The State of American History

By Herbert J. Bass | Go to book overview

The State of Social Welfare History

ROBERT H. BREMNER

Social welfare history is one of the newer areas of historical specialization. The subject, of course, is not new; it has a long history and a sizable literature. The only thing new about social welfare history is the professional historian's interest in it. In this respect it is like urban history, black history, medical history, business history, educational history, the history of science and technology, and the history of the family and children. In all of these areas historians are moving into fields which used to be considered the domains of other disciplines. In the case of social welfare history the writers were, until quite recently, social workers, sociologists, and economists. The growth of the professional historian's interest in such areas mirrors the concerns of our times. It also reflects the expansion of historical consciousness in the twentieth century. While each of us as individuals may be more and more specialized in our interests and competence, history as a whole has never been more comprehensive than today.

Our first problem is to define the boundaries of social welfare history. How inclusive or how restricted is its territory? What does it cover? What is its content? The broadest definition I know was advanced by William Graham Sumner in an essay entitled "Sociology" written in 1881. Sumner objected that social welfare was always treated as a novel issue. "In truth," Sumner declared, "the human race has never done anything else but struggle with the problem of social welfare. That struggle constitutes history, or the life of the human race on earth." But then Sumner went on to assert: "The only two things

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