Social history emerged as a discipline over the course of about twenty years at the conjunction of two seemingly contradictory schools of historical writing: English social history and the French Annales school.
Defined by George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876–1962) as “history with the politics left out,” English social history sought to examine the “manners, morals and customs” of the English people within a disciplinary rubric that placed social history alongside political, economic, and, in some quarters, labor history as discrete subfields (Trevelyan 1942).
The Annales school, founded in 1929 by Marc Bloch (1886–1944) and Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) and named after the journal Annales d’histoire economique and social, sought quite the opposite. Bloch and Febvre intended a new “science of society” that would incorporate all domains of the human and social sciences. The two envisioned their project in diametric opposition both to Durkheimian sociology, which they felt merely rummaged history for support of its theories, as well as historical renderings that purported to render through a catalogue of facts an objective past. They and their colleagues sought at once to investigate the differentia of past presents and to come through these investigations to a fuller sense not only of how a given society came together in all its interrelated elements, but also human society as conceived as an entity in which all historical moments participate and elucidate. What was envisioned was a massive inductive project incorporating myriad local histories that would yield at an endlessly forestalled future time, a “history of society.”
The first Annales school was enthusiastically received by what was known as the Communist Party Historian’s Group in Britain (1946–1956). Though putatively an organ of the Communist Party, under the de facto leadership of the British journalist Dona Torr (1883–1957), the group enjoyed a free and open discussion. Its members included E. P. Thompson (1924–1993), Dorothy Thompson (1894–1961), Christopher Hill (1912–2003), Rodney Hilton (1916–2002), Eric Hobsbawm (b. 1917), and George Rudé (1910–1993), among other future notables of social history. The group’s concerns maintained a tension between two poles that would inform the members’ later work: at one end an interest in social transformation, specifically the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and at the other, an interest in the “manners, morals and customs” of the poor in relation to those transformations. The first roughly corresponded to discussion of Maurice Dobb’s (1900–1976) Studies in the Development of Capitalism (1946) and the second to A. L. Morton’s (1903–1987) People’s History of England (1938).
In 1952, the group founded the journal Past and Present, which sought to give voice to these concerns and to engage with non-Marxist historians interested in similar lines of inquiry. In the first issue, Hobsbawm published his groundbreaking analysis of the machine breakers, which demonstrated that Luddite riots were not resistance to the machine as such, as has long been argued, but to the “machine in the hands of the capitalist” (Hobsbawm 1952). He argued that in the absence of organizational and political avenues, such protests should be read as “collective bargaining by riot.” The theme was later expanded in a series of similarly pathbreaking studies by Rudé on the crowd. Meanwhile, Hill demonstrated that the “manners, morals and customs” of the poor were themselves a source of political struggle in his important essay “Puritans and the Poor,” which examined the disciplinary techniques of the nascent English bourgeoisie (Hill 1952).
The group’s twin concerns were on full display in E. P. Thompson’s magisterial work The Making of the English Working Class ( 1968), which brought to bear his understanding of culture as a “whole way of conflict.” Thompson argued that class comes into being as a result of struggle; through this struggle, persons become conscious of their interests and themselves as a class over time. Thompson therefore rejected sociological definitions that sought to define class as distinct from historical struggle and, by extension, context. What resulted was a notion of class that Mikhail Bakhtin would call “novelistic,” in that class designated an open-ended, dialogic “unity” which, through the ceaseless interpenetration of other voices and experiences, undoes and redoes its own provisional unity. From a methodological standpoint, Thompson’s work was highly innovative, incorporating literature (from high to very low), folklore, local archives, and spy reports in a way that elucidated the complex moral and symbolic universe in which class struggle was imbricated. In The Making of the English Working Class and in later works dealing with grain riots, game laws, and time and its relation to work discipline, Thompson demonstrated a subtle understanding of human agency that did not recognize, for example, time or the law as necessarily instruments of ruling-class power (which they were initially, he allowed). Instead, he suggested that these created circumstances through their own claims to universality that permitted a defense (if only a weak one at first) on those very same grounds against the arbitrary actions of elites. Thompson presented his objects of study as situated in historical processes, the relative meanings of which were constituted through struggle and human agency.
