Contemporary French Social History: Crisis or Hidden Renewal?

By Charle, Christophe | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Contemporary French Social History: Crisis or Hidden Renewal?


Charle, Christophe, Journal of Social History


In a paper for a conference about social history held in 1989, I remarked that social history in France slipped from a macro-social to a micro-social viewpoint during the Eighties. In other words, it had left global paradigms, often summed up by the names of Marx or Ernest Labrousse (and their followers), and preferred various thematic approaches, small objects, but thickly analyzed, while rejecting general theories about social dynamics. (1) Today, thirteen years after, questions about the evolution of social history are becoming more radical still, if we observe recent conferences about that theme. (2) The reduction of the objects has often led to the disappearance of their social dimension. The definition of social history as such has lost its coherence, whether because French social history has opted for prospects borrowed from other national historiographies (for example social history of politics, social history of the State, (3) gender history), or because social history has been contested by other types of history which denied the primary role of social factors: history of representations, cultural history, anthropological history.

It is too easy to interpret these evolutions as a "crisis" or a critical turning point. In fact, we are witness to similar evolutions in other social sciences, which suggests putting aside this oversimple diagnosis, similar to journalistic or essayist simplifications, about the triumph of individuals in our contemporary societies. The miniaturization of objects is not only an intellectual prospect but also the consequence of a sociological law of evolution of expanding disciplines. The growing number of scholars and of scientific publications prompts the limitation of the scale of research in function of the scientific division of labor. This trend was already denounced at the beginning of this process, in natural sciences, during the 19th century. Fortunately, contemporary history presents an advantage, in that its chronological limits are continuously growing. But two negative counterparts limit this benefit. The growth of scientific publications is faster than the expansion of the field, since the archival regulations--in particular in France for "sensitive" themes (and social themes are always such)--hinder historians in consulting new archives, in particular for the second half of 20th century. The second difficulty is that social historians are competing, often with unequal means, with scholars of other social sciences who work primarily on the more recent period of society since the sixties. However, an intellectual benefit derives from the reduction of objects and competition with other disciplines, which may be useful to social history: in most cases, it did not dissolve the social into the individual, but permitted better understanding of the links between the parts and the whole, leading to a "social history of individuals" influenced by theoretical frameworks derived from Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu.

Group Portraits

We may demonstrate these positive results, thanks to the multiplication, in French social history, of studies about medium or small size groups: for example about "capacites" (people characterized by an important cultural capital), law bourgeoisie, old or recent aristocracy, traditional or modern middle classes, intellectual or artistic professions, political or religious elites, provincial entrepreneurs of the Second Empire, or even urban or rural workers studied as communities of living. (4) All these publications of the last decade keep the prospect of the new social history of the Eighties: the micro-historical approach based on collective biographies, genealogical familial analysis, case studies using private and public sources or even oral archives invented by historians themselves, to get an inner vision of the group at the individual level. Thanks to this patient scrutiny, we may understand subterranean or hidden conflicts between elites, between bourgeois or middle-class groups defined by the possession of different types of capital, (5) situated at discrepant moments of their social or spatial trajectories, heirs to or deprived of symbolic capital, or aspiring to accumulate some to strengthen their social position.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Contemporary French Social History: Crisis or Hidden Renewal?
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.