Comparative European Social History

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Hartmut Kaelble

Since the 1970s comparative European social history has become a growing field of research by European historians. Comparative books crucial for history in general were published by European historians in fields such as family history, the middle class, the lower middle class, workers and labor movements, intellectuals and professionals, private and public bureaucracy, city planning, the welfare state, national consciousness and national ceremonies, religion and denominations, consumption, society at war, and the historical social peculiarities of Europe.

About twenty to thirty books and articles on comparative European history are published each year, with pronounced fluctuations from one year to the next. This may seem a small output, but, in fact, among the subdisciplines of history, works of comparative research in social history comprise a fair number. Comparative social history is built upon a long tradition of comparing societies in history. Notable classical historians and historical sociologists of the first half of the twentieth century, such as Max Weber, Otto Hintze, and Marc Bloch, had published in comparative social history and, in contrast to other historians of the period, were continuously read and discussed by historians. In spite of these encouraging classical texts, however, comparative social history was very rarely explored by historians until the late 1970s.


Historical comparison is usually seen as the explicit contrasting of two or more societies to explore parallels and differences, convergence and divergences. Comparisons are mostly done only for specific themes. Societies as a whole are rarely compared. The main goal of historical comparison is the explanation or the typology of differences and similarities, as well as the better understanding of other societies. Comparisons are mostly international but sometimes also regional or local (in the same country or in different countries) and sometimes between civilizations. Historical comparisons are mostly synchronic but sometimes diachronic, comparing events and structures in different periods. Comparisons usually concentrate on a limited number of countries. Sometimes they might include all countries of one civilization. They almost never intend to explore general rules of human behavior, as the classical sociologists and ethnologists did. Historical comparisons are often limited to the confrontation between societies, but good comparisons should include also transfers, interrelations, and mutual images between the societies under comparison.


The reasons for the rise of comparative social history have to do not only with the background of the discipline itself but also with social history in general. Without the international rise of social history since about the 1950s and 1960s—as documented by this encyclopedia—comparative social history is unimaginable. Comparative history must draw from a much larger body of historical research; it must ask similar questions concerning different countries. Only a large number of social historians will in the end produce some comparativists. To be sure, the most influential pioneers of the first generation of European social historians did not produce influential models of comparisons. The first big debates in social history, such as on the living standard during the industrial revolution, on the labor aristocracy, and on the utility of the marxist concept of social class, were sometimes international but almost never comparative. The most widely read and sold books in social history were national or local rather than comparative. The rise of social history was a necessary precondition but did not necessarily lead to comparisons.

Hence a second factor, the expansion of international research and scholarly contact since the 1960s, was of crucial importance. The work situation for scholars who wanted to do research in an international perspective clearly improved. Exchange programs for students as well as for researchers became more numerous. Library budgets improved, and history libraries became more international. International workshops, invitations, guest lectures, and visiting professorships increased. International meeting centers in the humanities were established in France, the United States, Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden, and the Netherlands. Comparative European social historians passed almost without exception through one or several of these institutions and programs, most of which did not exist in the Europe of the 1950s. To be sure, the new comparative social history was not purposely planned by these international meeting centers and exchange programs, but without them comparative social history would not have taken off in Europe, where most history departments lacked systematic regional studies.

However, not all European historians could profit from this new institutional cross-fertilization. For political reasons historians in Eastern Europe were largely excluded until 1989–1991, and for economic reasons historians in southern Europe, especially in Spain, Portugal, and Greece, and to some extent also in Italy, rarely took part. It was mainly historians from the northern part of Europe and the United States who were brought together by these international meeting centers and exchange programs. Hence it comes as no surprise that European comparative social history has been mainly written by French, British, American, West German, Swiss, Austrian, Swedish, Norwegian, and Dutch historians.

