What is Social History?

A new form of antiquarianism? Celebrating experience at the expense of analysis? Seven leading historians seek to define social history.

‘The Pumpkin Harvest’ by Giovanni Segantini shows rural life being encroached upon by industrialisation, 1897. Minneapolis Institute of Art. Public Domain.

‘It prides itself on being concerned with 'real life' rather than abstractions’

Raphael Samuel was Professor of History at the University of East London and one of the founding figures of the History Workshop movement. His books include Theatres of Memory: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture (1994) and Theatres of Memory: Volume 2: Island Stories: Unravelling Britain (1997)

Ever since its elevation to the status of a discipline, and the emergence of a hierarchically organised profession, history has been very largely concerned with problematics of its own making. Sometimes it is suggested by 'gaps' which the young researcher is advised by supervisors to fill; or by an established interpretation which, iconoclastically, he or she is encouraged to challenge. Fashion may direct the historians' gaze; or a new methodology may excite them; or they may stumble on an untapped source. But whatever the particular focus, the context is that enclosed and esoteric world in which research is a stage in the professional career; and the 'new' interpretation counts for more than the substantive interest of the matter in hand.

Social history is quite different. It touches on, and arguably helps to focus, major issues of public debate, as for example on British national character or the nature of family life. It mobilises popular enthusiasm and engages popular passions. Its practitioners are counted in thousands rather than hundreds – indeed tens of thousands if one were to include (as I would) those who fill the search rooms of the Record Offices, and the local history rooms of the public libraries, documenting family 'roots'; the volunteer guides at the open-air museums; or the thousands of railway fanatics who spend their summer holidays acting as guards or station staff on the narrow gauge lines of the Pennines and North Wales. Social history does not only reflect public interest, it also prefigures and perhaps helps to create it. Thus 'Victorian Values' were being rehabilitated by nineteenth-century enthusiasts for a decade or more before Mrs Thatcher appropriated them for her Party's election platform; while Professor Hoskins' discovery of 'lost' villages, and his celebration of the English landscape anticipated some of the animating sentiments which have been made the conservationist movement a force for planners to reckon with.

As a pedagogic enthusiasm, and latterly as an academic practice, social history derives its vitality from its oppositional character. It prides itself on being concerned with 'real life' rather than abstractions, with 'ordinary' people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events. As outlined by J.R. Green in his Short History of the English People (1874) it was directed against 'Great Man' theories of history, championing the peaceful arts against the bellicose preoccupations of 'drum-and-trumpet' history. In its inter-war development, represented in the schools by the Piers Plowman text-books, and in the universities by Eileen Power's Medieval People and the work of the first generation of economic historians, it evoked the human face of the past – and its material culture – against the aridities of constitutional and administrative development.' The Annales school in, France called for the study of structure and process rather than the analysis of individual events, emphasising the grand permanencies of geography, climate and soil.

Urban history, pioneered as a cottage industry by H.J. Dyos in the 1960s, and labour history, as redefined in E.P. Thompson's Making of the English Working Class, was a protest against the routinisation and narrowing of economic history, together with (in the case of Thompson) sideswipes at the invading generalities of the sociologists.

Social history owes its current prosperity, both as a popular enthusiasm and as a scholarly practice, to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and reproduces – in however mediated a form – its leading inspirations. One is dealing here with homologies rather than influences or, in any publicly acknowledged sense, debts, so that any coupling is necessarily speculative and might seem impertinent to the historians concerned. Nevertheless, if only as a provocation and as a way of positioning history within the imaginative complexes of its time, some apparent convergences might be suggested.

The spirit of 1960s social history – tacking in its own way to the 'winds of change' – was pre-eminently a modernising one, both chronologically, in the choice of historical subject matter, and methodologically, in the adoption of multi-disciplinary perspectives. Whereas constitutional history had its original heart in medieval studies, and economic history, as it developed in the 1930s and 1940s, was centrally preoccupied with Tudor and Stuart times (the famous controversy on 'The Rise of the Gentry' is perhaps representative), the 'new' social history, first in popular publication in the railway books (as of David and Charles) and later in its academic version, was apt to make its historical homeland in Victorian Britain, while latterly, in its enthusiasm for being 'relevant' and up-to-date, it has shown a readiness, even an eagerness, to extend its inquiry to the present. Methodologically too, in ways presciently announced at the beginning of the decade in E.H. Carr's What is History? the new social history was hospitable to the social sciences, and much of the energy behind the expansion of Past and Present – the most ecumenical of the social history journals, and the first to be preoccupied with the inter-relationship of history and 'theory' – came from the discovery of historical counterparts to the categories of social anthropology and sociology: e.g. 'sub-cultures', social mobility, crowd psychology, and latterly gender identities.

