views updated Jun 11 2018


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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Carr, Edwardh. (1961) 1962 What Is History? New York: Knopf.

Collingwood, Robing. 1946 The Idea of History. Oxford Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1956.

Croce, Benedetto(1917) 1960 History: Its Theory and Practice. New York: Russell. → First published as Teoria e storia della storiografia.

Danto, Arthurc. 1965 Analytical Philosophy of History. Cambridge Univ. Press.

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Meyerhoff, Hans(editor) 1959 The Philosophy of History in Our Time: An Anthology. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

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Oakeshott, Michael1933 Experience and Its Modes. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Popper, Karlr. 1957 The Poverty of Historicism. Bos ton: Beacon.

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

Walsh, Williamh. (1951) 1958 An Introduction to Philosophy of History. London: Hutchinson. → A pa perback edition was published in 1960 by Harper as The Philosophy of History.

White, Mortong. 1965 Foundations of Historical Knowledge. New York: Harper.

Winch, Peter1958 The Idea of a Social Science and Its Relation to Philosophy. London: Routledge; New York: Humanities.


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.]


Aitken, Hughg. J. 1964 Government and Business in Canada: An Interpretation. Business History Review 38:4–21.

Beaton, Kendall1957 Enterprise in Oil: A History of Shell in the United States. New York: Appleton.

Blochman, Lawrenceg. 1958 Doctor Squibb: The Life and Times of a Rugged Idealist. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Boulding, Kennethe.; and Spivey, W. Allen1960 Linear Programming and the Theory of the Firm. New York: Macmillan.

Bruchey, Stuartw. 1965 The Roots of American Economic Growth, 1607-1861: An Essay in Social Causation. New York: Harper.

Chamberlain, John1963 The Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States. New York: Harper.

Chandler, Alfredd. Jr.1956 Management Decentralization: An Historical Analysis. Business History Review 30:111–174.

Chandler, Alfredd. Jr.1959 The Beginnings of “Big Business” in American Industry. Business History Review 33:1–31.

Chandler, Alfredd. Jr.1962 Strategy and Structure: Chapters in the History of the Industrial Enterprise. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press.

Chandler, Alfredd. Jr.1965 The Railroads: Pioneers in Modern Corporate Management. Business History Review 39:16–40.

Cochran, Thomasc. 1948 The Pabst Brewing Company: The History of an American Business. New York Univ. Press.

Cochran, Thomasc. (1953) 1966 Railroad Leaders, 1845-1890: The Business Mind in Action. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Cochran, Thomasc. 1957 The American Business System: A Historical Perspective, 1900–1955. Cam bridge, Mass.: Ha—ird Univ. Press.

Cole, Arthurh. 1946 An Approach to the Study of Entrepreneurship: A Tribute to Edwin F. Gay. Journal of Economic History 6 (Supplement): 1–15.

Cole, Arthurh. 1959 Business Enterprise in Its Social Setting. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

De Roover, Raymonda. 1963 The Rise and Decline of the Medici Bank, 1397–1494. Harvard Studies in Business History, No. 21. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Ehrenberg, Richard(1902–1905)1925 Grosse Vermb-gen, ihre Entstehung und ihre Bedeutung. 2d ed. Jena (Germany): Fischer.

Gras, N. S. B. 1939 Business and Capitalism: An Introduction to Business History. New York: Crofts.

Gras, N. S. B.; and Larson, Henriettam. 1939 Case book in American Business History. New York: Crofts.

Hagen, Everette. (1962) 1964 On the Theory of Social Change: How Economic Growth Begins. London: Tavistock.

Hawkins, Davidf. 1963 The Development of Modern Financial Reporting Practices Among American Manufacturing Corporations. Business History Review 37: 135–168.

Hirschman, Alberto. 1958 The Strategy of Economic Development. Yale Studies in Economics, No. 10. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press. → A paperback edition was published in 1962.

History of Standard Oil Company (New Jersey). 2 vols. 1955–1956. New York: Harper. → Volume 1: Pioneering in Big Business, 1888-1911, by Ralph W. Hidy and Muriel E. Hidy. Volume 2: The Resurgent Years, 1912-1927, by George S. Gibb and Evelyn H. Knowlton.

Johnson, Arthurm. 1956 The Development of American Petroleum Pipelines: A Study in Private Enter prise and Public Policy, 1862–1906. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univ. Press.

Larson, Henriettam. 1948 Guide to Business History: Materials for the Study of American Business History and Suggestions for Their Use. Harvard Studies in Business History, No. 12. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Larson, Henriettam.; and Porter, Kennethw. 1959 History of Humble Oil & Refining Company: A Study in Industrial Growth. New York: Harper.

Lief, Alfred1958 It Floats: The Story of Procter & Gamble. New York: Rinehart.

Litterer, Josepha. 1961a Alexander Hamilton Church and the Development of Modern Management. Business History Review 35:211–225.

Litterer, Josepha. 1961b Systematic Management: The Search for Order and Integration. Business history Review 35:461–476.

Litterer, Josepha. 1963 Systematic Management: Design for Organizational Recoupling in American Manufacturing Firms. Business History Review 37: 369–391.

Mcclelland, Davidc. 1961 The Achieving Society. Princeton, N.J.: Van Nostrand.

Mcdonald, Forrest1962 Insull. Univ. of Chicago Press.

Marburg, Theodoref. 1956 Small Business in Brass Fabricating: The Smith & Griggs Manufacturing Co. of Waterbury. New York Univ. Press.

Mathias, Peter1959 The Brewing Industry in England, 1700–1830. Cambridge Univ. Press.

Miller, Raymondc. 1957 Kilowatts at Work: A history of the Detroit Edison Company. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State Univ. Press.

Miller, William(editor) 1952 Men in Business: Essays in the History of Entrepreneurship. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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Overton, Richardc. 1965 Burlington Route: A History of the Burlington Lines. New York: Knopf.

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Pollard, Sidney1965 The Genesis of Modern Management: A Study of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

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Redlich, Fritz1964 Her Unternehmer: Wirtschafts-und sozialgeschichtliche Studien. Gbttingen (Germany): Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

Robinson, Richardd. 1962 Interrelationship of Business Enterprise and Political Development. Business History Review 36:287–324.

Schumpeter, Josepha. 1947 The Creative Response in Economic History. Journal of Economic History 7: 149–159.

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The Oxford English Dictionary describes "history" as "a narrative of past events, [an] account, tale, story." Ever since its founding in 1789, the American republic has placed great emphasis on sharing its story with the world. Although historians have never agreed on a single approach to the study of the past, the years from 1870 to 1920 nevertheless witnessed a revolution in how the majority of historians conveyed their message to the American people.

At the onset of the Gilded Age, wealthy New England gentlemen forged multivolume "grand narratives" that had great appeal to the reading public. "Popular history" lecturers reached equally wide audiences. By the end of the Great War, however, historians had begun to professionalize. An increasing number held advanced degrees and were somehow linked to American colleges and universities. Simultaneously, historians tried to ground their discipline on science, basing their accounts on indisputable, archival facts. Consciously borrowing from the emerging social sciences, advocates of the New History produced scores of specialized monographs in the hope of improving national life. Yet the tradition of the all-encompassing grand narrative did not die. Rather, it slipped from the hands of professional historians to playwrights, historical novelists, and, especially, filmmakers. Thus, the approach and content of "history," as well as the goals of historians, shifted considerably from the 1870s to 1920s.


By the time of the Philadelphia Centennial celebration of 1876, history ranked as a respected mode of thought, but it barely existed as a separate discipline. Although about seventy local historical societies had cropped up across the land, as late as 1880 there were only eleven full-time history teachers on a university level. The German seminar system of training scholars had just been introduced to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, which produced its first history doctorate in 1882. When people spoke of "history" they usually referred to ancient Greece or Rome, the Renaissance, or the Middle Ages, rather than the relatively brief time period of the American Republic.

The four dominant American history writers of the day—George Bancroft, William H. Prescott, John Motley, and Francis Parkman—have been termed "Romantic men of letters." All had forged literary reputations before they began to write history, and all were New England gentlemen of independent wealth who considered writing history their "duty" rather than a way to earn a living. Each produced multivolume accounts that seized on overarching narrative themes, usually involving "progress." In their eyes, "history" was a story filled with intense drama. Moreover, they wrote not merely to entertain, even fascinate, their readers; rather, they wrote to convey moral instruction about the nature of politics, war, and human behavior. Like literature, history remained an essential component of an educated person's moral discourse about the world.

For William H. Prescott (1796–1859) and John Motley (1814–1877), the drama of history lay with Europe and Latin America. After graduating from Harvard, Prescott became fascinated with the clash of Spanish and Native American worlds, as shown in History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843), and his three-volume History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain (1855–1858). The famed Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott served as Prescott's model and he is viewed primarily as a literary artist rather than a research scholar. For Motley, the drama hinged on the saga of Holland, and he spent a decade researching his three-volume The Rise of the Dutch Republic (1856). Since American publishers remained leery about potential sales of such an arcane subject, he paid for the publication himself. Surprisingly, the set sold fifteen thousand copies in two years and established his reputation, especially abroad, as a literary master.

The historians George Bancroft (1800–1891) and Francis Parkman (1823–1893) remain far better known, both in their day as well as ours. Bancroft's ninety-one-year life spanned virtually the entire nineteenth century. His Harvard education and his fortunate marriage to the wealthy Sarah Dwight enabled him to pursue a career as a Democratic party politician and a scholar. Beginning in 1834 he published the first of what would become the ten-volume History of the United States. Bancroft argued that as the American people utilized their republican political system, they reflected the authentic voice of God. One scholar has termed Bancroft's books a "multi-volume sermon."

No armchair historian, Bancroft became deeply involved with contemporary affairs. He gave a memorial address to Congress on Abraham Lincoln, wrote speeches for Andrew Johnson, and in 1867 was selected as America's minister to Germany. While serving there, he met the famed German historian Leopold von Ranke of the University of Berlin, who praised his books as the best ever written from the democratic point of view. Although intended as a compliment, the remark stung. Rather than "the democratic point of view," Bancroft felt that he had deciphered the key to understanding the totality of the American past.

Although the last volume of Bancroft's History appeared in 1875, publishers repackaged the set in various formats throughout the century. The public eagerly responded, and George Bancroft is rightly designated the father of American historical writing.

Francis Parkman is the only one of the four literary historians still read. Another New England gentleman, from his Harvard days forward he was known to have had "Indians on the brain." He vowed to write a full account of the French conquest of North America. But before he did, he took a daring trip, from March to October 1846, to Wyoming territory. His account of this venture, The California and Oregon Trail (1849), remains his best-known book.

Fortunate that an inheritance relieved him of earning a living, Parkman battled illness all his life: severe eye problems, fierce headaches (probably migraines), insomnia and, eventually, confinement to a wheelchair. During one period he became so incapacitated that he could write only with his eyes closed, producing about six lines a day. He hired people to read to him as well. Given these multiple handicaps, his accomplishments were truly remarkable. He visited Canada at least eight times to walk over the scenes he would later describe. A lapsed Unitarian, he spent time in European monasteries to better increase his understanding of Roman Catholicism, but most of all, he became fascinated by the wilderness of North America.

Francis Parkman began his life's work with Pioneers of France in the New World (1865), followed by The Jesuits in North America (1867) and The Discovery of the Great West (1869). His two-volume Montcalm and Wolfe appeared in 1884 and he completed the series with another two-volume study, A Half Century of Conflict (1892), the title of which may have also referred to his own physical ailments.

Although his work was based on original research, Parkman blended history with literature. He wrote with a verve that few could duplicate, focusing on climax moments like a dramatist and painting historical characters like a novelist. His account of the deaths of the generals James Wolfe and the marquis de Montcalm at the battle of Quebec in 1759 equaled anything that Hollywood would later produce. Although often criticized for his pro-English, pro-Protestant biases, as well as for ignoring hard economic and demographic data, Parkman had few equals. He also had no successors, although some think that the famed twentieth-century historian Samuel Eliot Morison consciously modeled his own books on Parkman's literary masterpieces.


The multivolume studies produced by the Romantic men of letters were not the only way by which late-nineteenth-century Americans learned about the past. This era also served as the heyday of the popular lecturer, and two larger-than-life lecturers, John Lord and John Fiske, introduced history to thousands of hearers.

John Lord is completely forgotten but during his lifetime (1810–1894) he delivered perhaps six thousand lectures on history to a wide variety of northern audiences. In 1883 Harvard president Charles Eliot Norton credited him with doing more than any other person to awaken public interest in the field. In a sense, Lord "invented" the one-hour history lecture and placed it firmly in the historian's bag of tricks.

Born into a well-connected but modest merchant family in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, Lord graduated from Dartmouth College and Andover Theological Seminary. After service as a lecturer for the American Peace Society, plus suffering the embarrassing withdrawal of a proffered appointment at Harvard, Lord devised an extensive history lecture series that he took to various locales. Terming his twenty-five history lectures a "university extension course," he began presenting them to both college audiences and the paying public by the 1870s. These classes became especially popular with upper-middle-class women, and Lord later confessed that he had to learn to speak over the steady clack of knitting needles.

Largely avoiding politics and warfare, Lord's lectures consisted of biographical sketches of such figures as Socrates, Homer, Abraham, St. Augustine, Mohammed (Muhammad), Queen Elizabeth I, and Napoleon, among others. His presentations included a good bit on art and architecture, presumably with slides. Since his audiences were largely women, he included talks on Joan of Arc, Hannah More, and George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), among others. On the subject of American history, he profiled George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and "the American idea." Never a researcher, he confessed that he hoped to "present what is true rather than what is new." Eventually he packaged these capsule biographies into an eight-volume set, Beacon Lights of History. First published in 1884, the set was reprinted in 1888 and in an English edition in 1921. It sold in the millions.

Lord's approach to history was highly moralistic. He praised or condemned figures of the past according to how they measured up to his sense of virtue. Thus, Queen Elizabeth's shifty diplomatic maneuvers were reluctantly praised because he deemed the fight against Spain a worthy one; George Eliot was condemned because she was a "pagan"; and Catherine the Great was so horrible she was never even mentioned. Without the framework provided by liberal Christianity, Lord confessed, his lectures would have no meaning. During his time, however, John Lord reigned as one of the two greatest American popularizers of history.

The second popularizer, John Fiske (1842–1901), is usually remembered as a proponent of the theory of evolution rather than of history, although at the time he wore both hats with equal aplomb. Born into a middle-class New England family, Fiske was a child prodigy. At age eight he had read over two hundred books; by the time he turned twenty he could read eight languages fluently and ten others—including Sanskrit and Wallachian—partially. He graduated from Harvard and passed the Massachusetts bar, but his vigorous advocacy of the ideas of Herbert Spencer made him religiously suspect. Like Lord, he was never offered the hoped-for teaching position at his alma mater. In 1872 Harvard president Charles W. Eliot hired him as an assistant librarian, where he stayed for seven years, after which he began a career as an independent writer and lecturer. Since he enjoyed the good life and had six children to support, Fiske spent a good deal of time on the road, traveling from Maine to Oregon, from St. Louis to Richmond. Many of his lectures were later reworked into magazine articles and books.

Fiske is usually recalled today for his two-volume defense of Herbert Spencer's evolutionary views, Outlines of Cosmic Philosophy (1874), but after its publication he increasingly turned to American history, which he viewed through the same evolutionary lens. He penned over fifteen historical works that touched on a variety of national themes. The Discovery of America (two volumes, 1892) dealt with ancient America and included much on Spanish exploration. This was followed by Old Virginia and Her Neighbours (two volumes, 1897), The Dutch and Quaker Colonies in America (two volumes, 1899), and The Mississippi Valley in the Civil War (1900). As the scholar Lorenzo J. Greene noted in his diary, Fiske "popularized American history by making it read like a novel" (Working with Carter G. Woodson, p. 259).