Comparative social science was also a major encouragement for comparative social history. In the social sciences, empirical comparative research had a much longer and more solid tradition than in history. That historical social scientists had published major comparative work in a period in which social historians still hesitated to engage in comparison was of great significance. Historians read and discussed intensively the social science work of Europeans such as Stein Rokkan and Jean Fourastié, of Americans such as Charles Tilly and Barrington Moore, and of Americans who were exiled from Europe such as Reinhard Bendix, Seymour M. Lipset, and Karl Deutsch. Even if historians chose other themes and methods, these social science works were major reference points. It is also clear, however, that social historians could respond to this encouragement more readily than could most other historians because themes in social history are often more transnational than in political history.

The rise of comparative social history is also associated with the general history of the second half of the twentieth century. The end of the traditional, secluded nation-state in Europe and the rise of European supranationalism as a reaction against two nationalistic world wars led to a new open-mindedness and to much greater comparative interest in other European countries and their history. It also led to a type of national consciousness that accepts or even seeks the comparative historical investigation of the dark sides of national history, such as dictatorships and their supporters. Moreover, globalization and the rising economic competition between countries led to more international and historical comparisons between neighboring as well as distant competitors. Finally, several factors—the internationalization of mass culture, consumption, and tourism, the rising knowledge of foreign languages, and the mass immigration by non-Europeans into Europe—render comparison an everyday experience, with changing borders between the domestic and the foreign. In this way international comparison became an attractive dimension of everyday life rather than only the privilege of an elite of scholars and a few international travelers.


Three major debates and motivations among historians have become particularly productive for comparative work. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine the rise of comparative social history without these debates: the debate on different paths of modernization, the debate on national ways or patterns peculiar to individual societies (which might foster the better understanding of other societies), and the debate on the social particularities of Europe. However, not all comparative studies of the social history of Europe are linked to these debates and motivations. The variety of motivations for doing comparative social history is extensive, and some work is focused on much more limited arguments.

The comparative debate about modernization.

The debate on different national paths of modernization was particularly productive for comparative social history, and out of that debate grew many outstanding comparative studies of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social history. The comparative studies of modernization, such as European Modernity and Beyond (1995), by Göran Therborn, and The Development of Welfare States in Europe and America (1981), edited by Peter Flora and Arnold J. Heidenheimer, cover a wide range of themes that can only be superficially touched on. Several key themes and topics are at the heart of comparative social history vis-à-vis modernization.

The first of these themes is comparative urban history. Subjects for comparison, in their great variation, include urban growth and the social crisis of the nineteenth-century city, the historical discourse on the modern city, and the rise of modern city planning, modern urban housing, and modern urban transport, especially during the long nineteenth century in Britain, France, the United States, and Germany. The role of the French, American, and German models and the transfers between the European and Atlantic societies were demonstrated by scholars such as Andrew Lees.

A second topic of the debate on modernization is social policy and the rise of the welfare state in Europe. This topic encompasses the reasons for the early and late beginnings of social policy, with Germany, Austria, Britain, and Sweden as pioneers and Switzerland as a latecomer; the reasons for the differences in the rise of the modern welfare state after World War II, with Britain and Sweden as the main models; the contrasts among the institutions of the welfare state within Western Europe and between Western and Eastern Europe from the end of World War II until 1989–1991; and the differences in public social intervention from the perspective of the clients.

The economic and political mentality and performance of elites and upper classes is a third topic in the modernization debate. Various studies were attached to the debate on the German Sonderweg (separate path), a subject discussed in detail below. But beyond the Sonderweg debate, other aspects of the social history of the elites were investigated comparatively, including the access to higher education and the ranks of the elites, which varied widely between European countries and the United States, among individual professions and schools, and among political systems. A related theme is the social preconditions of economic performance and the quality of schools. Another topic that developed in modernization studies involves professionalization in Europe. It has been shown that professionalization emerged either regulated by autonomous professional corporations, as in Britain, Italy, and sometimes in France, or under greater control by the state, as in Germany and partly also in France, or within an unregulated market of professional services, as in Switzerland. In the comparative history of the intellectuals, one study shows that the rise of the intellectuals during the second half of the nineteenth century was a Europe-wide process. It was closely linked to the gradual rise of a political public sphere as well as to the rise of a cultural market for the products and services of intellectuals. However, distinct national differences emerged in the dynamics of the cultural market, in the stability of political liberties, and in the models for intellectuals.