One way in which numbers of the new social historians made themselves at home in the past was by projecting modernity backwards, finding anticipations of the present in the past. This seems especially evident in the American version of social history, where modernisation theory is a leading inspiration (Eugen Weber's Peasants into Frenchmen, a celebration of the allegedly civilising process, is an accessible and influential example). It can also be seen in the preoccupation with the origins of 'companionate' marriage and the modern family, a work pioneered in a liberal-humanist vein by Lawrence Stone, and in a more conservative one by Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane. Keith Thomas' magnificent Man and the Natural World, like his earlier Religion and the Decline of Magic, though finely honed and attentive to counter-tendencies, might also said to be structured by a version of modernisation theory documenting the advance of reason and humanity.

The plebeian subject matter favoured by the new social history, corresponds to other cultural manifestations of the 1960s, as for instance 'new wave' British cinema, with its cockney and provincial heroes, 'pop art' with its use of everyday artefacts, or the transformation of a 'ghetto' beat (Liverpool sound) into a national music. Similarly, the anti-institutional bias of the new social history – the renewed determination to write the history of 'ordinary' people as against that of statecraft, could be said to echo, or even, in some small part to be a constituent element in, a much more widespread collapse of social deference, and a questioning of authority figures of all kinds. In another field – that of historical conservation – one could point to the new attention being given to the preservation and identification of vernacular architecture; to the spread of open-air, 'folk', and industrial museums, with their emphasis on the artefacts of everyday life; and on the retrieval and publication of old photographs, with a marked bias towards the representation of scenes from humble life. The democratisation of genealogy, and the remarkable spread of family history societies – a 'grassroots' movement of primary research – could also be said to reflect the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s; a new generation of researchers finds as much delight in discovering plebeian origins as earlier ones did the tracing of imaginary aristocratic pedigrees.

Another major 1960's influence on the new social history – very different in its origins and effects – was the 'nostalgia industry' which emerged as a kind of negative counterpart, or antiphon, to the otherwise hegemonic modernisation of the time. The animating sentiment – a very opposite of Mr Wilson's 'white heat of modern technology', or Mr Macmillan's 'winds of change' – was a poignant sense of loss, a disenchantment, no less apparent on the Left of the political spectrum than on the Right – with post-war social change. One is dealing here with a whole set of transferences and displacements in which a notion of 'tradition', previously attached to the countryside and disappearing crafts was transposed into an urban and industrial setting.

Automation, electrification and smokefree zones transformed steam-powered factories into industrial monuments. Property restorers, working in the interstices of comprehensive re-development, turned mean streets into picturesque residences – Victorian 'cottages' rather than emblems of poverty, overcrowding and ill-health. The pioneers here were the railway enthusiasts who, in the wake of the Beeching axe and dieselisation, embarked on an extravagant series of rescue operations designed to bring old lines back to life. A little later came the steam traction fanatics; the collectors of vintage fairground engines; and the narrow-boat enthusiasts and canal trippers, bringing new life to disused industrial waterways. Industrial archaeology, an invention of the 1960s, followed in the same track, elevating relics of the industrial revolution, like Coalbrookdale, to the status of national monuments. In another sphere one could point to the proliferation of folk clubs (one of the early components of 1960s 'counter- culture'), and the discovery of industrial folk song, as prefiguring one of the major themes of the new social history: the dignity of labour. Another of its major themes – solidarity – could be said to have been anticipated by that sub-genre of autobiography and sociological enquiry – Hoggart's Uses of Literacy (1957) was the prototype – which made the vanishing slum a symbol of lost community.'

So far as historical work was concerned, these sentiments crystallised in an anti-progressive interpretation of the past, a folkloric enthusiasm for anachronism and survival, and an elegaic regard for disappearing communities. 'Resurrectionism' – rescuing the past from the 'enormous condescension' of posterity, reconstituting the vanished components of 'The World We Have Lost' – became a major impetus in historical writing and research. The dignity of 'ordinary' people could be said to be the unifying theme of this line of historical inquiry and retrieval, a celebration of everyday life, even, perhaps especially, when it involved hardship and suffering.

