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. …

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