An important subject of comparative social history is European revolutions and social conflicts. Several important books, including Jack Goldstone's Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991), Barrington Moore's Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy (1966), Theda Skocpol's Social Revolutions in the Modern World (1994), and Charles Tilly's European Revolution (1993), compared European and Atlantic revolutions, treating major factors and reasons behind revolutions, such as the social relationships and tensions in the rural societies. The differences among nations in international revolutions, especially in the European revolution of 1848, were also compared. Studies of the 1848 revolution compared the different historical contexts, supporting and opposing milieus, the different goals, and the contrasts in success and failure, but also the European commonalties. The international comparison of strikes and social protest demonstrated how much they depended upon the differing impact of economic modernization, the culture of protest milieus, and the reaction of the governments and employers. The different effects of strikes and social protests on social change were also treated. The international comparison of the social history of labor movements examined the strengths and weaknesses of labor movements, their relation to the state, and their contribution to democracy and social change.

Examining social institutions also entails the comparison of living standards, chances for upward mobility, and social inequalities. National and regional divergences of living standards, real income, real wages, housing, and hygiene standards in Europe were explored less often than one might expect, but some pioneering comparative studies were written. The clear national differences in educational opportunities, from basic learning to access to higher education, as well as national differences in chances of upward social mobility within Europe and in comparison with the United States, were investigated more frequently, leading to diverse interpretations of national differences, to much skepticism about any lasting international divergences or convergence, and to much interest in individual cases of advanced social mobility. The wide national differences in income and wealth distribution were the most frequently investigated aspects of of social inequality. Besides common trends of a mitigation of income and wealth disparities up to the 1970s and the reinforcement of disparities since the 1980s, distinct international differences emerged not only within Europe but also between Europe and other industrial societies, such as the United States and the Southeast Asian countries. These differences were often investigated by economists and sociologists rather than by historians.

International comparative studies of family focus on the regional or local level rather than on the level of national averages because of the large regional and local variations in demographic attitudes and family forms and because of the related rise of anthropological approaches. Studies in this field compare declining birth rates and rates of marriage, illegitimate births, child mortality, and family forms, but they also compare debates on family and family policy.

Several factors have contributed to comparative research in the social history of work and business. These are the debate on the national variations in the rise of the managerial elite in the United States, Europe, and Japan; the debate among sociologists on the impact of the professional training of skilled workers and white-collar workers on business hierarchies and the autonomy of skilled workers, especially in France, Germany, and Britain; and attention to the subject of different systems of communication in business corporations and different concepts of work.

In the 1980s and 1990s, new themes emerged in comparative social history. One new theme was gender history. Historians have investigated the national variations of European gender roles, women in family and kinship systems, the gender division of labor, the history of women's suffrage, and the impact of schooling, work, public administrations and civil law, churches, and the welfare state on gender roles in different societies. Another new theme was the social history of nationalism, which was reexamined through new approaches exploring the invention of identities in history. Scholars such as Heinz-Gerhard Haupt, Charlotte Tacke, and Jakob Vogel have explored the comparative history of national symbols, ceremonies, and monuments, but also the more classical history of the national idea of specific social milieus. A related new theme was the history of immigration within and into Europe. Some sociologists and historians began to explore how immigration gave rise to new ethnic minorities and how historical conceptions of the foreigner and of citizenship have changed in Europe. Scholars have also addressed the great variations among European governments in immigration policy and immigration legislation, even in a period of harmonization of such policy in the European Union.

