous waste from developed nations, where disposal is more expensive. Historically, there has been little or no regulation of hazardous waste disposal in developing nations; as the world becomes more of a global community, however, this problem will no doubt haunt future generations.

Chemical Pollution

In 1984, 30 tons of lethal methyl isocyanate gas were released into the air in Bhopal, India, from a Union Carbide plant. Thousands of people (estimates range from 2,500 to well over 8,000) died immediately. Deaths and disabilities continued to plague the populace for years following what was termed, at the time, "the worst industrial accident in history." A year later, in Institute, West Virginia, another Union Carbide plant released toxic gas into the atmosphere, resulting in illnesses among town residents. Deeply concerned about the possibility of a Bhopal-like disaster in the United States, Congress acted swiftly to enact the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA). The law requires companies that handle hazardous waste to furnish complete disclosure of their annual polluting activities, storage and handling facilities, any accidental release of hazardous material into the environment in a quantity above an established safe limit, and all material necessary for local authorities to respond to an accident involving the hazardous material(s) on site. Since the law was enacted, a substantial reduction in toxic releases was reported by companies who are required to participate in EPCRA disclosures.

Oil pollutes land and water sources, the most tragic example of which is the Exxon Valdez. While not one of the largest spills in the world, it is considered the worst in terms of the damage to the environment. On the night of March 24, 1989, the oil tanker ran aground at Bligh Reef, Alaska, spilling eleven million gallons of oil into the fragile environment of Prince William Sound. A lack of containment and cleanup equipment compounded the problem, and even fifteen years after the spill the Prince William Sound environment was still struggling to recover from the massive damage.

One response to the Valdez disaster was the passage of the 1990 Oil Pollution Act, which, among other things, required oil tankers to be double-hulled, and gave states more say in their spill-prevention standards. The spill-response equipment and safeguards procedures at Prince William Sound, loading terminal for the major tanker route on the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System, have been brought up to date.

Nuclear power is one of the most controversial issues of our time. For many people, the benefits it brings are dwarfed by the immense dangers inherent in the nature of its fuel. Release of radioactivity into the air and the atmosphere occurred over the years, but accidents like Chernobyl and Three Mile Island terrify people, and with good reason.

On March 28, 1979, a partial meltdown of the reactor in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, released radioactivity into the atmosphere. The release itself was small, according to authorities. But inside the containment building a hydrogen bubble was growing, threatening to blow the building and spew radioactivity into an area inhabited by some 300,000 people. The effects such an explosion would have had on the population were only theorized until 1986, when the nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine, did explode. Though the immediate loss of life was small according to official figures, within several months the death toll was growing. Cancer rates, especially in children, have soared in the Ukraine and Belarus. And while the blown reactor is buried in concrete, evidence show the cover is deteriorating.

The Three Mile Island accident led to the establishment of the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations (INPO). INPO is tasked with promoting safety in commercial nuclear plants in the United States, and cooperates with similar international organizations.

While safety regulations and oversight bodies were upgraded and tightened as a result of the two accidents above, nuclear waste, both civilian and military, presents a huge problem of disposal. The decay of some nuclear waste can take thousands of years. Disposal of the short-lived waste is easy compared to finding a place that can safely store highly radioactive materials for thousands of years. Moreover, many communities oppose the transportation and/or burial of such waste in their area.