Thompson inaugurated a new version of social history in the late 1960s and into the 1970s with mixed success. On the one hand, authors such as Eugene Genovese (b. 1930) and Herbert Gutman (1928–1985) produced subtle and far-reaching studies in the American context that recovered local knowledges and successfully mapped larger processes through them. On the other, there was a tendency to shrink back from the theoretical engagements of these authors, producing something closer to Trevelyan’s “history with the politics left out” even in studies of working-class culture. It was against this trend that Hobsbawm wrote his important essay “From Social History to the History of Society,” which appears in his collection On History (1997), urging a reconnection of such studies to larger historical processes.
While culturalist “advocacy” readings of the working class turned away from larger issues, the rise of historical sociology—with its use of demography, cliometrics, and other statistical tools inspired by the second and third waves of the Annales school—tended to efface culture and, with it, class conflict entirely. The twin recoil from the interventions of the Communist Party Historian’s Group inspired important and often scathing critiques by Tony Judt, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, and Geoff Eley and Keith Nield.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the field of social history found itself in another sort of crisis entirely. Feminists began calling into question the primacy of class in historical analysis, arguing that gender complicated and problematized easy assumptions regarding the universality of the class experience, which they argued tended to be gendered male. While the worst of these arguments reproduced the atheoretical “advocacy” histories discussed above in the context of gender, the best of these critically engaged the concept of class and have significantly enriched contemporary understandings of past societies. The scholars Deborah Valenze and Barbara Taylor revisited Methodism (a religion founded by John Wesley in the eighteenth century) and Owenism (a theory developed by utopian socialist Robert Owen, often considered a precursor to Marxism) respectively, demonstrating the egalitarian promises and realities of each for women that E. P. Thompson had overlooked. Similarly, Christine Stansell examined gender and working-class formation in New York City in her delightful City of Women (1987). Judith Walkowitz produced an influential social history of Victorian prostitution on which Stansell drew, and she later expanded on these themes, drawing successfully on the work of Gareth Stedman Jones (b. 1942) and the literary scholar Coral Lansbury’s (1933–1991) work to elucidate the physical and cultural landscape around the Jack the Ripper murders. The historians Sonya Rose and Anna Clark have sought more frontally to rehabilitate the concept of class while addressing what the latter views as its misogynist articulations and realities. Catherine Hall, first with Lenore Davidoff in Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850 (1987), engaged the deep intersections of class and gender in the formation of the English middle class, and later alone demonstrated the ways these were both deeply implicated in colonialism. Most suggestively, the literary scholar Mary Poovey has, like Hall, opened exciting avenues for examining the manner in which class, gender, and race influenced each other, inflecting every aspect of social life in the nineteenth century.
Coeval with the rise of feminist studies in social history arose what has come to be called the linguistic turn, which can be traced to Stedman Jones’s 1982 essay “The Language of Chartism” (Chartism being a movement for the franchise on the part of the middle and working class, beginning formally in the late 1820s and continuing through the Reform Act of 1867). Stedman Jones argued that an examination of Chartist language revealed a fundamentally political movement that obscured rather than articulated working-class interests. The historians Patrick Joyce and James Vernon pushed Stedman Jones’s observations still further, the former arguing that class should be replaced by what he feels to be a more fluid and soft term, the people. Drawing on the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s (b. 1929) conception of the mass, Joyce has argued for a formless corpus whose solidarities are formed and mobilized through political speech, only to form anew in different configurations in different contexts.