A further new comparative field examined the social debates and social languages peculiar to each nationality. For example, how might symbols of modernization like the big city or the United States color a society's debate over its own modernity? As new social terms—such as "social question" in the early nineteenth century or "work" and "unemployment" in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—come into use, scholars examine just who invented them and their different national contexts. Studies of this topic by Rainer Koselleck and others also examine the transfers of terminology or concepts from country to country. The comparative history of consumption, in all its national variations, has also become a significant theme, covering the international impact of the American mass consumer society and changes in the American model wrought by other countries; the convergences and fundamental political divergences of consumption in communist and Western countries; the national varieties of consumer goods and pastimes such as cars, books, dining, and sports; and the ways in which consumption highlights national contrasts in social distinctions. Finally, the comparative investigation of the rise of modern social history is often seen as part of the modernization of European historiography. This investigation includes an account of the pioneering role played by French historians such as Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch in the rise of modern social history, the reasons why historians in other countries lagged behind, and what sort of social history developed in other countries given their particular circumstances.

The comparative debate on specific national patterns. A second type of debate that produced many comparative historical studies is the debate on historical national development patterns. One such national pattern is the German Sonderweg (separate path), the contradiction between rapid economic modernization and the persistence of traditional political values and elites, resulting in the peculiar weakness of political liberalism in the German middle class. To be sure, the origins of this debate were political in nature—that is, concerning the long-term preconditions of the rise of Nazism in Germany. Nevertheless, it eventually led to comparative studies to address implicitly comparative arguments. The comparative perspective prompted debates on the comparative distinctiveness of the Sonderweg phenomenon and various social explanations of it, such as the aristocratic model in the German middle class, the antimodernist model of the German Bildungsbürgertum (professional elites), the strong attachment of the German middle class to the conservative state, middle-class anxieties surrounding the seemingly revolutionary German labor movement, and the limited homogeneity of the German middle class. The comparative explanation was partly reinforced and partly weakened by comparative studies of the middle class in Germany, France, Britain, Sweden, Italy, and Poland.

Another approach to the Sonderweg holds that specific social groups such as white-collar employees, the petite bourgeoisie, and peasants had particular difficulties coping with modern industrial society and hence were more inclined to follow extreme right-wing arguments and to vote for Hitler. This argument also led to various comparative studies in the social background of extreme right-wing voting. One comparative study of white-collar employees, Jürgen Kocka's White Collar Workers in America, 1890–1940 (1980), argues that white-collar workers in Germany were more privileged by governments and employers over blue-collar workers than they were in the United States, Britain, and France. As a consequence, they were more afraid of losing social privileges in the modern market economy and therefore tended to vote for candidates on the extreme right such as the Nazis. Comparative studies of the petite bourgeoisie demonstrated that in spite of similarities in petite bourgeois values, mobility, and economics across Europe, clear differences emerged in the political culture, leading to a more liberal petite bourgeoisie in France or Britain and, gradually, to an extreme right-wing petite bourgeoisie in Germany.

Another controversial comparative argument maintains that the German labor movement was particularly isolated in social and political terms, creating a much weaker social base for a broader left-wing government in Germany than in other European countries such as France, Britain, or the Scandinavian countries. Historians have also argued that military values were supported more frequently and fiercely by Germans than by other Europeans, especially after the late nineteenth century, which paved the way for the German acceptance of Nazi propaganda and of World War II. The military values can be seen not only in the public image of the army, in the debate about war aims and about World War I, and in war monuments, but also in student dueling, German songs, and Turnervereine (gymnastics clubs). This argument has been criticized by other historians who maintain that the rise of militarism was a more general process in pre- 1914 Europe and that military ceremonies were as frequent and as popular in France as in Germany before 1914. A final approach to the Sonderweg argues that family education in Germany was more clearly oriented toward values such as obedience, deference, and militaristic heroism, which weakened liberalism and resistance against dictatorship more than in other western European countries and the United States.