Environmental pollution is not new, but its scope, type, and complexity have worsened since World War II. The good news is that nations across the globe now have an awareness of the consequences of pollution, and the dangers they pose to our very existence. Both governments and nongovernmental organizations are working on the many facets of pollution. Among the answers they seek are alternative, nonpolluting energy sources, a way to control harmful emissions and toxic discharges into the air and water, and methods for cleaning up damaged ecosystems and bringing species back from the brink of extinction. Coincident with this work is the growing understanding that a safe and protected environment must begin with social healing, that both poverty and affluence perpetuate environmental degradation. Poor societies must concentrate on immediate survival before they can spare the time or energy to worry about environmental health. Rich societies must understand that their comfortable lifestyle comes at the high price of increased pollutionfrom sources such as factories, car engines, and power plants. The challenges that face the global community as it tries to combat an ecological crisis involve creating social conditions that allow all members of the community to be equally committed to, and equally capable of, healing the place we all call home.

see also Carson, Rachel; Clean Air Act; Clean Water Act; Disasters: Chemical Accidents and Spills; Disasters: Nuclear Accidents; Disasters: Oil Spills; Donora, Pennsylvania; Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know; Environmental Movement; Laws and Regulations, International; Laws and Regulations, United States; Mass Media; Superfund.


asimov, isaac, and pohl, fredrick. (1991). our angry earth. new york: tor.

leinwand, gerald. (1990). the environment: american issues. new york: facts on file.

markham, adam. (1994). a brief history of pollution. new york: st. martin's press.

nebel, bernard j., and wright, richard t. (2000). environmental science: the way the world works. upper saddle river, nj: prentice hall.

ponting, clive. (1992). a green history of the world. new york: st. martin's press.

internet resources

"the environmental history timeline." available from

online ethics center for engineering and science at case western reserve university. "rachel carson: a scientist alerts the public to the hazards of pesticides." available from

Adi R. Ferrara

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history, in its broadest sense, is the story of humanity's past. It also refers to the recording of that past. The diverse sources of history include books, newspapers, printed documents, personal papers, and other archival records, artifacts, and oral accounts. Historians use this material to form coherent narratives and uncover linked sequences and patterns in past events. Most histories are concerned with causality, that is, why certain outcomes happened as they did, and how they are linked to earlier events.

Origins of Historical Writing

In preliterate societies, the accounts of the past are related orally, and many cultures have produced intricate and sophisticated oral histories. African peoples have long relied on oral histories to learn about their past. Starting with the medieval Islamic kingdoms of Africa some of these oral chronicles were recorded in Arabic, and sub-Saharan Africa developed its own written histories. In the 1550s the Popol Vuh, an elaborate account of the history and mythology of the Quiché people in Mexico, was recorded in Spanish.

In the older civilizations, as in Egypt, Mesopotamia, and China, historical records appear immediately after the appearance of writing, for conquering kings wished to record their triumphs for all posterity. There was also some interest in the remote past, particularly genealogical interest in the glorification of royal ancestors and their achievements. There appears early, too, a strain of religious interest in showing the lessons of history, religious and ethical. Thus the early historical sections of the Bible are concerned with the manifestation of God's will in the events of human existence, while they show the same genealogical interests as the king lists of other peoples.

Western Historiography

Greek and Roman Historiography

It was not until the time of the Greeks that historiography, the writing of organic history, emerged. The compilations of the logographoi in the 6th cent. BC were organized records. It is with some justice, however, that Herodotus is considered the first historian, because in his work appears the conscious desire to record all the significant and noteworthy circumstances surrounding a set of events and motivating the actions of people in those events. Herodotus was remarkable, too, for the scope of his interests; he recorded myths, described customs, and made speculations. He used much unverified information, however, and failed to differentiate clearly between fact and fable.

The second great Greek historian, Thucydides, was of a different stamp. In writing the history of the Peloponnesian War he limited himself to matters of state and war; he tried to establish chronology and facts with some exactitude, avoiding the digressions of Herodotus; though his attempt at writing a factual and impartial history was not entirely successful, he wrote a grave work, conveying the lessons he drew from his story. The third of the great Greek historians, Xenophon, was more devoted to the purely storytelling aspects of history.

The influence of Thucydides was early in the ascendant, and the two important Greek historians of the Roman period, Polybius and Dio Cassius, more or less modeled themselves on that master. The Roman historian Livy was more of a teller of tales, and he invoked the intervention of the gods to explain cause and effect. The great commentaries of Julius Caesar were more like inspired reporting than pure history writing, and the personal element in them was strong. Tacitus followed more or less the pattern of Thucydides but with a brooding moral interest in the decay of Roman society.