The general effect of the new social history has been to enlarge the map of historical knowledge and legitimate major new areas of scholarly inquiry – as for example the study of house- holds and kinship; the history of popular culture; the fate of the outcast and the oppressed. It has given a new lease of life to extra-mural work in history, more especially with the recent advent of women's history to which social history has been more hospitable than others. It has built bridges to the popular representation of history on television. In the schools it has helped to produce, or been accompanied by, a very general turn from 'continuous' history to superficially project and topic-based learning – a change whose merits the Minister of Education, as well as others, are now challenging. It has also produced a number of 'do-it-yourself' historical projects, as in local history, labour history, oral history, woman's history, which have taken the production of historical knowledge far outside academically defined fiefs.

The new social history has also demonstrated the usefulness – and indeed the priceless quality – of whole classes of documents which were previously held in low esteem: house- hold inventories as an index of kinship, obligations and ties: court depositions as evidence of sociability; wills and testaments as tokens of religious belief. It is less than a century since a distinguished scholar remarked that no serious historian would be interested in a laundry bill. The publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the patrician collections of 'family' papers which adorn the County Record Offices testify to the representative character of this bias. It is unlikely that even so determined a critic of the new social history as, say, Professor Elton, with his belief that history is 'about government', would want to repeat it today.

Despite the novelty of its subject matter, social history reproduces many of the characteristic biases of its predecessors. It is not difficult to find examples of displaced 'Whig' interpretation in 'modernisation' theory; or the 'idol of origins' in accounts of the rise of the Welfare State or the development of social movements. Social historians – proceeding, as Stubbs recommended a century ago, 'historically' rather than 'philosophically' – are no less susceptible than earlier scholars to the appeals of a commonsense empiricism in which the evidence appears to speak for itself, and explanation masquerades as the simple reproduction of fact. Many too could be said to be influenced, albeit subconsciously, by an aesthetic of 'naive realism' (something to which the present writer pleads guilty) in which the more detailed or 'thick' the description, the more authentic the picture is supposed to be. Social historians are good at amassing lifelike detail – household artefacts, time-budgets, ceremonial ritual: they leave no conceptual space for the great absences, for the many areas where the documentary record is silent, or where the historian holds no more than what Tawney once called 'the thin shrivelled tissue' in the hand.

Social history has the defects of its qualities. Its preference for 'human' documents and for close-up views have the effect of domesticating the subject matter of history, and rendering it – albeit unintentionally – harmless. The 'sharp eye for telling detail' on which practitioners pride themselves, the colloquial phrases they delight to turn up, the period 'atmosphere' they are at pains faithfully to evoke, all have the effect of confusing the picturesque and the lifelike with the essence of which it may be no more than a chance appearance (much the same defect can be seen on the 'background' detail of historical romance and costume drama). Whereas political history invites us to admire the giants of the past and even vicariously to share in their triumphs, its majesty reminds us of the heights we cannot scale. Social history establishes an altogether intimate rapport, inviting us back into the warm parlour of the past.

The indulgence which social historians extend towards their subjects, and the desire to establish 'empathy' – seeing the past in terms of its own values rather than those of today, can also serve to flatter our self-esteem, making history a field in which, at no great cost to ourselves, we can demonstrate our enlarged sympathies and benevolence. It also serves to rob history of all its terrors. The past is no longer another country when we find a rational core to seemingly irrational behaviour – e.g. that witchcraft accusations were a way of disburdening a village of superfluous old women; or that printers who massacred cats were engaging in a surrogate for a strike.