Fiske's Critical Period of American History 1783–1789 (1888) is still discussed. As the title suggests, Fiske argued that the era during which the Articles of the Confederation were drafted formed a turning point in the history of the Western Hemisphere. The crucial issue was to determine whether the newly formed nation would consist of one large federal republic or fifty small warring states, as had been the model in ancient Greece and medieval Europe. In Fiske's eyes, the establishment of the Constitution showed the working out of "progress" in representative government.

These historical studies were surely sufficient to earn him his coveted position at Harvard, but by the 1880s university critics began to fault him for his lack of serious archival research. In truth, Fiske was always a better presenter than a discoverer of new material. But nothing seemed to dampen his popularity. In the preface to The Discovery of America, he warned readers that he had received so many unsolicited letters on his books that he could no longer read them, let alone respond. As eloquent on the lecture platform as he was in print, Fiske merged science, religion, progress, and American history. A 1920 reviewer in the Nation observed that philosophers thought of Fiske at his best as a historian, while historians viewed him primarily as a philosopher. His mingling of these themes, however, helped keep him in the public eye for over a generation.


The chief focus of late-nineteenth-century history revolved around the political and military activities of the nation or individual states. The few mentions of women or ethnic minorities were largely subsumed under these narratives. But there were a few women or minority historians. The Kentucky geographer Ellen Churchill Semple (1863–1932) reinterpreted the U.S. past in her American History and Its Geographic Conditions (1903). The lone voice on Indian issues came from Annie Heloise Abel (1873–1947). During her career at Goucher and Smith, she published twelve books on Native America, including a three-volume study, The Slaveholding Indians (1915–1925). The most able members of this category, however, were Alice Morse Earle, George Washington Williams, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Carter G. Woodson.

Alice Morse Earle (1851–1911) was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, and from her childhood became fascinated with the New England past. Her approach, however, proved far removed from that of her contemporaries. From the publication of her first book The Sabbath in Puritan New England (1891) she described the social customs, daily life, and material culture of her region, concentrating, as she put it, on "the everyday life of the times." Although this approach is sometimes dismissed as antiquarianism or "pots and pans" history, her seventeen books and over thirty essays raised it virtually to the level of high art. In addition to widespread sales, Earle became recognized as an expert on early American antiques, and people contacted her from miles around.

Although not professionally trained, Earle did much research in primary documents, even traveling to England to examine materials. Her books were also among the first to address the women's sphere of life: weaving and spinning, meal preparation, attending church, what girls wore, how they managed the household. She also was the first researcher to explore the history of childhood and the family in New England. Because of their pioneering nature, many of her works have been reprinted. Representative titles include Colonial Dames and Good Wives (1895); Child Life in Colonial Days (1899); and Home Life in Colonial Days (1898). Her approach to the past would later be termed "social history."

Although the generation that lived through the American Civil War was well aware of the powerful role that race played in national life, the opportunities for African Americans to write their own past remained few. The most prominent black historians were George Washington Williams (1849–1891), and, a generation later, W. E. B. Du Bois (1868–1963) and Carter G. Woodson (1875–1950).

Born in Pennsylvania, Williams ran away from home to join the Union Army, where he saw combat. After additional army service, he enrolled at the Newton Theological Institution and began a career as Baptist pastor, newspaper columnist, editor, and lawyer. Moving to Cincinnati, he became the first African American elected to the Ohio legislature, and later, thanks to funding by the railroad magnate Collis P. Huntington, he toured the Belgian Congo and wrote a scathing public report about the treatment of the natives there.

A long-term collector of African American materials, in 1882 Williams published his thousand-page, two-volume History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens. Seven years later, in 1888, he followed with A History of the Negro Troops in the War of the Rebellion, 1861–1865. These were the first books to assess the African American role in U.S. history.

Du Bois became one of the most recognized black scholars of his day. Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, Du Bois became the first black to earn a doctorate from Harvard (1895). His dissertation, The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870, became the initial volume in the Harvard Historical Studies series in 1896. He later wrote a brief overview, The Negro (1915), but began to edge into sociology in 1899 with his study titled The Philadelphia Negro. His last venture into history was Black Reconstruction (1935). As editor of the NAACP magazine, The Crisis, Du Bois moved gradually into pan-Africanism and, later, an angry Marxism, eventually dying an expatriate. Although a pioneer in African American scholarship, he did not play much of a role in its development during the early twentieth century. That task fell to Carter G. Woodson.

Born in Virginia, Woodson was the second black to receive a doctorate in the field of history. Author of The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861, which appeared in 1915, Woodson founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History that same year and established the Journal of Negro History in 1916. In 1922 he published The Negro in Our History, which remained the standard overview until the appearance of John Hope Franklin's From Slavery to Freedom (1947, with frequent updatings). In 1928 Woodson began Negro History week—which later became Black History month. He chose February so as to commingle the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. As the historian Arvarh Strickland has noted, Woodson holds "the undisputed title of the father of Afro-American history" (Greene, p. xxiv).


Without question, New England historians dominated the writing of the American past during the late nineteenth century. But that region's "cultural imperialism" did not extend much beyond the 1890s. New voices soon arose to argue that other sections of the nation—the Far West, the Midwest, and the South—were worthy of study as well.

The historian who first insisted that the Spanish Borderlands be included in the national saga was the Ohio-born businessman Hubert Howe Bancroft (1832–1918). After moving to San Francisco to open a bookstore, Bancroft prospered to such an extent that he retired at age thirty-seven to devote himself to collecting documents and writing the story of early California. Over the years he amassed sixty thousand volumes (plus hundreds of documents), which he eventually sold to the University of California, Berkeley.

Drawing on his background as a businessman, Bancroft anticipated both the industrialist Henry Ford and the modern historian Stephen Ambrose by developing an assembly-line technique for writing history. He hired assistants—as many as fifty at a time and perhaps six hundred overall—to research and write an enormous set of books on the history of the American Southwest that would eventually reach thirty-nine volumes. The titles ranged widely. Some examples include: History of Arizona and New Mexico (1889); History of California (seven volumes, 1884–1890); History of Nevada, Colorado, and Wyoming (1890), and so on. Bancroft also did yeoman work in compiling documents relating to old California and he is justly regarded as the founder of Borderlands scholarship.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips (1877–1934) tried to do for the South what Bancroft had done for the Southwest. Born in Georgia and trained at the state university, he earned his doctorate at Columbia in 1902 with a dissertation titled "Georgia and State Rights." Later he moved to Michigan and Yale where he concentrated on the story of the Old South up to the Civil War. As few historians had explored southern history, Phillips first had to collect the appropriate documents and forge an accurate timeline. He is most famous, or infamous, for his American Negro Slavery (1918) and his Life and Labor in the Old South (1929). Borrowing from the ideas of economists, Phillips was the first historian to suggest that slavery was, indeed, unprofitable and that the system hurt the overall southern economy. Although he made no attempt to hide his views that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, he emphasized that each group became dependent upon the other and that, although unequals, they developed a strange rapport between them. In 1928 he called attention to the "central theme of Southern history": the political effort to retain white supremacy. Acknowledged as the founder of southern history, Phillips's historical views could be seen in the historical fiction of Thomas Dixon and other white supremacist writers. W. E. B. Du Bois and Carter G. Woodson ranked among his most severe critics.

The most famous regionalist was Frederick Jackson Turner (1861–1932), on whom more words have been written than any other American historian. Born in Portage, Wisconsin, Turner earned a doctorate at Johns Hopkins under Herbert Baxter Adams. Rejecting the then-prevalent idea that the seeds of democracy came from Europe, Turner argued in his famous 1893 speech at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that the continually expanding frontier—where "savagery" and "civilization" constantly intermingled—created American democracy. The official passing of the frontier, as seen in the 1890 federal census, did not bode well for the American nation.

Although Turner's ideas have been applied to South Africa, Russia, and the Far Western frontiers, his main focus rested with the antebellum world, especially the Midwest, as the cradle of the democratic ethos. But he popularized two other widely accepted concepts as well: first, that each age rewrites the past from the perspective of the crucial issues of the day; and second, that climate, ethnicity, and geography combine to produce different world views and different political responses (now termed "regionalism"). Although criticized for a number of failings—he never produced his "big book"; he ignored women, minorities, and organized religion; and he viewed Indians as "obstacles" to progress—Turner nevertheless ranks with Henry Adams as one of the few historians of his era whose ideas still resonate.


There is no doubt that Henry Adams (1838–1918) stands at the center of the turn-of-the-century historical world. Born into one of New England's most distinguished families, Adams attended Harvard, served as secretary to his father, Charles Francis Adams, during his term as American minister in Britain in the Civil War, and returned to find himself alienated from contemporary American society.

Although he had no specific training, Harvard invited him to teach medieval history, but he soon tired of that and moved to H Street in Washington, across from the White House, where he became an ironic, independent observer of American life. A genuine polymath, he escaped from the sordid politics of Gilded Age Washington to write a nine-volume The History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison (1889–1891). These books emphasized the irrational nature of democracy and despaired at the Founding Fathers' inability to match their noble republican dreams with the sordid reality that eventually emerged. His classic description of American life in 1800, in volume one, has never been surpassed. His friend John Hay completed a ten-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890), around the same time, and Adams remarked that "between them they had written nearly all the American history there was to write."

Elected president of the American Historical Association, Adams also wrote two essays on the philosophy of history, "The Rule of Phase Applied to History" (1909) and "A Letter to American Teachers of History" (1910), in which he suggested that future historians should draw their analytical frameworks from the sciences, especially physics. To go from George Washington to U. S. Grant, he suggested, reflected not "progress" but a dissipation of energy. It is not clear how serious he was in these suggestions.

Adams's reputation revolves less around his nine-volume History than his two-book attempt to reconcile the human need for order with the chaos he witnessed all around him. His classic Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres (privately printed in 1904) looked back to the twelfth century, where, as he saw it, the force of Love, as represented by the Virgin Mary, united humankind. He explored the later world of chaos in his The Education of Henry Adams (1918; first privately printed in 1906), where the Dynamo, which he first saw at the Paris Exposition of 1900, represented the same force but without purpose or morality.

The Education was not really an autobiography. Adams skips over much of his life—including the 1885 suicide of his beloved wife, Marian—and hearing a privileged genius constantly whine about "failure" annoys many readers. But the book merged the fields of history, literature, and autobiography in its attempt to understand the world through the use of flexible symbols (the Virgin and the Dynamo). The critic Robert E. Spiller once depicted the Education as the book that marked the American writer's entrance into the twentieth century. Drawing on symbols rather than "facts," Adams posed cosmic questions that literature, perhaps more than history, seemed best equipped to answer.


As the nineteenth century merged into the twentieth, the multivolume overviews began to fade. The businessman James Ford Rhodes's seven-volume History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1893–1906) and John Bach McMaster's eight-volume History of the People of the United States (1883–1913) showed that the genre had not quite expired, but they were the last of a breed. The day of the archive-based, specialized monograph had arrived.

In the introduction to his Study of History (1934–1961), the British historian Arnold Toynbee recalled how in the 1890s he watched the books on the shelves of a professor friend shift from general works to "the relentless advance of half a dozen specialized periodicals" (5:2). Subsequent multivolume series would all have multiple authors. The twenty-volume Dictionary of American Biography (begun in 1928), for example, drew on two thousand specialists.

Simultaneously with this shift, historians began to professionalize. Led by Herbert Baxter Adams, whom Woodrow Wilson once termed a "captain of industry" for scholarship, a group founded the American Historical Association (AHA) in 1884, with its flagship journal, the American Historical Review. Amateur historians continued to play a role until the late 1920s, but the trend was clear. More and more historians held advanced degrees and were affiliated with colleges or universities.

Simultaneously, the professional emphasis moved away from literature to a fascination with the social sciences (especially anthropology, psychology, sociology, and economics), which, in turn, had all modeled themselves on the physical sciences, particularly biology and physics. The pre–World War I generation could concentrate on "scientific facts" because the world's value systems seemed firmly in place.

In the early years of the century, a group of "New Historians"—especially linked with Columbia and Cornell—set forth a number of agendas. The amateur historian Edward Eggleston had argued in 1900 that history as a scholarly discipline should try to recover the whole of a people's culture, not concern itself exclusively with war and politics. But the two foremost exponents of the "New History," James H. Robinson and Charles A. Beard, went even further. History should aid a people in improving their cultural life.

Born in Illinois, James H. Robinson (1863–1936) graduated from Harvard and earned a doctorate in Germany. He spent most of his career at Columbia, where his popular class in European intellectual history—nicknamed "the Downfall of Christianity"—enthralled scores of students. Robinson held great faith in the principles of the Enlightenment: He felt humankind was reasonable and that education would free people from an unhealthy reliance on church, state, and class. American citizens could be trusted to make appropriate political decisions. Robinson's The New History (1911) and The Mind in the Making (1921), which stretched from "our animal heritage" to "the sickness of an acquisitive society" (pp. 65, 71), called on historians to utilize insights from the social sciences not only to better understand the past but also to help bring in a more just social order. The proper purpose of history, he argued, was to enable people to understand themselves and help solve the social problems of the day. Carl Becker, who studied with Robinson, spread these ideas to the next generation from his position at Cornell.

Robinson's colleague at Columbia, Charles A. Beard (1874–1948), emerged as the most prominent spokesman for this group. Born in Indiana in 1874, he later received a doctorate from Columbia. His marriage to his DePauw classmate Mary Ritter (b. 1876) created the most powerful husband-wife duo in the profession. Beard achieved notoriety with his An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States (1913). This classic book argued that the Founding Fathers relied less on Enlightenment ideals of timeless, universal republican truths than on hard economic concerns when they forged the Constitution in 1787. Drawing on research from the Treasury archives, Beard pointed out that most proponents of the Constitution held government securities that would surely rise in value if a strong central government could be put in place. Public outrage was immediate. Critics accused him of writing a muckraking exposé of the Enlightenment generation. Beard denied he was a Marxist—he was simply a follower of James Madison's economic philosophy, he said—and supporters defended him by noting that he offered only "An" economic interpretation (not "The"). But this façade disappeared two years later with his Economic Origins of Jeffersonian Democracy (1915), which took a similar line of argument.

In 1917 Beard left Columbia over a dispute regarding loyalty oaths and, with Mary, devoted full time to writing. His economic critique of American life found ready audiences in the 1930s, and his 1933 AHA presidential address, "Written History as an Act of Faith," forms the classic statement that since history is relative, all historians should declare their prejudices at the onset and work for a more democratic society. His 1948 study President Roosevelt and the Coming of the War, 1941, where he accused Roosevelt of maneuvering Japan into attacking Pearl Harbor, marked him out as a bit of a crank. Even so, the Beards were probably the most widely read historians of the early twentieth century. As the New History showed, by the World War I era, history had shifted from a bed-fellow with literature to a steady companion of the social sciences.


But something was lost in this transition. As the grand narrative became replaced by specialized monographs, few citizens grasped a sense of the whole. As scholars at the end of the twentieth century have noted, for a nation to reflect a vital collective memory, it must share an (at least partially) agreed-upon historical past. A people realizes who they are by understanding who they have been. This became especially important for a pluralistic nation, which, thanks to the extensive immigration from Europe and Asia from the Gilded Age to World War I, the United States had truly become. Moreover, in spite of various attempts at professionalization, no historical guild could ever "control" the production of history, and it was not long before others began to present their versions of the grand narrative to the public as well.

Historical themes in theater, fiction, and film began to gain in popularity. Late-nineteenth-century theater groups often seized on such themes, such as the Revolution and the Frontier. The 1831 play The Lion of the West, about the life of Davy Crockett, was performed often, and an 1886 stage play based on the Civil War–era classic Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852) proved a staple of traveling troupes until the mid-1920s. John Drinkwater's Abraham Lincoln (1918) and Robert Sherwood's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1938) continued this emphasis in the interwar period.