Medieval Historiography

The concern with separating fact from fiction and legend often disappeared in medieval historiography. Medieval works tended to divide into two types of histories. One was the universal history, which found some inspiration in St. Augustine's City of God; it was outstandingly illustrated by Paulus Orosius and continued by such lesser men as Isidore of Seville. The other was the chronicle, ranging from the crude and simple annals of local monasteries to more orderly and organized accounts such as those of Saxo Grammaticus, Otto of Freising, Roger of Wendover, and Matthew of Paris. The two forms were not infrequently mixed. Attempts at broader histories of peoples, such as the history of the Goths by Cassiodorus (preserved only in the compendium of Jordanes) and the history of the Franks by Gregory of Tours, were early and had few successors. The chronicles tended to be parochial. Since learning was restricted to the church, the chroniclers were generally biased in favor of the church, and often they were little concerned with politics and secular rule. Among the better medieval histories was Bede's Ecclesiastical History, an early model in a branch of historiography that has been of great importance. The biographical or semibiographical accounts of knightly deeds in the Crusades gave rise to the critical history of William of Tyre.

Contact with Byzantines and Muslims broadened history writing by showing the Westerners other points of view. Byzantine historians had also early fallen into the writing of chronicles, although the greater unity of the Byzantine Empire and the persistence of a unified culture gave somewhat more literary quality to the Byzantine works, from Procopius through Anna Comnena to the 13th-century writings of George Acropolita and the Acominatus brothers. Medieval Islamic historians such as al-Tabari and al-Masudi wrote histories of great scope, often employing sophisticated methods to separate fact from fable. But by far the greatest medieval Arabic historian was Ibn Khaldun, who created an early version of sociological history to account for the rise and decline of cities and civilizations. In 12th-century Europe secular history writing emerged, shown in the work of Geoffroi de Villehardouin, and the chronicles of Jean, sire de Joinville, Jean Froissart, and Philippe de Comines in successive centuries.

Renaissance Historiography

The humanism of the Renaissance revolutionized historiography, for it placed emphasis on textual criticism and on a critical attitude toward documents and sources. Men such as Petrarch, Lorenzo Valla, Marsilius of Padua, and Juan Luis Vives did much to produce a more critical attitude toward the past. Revival of classical learning immediately affected historians, and in one sense Niccolò Machiavelli and Francesco Guicciardini followed in the steps of Greek and Roman historians, although their work was original and immediate. Both the Reformation and the Catholic Reformation furthered historical scholarship, as both sides used the past to support their religious views. Critical methods in history were forwarded in the 16th and 17th cent. by the writings of Jean Bodin and Jean Mabillon, and great critical collections of sources were begun (e.g., the Acta sanctorum), while antiquaries everywhere discovered, questioned, and emended old texts. The way was prepared for the beginning of modern history.

History in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

The historians of the Enlightenment wrote broad accounts of social and cultural epochs. Voltaire cultivated the wider, universal view of history, stressing its social and moral aspects. The attempt to get back to the fundamental natural bases of human development was implicit in the Esprit des lois of Montesquieu. The 18th cent. saw, too, the great attempt made by Giovanni Battista Vico to synchronize history into meaningful general patterns. From England came the masterful work of Edward Gibbon, combining erudition with the philosophical concerns of the 18th cent. on the rise and decline of civilization.

The end of the century also brought the budding of archaeology out of antiquarianism and of philology out of classical scholarship. These two sciences were essential to the development, in the 19th cent., of critical objective history as an academic discipline. The father of the new objective school was the great Leopold von Ranke. His efforts and those of his successors, notably Theodor Mommsen, Johann Gustav Droysen, and Heinrich von Treitschke, established canons of criticism and historical methods. This German school made history writing into a profession and founded the formal academic study of history, though they fell short of their ideal of writing about the past "as it actually happened." In France, modern academic history began with Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges. It was continued by such men as Ernest Lavisse, Charles Seignobos, and Achille Luchaire, who were among those who turned history into a wide study.