The identifications which social history invites – one of its leading inspirations and appeals – also have the effect of purveying symbolic reassurance. It establishes a too easy familiarity, the illusion that we are losing ourselves in the past when in fact we are using it for the projection of idea selves. Recognising our kinship to people in the past, and tracing, or discovering, their likeness to our selves, we are flattered in the belief that as the subliminal message of a well-known advert has it, underneath we are all lovable; eccentric perhaps and even absurd, but large-hearted generous and frank. Our very prejudices turn out to be endearing – or a any rate harmless – when they are revealed as quintessentially English. The people of the past thus become mirror images – or primitive versions of our ideal selves: the freeborn Englishman, as individualist to the manner born, acknowledging no man as his master, truculent in face of authority; the companionate family, 'a loved circle of familiar faces', living in nuclear households; the indulgent and affectionate parents, solicitous only for the happiness and well-being of their young. These identifications are almost always – albeit subliminally – self-congratulatory. They involve double misrecognition both of the people of the past and of ourselves, in the first place denying them their otherness, and the specificity of their existence in historical time; in the second reinforcing a sentimental view of ourselves. The imaginary community with the past can thus serve as a comfortable alternative to critical awareness and self-questioning, allowing us to borrow prestige from our adoptive ancestors, and to dignify the present by illegitimate association with the past.'

Social history, if it is to fulfill its subversive potential, needs to be a great deal more disturbing. If it is to celebrate a common humanity, and to bring past and present closer together, then it must take some account of those dissonances which we know of as part of our own experience – the fears that shadow the growing up of children, the pain of unrequited love, the hidden injuries of class, the ranklings of pride, the bitterness of faction and feud. Far more weight needs to be given, than the documents alone will yield, to the Malthusian condition of everyday life in the past and to the psychic effects of insecurities and emergencies which we can attempt to document, but which escape the categories of our experience, or the imaginative underpinning of our world view, 'Defamiliarisation', in short, may be more important for any kind of access to the past than a too precipitate intimacy. Perhaps too we might recognise – even if the recognition is a painful one – that there is a profound condescension in the notion of 'ordinary people' – that unified totality in which social historians are apt to deal. Implicitly it is a category from which we exclude ourselves, superior persons if only by our privilege of hindsight. 'There are... no masses', Raymond Williams wrote in Culture and Society, 'only ways of seeing people as masses'. It is perhaps time for historians to scrutinise the term 'the common people' in the same way.


‘Social history has to be thought out, as well as artfully presented, as a story, a moral tale, a belle-lettre or an essay in intellectual adventure’

Keith Hopkins was Professor of Ancient History at the University of Cambridge. His books include Conquerers and Slaves (1978), Death and Renewal (1983) and A World Full of Gods (1999)

A recently published papyrus from Roman Egypt, dating from the first or second century AD, contains an appeal by a slave owner to the authorities for compensation from the careless driver of a donkey, which had run over and seriously injured a young girl on her way to a singing lesson. In her plea, the appellant wrote: 

‘I loved and cared for this little servant-girl, a house-born slave, in the hope that when she grew up she would look after me in my old age, since I am a helpless woman and alone.’

This trivial but fascinating fragment encapsulates many of the problems we face in constructing a social history of the Roman world. First, status fundamentally affected every Roman's lifestyle and experience. It made a huge difference to be slave or free, rich or poor, young or old, male or female, a solitary widow or the head of a large household. Our consciousness of these status differences should undermine easy generalisations about the Romans as a whole. In this scepticism, I include the generalisations which follow.

Secondly, the whole of Roman society was bedevilled by high mortality, endemic illness and ineffective medicine. The young slave girl, incurably maimed, and the helpless widow were symptoms of a general experience of suffering and violence, against which many Romans defended themselves with a mixture of magic, cruelty and religion. The huge differences between typical modern life experiences and typical Roman experiences of life point up the difficulties of using empathy as a tactic of historical discovery. We cannot easily put ourselves in Roman sandals.

Thirdly, the opening story presents a paradox. The old slave-owner loved her slave; the young slave-girl was taking singing lessons. Both the emotion and the behaviour recorded violate our expectations. Surely that was not how Roman slave-owners normally felt or normally treated their slaves. Probably not. But we should be cautious about imposing our own prejudices and categories on to other societies. That way, we miss half the fun of studying history; that way we look into the past and see only ourselves.

Finally, as with the opening story, most of our evidence about Roman social life is fragmentary. Surviving sources provide only illustrative vignettes of daily life. Statistics, which are the bread and butter of modern social and economic history, are missing or, if they do survive, can rarely be trusted. The large gaps in our records highlight the social historian's obligation to reconstruct the past with imagination, even with artistic creativity, but constrained from flights of pure fantasy by the authenticating conventions of scholarship. Imagination is needed, not merely to fill the gaps in our sources, but also to provide the framework, the master picture into which the jigsaw fragments of evidence can be fitted.

