Social History in Europe

By Kaelble, Hartmut | Journal of Social History, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Social History in Europe


Kaelble, Hartmut, Journal of Social History


1. The current situation of social history

Social history in Europe has passed through a period of changes and severe difficulties during the last twenty years or so. The general public became less interested in social history than in the 1960's and 1970's. Social history books sold less well than before. The big European newspapers now rarely present social history when they select history books for review. The same is true among history specialists themselves. Historians in general are far less enthusiastic about social history than before. New history journals no longer intend to promote primarily social history themes. New chairs in social history are difficult to imagine. Retiring social historians are often replaced by historians with other specialties. The glorious days of social history are a matter of the past.

At the same time, social history in Europe is not really in a situation of decline. The principal international meeting for European social historians, the congress organised regularly by the Amsterdam social history institute, is attended by hundreds of historians. The social history society in Britain is as active as ever before since its foundation in the 1970's. The Franco-German social history meetings are held as regularly as in the beginnings during late 1980's, and the steering committee recently created openings for a younger generation. In Central Europe social history became well established after 1989/90. Recent general history dictionaries contain many social history articles. Around 2000 the leading European journals in history, though difficult to compare, did not contain fewer articles on social history than around 1975. A monumental Encyclopaedia of European Social History was published by Peter N. Stearns. To be sure, this encyclopaedia presents primarily an outside view on European social history, i.e. from American historians who wrote about two thirds of the articles. But one could not write more than 200 articles in six volumes on a vanishing sector of historiography. The overall point is clear: social history has lost much of the radiant and glorious role as a leading voice in history that it enjoyed in the era of Fernand Braudel, E. P. Thompson, and Emanuel LeRoy Ladurie. At the same time it gained an established and uncontroversial position in history teaching and research.

2. Recent challenges and changes of social history

As part of this transition, social history in Europe changed substantially. It it is quite different today from what it was twenty or thirty ago. Major themes, the methods, the cooperation with other disciplines, the internationalism, and the relationship to political history are clearly different from what social history was in the 1960's and 1970's. Five changes probably were most important.

Most apparent was the change of themes of social history. In the 1960's and 1970's three major themes predominated in social history: the formation of social classes, especially the working class, but also the middle class, the lower middle classes and the peasants; the rise of the modern intimate family, the emotional links between husbands and wives as well as between parents and children; the rise of the modern welfare state, not only public insurance, but also charity, housing policy, public health, labour law, and the relationship between the state and the trade unions. Especially the research on the formation of social classes often also involved a theoretical debate on class concepts between Marxists and others.

Present social history themes vary much more. Social history has become much more diversified in terms of thematic orientation, which is mainly a consequence of the expansion of this field of research. The classical topics are not abandoned, but major attention is given to eight other new themes which often overlap each other: the history of debates, communication, terms, language, public spaces, media, intellectuals; the history of memory, lieux de memoire, symbols, rituals, myths, significations of objects; the history of values, social norms, social models; the history of identities, national, transnational, social, ethnic ones, and at the same time, a very prominent topic, the history of the other; the history of women; the history of migration, transfers, rise of ethnic groups and of hybrid societies; the history of consumption; the history of religion. …

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