The comparative study of particular national development patterns in social history is not limited to Germany. It has been argued, for example, that a particular Scandinavian pattern of nonrevolutionary transition toward a liberal, consensus-oriented democracy grew out of the weakness of Scandinavian aristocracy and the strength of independent liberal peasants. It was also argued that the political exception française, the continuous split of France into two political camps without much chance of general consensus, had important sources in social history. Similarly, it was argued that the nineteenth-century economic exception française, the lack of innovations and export orientation, was linked to the Malthusian mentality of French business—the tendency to see all resources as limited, underestimating the effects of growth and innovation—and to the peculiar immobility of French society up the 1950s. One can expect that studies of distinct Italian, Spanish, and Dutch national patterns will also lead into comparative social history. Studies of Spanish social history have specifically linked developments there to broader European patterns, as against an older insistence on Spanish particularism. A great deal of work on Russian social history is implicitly comparative, on topics ranging from the peasantry to popular reading materials, though full-scale comparative efforts are rare.

The social particularities of Europe. A third debate covers the social particularities of Europe in history. To be sure, this is a long-running debate, starting during European expansion in the early modern period and resuming in the late nineteenth century. The twentieth-century discussion, however, is not simply a continuation of this older debate. It is not based on the assumption of European superiority and deals not only with the very long-term roots of European particularity but also with European social characteristics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It also touches upon social particularities not covered by the older debate, such as the European city, the European active population and work, the European managerial system, European social conflicts, secularization, social inequalities and welfare state institutions, and the European reorientation of values. Such issues have also taken on increasing importance among teachers of world history, a field where the peculiar place of Europe is much debated.

This debate has been most vivid regarding two fundamental themes of social history: the European family and European revolution. In the debate on the "European" family, one school maintains that a particular European family emerged in the early modern period or before, with young families strongly independent from the families of origin, with few households consisting of three generations, with a late age of marriage for both men and women, and with low birth rates and high rates of unmarried people, but also with a specific European family mentality, a strongly protected private family sphere, and strong emotional ties between the members of the core family. Other historians believe that the concept of the European family is not consistent, either because comparisons show distinct divergences within Europe or because the comparison of Europe with Asia shows too many similarities.

The debate on European political revolutions has also gone on for many years. A central issue is determining whether the European revolutions, because they were original, unprecedented revolutions rather than imitations and because they were crucial for the particular role of Europe and the West as a pioneer of modern democratic institutions, were unique events very different from revolutions outside Europe. Historians have also debated whether these revolutions were purely national events or, at least in the case of the revolution of 1848, distinctly European events.

Limitations and omissions. In spite of these three related debates and numerous other studies less strongly related, comparative social history in general is not applied to the study of all countries, periods, and themes in the same way. Individual approaches have their clear virtues and distinct drawbacks. Given the disparate working conditions for research in international history and ongoing debates within the field of comparative historical research, it is natural that no single method is applied to all pursuits.

The clearest limitations to comparative European social history exist in the geographical dimension. European historians have rarely compared Europe with non-Western societies, though it would be highly instructive to do so with Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Arab, or black African societies in history. Jack Goody, who studied family history in Europe and Asia, is one of the few exceptions. Another example of such a fruitful comparison is Roy Bin Wong's work on economic and political development in China and central Europe. Only a few European social historians, such as Eric Hobsbawm and Paul Bairoch, have dared to work on global social history. The comparison of Europe with non-Western societies was more often carried out by a small number of American social historians and historical sociologists, such as Jack Goldstone, Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol, and Bernard Silberman. Moreover, even within Western societies, comparisons by European historians of European societies with the United States or Latin American countries are less numerous than one might expect. American historians have published a larger number of intercontinental comparisons of Western societies. Finally, even within Europe comparison in social history has followed distinct preferences. Most comparative research has been done on only three European countries, France, Great Britain, and Germany. Other European countries have been covered much less extensively and compared, if at all, usually with one of these three countries. Hence large parts of eastern and southern Europe, but also small countries in general, have remained almost untouched by historical comparison.

Preferences for certain periods are less distinct. In general, social history comparisons are clearly more numerous for the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than for earlier periods. This emphasis came about because the phenomenon that has been the subject of most comparisons—distinct national societies—appeared in the full sense only during the nineteenth century. But even within the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, a preference for periods characterized by gradual social change rather than by upheavals such as wars and revolutions is characteristic for comparative social history.

