Social History Research Paper

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Historical narratives are commonly populated by the activities of states, intellectuals, and military leaders. Social historians argue that “good” histories must pay attention to ordinary people outside the realm of power; they must explore human activity and experience—such as work and leisure, emotions and the senses, or poverty and oppression.

The term social history can have several related definitions. The basic definition involves the exploration of the history and the historical role of groups who are outside the mainstream of power: working classes and peasants, slaves, women, the young—the list can be considerable, but the purpose is consistent. Social historians argue that these groups have a serious history, stretching from early in the historical record, and that this history powerfully shapes the activities of states, intellectuals, military leaders—the greats who more commonly populate the historical narrative. Social historians are also interested in exploring the histories of a wide range of human activities, contending that these, too, have a serious past that helps explain how human beings function at various points in earlier times and indeed in the present. These activities and experiences can include leisure, work, emotions, the senses, crime, family relationships—the list is essentially as long as our capacity to define aspects of the human condition that change over time.

Some social historians have argued that their approach involves a basic orientation to the whole of human history; others are content with a substantial reshuffling of their discipline’s standard list of topics.

Good histories have always included some social history—some attention to ordinary people and some awareness that human life consists of activities that affect each other, within which politics, for example, has a place but not a monopoly on attention. Formal social history, however, began to be defined in France during the 1930s but was not picked up in the English-speaking world until the late 1950s and 1960s, when many important works were published. Since its inception as a clear subfield of history more generally, social history has evolved. Initial efforts concentrated strongly on topics such as social protest, class structure, and mobility, with great interest in quantitative research and links with sociology. By the 1980s interests were shifting toward more qualitative efforts—sometimes called the “cultural turn”—and alliances with anthropology. Currently, as the cultural turn recedes a bit, scholars are discussing new directions and revivals of older emphases.

Social history and world history have a productive but sometimes uncomfortable, and still incomplete, relationship. Social history was focused and active at least a decade before the rise of serious modern interest in world history, and the separate beginnings inevitably raise issues of coordination. Furthermore, world history was often defined particularly in terms of the doings of great people—kings, general, and philosophers. Some partisans even argued that, because the lives of ordinary people are rather similar across societal lines, with shared poverty and oppression, they do not warrant much world historical focus, at least until modern developments brought the masses more prominently into the picture. This is an outdated argument, which no world historian would now embrace, but it did color the relationship between social history and world history for some time. For its part social history was often conceived of in terms of great place specificity. Several of the path-breaking U.S. entries into the definition of what was long called the “new” social history centered only on New England. French studies often focused on individual regions because of their particular geography and traditions. Other social historians used nations as units because of the social impact of political systems and national cultures. Source materials also dictated this rather narrow geographical impulse. Because they explore unfamiliar aspects of history, often involving groups who left little explicit documentation, social historians have frequently been tied to regional or national data sets, which are not always easy to access even on this level. Finally, social historians during the 1980s began to pay increasing attention to cultural factors, beliefs, and forms of expression and discourse—with the “cultural turn.” As with cultural anthropology, to which the cultural approach was closely related, this attention usually encouraged social historians to take reasonably small areas as their essential purview. Thinking on a global scale was difficult.

Subjected Peoples

Yet social history has obvious bearing on world history and vice versa. Both disciplines typically deal extensively with peoples subjected to the control of others. In fact, scholars usually conceive of African history in social-historical terms, as it has surged during the past three decades—with attention to activities of peasants and workers and to popular resistance to and collaboration with outside authorities—as an alternative to older approaches that privileged colonial governments and discounted African history outside their purview. The insights from women’s history, as a branch of social history, concerning not only women themselves but also larger social frameworks, have been irresistible to world historians, and projects designed to incorporate women’s history into world history have been endemic (belonging to a particular people or country), if not yet fully conclusive, for two decades. Finally, social history itself has reached a new point of self-definition early in the twenty-first century, and appeals to reconsider geography are growing, suggesting more intensive linkage in the future.

Social history and world history remain somewhat separate. Many topics of social history, particularly the exploration of behaviors well outside the realm of politics and formal intellectual life, have yet to find a world historical application. Often, in fact, scholars have explored these revealing topics mainly in a Western context, and the topics lack as yet sufficient breadth even for significant comparative statements.

Nevertheless the connections are impressive, and they will surely expand as scholars in both disciplines interact more closely. Growing interest in the development of global contacts, as a basic concern of world history, inevitably involves social issues: for example, in the impact of global trade or production systems on the organization of work and on social inequality. Growing interest in food habits as a social history topic readily embraces the importance of global interchange.