In the 19th cent. the history of the nation state became the dominant form of history writing. Among the more prominent romantic national historians were Thomas B. Macaulay in England, and Jules Michelet in France. In the United States, romantic historians, such as George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, John L. Motley, and Francis Parkman were followed by such brilliant and questioning men as Henry Adams.

The broader interest in the philosophy of history had not died, and the philosophy of Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel had created a school of idealistic historians. Other philosophical views were reflected in general theories, some of the later figures being Oswald Spengler, Benedetto Croce, and Arnold Toynbee. The theories of Karl Marx not only set in motion a continuing series of interpretations of history from the Marxist economic point of view but also affected historians of all other schools. The progressive school of U.S. historians, such as Frederick J. Turner, emphasized social and economic factors in explaining historical development, as did the "new history" of James Harvey Robinson and Charles A. Beard. The trend was toward broader social and economic history.

History in the Twentieth Century

The trend toward broader social and economic history continued in the 20th cent. Anthropology and sociology contributed new ideas to history and opened the way to the history of cultures in the round (related to, but different from, such theories of spiritual cultural history as that of Karl Lamprecht). Modern psychology also began to be applied to the interpretation of history, and the growth of technological society stimulated some historians' concern with the development of science. The constant growth of the body of critical professional historiography led in the 20th cent. to historical research in extraordinary detail, stimulated by the techniques of Sir Lewis Namier. Perhaps in reaction to this increasing emphasis, G. M. Trevelyan reasserted the principle of history as an art as well as a scientific study.

The adherents of the "new social history" sought to replace the previous emphasis of most historians on political history with a range of social and economic concerns. The most influential social historians have been members of the French Annales school, such as Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel, who focused primarily on medieval and early modern European history. Another influential group of historians, including Eric Hobsbawm, E. P. Thompson, and Herbert Gutman, who were influenced by Marxist class analysis, wrote histories of working people and the popular classes. Other social historians have explored the history of those who formerly were largely ignored, such as women and minorities. The study of social history was also reinforced by the development of computer analysis of historical materials. The quantitative analysis made possible by computers seemed to allow detailed study of far broader areas than had been possible for the historian using traditional methods. In recent years some of the most successful and popular historians—such as Eric Foner, Simon Schama, and Jonathan Spence—have found innovative ways of integrating the older concerns of national political histories with the new methods of social history.

Eastern Historiography

In Asia the writing of history was concerned with the recording of events, chiefly as chronicles, annals, or archives.


In China by the middle of the Chou dynasty, histories of the royal house and of the various states (notably the Shu Ching, or Document of History, and the Annals of Lu by Confucius) were being compiled. Ssu-ma Ch'ien (d. c.87 BC) wrote the first general history of China; his work was the model for later dynastic histories. He was followed in the 1st cent. AD by Pan Ku, compiler of the History of the Former Han. Under the T'ang dynasty, imperial commissions completed or compiled eight standard histories to fill in the period from the Three Kingdoms. A pioneer collection of early inscriptions was made, and Ssu-ma Kuang wrote (1066–84) an integrated history of China from 403 BC to AD 959. The Manchu rulers were noted for fraudulent histories glorifying their past. Critical treatment of Chinese history was forwarded in the late 19th and early 20th cent. with the work of Kang Youwei, Wang Xian Qian, and Wang Guowei.