It might be surprising that preferences for themes are even less distinct. Although the wide variety of themes in comparative social history has been demonstrated, at the close of the twentieth century three major thematic lacunae remained. The first is the history of work—changes in types of work, in working conditions, and in unemployment. This is an astonishing omission in a period of fundamental changes in work, rising unemployment, and intense debate about a future new era of work. Second, the history of historical discourse itself, and of the historical changes in the social language, social imagery, and social interpretations, is another astonishing omission in what is undeniably a boom time for the analysis of historical discourses. A third area of neglect is the social history of the public sphere, the media, associations, the use of the public sphere by governments as well as by social movements, and the social side of citizenship and civil society.


It is difficult to predict the future of the comparative method, which in the end strongly depends upon the content and quality of the published work rather than upon the method itself. So one can present hopes rather than predictions. In the present situation one might hope that five preoccupations will inspire future comparative studies in social history. First, it seems likely that the comparison between civilizations, especially between European and Asian as well as African societies, will become a major interest of historians, including not only comparison with Japan and the other industrialized East Asian countries but also the revival of the classical comparison of Europe with India, China, and the Arab world. The political and economic rise of these societies will reinforce the need for historical comparison. The comparative rise and varying characteristics of civil society will be a major motivation for this comparison between civilizations. A second theme for comparison could be the migration within and into Europe, the rise of new ethnic cultures, and the policies toward these new immigrants—a theme that might lead to comparisons between Western societies, especially, and deal with the large variety of problems and solutions they produced in history. A better understanding of ethnic minorities will be a major task of historical comparison. Third, it seems likely that the transition in central and eastern Europe from communism and a state-controlled economy to democracy and capitalism will become a major theme for historians who compare the different paths of transition and different constructions of history in this area, often in comparative search of long-term historical roots of divergences. A fourth theme might be the comparison of new social problems in the historical context, such as the history of unemployment, social exclusion, rising disparities of income and wealth, and emerging limits of efficiency of the classical modern welfare state. This again will be to a large degree a comparison among Western countries and the different solutions they developed in history. A final theme of comparison might be the making of a European society, its convergences and divergences, and the transfers and mutual images among European countries, especially among the rising number of member states of the European Union. This comparison also has to include the long-term historical perspective, the long roots of divergences and the long history of convergences and commonalities within European civilization. One can hope that comparative social history in all these respects will be understood in a broad sense, not only comparing structures and institutions but also mentalities, experiences and emotions, codes and symbols, conversations and debates.


Methods of historical comparison have been discussed by a few historians and historical sociologists, most of them with practical experience in historical comparison. The discussion emphasizes two themes. The first is the question of whether historical comparison should mainly cover parallels, commonalities, and convergences, or contrasts, differences, and divergences between the cases under comparison. Since the 1960s contrasts and divergences have received increasing attention, while parallels received declining attention, though there are signs of growing interest in parallels. Moreover, most publications on comparative methods try to show intermediary ways of comparison between the extreme positions of a radically individualizing and a radically universalizing comparison. Charles Tilly describes two additional intermediary approaches: the encompassing comparison of different cases belonging to a system (e.g., an international empire, church, or market) in their relation to the system and the comparison that investigates variations in a global phenomenon which arise from different preconditions. The second question covered in the debate on methods is whether historical comparisons should confront only different historical cases or also cover transfers, mutual images, and relations between the societies under comparison. There is a clear tendency toward including transfers in the debate on methods. So far, the alternative between the analytical-historical comparison that tests arguments and the hermeneutic historical comparison that can lead to a better understanding of other historical societies is not much discussed in this debate.

See alsoThe Industrial Revolutions; Migration; The European Marriage Pattern (volume 2);Social Mobility; Professionals and Professionalization; Revolutions (volume 3); and 001 00014.


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