Social History Present and Future

By Stearns, Peter N. | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Social History Present and Future


Stearns, Peter N., Journal of Social History


Social history has often had its temperature taken. In the United States the first probes came in the 1960s, when social historians had to define their core interests against a skeptical history establishment, reluctant to accept new topics and approaches that did not necessarily aim to illuminate standard subjects. This stock taking evolved, by the 1970s, into seemingly endless needs and opportunities to define the "new social history" to teachers and others now a bit more willing to accept legitimacy but still unsure of what subjects and methods were involved. With the 1980s came the challenge of the "new cultural turn"--was it something different from social history, even a danger to it, or rather an innovation within it?--and also attacks from conservative historians like Gertrude Himmhelfarb, convinced that social history was unseating history's true purposes in uplifting youth and the general public through examples of heroic action and reemphasis on political ideals. Social historians themselves generated a new wave of self-examination, centered around a concern about the field as a multiplicity of topics without a coherent and unifying big picture of its own. Some attention also applied to issues of presentation and narrative. These discussions carried into the early 1990s, with particular reaction to the political attack on social history embodied in the hostile response to the national History Standards in 1994. (1)

Since then, substantial silence has ensued on some of the big issues, which might of course imply that the field has faded sufficiently that general comment is no longer warranted, or that it has become sufficiently hegemonic that assessment seems superfluous. Recently, however, several voices have encouraged a new round of stock-taking. Europeans have taken the lead (and their voices are represented in the comments in this issue). The Journal of Social History now joins in, seeking a multi-faceted discussion over the next few years.

There are several motives. First is the conviction that the field remains sufficiently vibrant and promising to require recurrent self-study. Despite a number of problems both old and new, social history has expanded and continues to expand our knowledge about the past in a variety of ways. The fundamental twin premises--that ordinary people not only have a history but contribute to shaping history more generally, and that a range of behaviors can be profitably explored historically beyond (though also including) the most familiar political staples--are still valid. They explain in turn why the field has outlived fad status, to become a permanent part of the historical arsenal. If some of the brashest early hopes have not been realized--history in general has not been converted to social history or to a sociohistorically informed version of total history, and a decisive sociohistorical periodization has not replaced more conventional, usually political markers--the discipline has nevertheless been transformed. Maintaining the transformation merits and requires a periodic update on where social history stands.

The field is also approaching its half-century mark (granting a previous French lead and granting the importance of some earlier social history efforts even outside of France). However artificial, half-centuries are good points for stock-taking. They also contribute a generational challenge. In the United States, the pioneers of the new social history--many of them remarkably productive over a long period of time (social history as longevity formula?)--are now passing from the scene. The field's future rests in younger hands. It's a moment that invites some reflection by some of the older hands, and, even more, some strutting by a sample of the many promising newcomers as well as some of the mid-career leaders active, for example, in expanding social history's range outside Europe and the United States.

The passing of the most assertive aspects of the "cultural turn" also invites comment. …

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