Social history is not, or should not be, a blindly accumulated pile of facts (whatever they may be). It should not even be a quilt of testimony, however cunningly devised, each piece cut from abstruse sources. Social history has to be thought out, as well as artfully presented, as a story, a moral tale, a belle-lettre or an essay in intellectual adventure. It has to be thought out, because we interpret the past to the present. We cannot confine ourselves to the intentions and perceptions of historical actors. We know what they did not; we know what happened next. We should not throw that advantage away lightly.

We have to identify and to analyse long-term forces, the structure which moulded individual actions forces of which many actors were often only dimly aware: for example the growth of Christianity, or the increased costs of defending a large empire against barbarian attacks. And above all, the historian has to choose a topic that interests him and his readers. That is one reason why all history is contemporary history and repeatedly needs to be rewritten. We look into the past and inevitably write something about ourselves.

I began with a triviality – against my better judgement. Trivialities are what social history used to be about: clothes, hunting, sex, weddings, houses, eating, sleeping. For most people, in all periods, major preoccupations; but for serious historians, marginal matters compared with politics, laws, wars and foreign relation. Social history provided mere light relief, the tail-piece for proper history, just enough to convince the reader that the subject matter was human after all. Fashions have now changed. Social history occupies the centre of the historical stage, thanks to historians like Lawrence Stone, Le Roy Ladurie and Keith Thomas. And, thanks to the work of Norbert Elias, we can see changing habits of eating and lovemaking, not only as part of the cultural transformation of western civilisation, but also as a reflection of changes in the extent of state power. But that is sociological history, and another story.


‘Social history is not a particular kind of history; it is a dimension which should be present in every kind of history.’

John Breuilly is professor of nationalism and ethnicity at the London School of Economics. His books include Nationalism and State (1982), The Formation of the First German Nation-State 1800-1871 (1996) and Austria, Prussia and Germany, 1806–1871 (2002)

Social history is more difficult to define than political or economic or military history. Whereas those terms apply to the history of distinct kinds of activity, the term social covers virtually everything. In fact there have been three very different views about the nature of social history.

The oldest view of social history was that it was the history of manners, of leisure, of a whole range of social activities which were conducted outside political, economic, military and any other institutions which were the concern of specific kinds of history. One problem with this rather residual view of social history was that its domain shrank as historians of women, the family, leisure, education, etc., developed their own fields as distinct disciplines. There was also the danger that these histories could become trivialised by the exclusion of politics, economics or ideas from the activities they were investigating.

In a reaction against this some historians have gone to the other extreme and argued that social history should become the history of society: societal history. The idea is that political, economic, military and other specific types of history each study only one aspect of a society. It is necessary to bring these various types of history together into a single framework if that whole society is to be understood. This is the task of societal history.

There are many difficulties with this view of social history. First, the whole approach is based upon the assumption that there is a society to study. But when we use the term society we do not normally mean a distinct social structure, but rather the inhabitants of a certain territory or the subjects of a particular political authority. It remains to be established whether there is a distinct social structure which shapes the way these people live their lives. There is a danger that this assumption of a single society will be imposed upon the evidence. Thus the assumption that English society was becoming industrial during the nineteenth century, along with various ideas about what a pre-industrial and an industrial society are like, can distract from the proper task of the historian. Instead of describing and analysing specific events, the historian is lured into categorising various elements of 'society' according to where they are located on the path from pre-industrial to industrial. This 'evidence' is then cited in support of the original assumption. The argument is unhistorical, circular and empty of real meaning.

A much more promising way of bringing the different branches of history together into a single framework is to distinguish between different dimensions such as the political, the economic and the ideological. Then one tries to relate these different levels together. Marxist history is the best example of this kind of enterprise. But equally, the tradition associated with Max Weber can lead in the same direction although with important differences. In both cases, however, the central concern is no longer with 'society' but rather with other concepts such as 'mode of production' or 'types of legitimate domination'. It makes little sense to call these approaches examples of social or societal history. There may still be the assumption that the ultimate purpose is to understand 'society as a whole' or a 'social formation', but this assumption is not an essential element in these types of history. What is essential is how the different dimensions are defined and then related to the evidence and to one another.