Japan's early tradition of historiography was derived from China. About the 3d cent. AD the Japanese began to keep imperial archives, and an accurate chronology was developed by the early 6th cent. The Kojiki (early 8th cent.) purported to be a history of the royal line since mythological times. It was supplemented by the more detailed Nihonshiki, which was continued to the end of the 9th cent. by five official histories. In the 17th cent. Tokugawa Mitsukuni (1628–1701) started to compile a history of Japan modeled on the Chinese dynastic histories; supplements appeared until 1906. Motoori Norinaga (1730–1801) was the leading figure in a movement to revive Shinto and imperial prestige; his commentary on the Kojiki was completed in 1798.


Surviving Indian records date from the 6th cent. BC, when anthologies were being made from older collections. Genealogies of native rulers appeared in the Puranas. However, the writing of history was not highly developed in India; the principal products were the artha, or handbooks on politics and practical life. In the 7th cent. the work of Hsüan-tsang gave much valuable information about India. Arab works on India, notably that of Al-Biruni of Khiva, began to appear in the 10th cent.; notable later Muslim historians were Firishta and Khafi Khan.


See London Univ. School of Oriental and African Studies, Historical Writing on the Peoples of Asia (4 vol., 1961–62); M. A. Fitzsimons et al., ed., The Development of Historiography (1954, repr. 1967); M. Bloch, The Historian's Craft (tr. 1964); F. Rosenthal, A History of Muslim Historiography (2d ed. 1968); R. F. Berkhofer, A Behavioral Approach to Historical Analysis (1969); S. W. Halperin, ed., Essays in Modern European Historiography (1970); J. H. Hexter, The History Primer (1971); B. B. Wolman, ed., The Psychoanalytic Interpretation of History (1971); P. Gay et al., ed., Historians at Work (4 vol., 1972–75); J. Vansina, Oral Tradition as History (1985); G. B. Himmelfarb, The New History and the Old (1987); P. Novick, That Noble Dream (1988); J. Clive, Not by Fact Alone (1989); P. Burke, The French Historical Revolution (1990).

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207. History

See also 18. ANTIQUITY ; 308. PAST

one who chronicles yearly events; a writer of annals.
Obsolete, the recording or study of past events.
the application of mathematics, especially statistics, to the study of history. cliometrician , n.
the belief that history repeats itself, as suggested in the writings of Arnold Toynbee. Also cyclicity . cyclic , adj.
1. a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, or group.
2. the study of family ancestries or histories.
3. descent from an original form or progenitor; lineage. genealogist , n. genealogie, genealogical , adj.
a work on heroes and their history. heroologist , n. heroological , adj.
1. a theory that history is determined by immutable laws.
2. a theory that all cultural phenomena are historically determined and that all historians should study a period on its own merits.
3. a search for the laws of historical evolution.
4. a profound or an excessive respect for historical institutions, as traditions or laws. Also historism . historicist , n., adj.
1. the body of literature concerned with historical matters.
2. the methods of historical research and presentation.
3. an official history. historiographer , n. historiographic, historiographical , adj.
the study or knowledge of history.
1. an expert in medieval history, literature, art, architecture, etc.
2. a person devoted to the art, culture, or spirit of the Middle Ages.
the theory that there is only one causal factor in history, as intellect or nature. monist , n. monistic , adj.
a specialist in Oriental history, art, literature, etc.
1. a biographical sketch containing a description of a persons appearance, qualities, and history.
2. a collection of such sketches. prosopographer , n. See also 149. FACIAL FEATURES .
the earliest period of history, before the time when records were kept. protohistorical , adj.
a movement to reexamine historical information in the light of current knowledge. revisionist , n., adj.