Criticisms of Stedman Jones, Joyce, and Vernon have been many and often unhelpful, a situation exacerbated by the posturings of the latter two. Joan Scott has offered a successful critique of Stedman Jones, arguing that his somewhat literal reading of political discourse excises the gendered nature of that language (Scott 1988). Eley and Nield have argued that Joyce’s formulations rely upon a straw man of a crudely economic, reductionist Marxism jettisoned from social history nearly from its inception. Joyce and Vernon’s most sympathetic and formidable critic, James Epstein, has argued that their formulations fail to take into account the conditions of the production and dissemination of political speech, especially the crowds to whom that speech is addressed.
In some renderings, social history has been in crisis since it began. When it has been successful, it has embraced new ideas and domains of inquiry by holding these in creative tension with the analytical purchase of its past discoveries. It is only through these engagements variously with feminism, postcolonial studies, Marxism, anthropology, and, more recently, literary studies that it has achieved something like its foundational concern of a “history of society” articulated by Bloch and Febvre and reiterated variously by Hobsbawm and, later, Eley and Nield.
SEE ALSO Marxism
Bloch, Marc. 1953. The Historian’s Craft. Trans. Peter Putnam. New York: Knopf.
Clark, Anna. 1995. The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the English Working Class. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Davidoff, Lenore, and Catherine Hall. 1987. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780–1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Dobb, Maurice. 1946. Studies in the Development of Capitalism. London: Routledge.
Eley, Geoff, and Keith Nield. 1980. Why Does Social History Ignore Politics? Social History 5 (2): 249–269.
Eley, Geoff, and Keith Nield. 1995. Starting Over: The Present, the Post-Modern and the Moment of Social History. Social History 20 (3): 355–364.
Eley, Geoff, and Keith Nield. 2000. Farewell to the Working Class? International Labor and Working Class History 57 (Spring): 1–30.
Epstein, James. 2003. In Practice: Studies in the Language and Culture of Popular Politics in Modern Britain. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Fox-Genovese, Elizabeth, and Eugene Genovese. 1976. The Political Crisis of Social History: A Marxist Perspective. Journal of Social History 10 (2): 205–220.
Genovese, Eugene. 1974. Roll Jordan Roll: The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon Books.
Hall, Catherine. 1992. White, Male, and Middle Class: Explorations in Feminism and History. New York: Routledge.
Hall, Catherine. 2002. Civilising Subjects: Colony and Metropole in the English Imagination, 1830–1867. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Hill, Christopher. 1952. Puritans and the Poor. Past and Present 2 (1): 32–50.
Hill, Christopher. 1958. Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the Seventeenth Century. London: Secker & Warburg.
Hobsbawm, Eric. 1952. The Machine Breakers Past and Present 1: 57–70.
Hobsbawm, Eric J. 1997. On History. New York: New Press.
Joyce, Patrick. 1991. Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1848–1914. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Joyce, Patrick. 1995. The End of Social History? Social History 20 (1): 73–91.
Judt, Tony. 1979. A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians. History Workshop Journal 7 (Spring): 66–94.
Lansbury, Coral. 1985. The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Morton, A. L. 1938. A People’s History of England. New York: Random House.
Poovey, Mary. 1988. Uneven Development: The Ideological Work of Gender in Mid-Victorian England. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Poovey, Mary. 1995. Making a Social Body: British Cultural Formation, 1830–1864. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Rose, Sonya O. 1992. Limited Livelihoods: Gender and Class in Nineteenth-Century England. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Scott, Joan Wallach. 1988. Gender and the Politics of History. New York: Columbia University Press.
Stansell, Christine. 1987. City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Stedman Jones, Gareth. 1982. The Language of Chartism. In The Chartist Experience: Studies in Working-Class Radicalism and Culture, 1830–1860, eds. James Epstein and Dorothy Thompson. London: Macmillan Press.
Stedman Jones, Gareth. 1983. Languages of Class: Studies in English Working-Class History, 1832–1982. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Thompson, E. P. 1961a. The Long Revolution (Part I). New Left Review 1 (9): 24–33.
Thompson, E. P. 1961b. The Long Revolution (Part II). New Left Review 1 (10): 34–39.