Historical fiction was popular, too. Edward Eggleston had fictionalized early frontier life in Indiana with his The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1871). John W. De Forest did the same for the South with Miss Ravenel's Conversion from Secession to Loyalty (1867), as did Stephen Crane with The Red Badge of Courage (1895). Perhaps the classic expression of this genre—long before the advent of popular historical fiction by Kenneth Roberts in the 1930s—lay with Helen Hunt Jackson's romantic view of the Californios, Ramona (1884).

From 1900 forward, however, the ideal medium to re-create the grand narrative fell to film. The southern-born director D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915) showed well the power of this new medium. Based loosely on Thomas Dixon's novel The Clansman (1905), The Birth of a Nation presented the white southern view of Reconstruction with intense visual power. In the climactic scene, the Ku Klux Klan, the heroes of this particular version, dip their emblem in the blood of a slain white girl before riding off to dispatch a band of villainous blacks.

Public reaction was immediate. White southern audiences cheered, while the NAACP staged formal protests. Crowds in Boston rioted. President Woodrow Wilson, who watched a private screening in the White House, initially described the movie as "writing history with lightning," although he later deplored the film's role in increasing racial tension.

With this, and the hundreds of historical films that Hollywood would later produce, the power of the broad-sweep narrative largely slipped from the hands of professional scholars to filmmakers. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Gone with the Wind (1939) still ranked as the most popular American film ever made. Although Gone with the Wind might seem a far cry from George Bancroft's ten-volume History of the United States or Francis Parkman's multiple-volume saga of New France, they shared a lot in common. Each provided a fast-paced dramatic "narrative of past events, [an] account, tale, story" that Americans could relate to, positively or negatively, to better understand the complex story of their nation, and, of course, themselves.

see alsoThe Education of Henry Adams; Frontier


Primary Works

Abel, Annie Heloise. The Slaveholding Indians. 3 vols. Cleveland, Ohio: Arthur H. Clark, 1915–1925.

Adams, Henry. The History of the United States during the Administrations of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. 9 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1889–1891.

Bancroft, George. History of the United States, from the Discovery of the American Continent. 10 vols. Boston: Little, Brown, 1834–1875.

Bancroft, Hubert Howe. History of Arizona and New Mexico, 1530–1888. San Francisco: The History Company, 1890.

Beard, Charles A. An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States. New York: Macmillan, 1913.

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade to the United States of America, 1638–1870. New York: Longmans, Green, 1896.

Earle, Alice Morse. The Sabbath in Puritan New England. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1891.

Fiske, John. The Critical Period of American History, 1783–1789. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1888.

Lord, John. Beacon Lights of History. 8 vols. New York: W. H. Wise, 1921.

Parkman, Francis. A Half-Century of Conflict. Boston: Little, Brown, 1892.

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

Robinson, James H. The Mind in the Making: The Relation of Intelligence to Social Reform. New York and London: Harper & Brothers, 1921.

Semple, Ellen Churchill. American History and Its Geographic Conditions. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903.

Toynbee, Arnold J. A Study of History. 12 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1934–1962.

Turner, Frederick Jackson. The Frontier in American History. New York: H. Holt, 1920.

Williams, George Washington. History of the Negro Race from 1619 to 1880: Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens . . . New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1882.

Woodson, Carter G. The Education of the Negro Prior to 1861; A History of the Education of the Colored People of the United States from the Beginning of Slavery to the Civil War. New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1915.

Secondary Works

Benson, Lee. Turner and Beard: American Historical Writing Reconsidered. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1960.

Berman, Milton. John Fiske: The Evolution of a Popularizer. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1961.

Billington, Ray Allen. Frederick Jackson Turner: Historian, Scholar, Teacher. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Bogue, Allan G. Frederick Jackson Turner: Strange Roads Going Down. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.

Caughey, John Walton. Hubert Howe Bancroft: Historian of the West. New York: Russell and Russell, 1946.

Clark, Harry. A Venture in History: The Production, Publication, and Sale of the Works of Hubert Howe Bancroft. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Fitzpatrick, Ellen. History's Memory: Writing America's Past, 1880–1980. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002.

Franklin, John Hope. George Washington Williams: A Biography. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985.

Gale, Robert L. Francis Parkman. New York: Twayne, 1973.

Greene, Lorenzo. Selling Black History for Carter G. Woodson: A Diary, 1930–1933. Edited by Arvarh E. Strickland. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1996.

Greene, Lorenzo. Working with Carter G. Woodson, the Father of Black History: A Diary, 1928–1930. Baton Rouge and London: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.

Harlan, David. The Degradation of American History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Higham, John. Writing American History: Essays on Modern Scholarship. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1970.

Levin, David. History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott, Mottey, and Parkman. New York: Harcourt Brace and World, 1963.

Loewenberg, Bert James. American History in American Thought: Christopher Columbus to Henry Adams. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972.

Meier, August, and Elliot Rudwick. Black History and the Historical Profession, 1915–1980. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1986.

Nore, Ellen. Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983.

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

Roberts, Geoffrey, ed. The History and Narrative Reader. London and New York, Routledge, 2001.

Strout, Cushing. The Pragmatic Revolt in American History: Carl Becker and Charles Beard. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1958.

Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-Intellectual History of the Writing of the American Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Ferenc M. Szasz


views updated Jun 27 2018


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.

Greene, Stuart. 1993. "The Role of Task in the Development of Academic Thinking Through Reading and Writing in a College History Course." Research in the Teaching of English 27:4675.

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.

Leinhardt, Gaea, and Young, Kathleen M. 1996. "Two Texts, Three Readers: Distance and Expertise in Reading History." Cognition and Instruction 14:441486.

Levine, Lawrence. 1993. The Unpredictable Past: Explorations in American Cultural History. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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

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

Rouet, Jean-Francois; Favart, Monik; Britt, M. Anne; and Perfetti, Charles A. 1998. "Studying and Using Multiple Documents in History: Effects of Discipline Expertise." Cognition and Instruction 15:85106.

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

Seixas, Peter. 1996. "Conceptualizing the Growth of Historical Understanding." In The Handbook of Psychology in Education, ed. David R. Olson and Nancy Torrance. Oxford: Blackwell.

Shemilt, Denis. 1984. "Beauty and the Philosopher: Empathy in History and Classroom." In Learning History, ed. Alaric Dickinson, Peter Lee, and Peter J. Rogers. London: Heinemann.

Sinatra, Gail; Beck, Isabel L.; and McKeown, Margaret. 1992. "A Longitudinal Characterization of Young Students Knowledge of Their Country's Government." American Educational-Research Journal 29:633662.

Stahl, Steven; Hynd, Cyndy; Britton, Bruce; McNish, Mary; and Bosquet, David. 1996. "What Happens When Students Read Multiple Source Documents in History?" Reading Research Quarterly 31:430456.

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


views updated May 18 2018


History was crucial to American attempts at self-definition, as members of the revolutionary generation and their antebellum descendants themselves recognized. History could provide models and guidance for citizens of the new nation, they believed, while simultaneously creating a sense of shared experience that could strengthen tenuous national bonds. Thus emphasizing the functional character of history, these historians embraced the traditional view of history as, in Henry St. John Bolingbroke's famous words, "philosophy teaching by example." For these historians, the purpose of history was to instill virtue in their readers by providing them with moral examples to imitate or avoid.

Revealing the popularity and importance of history in the early nineteenth century, the number of historical works that were published in this period rose from 26 in the first decade of the century to 158 in the 1830s. The creation of institutions devoted to the preservation of history in this period also reflected and furthered the growing interest in history. The Massachusetts Historical Society, founded in 1791, was the first historical society established in the United States, and by 1860, 111 historical societies had been established throughout the nation. Recognizing the importance of primary documents to the writing of history, these societies collected and preserved historical manuscripts. In their concern with preserving and publishing primary documents, historians revealed their allegiance to the critical methods of scholarship that were then developing in Germany, which emphasized the importance of truth and accuracy and based truth on a critical analysis of primary sources.

Even while Americans used history to promote nationalism, the writing of history became increasingly sectionalized in this period, as New England historians came to dominate the field. Forty-eight percent of the historians writing in the period between 1800 and 1860 came from New England, and half of these historians were from Massachusetts. As part of what has been termed the "Brahmin" elite, these historians offered a vision of America and its past that represented the interests of the New England elite. Writing before history had become a professionalized discipline, these historians believed that history was supposed to be the vocation of gentlemen amateurs. Thus most of them did not make a living from historical writing; they were either independently wealthy or supported themselves by pursuing other occupations in addition to history.

As David Levin has demonstrated, historians in this period viewed history as Romantic art. Influenced by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), the leading Romantic historians in this period—William Hickling Prescott, George Bancroft, John Lothrop Motley, and Francis Parkman—saw themselves as literary artists and sought to convey a sense of drama and immediacy in their historical works just as Scott had in his historical novels. Using metaphors of painting and portraiture to describe their work, they believed the historian's goal was to enable readers to visualize the past as though it were a painting rather than simply cataloging facts. For this reason they employed a vivid descriptive style that re-created historical scenes and events in graphic detail. Such an approach required the exercise of the imagination by the historian and demanded an emotional investment in his or her topic. Only in this way could the historian engage the emotions of readers and transport them back in time, enabling them to relive the vital experience of the past. And so nineteenth-century American historians assigned to history varied and sometimes conflicting purposes, at once emphasizing the social function of history and displaying a genuine concern with truth and at the same time viewing history as both philosophy and art.


The appointment of Jared Sparks (1789–1866) to the McLean Chair in Ancient and Modern History at Harvard—the first chair in modern nonecclesiastical history in the United States—in 1839 revealed both the growing importance of history in this period and Sparks's stature within the field. Thus he revealed the complex relationship between the nationalist purposes of antebellum historians and their concern with truth and accuracy. From humble origins, Sparks began his career as a Unitarian minister, leaving the ministry in 1823 to pursue his literary and historical interests. In 1834 Sparks published the first volume of his Library of American Biography (1834–1848), a series of popular biographies about prominent figures in American history, edited by him. In addition to Sparks himself, contributors to this series included well-known intellectual and political figures in his time, such as Francis Bowen and John Gorham Palfrey. In the preface to the first volume, Sparks affirmed his belief in the moral function of history, declaring that the office of biography was to combine "entertainment with instruction" (1:iv). To Sparks, the didactic function of biography was inseparable from its nationalist function, for, by providing his readers with moral examples to imitate or avoid, he hoped these biographies would instill the kind of civic virtue and concern for the public good necessary for the preservation of the Republic.

Sparks also published and edited the writings of Revolutionary-era figures such as Benjamin Franklin and Gouverneur Morris, the best known of which was his Writings of George Washington (1834–1837)—a multivolume collection of Washington's papers that also included a biography of Washington by Sparks. In his emphasis on biography, Sparks revealed the importance and popularity of biography as a genre of history in this period. And in his concern with collecting and publishing primary sources, Sparks revealed his commitment to critical methods of scholarship. Yet in his treatment of Washington's writings, Sparks revealed how his nationalist purposes limited his scholarly integrity, as he changed or omitted passages in Washington's letters to preserve his dignity. In addition to correcting grammatical errors, he changed slang expressions used by Washington, such as "Old Put" to "General Putnam" and "but a flea-bite at present" to "totally inadequate to our demands at this time," to make Washington seem more dignified (Stevens, p. 308).


Sharing Sparks's belief in the nationalist function of history, George Bancroft (1800–1891) brought together these nationalist purposes with a Romantic conception of history as a form of literary art. Born in Massachusetts, Bancroft was one of the first Americans to do graduate work in Germany, and he brought back the influence of both German idealism and German critical scholarship to the United States. In 1831 the publication of an article supporting President Andrew Jackson's attack on the Bank of the United States brought Bancroft to political prominence and marked the beginning of his career as a leading figure in the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Bancroft's rise to political eminence coincided with his emergence as a historian. With the publication of the first volume of his History of the United States in 1834, Bancroft immediately established his reputation as one of the nation's leading historians. Bancroft followed this volume with nine other volumes at irregular intervals, with the last volume appearing in 1874. The most comprehensive account of American history to that point, Bancroft's work achieved a commanding influence over nineteenth-century American historical writing. Bancroft's history was so popular and influential because of its ability to articulate and crystallize the basic assumptions of American exceptionalist ideology, namely the belief that the United States had a special destiny to embody and carry out democratic principles. While for this reason modern scholars have often attributed to him a mythic and uncritically celebratory view of the nation's past, Bancroft was actually a more sophisticated historian than these scholars have acknowledged, and his work combined a fervent nationalism with a cosmopolitan perspective. Very much aware of the international context for American developments, Bancroft's extensive research included both colonial and European archival sources, and he in fact devoted much of his discussion to European events.

Bancroft could take such a broad view of American history because he embraced a teleological perspective that treated the colonial past and indeed all of human history as having a design and purpose leading inexorably up to the Revolution. In Bancroft's words, "prepared by glorious forerunners," the Revolution "grew naturally and necessarily out of the series of past events by the formative principle of a living belief" (7:23). Bancroft believed the Revolution was inevitable because it had been decreed by the "grand design of Providence" (7:23). In his belief that America's historical development fulfilled a divine purpose and his belief that the Revolution represented a turning point in human history, Bancroft articulated two of the central assumptions of American exceptionalism. The Revolution was, for Bancroft, a turning point because it had brought about the realization of America's destiny to advance the cause of liberty. Structuring his analysis around the development of liberty in America, Bancroft dated this development back to the Reformation and began his history with the colonial era. Bancroft emphasized the role of the New England Puritans in developing and transplanting the principles of democracy and liberty to America, for, as he put it, Puritanism was "religion struggling for the People" (1:500).

This account of the origins of liberty served political and social purposes. An ardent Jacksonian, Bancroft gave historical legitimacy to the democratic principles he espoused by tracing their roots in the past. Bancroft's emphasis on the Puritan contribution to democracy reflected his own sectional loyalties: by locating the roots of democracy in New England, Bancroft asserted the primacy of his own region in American development and defined the nation in terms of New England. At the same time Bancroft's history also served nationalist purposes. Recognizing that Puritanism was just one of the many strands that contributed to American independence, Bancroft gave credit to victims of Puritan persecution, like Roger Williams, and to William Penn and the settlers of Virginia for instituting the principles of liberty in their respective regions. Bancroft thus sought to instill national unity by giving each section a role in the advance of democracy. The other major theme of Bancroft's history was the development of union in America.

With the Revolution, Bancroft believed, America had embarked on a process of continual progress. While the principles of the Revolution did not require a dramatic change in the nation's social or political system, the vitality of the principles themselves made them a source of continual renovation and reform for Bancroft. In his belief that the nation could remain indefinitely in a state of revolution without undergoing fundamental change, Bancroft summed up the exceptionalist vision of America as a nation that was exempt from the normal processes of historical change and decay. In this vision, by virtue of its closeness to nature, the United States could remain in a state of perpetual innocence and simplicity, untouched by the social forces that had corrupted the Old World.