A third view of social history is that it is concerned with experience rather than action. One might argue that people who are wage-earners, parents, citizens, consumers and much else besides must possess some sense of identity which underlies all these particular roles and must experience the world in ways which extend beyond these roles. The job of the social historian is to provide a general understanding not at the level of 'society as a whole' but at the level of the individual or the members of particular social groups.

But there are problems with this. All the historian can do is study the records of people's actions in the past which still exist. The temptation to go 'behind' those actions to the 'real' people can lead to unverifiable speculation. It can lead away from the concern with specific events which is the essence of history. Finally, it can lead away from the social into the psychological. The recent upsurge of interest in the history of 'everyday life' has sometimes demonstrated these weaknesses when it has sought to go beyond the rather antiquarian pursuit of bits and pieces of 'ordinary life'.

These three views of social history – as a residual history of assorted social activities, as societal history, and as the history of social experience – seem to lead nowhere. Confronted with much of what calls itself social history one might feel inclined to settle for this negative conclusion. But I think that at least for modern history there is a further point to be made.

Modern history has witnessed a dramatic increase in the scale of human activity with the growth in size and importance of markets, firms, states and other institutions. People relate to one another in these institutions with little in the way of a common sense of identity or personal knowledge of one another. The studies of these institutions tend, therefore, to omit a consideration of the ways individuals understand their actions within the institutions. But in the end those understandings determine how the institutions perform. By 'understanding' I do not mean some experience 'behind' what people do, but rather the thinking that directly and immediately informs their actions. It is this which should always be related to the performance of the institution as a whole. For example, the historical study of the 'adaptation' of rural immigrants to urban-industrial life cannot work either at the level of impersonal analysis (how far people adjust to certain 'imperatives' of modernisation) or at the level of individual experience (what it is like to be a rural immigrant). Rather one should look at distinct actions such as job-changing, absenteeism, patterns of settlement and housing use. Then one should ask what sort of thinking it is which gives a sense to these patterns of action as well as what this means for the institution concerned. This is hardly the province of a special sort of history. Rather it involves making every kind of history explicitly confront the social nature of action and institutions. Social history is not a particular kind of history; it is a dimension which should be present in every kind of history.


‘More and more historians are seeking to describe society as a whole, being no longer concerned exclusively either with the squirarchy or with the rootless poor’

Joyce Youings was Emeritus Professor of English Social History at the University of Exeter. Her books include Sixteenth Century England (1984).

While on a visit to a mid-western American university not long ago I was invited to 'tell us about the new social history'. Being somewhat at a loss, especially among faculty members whose own great-grandfathers had been among the creators of community life in pioneering times, I fell back on a discussion of the variety of overlapping early modern English communities: village, hamlet, parish and manor; county and 'country'; metropolis and market town; Anglican and Nonconformist congregations; universities and secular academic fraternities; guilds of craftsmen and ships' companies, and so on: the associations were many and varied. All of this seemed closer to the real world than consideration of 'mentalites' and even of 'total' societies and of the problems of quantification. However as a concession to the last of these I did contribute to the balance of payments by persuading my hosts to acquire not one but two copies of the new Population History of England.

'New' is of course a relative term. For those who today call themselves social historians but whose early training was in more specifically economic history, the present search for quantifiable data is a natural progression and the urge to encompass the whole of society no more than axiomatic. The advent of computers has undoubtedly played a part, not least in sending social historians in search of new source material, or to rework old sources, both of which can be made to yield hitherto undreamed-of results. Computers cannot, of course, write history, though from the evidence of some recent historical literature it would seem that they have a good try. Nothing can replace prolonged consideration of the records themselves and the problems of correctly identifying people in the past are enormous. Fortunately one of the effects of finding new uses for the parochial registration of baptisms, weddings and funerals has been the realisation that every living person has a unique identity and life-span. Indeed, what is the now very familiar 'family reconstitution' other than the rediscovery by historians of that most basic and universal human community? At the same time it must be admitted that the discoveries made by demographers about such things as age of marriage, size of families and birth control in early modern England have been nothing short of revolutionary.