Thompson, E. P.  1968. The Making of the English Working Class. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin.
Thompson, E. P. 1975. Whigs and Hunters: The Origin of the Black Act. New York: Pantheon Books.
Thompson, E. P. 1978. The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays. New York: Monthly Review Press.
Thompson, E. P. 1991. Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular Culture. New York: New Press.
Trevelyan, G. M. 1942. English Social History: A Survey of Six Centuries, Chaucer to Queen Victoria. London, New York: Longmans, Green.
Valenze, Deborah M. 1985. Prophetic Sons and Daughters: Female Preaching and Popular Religion in Industrial England. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Vernon, James. 1994. Who’s Afraid of the “Linguistic Turn”? The Politics of Social History and Its Discontents. Social History 19 (1): 81–97.
Walkowitz, Judith. 1980. Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class, and the State. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
Walkowitz, Judith. 1992. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Christopher J. Lamping
As a recognizable specialism, social history blossomed during the 1960s and 1970s, a self-conscious reaction against what was taken to be the élitism and empiricism of established practice in political and economic history. For many practitioners, the new social history was synonymous with ‘expressing the voice of the common people’, and this is reflected in the rapid expansion of interest in the values, life-styles, and everyday experiences of ordinary men and women. This new substantive terrain was explored by an expanded range of methods and techniques (including, for example, those of oral history) and an explicit attention to theory. A proliferation of new journals (for example Social History, History Workshop Journal, Journal of Social History, Journal of Interdisciplinary History) sprang up to act as outlets for the new materials uncovered in this way.
The majority of contemporary practitioners would (understandably) expand upon the above sketch in heroic terms, and would undoubtedly be correct in pointing to the narrowness of most institutionalized history up to the 1950s, compared to which the new concern with the ‘social’ comes as a breath of intellectual fresh air. However, a significant minority of social historians themselves have voiced concerns about the extent to which their speciality has rapidly become diluted by indiscriminate importing of concepts, theories, and methods from cognate disciplines (notably sociology). For example, among other complaints it has been alleged that too much contemporary social history is itself empiricist, and consists merely of mindless accumulation of data on a particular subject of popular concern merely because these data exist, rather than the pursuit of interesting historical problems or questions; that the obsession with model-building has led to indiscriminate application of (what are recognized elsewhere to be) problematic concepts and arguments derived from functionalism, modernization theory, structuralism, and so forth; that the babies of politics and economics have been thrown out with the bath-water of élitism; and that there is a widespread tendency to make unsubstantiated (usually trite) generalizations about the ‘mentality’ or ‘collective mind’ of the masses during some (usually ill-defined) period of interest. In short, for some critics at least, contemporary social history has become a sort of retrospective cultural anthropology, with a premium placed on the use of exotic sources and grandiose (often untestable) generalizations. (For a bad-tempered and polemical–but none the less telling—critique along these lines see T. Judt , ‘A Clown in Regal Purple: Social History and the Historians’, History Workshop Journal, 1979
However, this is surely to paint too negative a picture of what is undoubtedly a growing and dynamic interdisciplinary area, having some overlap with, and being of considerable relevance to, sociology itself. A much more positive picture of the methods of social history is painted in Arthur Stinchcombe's Theoretical Methods in Social History (1978). Of direct relevance to sociology are the large number of excellent social histories of working-class culture (see, for example, W. H. Sewell , Work and Revolution in France, 1980
; J. Cumbler , Working Class Community in Industrial America, 1979
; A. Dawley , Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn, 1976
); of politics and class formation ( R. Aminzade , Class, Politics and Early Industrial Capitalism, 1981
; D. Montgomery , Worker's Control in America, 1979
; J. W. Scott , The Glassworkers of Carmaux, 1974
); of the formation of nation-states ( V. G. Kiernan , ‘State and Nation in Western Europe’, Past and Present, 1965
; A. Ludke , ‘The Role of State Violence in the Period of Transition to Capitalism’, Social History, 1979
; H. Rosenberg , Bureaucracy, Aristocracy and Autocracy, 1958
); and of social change and the family ( T. K. Haraven , ‘Modernization and Family History’, Signs, 1976
; D. Levine , Family Formation in an Age of Nascent Capitalism, 1976
; J. Scott and and L. Tilly , Women, Work and Family, 1978
). Feminist social historians have been particularly influential and have moved women's history well up the research agenda (see, for example, the excellent studies by S. O. Rose , Limited Livelihoods, 1992
, and L. Davidoff and and C. Hall , Family Fortunes, 1987
). In all of this it is, of course, a moot point where social history ends and sociology–especially historical sociology–begins. See also CLIOMETRICS.