While their nationalist purposes made U.S. history a natural subject of study for antebellum historians, they also took an interest in other areas of history. One of the leading Romantic historians, William Hickling Prescott (1796–1859), for example, focused on the history of Spain and its conquest of the New World. Born into a wealthy Boston family, Prescott published his first historical work, History of the Reign of Ferdinand and Isabella the Catholic, in 1837. This history immediately achieved critical and popular acclaim, and Prescott's reputation would only grow with his subsequent books—History of the Conquest of Mexico (1843) and History of the Conquest of Peru (1847). While the subject matter for his histories differed from that of Bancroft and Sparks, Prescott shared many of their assumptions about the nature and purpose of history. Thus in his most highly regarded work, the Conquest of Mexico, Prescott took Bancroft's view of history as the inevitable march of progress into his interpretation of the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs. For Prescott, the historian could fulfill his or her moral purpose only by identifying the larger principles of progress at work in the events he or she described, for these principles would provide the standards by which to judge historical actors. Identifying these principles was important for the historian's aesthetic purposes as well. Firmly committed to the Romantic view of history as literary art, Prescott viewed his Conquest of Mexico as an "epic in prose" (Levin, p. 164). He thus sought to give dramatic unity to his history by structuring his narrative around the conflict between the "civilization" of the Spanish conquerors and the "semi-civilization" of the Aztecs, culminating in the inevitable defeat of the Aztecs by the Spanish. For Prescott, the contrast between the leaders of these two groups—the decisive and resolute Hernán Cortés and the weak and vacillating Montezuma—embodied the differences between the Spanish and the Aztecs and revealed why the Spanish victory was inevitable and necessary for progress.


Prescott in turn influenced the other major Romantic historian of this period, John Lothrop Motley (1814–1877), and with Prescott's death in 1859, Motley became the nation's leading historian of Europe. But whereas Prescott had focused on Spanish history, Motley turned his attention to Dutch history. With the publication of The Rise of the Dutch Republic in 1856, Motley immediately achieved wide popular and critical acclaim, and he followed this work with other studies of Dutch history—The History of the United Netherlands (1860–1867) and The Life and Death of John of Barneveld (1874). Highly praised by American and European historians in his time, The Rise of the Dutch Republic was Motley's most influential work and became a best-seller in both the United States and Britain. Like Prescott, Motley structured his narrative around the struggle between the forces of progress and their opponents. Taking for his subject the Dutch rebellion against Philip II of Spain, Motley, however, identified the Dutch with progress and the Spanish with decline and reaction. More specifically, because Motley, like Bancroft, equated progress with the advancement of liberty, he depicted the conflict between the Spanish and the Dutch as one between liberty and tyranny. And like Bancroft, Motley emphasized the role of Providence in the advance of progress, portraying progress as the inevitable realization of divine will. While this work did not possess the same dramatic unity as Prescott's, Motley in his own way sought to achieve the ideal of history as Romantic art through the excitement and emotion of his prose and through his ability to create vivid and dramatic characters.


Although women were for the most part excluded from this circle of historians, women did engage in the writing of history in this period. As Nina Baym has demonstrated, women wrote about history in many different genres, including conventional narrative histories, historical novels, travel writings, plays, and poetry. Probably the best-known female historian from this period was Elizabeth Ellet (c. 1812–1877). A prolific author who wrote on a wide variety of topics, ranging from American history to original poetry and literary criticism, Ellet published her first major historical work, Women of the American Revolution, a three-volume collective biography of women in the Revolution, between 1848 and 1850. At a time when the ideology of domesticity excluded women from the public world of historical writing and politics, Ellet challenged conventional assumptions about women's domestic roles not only by writing history herself but also by showing women's contributions to the public realm during the Revolution. Ellet's Domestic History of the American Revolution (1850) went further and challenged conventional definitions of history, which emphasized political and military events, by arguing for the importance of studying the history of everyday social life—in which women played a major part—during the Revolution. Yet Ellet would only go so far in subverting conventional gender roles. Even while urging the need to recognize women's contributions to political events like the Revolution, Ellet still reinforced the association of women with the domestic sphere by emphasizing the domestic character of those contributions and identifying women with the realm of sentiment and emotion.


Although the Romantic nationalism of Bancroft and Motley prevailed in the nineteenth century, this style of history did not go unchallenged. One of the best-known dissenters from the Romantic style of history was Richard Hildreth (1807–1865). From the same cultural milieu as his fellow New England historians, Hildreth combined historical writing with a career as an antislavery reformer and philosopher. Hildreth published the first three volumes of his History of the United States in 1849, followed by three more volumes in 1851 and 1852, which continued the History up to 1821. In contrast to the Romantic style of his contemporaries, Hildreth wrote in a dry, colorless style that listed facts and events in an unemotional way, occasionally relieved by the ironic humor and vivid prose of his caustic declamations against human bigotry and hypocrisy. Hildreth expressed his desire to challenge patriotic myths about American history in his preface, where he declared that his purpose was "to present for once, on the historic stage, the founders of our American nation unbedaubed with patriotic rouge" (1:iii). Hence Hildreth ridiculed the conventional patriotic view of the Puritans as exponents of liberty, arguing instead that bigotry and intolerance defined Puritanism. In Hildreth's view, rather than a direct outgrowth of Puritanism as Bancroft had claimed, liberty was primarily the product of forces in conflict with Puritan ideals, and the struggle and eventual triumph of these forces against a powerful Puritan theocracy served as major organizing themes for the first two volumes of his history. Hildreth's critical perspective on the Puritans reflected his skepticism about religion more generally. Influenced by utilitarian philosophy, Hildreth interpreted human history in purely secular terms and rejected the providential interpretation embraced by most of his contemporaries.

Hildreth was equally unconventional in his interpretation of the Revolution as an economic struggle to free the colonies from British commercial restrictions, for this interpretation challenged the patriotic view of the Revolution as a struggle for the abstract principle of liberty. And rather than celebrating the Revolution as a turning point in history, Hildreth pointed to its limits, criticizing the Revolution for its failure to realize the democratic principles it proclaimed, particularly with regard to slavery. While Hildreth's history did not achieve much popular success, this work was important as a precursor to the scientific ideal of objective truth that would develop later in the nineteenth century.


Romantic and scientific history were not mutually exclusive, as Francis Parkman (1823–1893) revealed. Part of the Boston Brahmin elite like his Romantic predecessors, Parkman came from a wealthy and privileged background. Fascinated with the "wilderness," Parkman expressed his enthusiasm for the outdoors and for vigorous physical activity through his many hiking trips to remote wilderness regions. In these travels Parkman went to many of the places he discussed in his histories, enabling him to base his descriptions on firsthand experience. In 1846 Parkman traveled west in an expedition on the Oregon Trail, and his chronicle of this trip provided the basis for his first book, The California and Oregon Trail, published in 1849. Parkman's love of outdoor activity made the health problems he began to suffer in 1843 all the more of a constraint on his way of life. Suffering from headaches, insomnia, indigestion, arthritis, and partial blindness, Parkman often had to lie down in a darkened room without moving for days at a time. Despite his illness, Parkman managed to continue his work on history by having others read his sources aloud to him, by dictating his narrative to one of his assistants, and by setting up a wire mechanism to guide his pencil, which enabled him to do some writing in the dark.

As a result of these efforts, Parkman published his Pioneers of France in the New World, the first part of his seven-part study of the French and English conflict in North America, now known as France and England in North America, in 1865. Parkman completed this series in 1892 with the publication of his A Half Century of Conflict. The best known and most highly regarded volume in this series was Parkman's Montcalm and Wolfe, published in 1884, which brought the imperial conflict between France and England to a close by examining the French and Indian War and its outcome—the establishment of British colonial supremacy in North America. Like his predecessors, Parkman viewed himself as a literary artist and sought to make the past come to life for the reader through the use of the imagination. At the same time Parkman's extensive primary source research was consistent with the scientific ideal of objective truth that was emerging in his time. Parkman saw no conflict between his artistic purposes and his commitment to truth and scholarship. On the contrary, through extensive quotations from his primary sources and the accumulation of details drawn from these sources, Parkman was able to make the events he described seem more vivid and immediate to his audiences. Writing in a direct, vigorous style, Parkman sought to create a sense of drama in Montcalm and Wolfe by structuring his narrative around a series of oppositions—between England and France, old and new France, nature and civilization, effeminacy and manhood, and his two central characters, the Marquis de Montcalm and General James Wolfe. Associating nature with freedom and savagery, Parkman believed the English were ultimately able to prevail over the French because of their ability to balance the vigor of nature with the order of civilization. If for Parkman the French represented overrefined civilization, Native Americans at the other extreme embodied the chaotic savagery of nature. Rather than idealizing Native Americans as "noble savages," Parkman portrayed them as cruel and irrational barbarians who were doomed to be destroyed by the advance of civilization.

Yet if Parkman embraced Romantic ideals in his style of writing, his interpretation of history was darker and more pessimistic than that of his Romantic predecessors. Reflecting his own skepticism about religion, Parkman rejected his predecessors' belief in a providential design for history, barely mentioning Providence in his histories. So while he shared the Romantic fascination with nature, he did not see nature as a realm where the individual could commune with the divine as Romantic thinkers did. Instead, reflecting the influence of the evolutionist Charles Darwin, Parkman described nature as a realm defined by the struggle for existence. Parkman's view of nature as an amoral force, governed by fixed laws and indifferent to the fate of humanity, was part of a larger theory of causation that downplayed the individual's ability to control historical events. Parkman instead emphasized the power of larger forces beyond individual control and pointed to the role of petty and trivial occurrences in bringing about events of momentous significance. Thus Parkman did not think progress was inevitable. Deeply critical of the materialistic and democratic tendencies of his time, Parkman feared that, far from improving on their ancestors, his contemporaries had fallen away from the spirit of vigor and heroism that their predecessors had displayed in the colonial struggle against France. In this way Parkman's work at once represented the culmination of Romantic history and pointed to its demise. By the time of Parkman's death in 1893, American historians had increasingly turned away from the Romantic view of history as a literary art in favor of what they considered the more scientific ideal of objectivity, which equated truth with an unbiased account of the facts, detached from any social or political purpose.

See alsoHistory of the Conquest of Mexico;The Oregon Trail;Philosophy; Romanticism


Primary Works

Bancroft, George. History of the United States, from theDiscovery of the American Continent. Vol. 1. Boston: Charles Bowen, 1834.

Bancroft, George. History of the United States, from theDiscovery of the American Continent. Vol. 7. Boston: Little, Brown, 1858.

Hildreth, Richard. The History of the United States of America, from the Discovery of the Continent to the Organization of Government under the Federal Constitution. 3 vols. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1849.

Sparks, Jared, ed. Library of American Biography. 25 vols. 1834. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1839–1851.

Secondary Works

Baym, Nina. American Women Writers and the Work ofHistory, 1790–1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1995.

Bercovitch, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Callcott, George. History in the United States, 1800–1860:Its Practice and Purpose. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1970.

Casper, Scott. Constructing American Lives: Biography andCulture in Nineteenth-Century America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Handlin, Lilian. George Bancroft: The Intellectual as Democrat. New York: Harper and Row, 1984.

Kraus, Michael, and Davis D. Joyce. The Writing of AmericanHistory. Rev. ed. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

Levin, David. History as Romantic Art: Bancroft, Prescott,Motley, and Parkman. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1959.

Noble, David. Historians against History: The Frontier Thesis and the National Covenant in American Historical Writing since 1830. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1965.

Ross, Dorothy. "Historical Consciousness in Nineteenth-Century America." American Historical Review 89 (October 1984): 909–928.

Stevens, Michael. "Jared Sparks." In American Historians,1607–1865, vol. 30 of Dictionary of Literary Biography, edited by Clyde N. Wilson, p. 308. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

Van Tassel, David D. Recording America's Past: AnInterpretation of the Development of Historical Studies in America, 1607–1884. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.

Vitzthum, Richard C. The American Compromise: Theme and Method in the Histories of Bancroft, Parkman, and Adams. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

Wilson, Clyde N., ed. American Historians, 1607–1865. Vol. 30 of Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1984.

Wish, Harvey. The American Historian: A Social-IntellectualHistory of the Writing of the American Past. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Eileen Ka-May Cheng


views updated May 29 2018


Systematic research on LGBT history was all but nonexistent before 1970. Like women and African Americans, LGBT people only asserted the significance of their historical experiences after they created a social movement. Historical research is inescapably political: which groups merit historians' attention is at least partly a function of the power those groups wield in the present. LGBT historical research has consistently reflected profound concern for the connections between scholarship and politics.

The earliest studies in LGBT history consisted of efforts to find LGBT persons in the past and write about them. But even some of the first forays into LGBT history, and the history of sexuality more generally, depended on and bespoke an astute suspicion that sexuality would prove as important a category of human identity for understanding the past as gender, race, or class. By demonstrating that the very notion of "sexuality" as a defining element of human identity (much less the specifics of sexual identity categories) varies enormously across time and space, historians have contributed crucially to the growing recognition that sexuality, in particular LGBT identities, has much more to do with power differentials than it does with nature or biology.

Or, as the vast majority of historians studying these issues would put it, sexuality is a social construction. Social constructionism refers to the belief that identity categories generally, especially sexual identity categories, reflect the influence of various social, cultural, and political factors—including economic organization, familial structure, religious and educational institutions, social movements, and especially in modern Western societies, the "expert" opinions of mental health professionals and medical researchers. The "social construction" position opposes the "essentialist" position, according to which sexuality is a natural, inherent quality that all humans have possessed in all places, at all times, whatever the variation in the expression of that quality.

Early Academic Scholarship

After considerable debate during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the constructionist position has come to dominate historical approaches to LGBT topics. This is so in part because the constructionist position depends heavily on historical evidence. Carroll Smith-Rosenberg provided an important part of the argument before the debate emerged, in her groundbreaking article "The Female World of Love and Ritual," which appeared as the first article in the first issue of the women's studies journal, Signs, in 1975. With her account of intense friendships among respectable, middle-class white women of the nineteenth century, Smith-Rosenberg demonstrated that assumptions about connections between emotional commitment and sexual activity that characterized the post–World War II period did not necessarily obtain in an earlier period. Literary scholar Lillian Faderman took a more essentialist position soon after, arguing in "The Morbidification of Love between Women" and elsewhere that intense female relationships in various guises have always existed. The impulse of psychologists and other authority figures of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to represent such relationships as pathological reflected men's anxieties about changing gender norms in the period. Joining this discussion, Blanche Wiesen Cook wrote in 1979 about "The Historical Denial of Lesbianism," arguing that historians systematically refused to see evidence of sexual activity in prominent female couples and friendship networks of the same period. These articles all illustrate the important, complicated, and unpredictable relationships between gender and sexuality as historical topics.

Community-based Research

In 1976 Jonathan Ned Katz published Gay American History, a massive collection of documents from the beginning of European settlement in North America to the 1970s. Katz was not a professional historian, and given the conservatism of history as a discipline it is unlikely that anyone could have survived as a professional historian while producing Gay American History during the 1970s. The conflicted relationship between LGBT history and the de facto gatekeepers to the profession is an important factor to consider in understanding historians' coverage of LGBT persons in the past. Katz is only one historian covering LGBT topics whose contributions to the field have come more in spite of than thanks to the canons of the discipline.

Other prominent early examples of nonprofessional historians include Vern Bullough, who has produced fourteen major publications on LGBT history since 1973—as part of a total corpus of nearly one hunded publications dealing with various aspects of the history of nursing, medicine, and gender and sexuality—and who has long held academic appointments; and Allen Bérubé, who published the groundbreaking Coming Out Under Fire: The History of Gay Men and Women in World War II in 1990, but who does not hold a university appointment. Bérubé helped found the San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project in 1978. Joan Nestle, lesbian author and activist who founded the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York City in 1973, taught writing at Queens College from 1966 to 1995, but does not have formal training as a historian.

The San Francisco Lesbian and Gay History Project, the Lesbian Herstory Archives, and other communitybased LGBT collections also have tended to operate outside of the historical profession while proving crucial in the historical reconstruction of LGBT lives in the United States. The Gerber-Hart Library in Chicago is a free-standing institution dedicated to the preservation of queer history. The History Project in Boston published Improper Bostonians: Lesbian and Gay History from the Puritans to Playland in 1998. Becoming Visible: An Illustrated History of Lesbian and Gay Life in Twentieth-Century America , edited by Molly McGarry and Fred Wasserman (1998), is the outcome of a major 1994 exhibit on LGBT history at the New York Public Library. The GLBT Historical Society, based in San Francisco, has extensive archival collections and plans to build the world's first major museum dedicated to LGBT history and culture.

