Losses, Gains and Opportunities: Social History Today

Article excerpt

The impression is widely spread that this is not a good moment to be a social historian. It has become common-place that our present situation differs strongly from the situation around 1970 when Eric Hobsbawm made his famous proclamation of optimism. Social history seems to have gone through a long period of decline which started in the early 1980s and may not have reached its rock-bottom yet. Mounting challenges to social historical views from outside, increasing internal doubt about

basic principles of social-historical thought, fragmentation and loss of identity, declining popularity among researchers, students and in the public at large have been characteristic for the last 20-25 years, or so it seems. Certainly in Germany nobody would nowadays characterize social history the way it was characterized by Hans Rosenberg in 1969. With irony and sympathy he remarked that social history has become a nebulous code for everything deemed to be desirable and progressive in West German historiography. (1) But the news from other countries is not much better: For decades, a "Social History Seminar" had been offered in Cambridge University. A while ago it was renamed into "Themes in Modern History", and students talked about "the seminar formerly known as social".

While there is overwhelming evidence which supports the skeptical notion of a long-term decline of social history, the characterization is only half true. First, there were not only losses, but gains as well. Depending on the criteria used, the latter may be seen as more important than the former. Second, a new turn seems to be imminent which may lead to a renaissance of social history though in a deeply restructured form.

The following remarks will not tell the story of social history as it developed from the 1960s to the present day, for the story is familiar. (2) Rather I shall comment first on some losses and secondly on some gains which social history seems to have experienced since the time when Rosenberg and Hobsbawm wrote. Thirdly, I shall comment on some challenges and opportunities which are visible today. These will be general remarks, but with some concentration on the German case. My field is modern history.

I have two meanings of social history in mind: (1) social history as a specialized sub-discipline concentrating on social structures, processes, and actions in a specific sense (inequality, mobility, classes, strata, ethnicity, gender relations, urbanization, work and life of different types of people, not just elites), in contrast to other sub-disciplines like economic history, constitutional history or the history of ideas; (2) social history as a specific approach to or way of looking on general history, by stressing broad structures and processes as well as those dimensions of historical reality emphasized by social history in sense (1). (3)

History as a discipline is tremendously rich, varied and heterogeneous. For every generalizing remark on the recent and present state of the profession it is easy to find evidence to the contrary and a host of exceptions, particularly in a short comment like the following. If its shortcuts can be excused at all, it is by referring to the larger discussion toward which it is directed.

Social-scientific history in decline

Besides economic history and historical demography social history belonged to those sub-disciplines which have offered most opportunities for the application of analytical methods. It was in the history of social inequality, mobility, migration and protests as well as voting and some other areas that mass-data could be systematically collected and analyzed, by using advanced statistical methods, sharply defined concepts, sophisticated models and rigid procedures for testing them. Impulses from the neighbouring social sciences played a major role. Social-scientific history in this sense was always only a small part of social history. …