Social history inherited from the Scottish Enlightenment a sense of a society progressing by stages to a more civilized condition. There was a keen awareness, derived from Marxism, of the impact of economic structures. The sense of national identity and purpose explicit in Trevelyan was implicit in the development of social history. The Anglocentric British state was the reference point for the bulk of research. The dominant agenda grew from the Fabian perspective. It included work and the impact of economic change, social conditions, especially health and housing, social movements, notably trade unions and organizations campaigning for social change, and social reform based upon legislation and the growth of state intervention. This writing was organized around two key assumptions. The first identified a major and disruptive change in the late 18th and early 19th cents. called the ‘industrial revolution’. The second sought understanding and explanation through the concept of social class. These assumptions were common to the work of authors as different as Asa Briggs, E. P. Thompson, and Harold Perkin. Although Thompson's work initially divided its readers by political persuasion, its long-run importance was to widen the agenda of social history and to bring to the front the tension between human agency and economic determinism as a basis for explanation.
The 1960s and 1970s brought an increasing engagement between social science and the understanding of the past. The initial impact was evident in the study of social class but most notable in demography and family history. The recognition of the distinctive nature of the nuclear family-based household in Britain was one outcome. This engagement brought another tension to social history, that between the social scientist's desire to generalize and the historian's respect for the particularity of time, place, and person. This period saw a dramatic increase in the sources and methods employed by social historians: parish registers, parliamentary poll books, oral history, the early use of computers, and the interpretation of landscape were some of the additions to the repertoire.
The 1970s and 1980s released social history from a variety of self-imposed inhibitions. There was a rapid extension of the range of ‘legitimate’ topics. urban history with its awareness of the complex interactions and variety of the town played a major part. Social theory, much of it from the Chicago school of urban sociology, was important here, but the urban historians also sustained a tradition of social history which sought an elegant account of the texture of the past, a sort of organized poetry of facts. The most crucial impact was probably women's history with its rapid development into gender history. Leading writers displayed a deep dissatisfaction with existing categories and agendas such as the Fabian concern with paid (mainly male) work in the cash economy.
In the past 25 years the British have written more social history than in the rest of their history-writing history. The agenda has extended to an almost unlimited range of topics. Politics, often through studies of the nature of the state, has been reintegrated. Ethnic, racial, religious, and national identities have been added to those of gender and class. The greater understanding of the 17th and 18th cents. has questioned the notion of the ‘industrial revolution’ as a discontinuity.
In the 1990s the British displayed a hunger for their own history, not just as a nation state unit in the manner of Trevelyan, but as a reflection of multiple identities, Scottish, Irish, Welsh, the regionality of the English, in terms of work, gender, religion, ethnicity, leisure interests, social and moral enthusiasms. As a result ‘social history’ has become part of the mainstream of British culture. The political debate of the 1980s and 1990s directly involved interpretations of social history through concepts such as ‘Victorian values’ and ‘middle-class failure’. Leisure and cultural products as varied as tourism, television, and living space involved historical understanding through the notions of ‘heritage’ and ‘restoration’. Social history has become not just an intellectual base for understanding the past but a crucial element in the relationship of past and present and in the multiple identities of the late 20th and early 21st cents.
R. J. Morris