Lack of scholarly affiliation has not impaired the intellectual sophistication of the resulting work. Katz's Gay American History reflected the entire range of intellectual and political impulses behind LGBT history. By its very existence it amply demonstrated the continuous existence of LGBT persons in the American past, few of them famous beyond the fleeting notoriety they experienced during trials for sodomy or cross-dressing. At the same time, introducing the revised version of the book in 1992, Katz participated in the constructionist debate, arguing that terms appropriate to the late twentieth century, especially "homosexual," did not accurately capture understandings of same-sex desire and activity before the late nineteenth century.

The Field Grows

The first major collection to include academic work on LGBT history in the United States appeared in 1979, when the Radical History Review published a collection of articles on the history of sexuality that included Robert Padgug's piece on how to conceptualize the history of sexuality. He cited French philosopher Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, which first appeared in English in 1978, Smith-Rosenberg's article, and a 1968 article by British sociologist Mary McIntosh, "The Homosexual Role," which argued that the designation "homosexual" served to distinguish normality from deviance. Each of these works played a major role in the essentialist-constructionist debate. Although Foucault's work has since come to dominate scholarly inquiry into issues of sexuality, The History of Sexuality was at the time only one in an array of major sources, theoretical and empirical, in the field.

The entire issue of the Radical History Review from which Padgug's article came appeared in 1989 as Passion and Power: Sexuality in History. This volume illustrated the connection between LGBT history and the history of sexuality more generally, containing such major contributions as John D'Emilio's "The Homosexual Menace: The Politics of Sexuality in Cold War America," which demonstrated that more people lost federal jobs for suspicion of "homosexuality" than of communism during the second red scare; George Chauncey's "From Sexual Inversion to Homosexuality: The Changing Medical Conceptualization of Female 'Deviance,'" an important study showing significant variation in researchers' and clinicians' conceptions of same-sex sexuality in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and Elizabeth Kennedy and Madeline Davis's "The Reproduction of Butch-Fem Roles: A Social Constructionist Approach," which provided both conceptual discussion of the constructionist debate and a foretaste of their subsequent book, Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community (1993), a unique and enormously valuable oral history of lesbians in Buffalo, New York. Passion and Power also contained explorations of non-LGBT sexualities, including important considerations of variation in sexual definition and experience along the axes of class and race.

Another important collection, Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality, appeared in 1981 as a reprint of a special issue of the Journal of Homosexuality, first published in 1980 (reprinted again in 1985 under the title, The Gay Past: A Collection of Historical Essays) . It covered a wide range both chronologically and geographically, with the lead essay discussing European laws prohibiting lesbian sexual activity from 1270 to 1791. This range itself indicated the paucity of scholarship in the field: edited collections on specific topics in history rarely cover several centuries and all of Western Europe plus the United States.

Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality was also important for publishing "'Writhing Bedfellows,' 1826: Two Young Men from Antebellum South Carolina's Ruling Elite Share 'Extravagant Delight'," by Martin Bauml Duberman. Duberman, who established his career as a historian before coming out of the closet and writing about LGBT history, would go on to publish the only major historical work to date on the Stonewall riots of 1969, Stonewall (1993). He played a key role in the founding of the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) in 1986; CLAGS would find a permanent institutional home at the City University of New York's Graduate Center in 1991.

Another prominent scholar from this period, John Boswell, published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century in 1980. His title alone demonstrated his essentialist conviction that one may properly apply modern notions of sexual orientation across the entire sweep of Western history and presumably across all of human history. With this book and the subsequent Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell attracted an unprecedented degree of attention from the general public for studies of medieval history by arguing that the modern assumption of longstanding hostility toward sexual minorities throughout the Christian era was false.

Boswell began Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality with the observation that no historian can examine the past without bringing her or his present concerns and assumptions to the task. In disputing the constructionist thesis, he stated his conviction that to assert the absence of the categories "homosexual" or "gay person" in the past would be not only empirically false, but also damaging to the social movement for LGBT civil rights in the present. Certainly many activists exhorted LGBT people to participate in political activism in part by insisting on the immutability of sexual identity. They analogized to racial identity for purposes of conforming to American civil rights law and policy, convinced that the U.S. public was more likely to support LGBT rights if they saw LGBT people as "born that way."

Subsequent research, however, raised significant doubts about the thesis that a transhistorical conception of homosexual or gay identity was a necessary linchpin for political activism in the present. In 1983, D'Emilio published Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1945 to 1970 , arguably the single most important contribution to the field of LGBT American history as of 2004. D'Emilio's was the first study of the "homophile" movement—the precursor to the post–Stonewall riots (1969) LGBT civil rights movement—by a professional historian. Despite the manifest importance and quality of his work, D'Emilio struggled to establish his career, spending over a decade at a primarily undergraduate teaching institution before winning major research grants and a position at a research institution, the University of Illinois at Chicago.

D'Emilio's study of the United States in the first twenty-five years after World War II fell well within the scope of sexuality as defined in constructionist terms. The subtitle of the book, The Making of a Homosexual Minority, revealed the claim that homophile activists in the late 1950s and 1960s had deliberately cultivated in LGBT persons a sense of themselves as a distinct subset of the population. D'Emilio did not explicitly address the constructionist debate in his book. He meant "the making of a minority" in the political sense of a supposedly isolated, invisible group that managed somehow by 1975 to claim more than one thousand organizations in the United States and a surprising measure of political clout. He argued that lesbians and gay men were not so uniformly isolated and invisible before Stonewall as later activists had assumed. In making that argument, D'Emilio built on his earlier article, "Capitalism and Gay Identity," where he presented a materialist argument for the proposition that lesbian and gay identities depended on economic and political developments—especially the separation of production from family relations and urbanization in the late nineteenth century—that are distinctively modern.

The period from 1979 to 1983 thus proved exceptionally productive, with major scholars publishing early work that would establish their reputations as pioneers in the field of LGBT history. As pioneers, they occupied a very sparsely populated frontier; their works served as landmarks for subsequent scholars who would connect early LGBT historical studies to the conceptual grid of the discipline as a whole.

Social, Cultural, and Political History

LGBT history benefited conceptually not only from the emergence of women's history, gender history, and the history of sexuality but also from the increased prominence of social history beginning in the 1970s as well. Martin Duberman, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, the editors of Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past (1989), made this point in introducing their collection of articles, which covered a wide range chronologically as well as geographically, dealing with Europe, Latin America, Asia, Africa, and North America. The driving assumption behind much LGBT history during the 1980s and 1990s was that it could illuminate the experiences of everyday life and ordinary people by exploring their actual thoughts and actions in matters of sexuality, apart from the definitions and expectations of medical and legal authorities. If Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold is the lesbian exemplar of this genre, George Chauncey's Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940 (1994), perhaps the closest LGBT historians will ever come to producing social history in the conventional mode, is the gay male exemplar. Chauncey demonstrated convincingly that men from working class and racial and ethnic minorities in New York City in the early twentieth century did not operate according to the classifications of sexual identity that medical authorities had been developing since the last third of the nineteenth century. He also cataloged the variations in self-conception and presentation among gay men, including changing meanings of terms such as "gay" and "queer."

Related to this emphasis on social history is what one might broadly think of as a cultural historical approach to issues of sexuality by literary scholars. The same Foucault who gave us The History of Sexuality played a major role in the rise of historically influenced literary studies during the 1980s and 1990s, resulting in work by scholars of English literature such as Valerie Traub, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and Jonathan Goldberg using primarily literary sources to explore the significance of sexual classifications. Siobhan Somerville's Queering the Color Line: Race and the Invention of Homosexuality in American Culture (2000) is a culmination of all of these trends: a cultural history resting primarily on literary and cinematic texts by a literary scholar, describing "the invention of homosexuality" as related to racial categorizations.

Somerville and other literary scholars used literature to make a historical point that historians also took up using a wider range of sources: observations about the historical variability of LGBT identity led to questions about the historical variability of heterosexual identity, and about the reasons for the existence of such identity categories in the first place. Katz's The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995) extended the logic of social constructionism to the supposedly "normal" opposite of "homosexuality," and demonstrated that sexologists created "heterosexuality" only after creating "homosexuality." Jennifer Terry's An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society (1999), takes the obsession with homosexuality in the twentieth-century United States as a peculiar phenomenon in need of explanation. Terry's work illustrates the fascination of LGBT scholars with the political uses of sexual identity classifications, especially insofar as part of their political efficacy derives from their ostensibly medical provenance. Similarly, Lisa Duggan's Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity (2000) places sensational accounts of a "lesbian love murder" in Memphis in 1892 into the context of broader anxieties about gender, women's rights agitation, and race. Each of these works is cultural history in that they rely on a wide range of sources in order to discern the meanings of seemingly ordinary categories to the persons who experienced them, especially at times of significant contest over those meanings; they are queer history in that they demonstrate how accusations of impropriety and immorality often serve to conceal underlying political struggles.

In short, for LGBT historians, sexuality is not only historical, it is political as well. Sexuality, like gender, serves in this analysis to transport hierarchy and power differentials into personal relationships while concealing its operation by explaining the effects in terms of "nature." This assumption explicitly undergirds much LGBT historical writing that otherwise falls under the rubrics of social and/or cultural history. It also informs much history that is queer, in the sense not only of examining LGBT persons in the past, but of using historical analysis as the vehicle for raising significant questions about contemporary political and epistemological assumptions, including beliefs about the value of identity-based political movements. William B. Turner explored connections between historical research and queer theory in A Genealogy of Queer Theory (2000).

Oddly, however, explicit historical examinations of the LGBT movement remain relatively rare, perhaps because it has only achieved prominence since 1970. Besides D'Emilio's groundbreaking study, Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities, the only book-length study thus far that addresses the social movement in detail is Marc Stein's City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945–1972 (2000). Also in 2000, D'Emilio published Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights, with one historian, William B. Turner, but also one activist, Urvashi Vaid, as coeditors. For many, if not most, LGBT historians, the distinction between historian and activist is so fine as to be nonexistent. D'Emilio served as the founding director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force's think tank, the Policy Institute. Bérubé, Duggan, Nestle, Stein, and Turner also claim significant activist as well as scholarly involvements. Creating Change contains articles describing the history of the LGBT civil rights movement, but many more of the contributors are political scientists and activists than are historians. The sole effort at a comprehensive account of the LGBT movement since Stonewall, Out for Good: The Struggle to Build a Gay Rights Movement in America (1999), comes from two journalists, Dudley Clendinen and Adam Nagourney.

New Directions

Political struggles continue to occur within the social movement and among LGBT scholars, as well as between LGBT persons and the larger society. Only during the 1990s did activists define the categories "bisexual" and "transgender" as distinct political identities ripe for scholarly exploration. Many of the participants in the gay liberation movement of the 1970s and gay rights movement of the 1980s may have acted in ways that one might now categorize as bisexual or transgender, but accepted the rubric "gay" as a broad term encompassing a wide range of identities defined in terms of sexual or gender minority status.

One result is that specifically historical explorations of bisexual or transgender topics remain relatively rare. Attorney and activist Phyllis Randolph Frye's chapter in Creating Change on battles to incorporate transgender issues into the lesbian/gay civil rights movement is one example. Transgender historian Susan Stryker, who is executive director of the GLBT Historical Society, has played a major role in defining the emerging field of transgender studies; she edited a 1998 special issue of GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies on transgender studies. It contained contributions from various disciplines and included an article by historian Joanne Meyerowitz, who later published How Sex Changed: A History of Transexuality in the United States in 2002.

As with most historical inquiry in the United States, LGBT history has tended to emphasize the Northeast and major urban areas first, with other areas, including places outside the United States, attracting scrutiny only later. Ramón Gutiérrez studied Native American cultures in New Mexico between European contact and U.S. annexation in When Jesus Came, the Corn Mothers Went Away: Marriage, Sexuality, and Power in New Mexico, 1500–1846 (1991). Recent studies of the South by John Howard ( Men Like That: A Southern Queer History [1999] and, as editor, Carrying On in the Lesbian and Gay South [1997]) and the Pacific Northwest by Peter Boag ( Same-SexAffairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest [2003]) have significantly broadened the geographic scope of U.S. historians' understanding of LGBT lives. Nan Boyd's Wide-Open Town: A History of Queer San Francisco to 1965 (2003) extends several trends in queer history to the queerest of American cities.

An early study of a non-U.S. region was Bret Hinsch's Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China (1990). James Green published Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil in 1999. Also in 1999, Gregory Pflugfelder published Cartographies of Desire: Male-Male Sexuality in Japanese Discourse, 1600-1950. Jeffrey Merrick and Bryant Ragan have edited two volumes on France, Homosexuality in Modern France (1996) and Homosexuality in Early Modern France: A Documentary Collection (2001). Stephen Murray and Will Roscoe published Boy-Wives and Female Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities in 1998. James Steakley's The Homosexual Emancipation Movement in Germany is very important for its early publication date, 1975, but also for describing a social movement that, before World War II, was well ahead of that in the United States.


LGBT historians initially dealt with discrimination within the discipline by staying in the closet and not writing about the LGBT past. As they began to come out and explore LGBT history, they created the Committee for Lesbian and Gay History (CLGH) in 1979. In 1982, CLGH became an affiliate of the American Historical Association. The profession has continued to follow the social movement and the larger society in that LGBT historians are coming out earlier in their careers and increasingly writing dissertations on LGBT topics. Indeed, one way of tracking the expansion of LGBT history is by reviewing the CLGH bibliography of dissertations, http://www.usc.edu/isd/archives/clgh/dissertations.html. New research from LGBT historians is gradually reshaping our understanding of the human past in all respects, and the impact of this research is likely to continue growing in the future.


Boag, Peter. Same-Sex Affairs: Constructing and Controlling Homosexuality in the Pacific Northwest. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Boswell, John. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

Chauncey, George. Gay New York: Gender, Urban Culture, and the Making of the Gay Male World, 1890–1940. New York: Basic Books, 1994.

Cook, Blanche Wiesen. "The Historical Denial of Lesbianism." Radical History Review 20 (1979): 60–65.

D'Emilio, John. Sexual Politics, Sexual Communities: The Making of a Homosexual Minority in the United States, 1940 to 1970. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1983.

D'Emilio, John, William B. Turner, and Urvashi Vaid, eds. Creating Change: Sexuality, Public Policy, and Civil Rights. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.

Duberman, Martin Bauml, Martha Vicinus, and George Chauncey, Jr., eds. Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. New York: New American Library, 1989.

Faderman, Lillian. "The Morbidification of Love between Women by Nineteenth-Century Sexologists." Journal of Homosexuality 4 (1978): 73–89.

Green, James. Beyond Carnival: Male Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century Brazil. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

Katz, Jonathan Ned. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the USA, a Documentary Anthology. New York: Crowell, 1976. Rev. ed. New York: Meridian, 1992.

Kennedy, Elizabeth Lapovsky, and Madeline D. Davis. Boots of Leather, Slippers of Gold: The History of a Lesbian Community. New York: Routledge, 1993.

Licata, Salvatore J., and Robert P. Petersen. Historical Perspectives on Homosexuality . New York: Haworth Press, 1981.

Peiss, Kathy, and Christina Simmons, eds., with Robert A. Padgug. Passion and Power: Sexuality in History. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.

Smith-Rosenberg, Carroll. "The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America." Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 1(1975): 1–30.

Stein, Marc. City of Sisterly and Brotherly Loves: Lesbian and Gay Philadelphia, 1945——1972. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.

Terry, Jennifer. An American Obsession: Science, Medicine, and Homosexuality in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999.

William B. Turner

see alsoclassical studies; essentialism and constructionism; history projects, libraries, and archives; lesbian herstory archives.


views updated May 17 2018


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 http://www.runet.edu/~wkovarik.

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 http://www.onlineethics.org/moral.