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his·to·ry / ˈhist(ə)rē/ • n. (pl. -ries) 1. the study of past events, particularly in human affairs: medieval European history. ∎  the past considered as a whole: letters that have changed the course of history. 2. the whole series of past events connected with someone or something: the history of Aegean painting. ∎  an eventful past: the group has quite a history. ∎  a past characterized by a particular thing: his family had a history of insanity. 3. a continuous, typically chronological, record of important or public events or of a particular trend or institution: a history of the labor movement. ∎  a historical play: Shakespeare's comedies, histories, and tragedies. PHRASES: be history be perceived as no longer relevant to the present: the mainframe will soon be history | I was making a laughingstock of myself, but that's history now. ∎ inf. used to indicate imminent departure, dismissal, or death: an inch either way and you'd be history. go down in history be remembered or recorded in history. make history do something that is remembered in or influences the course of history. the rest is history used to indicate that the events succeeding those already related are so well known that they need not be recounted again: they teamed up, discovered that they could make music, and the rest is history. ORIGIN: late Middle English (also as a verb): via Latin from Greek historia ‘finding out, narrative, history,’ from histōr ‘learned, wise man,’ from an Indo-European root shared by wit2 .

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history history repeats itself comment on circumstances that replicate a previous situation; proverbial saying, mid 19th century. The comment was wryly extended by Rupert Brooke, in a letter of 1906, to ‘History repeats itself; historians repeat one another.’
the rest is history used to indicate that the events succeeding those already related are so well known that they need not be counted again.

See also happy is the country that has no history, drum-and-trumpet history, Father of History at father, future history.

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history †story, tale; methodical narrative of events, branch of knowledge dealing with these XV; methodical account of natural phenomena XVI. — L. historia — Gr. historíā learning or knowing by inquiry, narrative, history, f. hístōr knowing, learned, wise man :- Fidtōr, f. Fid- know (see WIT2).
So historian XV. — (O)F. historic XVII; historical XVI. f. L. historicus — Gr. historikós.

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history Written record of the human past, often used to mean the events themselves rather than the record of them. The Western historical tradition began with the Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides. China (and countries influenced by it) had a different, even older historical tradition in which the past was seen as the source of wisdom and historians strove to distinguish comprehensible patterns in it.

