Academic journal article
By Kocka, Juergen
Journal of Social History , Vol. 29, No. SUPP
What is leftist about social history? Why should conservatives be smore critical of social history than, for example, intellectual, political or economic history? Which consequences should social historians draw from being identified with and criticized for leftist inclinations? Answers may differ with the concept of social history one subscribes to, and with the historiographical tradition from which one comes.
By social history I mean, on the one hand, a sub-field of historical studies which mainly deals with social structures, processes and experiences, for example, with classes and strata, ethnic and religious groups, migrations and families, business structures and entrepreneurship, mobility, gender relations, urbanization, or patterns of rural life. Usually the borderlines vis a vis cultural, economic and political history are not clearly drawn. On the other hand, social history means an approach to general history from a socio-historical point of view. Social history in this sense deals with all domains of historical reality, by relating them to social structures, processes and experiences in different ways. The following remarks are aimed at social history in general, but they come from a European perspective. I teach in a German university and have done most of my work in the field of modern European, particularly Central and West European history.
If there is an affinity between social history and the political Left, it is neither clear cut nor ubiquitous. Modern social history emerged from very different intellectual sources. Certainly, there were strong traditions of social criticism, marxist and otherwise, which influenced social historical thought, most important in the study of workers' and labor history. But social scientists like Durkheim and Max Weber influenced historical sociology and social history as well, in a strictly nonmarxist and nonsocialist way; due to them, theories of modernization and social differentiation became important in the field from the 1950s to the 1980s, and in spite of much criticism directed against them, they continue to play a role still today. In addition, social history had conservative sources. Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl, a nineteenth-century German ethnologist with much sympathy for the time-honored customs of peasants, deep respect for the monarchy and distrust of urban liberalism informed an important tradition of Central European conservative social history. In the 1930s and 1940s it took a nationalist turn. Werner Conze, one of the great pioneers of modern German social history, was deeply influenced by this tradition. One of his programmatic articles served as the opening piece of The Journal of Social History in 1967. Probably the conservative critics of social history are not aware of the rather complicated history of the field which contradicts widely held cliches.
It can be argued that topics dear to the Left have been dominant in social history: poverty and discrimination, workers and labor, social protests and social movements, inequality along gender lines, ethnic minorities and their usually difficult relations to the majority. But social historians have dealt with other topics as well. Elite groups have been favorite objects of social historical research, the rich and the powerful, the nobility, business communities and entrepreneurs. In fact the history of entrepreneurship has been one of the testing fields in which the cooperation between social historians and social scientists was tried out, very early, for instance at the Harvard Center for Entrepreneurial History. During the last decade working-class history has lost much of its attraction to social historians. In Central Europe at least, the history of the middle classes or rather of the bourgeoisie has taken its place as a fashionable field of concentration, combining social and cultural approaches in innovative ways. Most social historical topics carry neither leftist or rightist connotations - the social history of the family or of work provides obvious examples. …