Adi R. Ferrara


views updated Jun 08 2018



Attn: AHEPA Educational Foundation
1909 Q Street, N.W., Suite 500
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202)232-6300
Fax: (202)232-2140
Web Site: http://www.ahepa.org/ahepa
To provide financial assistance for college to students with a connection to the American Hellenic Educational Progressive Association (AHEPA), particularly those interested in majoring in political science or history.
Title of Award: George Leber Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: General studies/Field of study not specified; History; International affairs and relations; Political science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies each year; recently, 2 of these scholarships were awarded. Funds Available: The annual stipend ranges from $500 to $2,000. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to 1) members in good standing of the Order of Ahepa, Daughters of Penelope, Sons of Pericles, or Maids of Athena, and 2) the children of Order of Ahepa or Daughters of Penelope members in good standing. Applicants must be currently enrolled or planning to enroll in a college or university in the following fall. They may major in any area, but preference is given to upper-division students majoring in political science, history, or international relations. Selection is based on academic achievement, extracurricular activities, athletic achievements, work experience, and community service. Financial need is not considered. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year. Additional Information: A processing fee of $20 must accompany each application.


1604 New Hampshire Avenue, N.W.
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202)234-4602
Fax: (202)234-4639
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.esuwdc.org/fellowships.html
To provide funding to residents of the metropolitan Washington area who are interested in conducting research or other projects anywhere in the world on a topic that relates to the English-speaking tradition.
Title of Award: Helen Gladstone Williams Scholarships Area, Field, or Subject: Art; General studies/Field of study not specified; History; Philosophy Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Professional, Postdoctoral, Undergraduate Number Awarded: 1 or more each year. Funds Available: The grant ranges up to $5,000.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to permanent residents of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area who have at least a bachelor's degree. Applicants must be interested in conducting a project, either independently or in conjunction with an accredited institution, on a subject that relates to English-speaking traditions in locales other than, or in addition to, the United States. They must submit a 2-page summary that describes the course of study to be undertaken and discusses how it would advance the objectives of the sponsoring organization, a brief resume of academic and employment experience, and 3 letters of support. Applicants who do not have a diploma at the bachelor's level or above must also submit a transcript from an accredited institution of higher learning that indicates progress toward a degree to be bestowed in the near future. Projects should focus primarily on endeavors that shed light on history, philosophy, the arts, or other aspects of culture. Selection is based on the significance of the project in relation to the field(s) it seeks to address, the project's relevance to the aims and values of the sponsoring organization, the credentials of the applicant, and the likelihood that the project will be completed successfully and on schedule. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year.


Attn: Scholarship Chair
1255 Buford Highway, Suite 211
Suwanee, GA 30024
Tel: (678)730-0010
Fax: (678)730-0836
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.weavespindye.org
To provide financial assistance to undergraduate and graduate students working on a degree in the field of fiber arts.
Title of Award: Dendel Scholarships Area, Field, or Subject: Art conservation; History; Textile science Level of Education for which

Award is Granted: Graduate, Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies; more than $4,000 is available for this program each year. Funds Available: The amount of the award depends on the availability of funds. Recipients may use the funds for tuition, materials (e.g., film for photographs), or travel. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in accredited colleges and universities in the United States, its possessions, and Canada. Applicants must be working on a degree in the field of fiber arts, including training for research, textile history, and conservation. Along with their application, they must submit 1) an essay on their study goals and how those fit into their future plans, and 2) 5 to 16 slides of their work. Selection is based on artistic and technical merit; financial need is not considered. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year.


Attn: Scholarship Chair 1255 Buford Highway, Suite 211 Suwanee, GA 30024
Tel: (678)730-0010
Fax: (678)730-0836 E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.weavespindye.org
To provide financial assistance to undergraduate and graduate students working on a degree in the field of fiber arts.
Title of Award: HGA Scholarships Area, Field, or Subject: Art conservation; History; Textile science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies; more than $4,000 is available for this program each year. Funds Available: The amount of the award depends on the availability of funds. Use of funds is restricted to tuition. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in accredited colleges and universities in the United States, its possessions, and Canada. Applicants must be working on a degree in the field of fiber arts, including training for research, textile history, and conservation. Along with their application, they must submit 1) an essay on their study goals and how they fit into their future plans, and 2) 5 to 16 slides of their work. Selection is based on artistic and technical merit; financial need is not considered. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year.


Attn: Scholarship Department
1164 Bishop Street, Suite 800
Honolulu, HI 96813
Tel: (808)566-5570; 888-731-3863
Fax: (808)521-6286
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.hawaiicommunityfoundation.org/scholar/scholar.php
To provide financial assistance to residents of Hawaii for undergraduate or graduate studies in fields related to achieving world cooperation and international understanding.
Title of Award: Marion Maccarrell Scott Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: Anthropology; Economics; Geography; History; International affairs and relations; Law; Peace studies; Philosophy; Political science; Psychology; Sociology Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies each year; recently, 258 of these scholarships were awarded. Funds Available: The amounts of the awards depend on the availability of funds and the need of the recipient; recently, stipends averaged $1,749. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to graduates of public high schools in Hawaii. They must plan to attend school as full-time students (on the undergraduate or graduate level) on the mainland, majoring in history, government, political science, anthropology, economics, geography, international relations, law, psychology, philosophy, or sociology. They must be residents of the state of Hawaii, able to demonstrate financial need, interested in attending an accredited 2- or 4-year college or university, and able to demonstrate academic achievement (GPA of 2.8 or higher). Along with their application, they must submit an essay on their commitment to world peace that includes their learning experiences (courses, clubs, community activities, or travel) related to achieving world peace and international understanding and explaining how their experiences have enhanced their ability to achieve those goals. Deadline for Receipt: February of each year.


Attn: Koniag Education
Foundation 6927 Old Seward Highway, Suite 103
Anchorage, AK 99518-2283
Tel: (907)562-9093; 888-562-9093
Fax: (907)562-9023
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.koniageducation.org
To provide financial assistance to Alaska Natives of the Koniag region who are enrolled in undergraduate or graduate study in a field related to Alutiiq culture.
Title of Award: Larry Matfay Cultural Heritage Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: Anthropology; History; Native American studies Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College, Graduate Number Awarded: 1 each year. Funds Available: The stipend is $1,000. Funds are sent directly to the recipient's school and may be used for tuition, books, supplies, room, board, and transportation. Duration: 1 year; may be renewed.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to college juniors, seniors, and graduate students who are 1) Alaska Natives enrolled under Section 5 of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act to the Koniag region, or 2) direct or legally adopted descendants of those original enrollees. Applicants must supply proof of eligibility and documentation of financial need. They must have a GPA of 2.5 or higher cumulatively (3.0 or higher within their major) and be majoring in anthropology, history, Alaska Native or American Indian studies, or another discipline that involves research and learning about Alutiiq culture. Along with their application, they must submit 1) a 300- to 600-word letter that includes their personal and family history, their schooling or work history, and their educational and life goals; and 2) a 200- to 400-word essay on how their education may benefit the Alutiiq people. Deadline for Receipt: March of each year. Additional Information: Recipients are also eligible to apply for a Koniag Education Foundation Academic Achievement/Graduate Scholarship. The Koniag Education Foundation was established in 1993 by the directors of Koniag, Inc. The Koniag region covers Kodiak Island, many smaller islands, and a portion of the Alaska Peninsula.


Attn: Executive Director
56 Roland Street, North Lobby, Suite 203
Boston, MA 02129
Tel: (617)776-2676
Fax: (617)776-2579
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.massdems.org/involved/internship.htm
To provide financial assistance for college to Massachusetts residents, with preference given to registered Democrats.
Title of Award: John F. Kennedy Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: History; Political science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College Number Awarded: 2 each year: 1 is set aside specifically for a female and 1 for a male. Funds Available: The stipend is $1,500. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to Massachusetts residents who are entering their third or fourth year of study at a college or university anywhere in the United States. Applicants must be majoring in political science, government, or history. They must be able to demonstrate a serious commitment to the study of American politics and be qualified to receive financial aid (as certified by their financial aid officer). Males and females compete separately. Preference is given to registered Democrats who have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. Finalists may be interviewed in Boston. Deadline for Receipt: April of each year.


Attn: Director of Student Services
1333 Main Street, Suite 200
Columbia, SC 29201
Tel: (803)737-2260; 877-349-7183
Fax: (803)737-2297
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.che.sc.gov
To provide scholarship/loans to teachers in South Carolina who wish to improve their content knowledge and degree programs.
Title of Award: South Carolina Teaching Scholarship Grants Program Area, Field, or Subject: Art; Dance; Economics; Education; Education, Early childhood; Education, Elementary; Education, Music; Education, Secondary; Education, Special; Geography; History; Linguistics; Mathematics and mathematical sciences; Music; Political science; Science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Professional, Undergraduate Number Awarded: Varies each year. Funds Available: The stipend is $1,000 per fiscal year. This is a scholarship/loan program. Recipients must sign a commitment to teach in South Carolina public schools for at least 1 year following completion of the scholarship grant year and agree to refund the scholarship amount if the 1-year teaching commitment is not honored. Duration: 1 year; may be renewed if recipients maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher. They may receive up to 3 grants in a 5-year period.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to residents of South Carolina who have a professional teaching certificate and are under contract as a teacher in a public school in the state. Applicants must be 1) accepted as a degree-seeking graduate student in the teaching field at the master's level and enrolled at an eligible institution in the state; or 2) enrolled for graduate or undergraduate courses in their current teaching field or in a teaching field in which they wish to add on certification. Proposed fields of study must relate to core content areas of English, reading or language arts, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts (advanced fine arts, art, dance, drama, music, and speech), history, or geography; early childhood, elementary education, middle level education, secondary education, and special education also qualify. Priority is given to classroom teachers (not administrators, counselors, media specialists, or other support personnel) whose teaching specialties are critical need subject areas. Continuing graduate students must have a GPA of 3.0 or higher. U.S. citizenship or permanent resident status is required. Deadline for Receipt: December of each year for second summer session and fall semester; June of each year for spring semester and first summer session. Additional Information: This program was established in 2001.


Attn: TFBPW Foundation
803 Forest Ridge Drive, Suite 207
Bedford, TX 76022
Tel: (817)283-0862
Fax: (817)283-0872
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.bpwtx.org/foundation.asp
To provide financial assistance to women in Texas who are preparing to enter selected professions.
Title of Award: Hermine Dalkowitz Tobolowsky Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: History; Law; Political science; Public administration; Women's studies Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Graduate, Undergraduate Number Awarded: 1 or more each year. Funds Available: A stipend is awarded (amount not specified). Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to women in Texas who are interested in attending school to prepare for a career in law, public service, government, political science, or women's history. Applicants must have completed at least 2 semesters of study at an accredited college or university in Texas, have a GPA of 3.0 or higher, and be U.S. citizens. Selection is based on academic achievement and financial need. Deadline for Receipt: April of each year. Additional Information: This program was established in 1995.


Attn: Executive Secretary 712 Jackson Place, N.W. Washington, DC 20006
Tel: (202)395-4831
Fax: (202)395-6995
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.truman.gov
To provide grants-for-service for graduate school to current college juniors who are interested in preparing for a career in public service.
Title of Award: Harry S. Truman Scholarship Program Area, Field, or Subject: Agricultural sciences; Biological and clinical sciences; Economics; Education; Engineering; Environmental conservation; Environmental science; History; International affairs and relations; Law; Physical sciences; Political science; Public administration; Public health; Public service; Social sciences; Technology Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College, Graduate Number Awarded: 70 to 75 each year: a) 1 "state" scholarship is available to a qualified resident nominee in each of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the Islands (Guam, the Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands); and b) up to 25 at-large scholars. Funds Available: The program provides up to $30,000, including up to $15,000 for the first year of graduate study and up to $15,000 for the final year of graduate study. Duration: Support is provided for the first and last year of graduate study.
Eligibility Requirements: Students must be nominated to be considered for this program. Nominees must be full-time students with junior standing at a 4-year institution, committed to a career in government or public service, in the upper quarter of their class, and U.S. citizens or nationals. Each participating institution may nominate up to 4 candidates (and up to 3 additional students who completed their first 2 years at a community college); community colleges and other 2-year institutions may nominate former students who are enrolled as full-time students with junior-level academic standing at accredited 4-year institutions. Selection is based on extent and quality of community service and government involvement, academic performance, leadership record, suitability of the nominee's proposed program of study for a career in public service, and writing and analytical skills. Priority is given to candidates who plan to enroll in a graduate program that specifically trains them for a career in public service, including government at any level, uniformed services, public interest organizations, nongovernmental research and/or educational organizations, public and private schools, and public service oriented nonprofit organizations. The fields of study may include agriculture, biology, engineering, environmental management, physical and social sciences, and technology policy, as well as such traditional fields as economics, education, government, history, international relations, law, nonprofit management, political science, public administration, public health, and public policy. Interviews are required. Deadline for Receipt: February of each year. Additional Information: Recipients may attend graduate school in the United States or in foreign countries. Scholars are required to work in public service for 3 of the 7 years following completion of a graduate degree program funded by this program. Scholars who do not meet this service requirement, or who fail to provide timely proof to the foundation of such employment, will be required to repay funds received, along with interest.


Champlain Mill
Attn: Scholarship Programs
P.O. Box 2000
Winooski, VT 05404-2601
Tel: (802)654-3798; 888-253-4819
Fax: (802)654-3765
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.vsac.org
To provide financial assistance to upper-division students at colleges and universities in Vermont who are majoring in history.
Title of Award: Town of Williston Historical Society Scholarship Area, Field, or Subject: History Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College Number Awarded: 1eachyear. Funds Available: The stipend is $1,000. Duration: 1 year; nonrenewable.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to juniors and seniors at colleges and universities in Vermont working on a 4-year degree in history. Applicants must be residents of Vermont. Selection is based on required essays. Deadline for Receipt: May of each year. Additional Information: The Town of Williston Historical Society established this scholarship in 2002.


c/o Catherine Rafferty, Scholarship Chair
10101 Sanders Court
Great Falls, VA 22066-2526
Web Site: http://www.vadar.org/vadarscholarships.htm
To provide financial assistance to high school seniors in Virginia who wish to study designated fields in college.
Title of Award: Virginia DAR Scholarships Area, Field, or Subject: Environmental conservation; Environmental science; Forestry; Genealogy; History, American; Home Economics; Medicine; Science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Undergraduate Number Awarded: 2 each year: 1 at $1,000 and 1 at $500. Funds Available: Stipends are $1,000 or $500. Duration: 1 year.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to seniors graduating from high schools in Virginia who plan to attend a Virginia college or university. Applicants must be planning to work on a degree in the field of science, medicine, conservation, ecology, forestry, home arts, genealogical research, or American history. Along with their application, they must submit a 1,000-word letter giving their reasons for interest in the scholarship, a transcript of grades, a letter of recommendation from a teacher in their chosen field, and documentation of financial need. Deadline for Receipt: January of each year.