There is no better way of charting recent trends in the study of social history than to consider the themes chosen for the annual conferences of the Social History Society. Under the leadership of Professor Harold Perkin the society has, since 1976, given a new direction to the subject while at the same time holding fast to real history rather than pursuing merely theoretical concepts of human activity. It has considered, usually with contributions from all periods of history, such topics as 'elites' (which have little to do with 'class'), 'crime, violence and social protest' (a meaningful combination of historical phenomena), 'the professions' (drawing on topics as diverse as classical lawyers and Victorian marine-engineers), 'work in its social aspects', 'popular culture' and, this year, 'sex and gender' which, although predictably attracting many specialists in women's studies, also led to a much broader consideration of the differing roles of men and women through the ages. Next year's theme, that of 'property', promises to produce an equally varied response.

Undoubtedly one of the strengths of social history today is the encouragement it has given to, and the response by specialists in such fields as the history of law and its enforcement, of medicine and its practice, of industry, commerce, shipping and seamanship, vernacular architecture, domestic furnishings, costume, the fine arts, music and, to a lesser extent, of literature, to provide for their subjects a social dimension. The vast output of political biography, including that concerned with Members of Parliament, testifies to the need felt by political and even constitutional historians for figures of flesh and blood. Not even Stubbs's Charters were compiled by mindless robots. Without the aid of such professional expertise social historians would lack access to all these activities which make up the totality of people's achievements. But even to read the relevant published work is a daunting task and this may well result in social historians taking refuge in ever-narrowing territorial and chronological confines. Indeed some are already doing so. This will at least serve to underline the need for precision, both of time and space. Not only change but also continuity need to be both dated and mapped, especially in a country as diverse in its human ecology as England.

The burgeoning of social history, especially during the last decade, has ensured that in the writing of general history people are now firmly in the foreground, their institutions mere reflections of the need to formalise and stabilise their relationships. More and more historians are seeking to describe society as a whole, being no longer concerned exclusively either with the squirarchy or with the rootless poor, with conspicuous consumption or with crises of subsistence. Cohesion is becoming as important as conflict. Social historians are, then, today's equivalent of the one-time honourable profession of general practitioners, whose only failing was that they concerned themselves with little besides national and international politics. In the best of today's textbooks social history is no longer reserved for an obligatory final chapter.


‘Social history is easier to defend than define’

Sir David Cannadine is Dodge Professor of History at Princeton University, a visiting Professor of History at Oxford University, and the editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. His books include Lords and Landlords: The Aristocracy and the Towns, 1774–1967 (1980), The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy (1990) and Ornamentalism: How the British Saw Their Empire (2001)

The most famous definition of social history – always quoted, invariably criticised, and never fully understood - is that of G.M. Trevelyan, who began his English Social History by defining it as 'the history of the people with the politics left out.' Thus described and practised, social history has been much criticised – for its lack of acquaintance with social theory, for being too concerned with consensus and too little with conflict, for being a series of scenes rather than a serious study of change, for being little more than a nostalgic lament for a vanished world, and for selling so well that it was not merely social history, but a social phenomenon.

Yet, although most social historians today implicitly or explicitly reject Trevelyan's definition, and believe themselves to belong to a more professional, more rigorous, more recent tradition, those who read a little further in his book would be surprised by both the catholicity and contemporainety of his conception of the subject. To Trevelyan, spelling it out in more detail, social history encompassed the human as well as the economic relations of different classes, the character of family and household life, the conditions of labour and leisure, the attitude of man towards nature, and the cumulative influence of all these subjects on culture, including religion, architecture, literature, music, learning and thought.

This is a formidable and fashionable list. Of course, there was not much sign of such subjects in Trevelyan's own works of synthesis, as the necessary research had not yet been done. And it would be unrealistic and ahistorical to credit him with too much clairvoyance. But in drawing attention to such an agenda of research interests, he certainly anticipated the work of such major scholars of our own day as Eric Hobsbawm, E.P. Thompson, Lawrence Stone, Le Roy Ladurie, Keith Thomas and Peter Laslett. Ironically, the last great practitioner of the old social history was one of the first to foresee the scope and shape of the new.

So Trevelyan might well be pleased with the massive expansion in social history which took place in the three decades since the Second World War and the writing of his most famous book. There is a Social History Society and a Social History journal (to say nothing of Past & Present and History Workshop); almost every reputable publisher seems to have a new social history of England in the course of preparation; many British universities offer social history courses at undergraduate and postgraduate level; and it is a highly popular subject in schools, in extra-mural studies, and on television. In addition, a whole variety of allied subjects – urban history, women's history, family history, the history of crime, of childhood, of education – are its near relatives, each with their own societies, journals and conferences.