Even in social history’s early years, a number of larger statements suggested important linkage with world history. One of the deans of French social history, Fernand Braudel, wrote persuasively of some common social structures around the Mediterranean, providing a shared framework for daily lives and ordinary people despite apparent national and religious barriers. Research of this sort, aimed at defining regions not according to religion or political systems, but rather in terms of agricultural patterns, village types, and popular cultures, could serve as a vital component of world history if the approach expanded to additional regions. Some historians and anthropologists dealing with family structures launched a somewhat similar effort to define basic family types—around household size, kinships systems, and the like—on a global basis, again often combining regions held distinct in most accounts of specific civilizations or separating regions within a presumed single civilization.

Without assuming that common people are everywhere alike, scholars realized by the 1980s that social historical findings in one society might have applicability in others. A seminal work in Western social history, E. P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, explored the value systems involved in labor protest as the Industrial Revolution took shape. A key element was what Thompson called the “moral economy,” a set of expectations about workloads, treatment by employers, skill levels and training, and other job-related issues, that artisans had developed before the advent of modern, machine-based factory industry. New conditions, including novel pressures on work time and pace, violated the moral economy, which in turn both motivated recurrent protest and shaped protest goals. This moral economy turned out to be highly relevant to protests by other traditional workers, peasants as well as craftspeople, against the advent of more capitalistic economic arrangements, including those imported under the framework of an increasingly global economy during the nineteenth century. James Scott was instrumental in showing the relevance of the moral economy in protest movements in south and southeastern Asia; following his lead other scholars applied it also to the history of Latin America. Here, then, was another huge potential in linking social history and world history: the applicability of significant reactions first studied in one area to other areas despite substantial differences in prior economic and cultural structures. In this case also, as with the early efforts at a social history-based regionalization, great opportunities exist for further work based on common human responses to roughly comparable challenges.

Comparative Applications and Chronological Patterns

As world history has gained ground, two other applications provide the most common linkages with social history. The first application is comparative. Comparisons of social structures or social experiences constitute an obvious way to utilize one of the standard world history approaches, with its emphasis on individual societies or civilizations analytically enhanced by discussing differences and similarities while also acknowledging the standard social history preference for geographically specific research.

Relying on work by area specialists, many world historians thus compare basic social systems in the classical period (c. 1000 BCE–500 CE) and after, noting the similarities, but more obviously the differences, among India’s caste system, the slave-based system common in the Mediterranean, and the social system in China as it was (partially) shaped by Confucian values. Scholars have devoted more intensive analysis to slave systems themselves, probably the best-developed comparative category in social and world history. Comparison between ancient Mediterranean and later Middle Eastern slavery and its more recent U.S. counterpart highlights the greater range of occupations, and often the higher political status, of the earlier systems, although connections existed between Roman and U.S. slave laws. Comparisons within the Americas have emphasized the greater physical brutality and higher mortality rates of the Latin American and Caribbean systems, compared to that of North America, despite the greater racism that surrounded the institution in the United States. Recent comparative research has also extended to nineteenth-century processes of emancipation. Fruitful comparison has, finally, applied to Russian serfdom and South African slavery and race relations, along with U.S. examples.

Other major social history topics are just beginning to find comparative voice. Gender comparisons remain tentative, although scholars have made interesting analyses of Christian and Islamic impacts on women in the postclassical period (500–1450). Scholars have devoted considerable attention also to the less-unequal gender systems of a few nomadic peoples such as the Mongols, compared to those in civilizations. Comparisons of feminisms have mainly stayed within a North American–European orbit (including Russia). However, research on women in Asia and Africa inevitably invokes the more familiar Western historical experience, at least for comparative suggestions. The same applies to histories of the urban working class and to labor movements and also to the growing field of the history of disabilities. Researchers also make rich global comparisons of city types and of migration patterns. With all this, comparative opportunities remain considerable, particularly for those aspects of social history that involve the wider range of human experience, such as the emotions or the senses. Even the conditions of the elderly have drawn more comparative treatment from anthropologists than from historians, who continue to treat the history of old age mainly within a Western context.

The second widespread application of social history to world history involves efforts to develop chronological models of social change that will apply to many societies in a given time period or across several periods. Some of these models explore the results of intersocietal contacts or the impacts of global forces such as trade—the two other main approaches to world history besides comparison.

Before the early modern period, that is, before the sixteenth century, patterns are not easy to discern. Because of the considerable separation among major societies, regional developments often seem distinctive beyond general similarities such as patriarchal family structures. Contacts can be explored, for example, the Chinese adaptations of Buddhism in light of Confucian beliefs about women and family hierarchy. Chinese influence on Japan during the postclassical period worsened women’s status, but not to Chinese levels, while ironically providing some elite Japanese women opportunities to innovate in Japanese cultural forms (left to them because Chinese forms were more prestigious) or Buddhism. Islam’s limited influence on gender relations in sub-Saharan Africa was often noted by travelers such as the Arab traveler and author Ibn Battutah.