Attn: College-to-Work Program
735 North Water Street, Suite 600
Milwaukee, WI 53202-4100
Tel: (414)273-5980
Fax: (414)273-5995
E-mail: [email protected]
Web Site: http://www.wficweb.org/work.html
To provide financial assistance and work experience to students majoring in fields related to history at member institutions of the Wisconsin Foundation for Independent Colleges (WFIC).
Title of Award: Milton Historical Society College-to-Work Program Area, Field, or Subject: African-American studies; Education; History, American; Museum science Level of Education for which Award is Granted: Four Year College Number Awarded: 1 each year. Funds Available: The stipends are $3,500 for the scholarship and $1,500 for the internship. Duration: 1 year for the scholarship; 10 weeks during the summer for the internship.
Eligibility Requirements: This program is open to full-time sophomores, juniors, and seniors at WFIC member colleges and universities. Preference is given to students majoring in African American studies, American history, museum science, or history education. Applicants must be interested in an internship at the Milton Historical Society in Milton, Wisconsin. Along with their application, they must submit a 1-page essay that includes why they are applying for the internship, why they have selected their major and what interests them about it, why they are attending their chosen college or university, and their future career objectives. Deadline for Receipt: February of each year. Additional Information: The WFIC member schools are Alverno College, Beloit College, Cardinal Stritch University, Carroll College, Carthage College, Concordia University of Wisconsin, Edgewood College, Lakeland College, Lawrence University, Marian College, Marquette University, Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design, Milwaukee School of Engineering, Mount Mary College, Northland College, Ripon College, St. Norbert College, Silver Lake College, Viterbo University, and Wisconsin Lutheran College. This program is sponsored by the Milton Historical Society.


views updated May 11 2018


The difference between notions of history in Buddhist literature and those typical in contemporary secular culture is evident when one contrasts certain popular Buddhist narratives with the accounts of modern scholars. One such contrast concerns the very beginning of Buddhism. Historically, scholars say, Buddhism began with the teaching activity of Śākyamuni, the historical Buddha, roughly twenty-five hundred years ago in northern India. Early Buddhist narratives, on the other hand, envision a teaching and indeed a universe with no beginning, say that there were twenty-four buddhas who appeared before Śākyamuni, and recount that Śākyamuni himself remembered his numerous previous lives during the night of his awakening. In the Lotus SŪtra (SaddharmapuṆḌarĪka-sŪtra), Śākyamuni reveals that he is eternal and universal, appearing over and over again in innumerable worlds and communicating the all-inclusive and superlative teaching that is the subject of this sūtra. Scholars tell us that the Lotus Sūtra was composed around 200 c.e. as an expression of a sectarian movement that eventually gave rise to distinct schools of Buddhism, such as the Tiantai school in China in the 500s and Tendai in Japan in the 800s, as well as the Japanese Nichiren school in the 1200s. In fact, scholarship shows, there is no evidence that any of the discourses were recorded during the lifetime of the historical Buddha; whatever Śākyamuni may have taught, recorded Buddhist teachings were embellishments and often fabrications of his words. What the scholarly work and traditional narratives have in common seems only to be a desire to connect their accounts with Śākyamuni Buddha.

History in its barest sense is a narrative account that connects the present to the past in anticipation of an open future. The recognition of the world as a meaningful sequence of events, one leading to another, lends the word its common double usage: History means both the events themselves and the account of events. Modern scholars also use the word historiography for any written accounts of the past, although they sometimes restrict this term to critical accounts that evaluate multiple sources and try to establish "what actually happened." Thus historicity refers to historical factuality or reality, of a person like Śākyamuni for example. The naturalistic attitude in modern scholarship differentiates fact from fiction and history from myth or legend. This distinction is not at all obvious in traditional histories and stories, which often bear witness to transcendent spiritual realities at work in the course of time.

A few scholars contend that Buddhism has no use for history at all since its doctrines imply that change over time is inherently meaningless. They see Buddhism dhism as sharing an Indian worldview where time is cyclical and events (like the Buddha's awakening) are repeatable, where true reality transcends time. They find no writing in pre-Muslim India at all that deserves the name of history. Scholars like Robert Frykenberg argue that this view is a simplistic stereotype. A. K. Warder proposes that the story of the Buddha's life, the record of episodes after his death in early vinaya literature, and the separate accounts of various schools after their schism, all clearly indicate a sense of history in Indian Buddhism. Buddhist literature in all of Asia contains a rich array of historical schemes used to make sense of a changing world.

The seeming lack of historical consciousness in Buddhism has also become a point of intense discussion in interreligious dialogue linking history and ethics. Jewish and Christian theologians often say that Buddhist philosophy overlooks the possibility that ultimate reality (be it God or ŚŪnyatĀ [emptiness]) is of consequence to humans only in the vicissitudes of history—that to overcome historical evil we need ethical action, not liberation from karma (action), or that any ultimate liberation will come only eschatologically, through history. Buddhists, for their part, do not recognize a historical battle between good and evil with only humans on earth at stake. They stress insight into the nature of the cosmos and the self more than ethical imperatives or an understanding of anthropocentric history. MahĀyĀna Buddhist answers have emphasized the timeless inseparability of nirvĀṆa and saṂsĀra, the endless activity of the bodhisattva, and the perpetual danger of absolutizing the distinction between good and evil. (Another philosophical response is discussed at the end of this entry.) In any case, historical scholarship has found ample evidence that Buddhism has been anything but ahistorical.

Patterns of didactic history: National order and eschatological decline

All scholars recognize the Buddhist chronicles or vamsa literature of Sri Lanka as historical in some sense. These works, composed by Buddhist monks, began in the sixth century c.e. and were continually supplemented until the British occupation in the early 1800s. In the Mahāvaṃsa (The Great Chronicle), Śākyamuni Buddha visits the island and proclaims that it will become the repository of his teachings. A sequence of kings promotes the dharma and protects the saṄgha, at times against foreign invaders, and Sri Lanka appears as a model for an ideal Buddhist nation. This work organizes past events to demonstrate not only the effects of karma and the reality of anitya (impermanence) but also the necessity of meritorious works and deeds for a better future. Its concern is to understand the progression of human society within a Buddhist worldview; a sense of right intention (a soteriological practice enjoined by the noble eightfold path) rather than factual accuracy guides its author. To modern critical sensibilities, the Mahāvaṃsa mixes myth and history, religious doctrine and political motive. Its genealogies and arrangement of recognizable events make it historical, but it is didactic history with an agenda: to promote the welfare of the saṅgha through the centuries by legitimizing the Buddhist state.

The motif of a perfect order in the Sri Lankan chronicles contrasts with the motif of decline in Indian and East Asian Buddhist literature. According to some early Indian literature, the dharma will vanish after five hundred years, a doctrine that has been called decline of the dharma. Later texts say that it was the true dharma that disappeared. East Asian texts tell of three ages. In the first, the true dharma flourished and awakening was attainable. The following age of the semblance dharma meant that practice, but no attainment, was possible. In the third or current era of the final dharma, lasting some ten thousand years or virtually all countable time, not even practice is efficacious. Deleterious events, harmful deeds, and political circumstances are the cause of this deterioration; even the Buddhadharma is impermanent. Some texts place this scheme in a larger cycle where a period of ascent begins after the three ages of decline and culminates in the coming of Maitreya, the future Buddha. Karmic conditions governing an entire people, indeed all humankind, must be right for Buddhism to thrive.

Modern scholarship finds that a substantial body of Buddhist literature demonstrates a sense of progression (or decline) through time, and of distinct historical period and the causes for their difference. Jan Nattier argues that the variety of schemes and timetables were in part an attempt to resolve discrepancies, evident to the writers, between previous predictions and current historical conditions, and between the differing teachings of Buddhist schools. In this literature, human actions are significant for changing the world; the future is not the repetition of the past, and the era in which one lives matters greatly, especially when the march of time is toward decline. Instead of encouraging an attitude of hopelessness and inevitability, in medieval East Asia the doctrines of decline generated new teachings, interpretations, and even schools that proclaimed themselves necessary to address an age of crisis where traditional approaches no longer worked. Such doctrines often served to renew rather than weaken Buddhism.

History as seamless transmission and as comprehensive vision

In China, Buddhist texts of various schools often emphasize lineage, the linear succession of patriarch teachers from Śākyamuni to the present. The case of the Chan school is particularly instructive. Although its texts contain divergent lineage charts and a wide variety of stories connecting teachers and disciples, one story line in particular has been popularized: In the sixth century the Indian patriarch Bodhidharma brings the correct understanding of the dharma to China—a nonverbal understanding achieved through sitting meditation and enlightenment, with no place for scriptural study. Bodhidharma's robe, symbolizing the direct transmission of mind from Śākyamuni Buddha through the generations, is passed to his successors one at a time when they too realize this ineffable truth. The sixth patriarch Huineng (ca. 638–713) recognizes several successors, and their lineages eventually form the five houses of Chan and later the seven schools. Teachers in the two extant schools, Linji (Japanese, Rinzai) and Caodong (Sōtō), can therefore trace their lineage to Tang China and back to Śākyamuni himself; what the "true dharma eye" sees is retained in an unbroken history.

The research of modern scholars demonstrates that this story line is largely a fabrication that served to legitimize the teachings and practices of a particular group, or to secure its place in a society of competing interests. Taken together, early Dunhuang chronicles, Song-period lamp histories, and other texts present a far more complicated picture of lineages, schools, rivalries, and projections into the past. One might see the lineage charts as evidence of the lack of historical consciousness, insofar as they flatten time into a "continuous expression of a golden moment of the past" (McRae, p. 353) where the primordial event of enlightenment can be ever repeated. Another interpretation understands the lineage charts as proof-texts that the school has transmitted a thread of truth through history and in the midst of a chaotic world.

Be that as it may, there is ample evidence of Chinese Buddhist historical writing in other records that extend beyond biographies of the Buddha and the patriarchs. Beginning in the fifth century, accounts modeled after dynastic and secular histories tried to demonstrate that Buddhism was truly Chinese and did in effect help to make it so. In the Song and Yuan eras, universal histories recounted developments of Buddhism over long periods, usually culminating in a particular school such as Tiantai that deemed itself superior because it included but surpassed all previous teachings. Occasionally these histories tested the reliability of their sources and their chronologies. Though these texts often mix realistic geography with mythical cosmology, they show that Buddhists in China also incorporated critical methods in composing history as a comprehensive vision.

History as regeneration of a cosmological order

Buddhist Tibet is distinguished by its layers of historical writing. According to one group of popular stories, Tibet is converted to Buddhism in the eighth century when the great Indian master, Padmasambhava, wields his magical powers to subdue local spirits and demons and persuades them to take an oath to protect the dharma from then on. He establishes Tibet's first monastery at Bsam yas (Samye). His ability to see the future as well as the past inspires him to hide certain "treasures," including texts imparting ancient or even timeless wisdom that will be discovered in future times when they are needed and can be understood. Many stories celebrate great lamas through the centuries as treasure discoverers. Chronicles about the Tibetan empire, from 650 to the early 800s c.e., also tell of the introduction of Buddhism from China. The very first emperors marry Chinese princesses who bring the new religion to the land. Then about 760 Khri srong lde btsam (Tri Songdetsen) expands the empire into rival China and patronizes Indian Buddhism; it is he who invites Padmasambhava and establishes the first monastery. About 850 the last emperor persecutes Buddhism and initiates the dark ages lasting a century, until Buddhism is revived. Tibet appears as a field of saṃsāra ripe for the salvific work of numerous bodhisattvas, many appearing as rulers. Their dominion, in some accounts, is like that of the Buddha Vairocana in his own realm.

Modern scholarship reads these accounts as embellished legends recorded centuries later and meant to associate the unification of Tibet with the arrival and flourishing of Buddhism. The later chronicles, along with numerous genealogies and sectarian histories, were composed to ensure political continuity and preservation of a tradition. The "treasure" texts are apocryphal revelations that link a later time to the imperial period. Like the rich tradition of various lamas' autobiographies, they show an awareness of the development and differentiation of time periods. Yet the idea of reincarnation and the reappearance of bodhisattvas, such as Avalokiteśvara in the person of the Dalai Lama, extend the sense of historical time far beyond the scope of merely human activity.

Visionary history, critical history, and history as the field of emptiness

Japanese historical writing includes both works that mix eschatological history with indigenous motifs, and others that criticize the scheme of decline and the sectarian biases of Buddhist comprehensive histories. The monk Jien's Gukanshō (Miscellany of Ignorant Views) of 1219 attempts to explain the tumultuous present by the karmic influences of previous times, leading to this age of the final dharma. The emperors, who are of divine origin and occasionally are incarnations of the Buddha, can still wield the dharma and gain the gods' blessings to arrest the decline and establish peace and order. This work envisions a single course of events that shape the nation, have human as well as divine causes, and lead to a variable future depending upon the actions of the rulers. It exemplifies visionary history, a supernatural interpretation of why the present is as it is and how the future can be better. A hundred years later the Pure Land monk GyŌnen (1240–1321) wrote an account titled the Sangoku buppō denzu engi (Circumstances of the Transmission of the Buddha-dharma in the Three Countries of India, China, and Japan) that disputes the prevailing philosophy of final dharma and explains Japanese Buddhism in terms of Indian and Chinese Buddhism. The transhistorical, unconditioned dharma is mediated by geographical and cultural factors. Gyōnen's work counts as international, if idealized, religious history.

Tominaga Nakamoto's more realistic work of 1745, Shutsujō kōgo (Emerging from Meditation) argues that Buddhism develops by reforming what came before and then appealing to the authority of the founder in order to justify the reforms as a return to original teachings—as if no essential change had taken place. His work articulates several criteria of textual criticism to uncover this process, and concludes that Śākyamuni Buddha could not have taught Mahāyāna Buddhism. His writing represents a rare instance of critical history in the service of Buddhism. Yet as late as 1935 the Pure Land thinker Soga Ryōjin, rejecting naturalist as well as nationalist and Marxist explanations, proposed that Buddhist history is the time-transcendent dharma being realized in time by those who experience and practice it.

Twentieth-century Japanese Buddhist philosophers offer some of the very few attempts to formulate a specifically Buddhist interpretation of what makes history possible. Nishitani Keiji argues that śūnyatā is what enables history to be free of predetermination and thus to be real. For the future to remain open and historical existence to be meaningful, emptiness must underlie each and every moment thus ensuring its absolute newness. Nishitani's history as the field of emptiness does not consider the discrimination required by historians to select events of primary significance. But it does envision the task, common to the Buddhist senses of history sketched here, that the present must be accounted for not only in terms of the past with an eye to the future, but also as a moment in a cosmos that is beginningless, endless, and conditioned by timeless truth.


Beasley, W. G., and Pulleyblank, E. G., eds. Historians of China and Japan. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Bechert, Heinz. "The Beginnings of Buddhist Historiography: Mahavamsa and Political Thinking." In Religion and the Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, ed. Bardwell L. Smith. Chambersburg, PA: Anima Books, 1978.

Blum, Mark L. The Origin and Development of Pure Land Buddhism: A Study and Translation of Gyōnen's Jōdo Hōmon Genrushō. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Brown, Delmer, and Ishida, Ichiro. The Future and the Past: A Translation and Study of the Gukanshō. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1979.

Frank, Herbert. "Some Aspects of Chinese Private Historiography in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries." In Historians of China and Japan, ed. W. G. Beasley and E. G. Pulleyblank. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Frykenberg, Robert Eric. History and Belief: The Foundations of Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

Gyatso, Janet. Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1998.

Kapstein, Matthew T. The Tibetan Assimilation of Buddhism: Conversion, Contestation, and Memory. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Maraldo, John. "Is There Historical Consciousness within Ch'an?" Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 12, nos. 2–3 (1985): 141–172.

Maraldo, John C. "Hermeneutics and Historicity in the Study of Buddhism." Eastern Buddhist 19, no. 1 (Spring 1986): 17–43.

McRae, John. "Encounter Dialogue and the Transformation of the Spiritual Path in Chinese Ch'an." In Paths to Liberation: The Mārga and Its Transformations in Buddhist Thought, ed. Robert E. Buswell, Jr., and Robert M. Gimello. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1992.

Nattier, Jan. Once upon A Future Time: Studies in a Buddhist Prophecy of Decline. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1991.

Nishitani Keiji. Religion and Nothingness. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982.

Perera, L. S. "The Pali Chronicle of Ceylon." In Historians of India, Pakistan, and Ceylon, ed. C. H. Philips. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Schmidt-Glintzer, Helwig. Die Identität der buddhistischen Schulen und die Kompilation buddhistischer Universalgeschichten in China. Wiesbaden, Germany: Franz Steiner, 1982.