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historybeery, bleary, cheery, dearie, dreary, Dun Laoghaire, eerie, eyrie (US aerie), Kashmiri, leery, peri, praemunire, query, smeary, teary, theory, weary •Deirdre • incendiary • intermediary •subsidiary •auxiliary, ciliary, domiciliary •apiary • topiary • farriery • furriery •justiciary •bestiary, vestiary •breviary • aviary • hosiery •diary, enquiry, expiry, fiery, friary, inquiry, miry, priory, spiry, wiry •podiatry, psychiatry •dowry, floury, flowery, loury, showery, towery •brewery • jewellery (US jewelry) •curie, de jure, fioriture, fury, houri, Jewry, jury, Manipuri, Missouri, moory, Newry, tandoori, Urey •statuary • actuary • sanctuary •obituary • sumptuary • voluptuary •January • electuary • ossuary •mortuary •Bradbury, Cadbury •blackberry, hackberry •cranberry • waxberry •Barbary, barberry •Shaftesbury • raspberry •bayberry, blaeberry •Avebury • Aylesbury • Sainsbury •bilberry, tilbury •bribery •corroboree, jobbery, robbery, slobbery, snobbery •dogberry • Roddenberry • Fosbury •strawberry • Salisbury •crowberry, snowberry •chokeberry •Rosebery, Shrewsbury •blueberry, dewberry •Dewsbury • Bloomsbury • gooseberry •blubbery, rubbery, shrubbery •Sudbury • mulberry • huckleberry •Bunbury • husbandry • loganberry •Canterbury • Glastonbury •Burberry, turbary •hatchery • archery •lechery, treachery •stitchery, witchery •debauchery • butchery • camaraderie •cindery, tindery •industry • dromedary • lapidary •spidery • bindery • doddery •quandary • powdery • boundary •bouldery • embroidery •prudery, rudery •do-goodery • shuddery • thundery •prebendary • legendary • secondary •amphorae • wafery •midwifery, periphery •infantry • housewifery • spoofery •puffery • sulphury (US sulfury) •Calgary •beggary, Gregory •vagary •piggery, priggery, whiggery •brigandry • bigotry • allegory •vinegary • category • subcategory •hoggery, toggery •pettifoggery • demagoguery •roguery • sugary •buggery, skulduggery, snuggery, thuggery •Hungary • humbuggery •ironmongery • lingerie • treasury •usury • menagerie • pageantry •Marjorie • kedgeree • gingery •imagery • orangery • savagery •forgery • soldiery • drudgery •perjury, surgery •microsurgery •hackery, quackery, Thackeray, Zachary •mountebankery • knick-knackery •gimcrackery • peccary • grotesquerie •bakery, fakery, jacquerie •chickaree, chicory, hickory, Terpsichore, trickery •whiskery • apothecary •crockery, mockery, rockery •falconry • jiggery-pokery •cookery, crookery, rookery •brusquerie •puckery, succory •cuckoldry •calorie, gallery, Malory, salary, Valerie •saddlery • balladry • gallantry •kilocalorie • diablerie • chandlery •harlotry • celery • pedlary •exemplary •helotry, zealotry •nailery, raillery •Tuileries •ancillary, artillery, capillary, codicillary, distillery, fibrillary, fritillary, Hilary, maxillary, pillory •mamillary • tutelary • corollary •bardolatry, hagiolatry, iconolatry, idolatry •cajolery, drollery •foolery, tomfoolery •constabulary, vocabulary •scapulary • capitulary • formulary •scullery • jugglery • cutlery •chancellery • epistolary • burglary •mammary • fragmentary •passementerie • flimflammery •armory, armoury, gendarmerie •almonry •emery, memory •creamery • shimmery • primary •rosemary • yeomanry •parfumerie, perfumery •flummery, Montgomery, mummery, summary, summery •gossamery • customary • infirmary •cannery, granary, tannery •canonry •antennary, bimillenary, millenary, venery •tenantry • chicanery •beanery, bicentenary, catenary, centenary, deanery, greenery, machinery, plenary, scenery, senary, septenary •disciplinary, interdisciplinary •hymnary • missionary •ordinary, subordinary •valetudinary • imaginary • millinery •culinary • seminary • preliminary •luminary • urinary • veterinary •mercenary • sanguinary •binary, finery, pinery, quinary, vinery, winery •Connery • Conakry • ornery • joinery •buffoonery, poltroonery, sublunary, superlunary •gunnery, nunnery •consuetudinary • visionary •exclusionary • legionary • pulmonary •coronary • reactionary • expansionary •concessionary, confessionary, discretionary •confectionery, insurrectionary, lectionary •deflationary, inflationary, probationary, stationary, stationery •expeditionary, petitionary, prohibitionary, traditionary, transitionary •dictionary • cautionary •ablutionary, counter-revolutionary, devolutionary, elocutionary, evolutionary, revolutionary, substitutionary •functionary •diversionary, reversionary •fernery, quaternary, ternary •peppery • extempore • weaponry •apery, drapery, japery, napery, papery, vapoury (US vapory) •frippery, slippery •coppery, foppery •popery • dupery • trumpery •February • heraldry • knight-errantry •arbitrary • registrary • library •contrary • horary • supernumerary •itinerary • honorary • funerary •contemporary, extemporary, temporary •literary • brasserie • chancery •accessory, intercessory, pessary, possessory, tesserae •dispensary, incensory, ostensory, sensory, suspensory •tracery •pâtisserie, rotisserie •emissary • dimissory •commissary, promissory •janissary • necessary • derisory •glossary • responsory • sorcery •grocery • greengrocery •delusory, illusory •compulsory • vavasory • adversary •anniversary, bursary, cursory, mercery, nursery •haberdashery •evidentiary, penitentiary, plenipotentiary, residentiary •beneficiary, fishery, judiciary •noshery • gaucherie • fiduciary •luxury • tertiary •battery, cattery, chattery, flattery, tattery •factory, manufactory, olfactory, phylactery, refractory, satisfactory •artery, martyry, Tartary •mastery, plastery •directory, ex-directory, interjectory, rectory, refectory, trajectory •peremptory •alimentary, complementary, complimentary, documentary, elementary, parliamentary, rudimentary, sedimentary, supplementary, testamentary •investigatory •adulatory, aleatory, approbatory, celebratory, clarificatory, classificatory, commendatory, congratulatory, consecratory, denigratory, elevatory, gyratory, incantatory, incubatory, intimidatory, modificatory, participatory, placatory, pulsatory, purificatory, reificatory, revelatory, rotatory •natatory • elucidatory • castigatory •mitigatory • justificatory •imprecatory • equivocatory •flagellatory • execratory • innovatory •eatery, excretory •glittery, jittery, skittery, twittery •benedictory, contradictory, maledictory, valedictory, victory •printery, splintery •consistory, history, mystery •presbytery •inhibitory, prohibitory •hereditary • auditory • budgetary •military, paramilitary •solitary • cemetery • limitary •vomitory • dormitory • fumitory •interplanetary, planetary, sanitary •primogenitary • dignitary •admonitory, monitory •unitary • monetary • territory •secretary • undersecretary •plebiscitary • repository • baptistery •transitory •depositary, depository, expository, suppository •niterie •Godwottery, lottery, pottery, tottery •bottomry • watery • psaltery •coterie, notary, protonotary, rotary, votary •upholstery •bijouterie, charcuterie, circumlocutory •persecutory • statutory • salutary •executory •contributory, retributory, tributary •interlocutory •buttery, fluttery •introductory • adultery • effrontery •perfunctory • blustery • mediatory •retaliatory • conciliatory • expiatory •denunciatory, renunciatory •appreciatory, depreciatory •initiatory, propitiatory •dietary, proprietary •extenuatory •mandatary, mandatory •predatory • sedentary • laudatory •prefatory • offertory • negatory •obligatory •derogatory, interrogatory, supererogatory •nugatory •expurgatory, objurgatory, purgatory •precatory •explicatory, indicatory, vindicatory •confiscatory, piscatory •dedicatory • judicatory •qualificatory • pacificatory •supplicatory •communicatory, excommunicatory •masticatory • prognosticatory •invocatory • obfuscatory •revocatory • charlatanry •depilatory, dilatory, oscillatory •assimilatory • consolatory •voluntary • emasculatory •ejaculatory •ambulatory, circumambulatory, perambulatory •regulatory •articulatory, gesticulatory •manipulatory • copulatory •expostulatory • circulatory •amatory, declamatory, defamatory, exclamatory, inflammatory, proclamatory •crematory • segmentary •lachrymatory •commentary, promontory •informatory, reformatory •momentary •affirmatory, confirmatory •explanatory • damnatory •condemnatory •cosignatory, signatory •combinatory •discriminatory, eliminatory, incriminatory, recriminatory •comminatory • exterminatory •hallucinatory • procrastinatory •monastery • repertory •emancipatory • anticipatory •exculpatory, inculpatory •declaratory, preparatory •respiratory • perspiratory •vibratory •migratory, transmigratory •exploratory, laboratory, oratory •inauguratory • adjuratory •corroboratory • reverberatory •refrigeratory • compensatory •desultory • dysentery •exhortatory, hortatory •salutatory • gustatory • lavatory •inventory •conservatory, observatory •improvisatory •accusatory, excusatory •lathery •feathery, heathery, leathery •dithery, slithery •carvery •reverie, severy •Avery, bravery, knavery, quavery, Savery, savory, savoury, slavery, wavery •thievery •livery, quivery, shivery •silvery •ivory, salivary •ovary •discovery, recovery •servery • equerry • reliquary •antiquary • cassowary • stipendiary •colliery • pecuniary • chinoiserie •misery • wizardry • citizenry •advisory, provisory, revisory, supervisory •causerie, rosary

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