Some scholars, seeking more general patterns, have hypothesized a trend for the status of women to deteriorate in agricultural civilizations through time. The argument is as follows: more effective political power, as governments become more sophisticated, reduces women’s informal voice. Growing prosperity provides an economic margin for elite men to treat upper-class women more ornamentally. A more cultivated aristocracy, turning from war, contributes to such ornamentalism as well (women often gain functions when men are away at war). Patterns of deterioration can be traced in Tang China (618–907 CE), postclassical India, and the later Islamic Middle East. However, many exceptions exist, with periods of greater women’s assertion in business or intellectual life, so the model remains tentative at best.

Global Forces for Social Change

Generalizations become firmer when global forces can be more clearly identified. Significant social history was built into the world economy theory, applied from the early modern period onward. According to the theory’s formulators, a society’s position in the world economy (assuming significant involvement) determined a characteristic labor system—from the coercive labor of peripheral societies (Latin America, Poland) to sharecropping in semiperipheral societies to low-paid wage labor in core economies. The theory has often been criticized, but it continues to deserve attention for its capacity to correlate social and economic change through time on a global basis. Correlations muddy by the later nineteenth century, with the abolition of serfdom and slavery, but a strong relationship between position in the capitalist global economy and working conditions continues to hold. Current discussions about the impact of globalization on economic inequality derive directly from earlier world economy patterns and issues.

World economy theory is not the only applicable model for global, or at least extensive, social change. The Columbian Exchange between the Americas and Afro-Eurasia demonstrates the important effect of early modern biological interactions (foods, animals, diseases, conquerors, and slaves) on population levels in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Europe. Recent research has devoted greater attention to the impact of colonialism on gender relations, through a combination of economic shifts, including women’s loss of manufacturing jobs and cultural and legal influences.

Additional patterns of global social change during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—beyond the acceleration of the world economy and, for a considerable time, imperialism—are somewhat less well defined. Attention to the dynamic of modern revolutions has always maintained a social component, involving attacks on the ruling class and discussions of the mix of social groups carrying these attacks forward along with a revolutionary political agenda. Some scholars during the 1980s disputed the social-historical basis of the French Revolution of 1789, through greater emphasis on ideology, but it is being restored in modified form, with implications for the wider set of Atlantic revolutions through the mid-nineteenth century as well. Revolutions during the twentieth century called attention to conditions and roles of peasants, along with other revolutionary elements, from Mexico and Russia early in the century through Cuba and other Latin American risings from the 1950s to the 1970s. The impacts of revolutions, similarly, can be measured through degrees of social change, for example, in the extent to which the previously dominant landholding class was displaced. The social bases and results of movements of national liberation are harder to define but also receive attention. Here, and to an extent with revolutions as well, involvement of women, which was often followed by subsequent constraints, adds to the social dimension of one of the twentieth century’s major developments.

More broadly still, some social historians have grappled with larger processes of twentieth-century social change, associated with the decline of the traditional aristocracy (a virtually universal phenomenon wherever this class had a foothold) and the rise of a professional/managerial middle class. Comparing the precise patterns of professionalization within a larger set of trends combines the two main facets of social history on a global scale. Interpretations have applied particularly to industrial societies, headed by Japan and those in the West, but they can increasingly apply to other societies with a burgeoning middle class, such as China, India, and many parts of Latin America.

Consumerism is another phenomenon increasingly receiving attention in terms of global social change. Changes in popular culture and a blurring of traditional social boundaries—class, gender, age hierarchies— were wrapped up in modern consumerism as it fanned out from the West during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Systematic analysis remains sparse for a subject that long seemed too frivolous for serious historical attention. However, fascinating case studies are spreading. An examination of comic books in Mexico shows how a U.S. artifact was both taken up and modified by a neighboring culture from the 1930s onward. Current research on Islam shows the growing adoption of practices such as gift and card exchange during Ramadan, a fascinating innovation in a religious holiday traditionally devoted to abstinence. As with other global patterns, including, by the 1990s, “global history” itself, opportunities for significant generalization mix with challenges for comparative analysis.

During the past decade world historians have been attempting wider incorporation of social history topics and materials, constrained in part because of unevenness of research results concerning different societies. More recently, social historians have committed to an active discussion of a wider geographical compass for their own work. Much remains to be done to bring the two disciplines into fruitful union, but the prospects are increasingly promising.


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  2. Blackburn, R. (1997). The making of New World slavery: From the Baroque to the modern, 1492–1800. New York: Verso.
  3. Braudel, F. (1976). Mediterranean and the Mediterranean world in the age of Philip II (S. Reynolds, Trans.). Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press.
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  12. Skocpol, T. (1979). States and social revolutions: A comparative analysis of France, Russia, and China. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  13. Wallerstein, I. (2004).World systems analysis: An introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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