Soga Ryōjin. "Shinran's View of Buddhist History," tr. Jan Van Bragt, with an introduction by Yasutomi Shin'ya. Eastern Buddhist 32, no. 1 (2000): 106–129.

Sørensen, Per K. Tibetan Buddhist Historiography: The Mirror Illuminating the Royal Genealogies. Wiesbaden, Germany: Harrassowitz, 1994.

Tominaga Nakamoto. Emerging from Meditation, tr. Michael Pye. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1990.

Warder, A. K. An Introduction to Indian Historiography. Bombay: Popular Prakashan, 1972.

John C. Maraldo


views updated May 14 2018


history and pedagogy
history and the state
history and the public

The "creation myth" of academic history focuses upon one man: the German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886). Ranke, it is said, swept aside the inaccurate, romantic historiography of the Enlightenment, and in its stead propounded a "scientific" methodology that placed the subject on a professional footing. Ranke's revolution was founded upon the use of archival sources, which were to be placed in the political and cultural contexts of their own time, and footnoted rigorously so that others could retrace the research. History should be unbiased, objective, methodical, not partisan or philosophical. The aim was "only to show what actually happened," rather than to pass moral or intellectual judgment upon the past. This methodology spread from the University of Berlin, where Ranke worked from 1825 onward, to the rest of Europe.

This brief account, while not wholly inaccurate, is misleading in several respects. Ranke's claim to originality was dubious: the analytical use of original, archival documents long predated his efforts, as did footnotes. Various seventeenth-century scholars, for example, had made extensive and critical use of royal archives, and the idea of contextualizing documents can be traced back still further. Indeed, in Ranke's own work on the Reformation, only about one in ten of his footnotes cited an archival document; the rest referred to sources previously published by earlier generations of German scholars. He was perhaps more programmatic than others in his methodology, but not the originator of academic history.

"History has had assigned to it the office of judging the past and of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices the present work does not presume: it seeks only to show what actually happened [wie es eigentlich gewesen]." (Leopold von Ranke, 1824)

"We have gained perhaps in originality, and at least in literary form; but we have lost in scientific utility. Almost all our historians are autodidacts; they have had no masters, and they have raised no pupils…. They are commonly litterateurs before they are scholars." (Georges Monod, on France, 1876)

"The history of England is emphatically the history of progress." (Thomas Macaulay)

What established the creation myth was a combination of Ranke's self-promotion and his tactical lionization by those who later claimed him as forebear. Ranke's image gained a particular momentum because he was a great teacher, and his pedagogic model (using seminars to discuss sources) was successfully exported to the rest of Europe in later decades. The sense that Germany led the way in serious history gained weight from the ongoing publication by the Monumenta Germaniae Historica of original documentary sources (although itself predated by efforts such as Ludovico Antonio Muratori's [1672–1750] early eighteenth-century Rerum Italicarum Scriptores), and the establishment in 1859 of the academic history journal Historische Zeitschrift.

For Ranke's inheritors, moreover, the myth had a particularly useful role. The supposed scientism of his method was used to bolster history's claim to be a valid subject for serious study in its own right. The "scientific"—and hence "objective"—nature of Rankean history was held to distinguish it from subjective subjects such as literature and philosophy. However, this rested upon a misunderstanding of what Ranke's method involved. French, English, and American historians saw "science" in opposition to "art," and some even thought that history could employ analytical methods similar to the natural sciences. In fact, the German term Wissenschaft meant simply an organized body of knowledge, not "science" in distinction to other subjects. But in a period when the natural sciences were making heroic and public advances, the temptation to claim that history stood among them was great.

One may also argue that Ranke's most famous dictum—"only to say how it really was"—is another mistranslation. It may be better rendered as "only to say how it essentially was," the "essence" being the destinies that God had ordained for nations in the past and the present. Rather than asserting a kind of bloodless facticity, Ranke aimed at a more metaphysical truth—something not well understood by those who hailed him as their progenitor.

history and pedagogy

Professionalization can also, more bluntly, be seen as the process by which people are paid to do history, train others to do it, and establish an academic apparatus to support their labors. This occurred in most countries late in the nineteenth century. Germany led the way—for several decades, history graduates from Europe and even America travelled to Germany for professional training—but France, England, and Italy hurried along behind. Precise dates can mislead, however: while the Revue critique d'histoire et de littérature was founded, in imitation of Historische Zeitschrift, in 1866, and similarly the English Historical Review in 1886, both journals were initially directed toward the general public as much as the nascent profession, and had a strongly literary bent. Similarly, there were professors in history at Oxford from the middle of the century (and at Cambridge a little later on); but they had little impact upon how history was taught, developed, or researched. History was taught at Oxford from 1853, but only as a stand-alone subject from 1871 (1873 at Cambridge). The teachers (as opposed to the professors) were not specialists in any particular topic or period and did very little research. There was no graduate school or formal historical training. The situation was similar in France and Italy.

It was not until the last quarter of the nineteenth century that, beyond Germany, academic history became fully professional. In France the foundations were laid by the government minister and historian Victor Duruy (1811–1894). Under his leadership the École Pratique des Haute Etudes began in 1868 to provide new scholars with training in palaeography, diplomatic practices, philology, and the critical analysis of primary sources. Duruy was soon moved from his government post, but in the following decade a new generation took up the reins. Gabriel-Jean-Jacques Monod (1844–1912) began the Revue Historique in 1876 with an agenda that hailed the arrival of a new, Rankean methodology. Monod stressed the journal's lack of religious or political affiliations; it would, he said, pursue "disinterested and scientific research." Between 1885 and 1905 the Sorbonne became the center for new historical study, with graduate training at its heart.

England lagged behind: Oxford was locked into a complacent and conservative curriculum that marked it ever after, and while Cambridge debated the intellectual project of history more energetically, its actual teaching and training were little better. The vanguard of change was more to be found in London and Manchester, where around the turn of the twentieth century Albert Frederick Pollard (1869–1948) and Thomas Frederick Tout (1855–1929) respectively imbued new generations of historians with the critical skills necessary for their profession's development. The most radical of this generation was Frederic William Maitland (1850–1906), whose work on the social and cultural impact of law still leaves an imprint upon current debates. But Maitland was appointed as a teacher of law, not history, and his influence was only really felt well after his death. And this was true elsewhere: formal structures for producing the next generation of historian were sparse. In England, doctorates in history appeared only in the 1920s.

history and the state

The more rigorous (if not original) methodology that accompanied the professionalization of history was in each country proclaimed as a "scientific history." As noted above, this was based in part upon mistranslation, and in part upon the nineteenth-century romance with the hard sciences. But such claims were also made within a financial context. To establish history as a profession, someone had to be persuaded to fund it. History proclaimed its value and importance to the state by asserting its "scientific" credentials. But what did the state get back from history?

A short answer would be "national legitimation," but the contours of this varied considerably from country to country. The "essence" that German historians, following Ranke, divined in their national history was one of self-confidence, progress, and racial destiny. Monod ascribed the Prussian victory over Napoleon III (r. 1852–1871) in 1870 to the sense of national unity that German historians had forged earlier that century. Shortly thereafter, French schools introduced classes on "civic instruction," based upon the history that Monod's generation were writing, that depicted the revolution of 1789 as the apotheosis of French bourgeois identity. Thus, ironically, at the very moment that French historiography most strongly proclaimed its "objective, independent, scientific" spirit, it was hailed most directly into the cause of the nation state. This nationalist project splintered, however, early in the twentieth century, in the aftermath of the Dreyfus affair. That event revealed the politics of Monod's Revue Historique to be firmly republican, and historians were uneasy about the way in which the new Right had co-opted the patriotic utility of history.

Italy and England shared the desire for narratives of the nation-state, but the stories their historians told were rather different (notwithstanding some attempts to write themselves into a "Germanic" medieval history, thus simply borrowing the patriotic clothes of that powerful country). It was quite impossible for Italy to write of its earlier history as politically unified; instead, therefore, it emphasized a unity of culture and intellectual achievement, stretching back to the early Italian Renaissance and the Roman Empire. England, meanwhile, trumpeted political continuity and the rise of parliamentary democracy; virtues that translated into an imperial self-belief that subject-nations may well have mistaken for arrogant hypocrisy. The history taught by Oxford and Cambridge emphasized positive example and consensus, rather than past conflicts, and history professors saw their pedagogic task as providing a civic education for the future leaders of empire. If, as legend has it, World War I was won on the playing fields of Eton, the British Empire was administered through the complacent narratives of medieval constitutionalism.

history and the public

Various factors fed into the professionalization of history, from the opening of national archives early in the nineteenth century, to the states' development of educational structures at all levels of pedagogy, to the philosophical developments (and misrepresentations) within historiography itself. Some things were gained, and some were lost. Among the latter was the beginning of a fissure between professional historian and reading public. The "scientific" and "objective" historiography of the nineteenth century, in contrast to its Enlightenment forebears, tended to disengage from political argument and intervention, and some of the history published by journals and university presses became "academic" in the pejorative sense.

It is ever the case that history is written by the victors—in this case, the employed, university historians who, by the turn of the twentieth century, predominated in almost every country. It should be remembered that one element too easily erased by the narrative or myth of professionalization is the role of the amateur. For much of the nineteenth century, some of the greatest history was written by amateurs—those not employed by the state, although methodologically often stronger than the majority of "professionals": for example the American medievalist Henry Charles Lea (1825–1909), the Frenchman Hippolyte-Adolphe Taine (1828–1893), and the Englishman John Richard Green (1837–1883), to name but three. Moreover, their conception of history was often broader than that envisaged by an academy slavish to Ranke's focus upon high politics. However, by the last years of the nineteenth century, particularly in Italy, the first impact of Marxist thought was being felt upon historical writing; the seeds for a new century's crop of historians—intent on uniting society, academy, and politics—had been sown.

See alsoCivilization, Concept of; Education; Ranke, Leopold von; Universities.


Berger, Stefan, Mark Donovan, and Kevin Passmore, eds. Writing National Histories: Western Europe since 1800. London, 1999. A comprehensive collection of essays on the topic.

Breisach, Ernst. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval, and Modern. Chicago, 1983. Places "professionalization" in broader context.

Grafton, Anthony. The Footnote: A Curious History. Revised edition. Cambridge, Mass., 1997. Witty and readable critique of Ranke and his precursors.

Iggers, Georg G., and James M. Powell, eds. Leopold von Ranke and the Shaping of the Historical Discipline. Syracuse, N.Y., 1990. A levelheaded collection of essays on the development of modern history.

Kenyon, John. The History Men. 2nd ed., rev. London, 1993. Conservative and old-fashioned, but very usefully detailed on historians in (mainly) England.

Keylor, William R. Academy and Community: The Foundation of the French Historical Profession. Cambridge, Mass., 1975. A wonderful and detailed study of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.

Slee, Peter. Learning and a Liberal Education: The Study of Modern History in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester, 1800–1914. Manchester, U.K., and Wolfesboro, N.H., 1986. A good starting point for English developments.

Soffer, Reba N. Discipline and Power: The University, History, and the Making of an English Elite, 1870–1930. Stanford, Calif., 1994. The best, and most thoughtful, study of the professionalization of history and its political context.

John H. Arnold


views updated May 21 2018


This article is arranged according to the following outline (for Prehistory, see *Archaeology):

beginning until the monarchy

    The Patriarchs of Israel
    The Exodus and Wanderings in Sinai
    The Conquest and Settlement of Canaan
        details of settlement
        some results of settlement
    The Judges

kingdoms of judah and israel

    Samuel and Saul: The Beginnings of Israelite Monarchy
    The United Kingdom: David
    Division of the Kingdom: The Earliest Kings
    Asa, King of Judah, and His Descendants. The Omride Dynasty in Israel
    The Dynasty of Jehu in Israel. Athaliah and Joash, Amaziah, Uzziah, and Jotham, Kings of Judah
    The Last Days of Samaria. The Kingdom of Judah until Its Destruction

social structure of ancient israel

    The Source
    Hebrew Society Prior to the Rise of Israel in Canaan
    The Pre-Monarchic Period
    Tribal and Sub-Tribal Units
    Social Changes
    Changes in the Tribal System
    The Monarchy and the Tribal System
    National Class Structure
    Landowning Class
    Merchant Class
    Artisan Class
    Marginal Elements

from the destruction to alexander

    The Restoration
        dissolution of mixed marriages
        fortification of jerusalem
        rebuilding of the wall of jerusalem
        religious instruction and dedication of the temple

ereẒ israel – second temple (the hellenistic-roman period)

    Ptolemaic Rule
    Seleucid Rule
    The Hasmonean Revolt
    Independent Judea
    Hasmonean Rule
        the roman province
    Herod's Rule
    Under the Procurators
    The Revolt (the First Roman War)

diaspora – second temple period
the aftermath of the first roman war

    The Revolts Against Trajan
    The Bar Kokhba War
    The Roman EmpireAntoninus Pius to Constantine
    The Babylonian Diaspora

fourth to seventh centuries

    Reshaping of Forces and Circumstances
        christian political pressure and propaganda
        internal cultural and social activities
        redaction of the jerusalem and babylonian talmuds
        appearance of islam
        trends in christian policy toward the jews
        settlement in western europe
        the jewish revolt in ereẒ israel

the middle ages

    Formative Times (7th to 11th Centuries)
        under islam
        intensification of christian attitudes
        the first crusade
        redisposition of jewish leadership structure
        cultural and spiritual life
        the khazar kingdom
        diversification in leadership structure and cultural trends
    The Crystallization of Jewish Medieval Culture (12th-15th Centuries)
        effects of the crusades
        in christian spain
        economic and social patterns north of the pyrenees
        expulsions and the black death
        serfs of the chamber
        the deterioration in christian spain
        disappearance of geonic hierarchy
        communal life in christian spain
        leadership north of the pyrenees
        cultural creativity
        in poland-lithuania
        ideals in education and scholarship
        christian attacks on the talmud
        wave of expulsions
        reciprocal sephardi and ashkenazi influences
    Transition to Modern Times (16th–17th Centuries)
        reorganization of sephardi jewry
        economic activities
        communal organizations in europe
        safed mysticism
        approaches to education
        political and ideological thought
        social confrontations
        attempts at political action
        formulation of policies and aims
        stirrings of religious toleration

modern times – to 1880

    Dawn of the Enlightenment
    Influence of Mercantilist Absolutism on Jewish Status
    Enlightened Absolutism and the "Betterment of the Jews"
    Arguments for Toleration
    Moses Mendelssohn
    Egalitarianism and Emancipation in the U.S.
    The French Revolution
    Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Sanhedrin
    The Congress of Vienna and Romantic Reaction in Germany
    Emancipation in Germany and England
    Period of the Polish Partitions
    Incorporation into Russia
    Economic and Social Developments in Western and Central Europe after Emancipation
    Migration Trends from the End of the 18th Century
    The East European Shtetl
    Divergences in Jewish Society in the West and East of Europe
    Population Growth
    Radical Trends in Eastern Europe
    Communal Organization
    Religious and Cultural Differentiation
    Organization of Mutual Assistance on an International Scale
    Trends in Religious Reform
    Modern Manifestations of Anti-Jewish Prejudice
    Awakening Nationalism
    Jewish Life in Ereẓ Israel

modern times – from the 1880s to the early 21st century

    Effects of Anti-Jewish Discrimination in Russia
    Pogroms and Mass Emigration
    German Jewry
    Racism and Antisemitism
    The Economic Crisis of the Early 1930s
    In Soviet Russia after 1917
    New Types of Social Organization
    Contribution to General Culture
    The National Renaissance and Zionism
    World War i and Its Aftermath
    The Yishuv in Ereẓ Israel
    Hebrew and Yiddish World War ii and the Holocaust
    Rescue of the Remnant
    Prelude to Independence
    Establishment of the State of Israel
    World Jewry in 1970
    Into the Millenium

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