Part III: Reintroducing and Refining Social Structure in Social History

Article excerpt

There is widespread agreement that attention to social structure has declined in historical research over the past two decades, partly as a result of changes in the classic structures of industrial society and the decline of Marxism, partly as a result of the cultural turn. There is far less agreement as to whether this matters much. Social historians who take advantage of the cultural turn and its frequent amorphousness on class, risk appearing as outdated throwbacks, even by scholars who have also tired of the cultural emphasis.

Why, then, discuss some form of revival? Societies do organize inequality, and understanding their systems and the ways these systems change and persist, is a fundamental responsibility of historians who attend to the nature of societies and the social experience. There's an obvious contemporary twist as well: as historians have turned away from precise examination of systems of inequality, inequality has in fact been deepening in many societies, and with it issues of poverty and a stiffening of hierarchy. The goal of connecting the social past to the social present, and of bringing wider publics to some understanding of these connections, may well demand a return to issues of structuring.

Advocating greater attention to the analysis of social structure, often though not always involving attention to social class, does not require insistence on a sterile or purely quantitative anatomical approach. Three additions, at the least, are essential. First is a recognition that a finer-grained analysis, into subgroups of, say, larger entities like the middle class, is often desirable and possible--the subgroups may derive from particular income or work categories, but also from clusterings around issues of culture or taste. …