But growth can be as disquieting as exhilarating. For as social history becomes more vast and varied, it becomes harder to keep up with it all, and more difficult to define it in any way other than descriptively. Some of its critics (most of whom, incidentally, have never tried their hands at it) condemn it for being no more than an extension of Trevelyan's laundry list, an inchoate amalgam of fashionable fads. Others deride it as a new form of antiquarianism, celebrating 'experience' but eschewing 'explanation'. In reply, its foremost champions (who are not necessarily its foremost practitioners) defend it as an autonomous sub-discipline, intellectually coherent and organisationally confident, offering the best opportunities for the writing of the total history to which, ultimately, we should all aspire.

As with all debates on 'what is history?', most viewpoints are partially valid, few entirely convincing. The real problem with social history, whether done by Trevelyan or anyone else, is that it lacks a hard intellectual centre. Political history is primarily about power, and economic history about money. So, surely, in the same way, social history is about class? Yes, but what is class? And where is it? There is no theoretical agreement as to its nature; it can barely be said to have existed, even in the western world, before the Industrial Revolution; and too often, social historians spend all their time looking for it, and do not know what to do with it if they find it.

Defining social history is never easy, just as splitting the hairs of Clio's raiment is hard to avoid. In the halcyon days of the 1960s and early 1970s, expansion, proliferation and subdivision were the order of the day, in history as in most other subjects. And of this development, social history was the prime beneficiary. But now retrenchment is upon us; in history as in everything else, amalgamation and rationalisation are in the ascendant; and there are fears that social history, having gained most in the era of expansion, will now suffer most in the age of austerity.

It seems possible, yet unlikely. For social history is surely easier to defend than to define. And in any case, the best social history, whatever it is, is always more than merely that, and it, most illustrious practitioners rightly spend more time doing it than defining it. Considering the fate of Trevelyan's misunderstood definition one can hardly blame them. We would be well advised to follow their example, and get on with it.


‘It is less a terrain of historical enquiry than a means of conducting one’

Royden Harrison was Professor Emeritus of Social History at the University of Warwick. His books include Before The Socialists: Studies in Labour and Politics, 1861–1881 (1965), The Life and Times of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, 1858-1905: The Formative Years (1991), and as editor, The Independent Collier: The Coal Miner as Archetypal Proletarian Reconsidered (1978)

A penalty of taking early retirement is that one's literary output is expected to soar. It is not surprising that my progress reports are received with a mixture of pity and scorn. But is interesting that they should be the subject of a great deal of confusion.

When I remark that my 'authorised’ Life of Sidney and Beatrice Webb is nearly ready: announce that my monograph on Bertrand Russell, Liberalism and Socialism is already in publication: declare that my Notes on the Historical Outcome of Karl Marx is finished, even if incomprehensible,: I am told: 'that's not social history'! Few people may know what social history is, but they are very sure about what it is not. It is not biography. Biography is about one person. Social history has got to be about more than one person. Moreover, the persons it's about have got to have been unheard of and be of no political importance. Disturbed by the astuteness of this interrogation, I reach out for one last manuscript. With the collaboration of some of my former students I have written a book called Divisions of Labour. It is a series of studies of the play between technical innovation and craft regulation in a number of British trades and industries between 1850 and 1914. Most of my questioners find this reassuring. This is what they expected of social history. (Besides, it might even be 'relevant'.) Alas! The more knowing ask whether this is not rather old-hat social history. They were under the impression that social history had outgrown labour history.

The short and superior answer is that social history has outgrown more than labour history. It has outgrown all the other historical subcultures. One is making a category mistake one tries to think of social history as if it was an area of enquiry. It is not logically similar to political or military, ecclesiastical or diplomatic, imperial or economic history. It is less a terrain of historical enquiry than a means of conducting one. At its very least it is what Professor Harold Perkin claimed for it, when he made its concern gathering 'the sap of the social' where ever it might be found. (The phrase may be unfortunate, but the notion is important,) For a time, as a matter of historiographical fact, social history may have had to stand up for fledgling enterprises such as labour or demographic history. But beyond such transitory duties there is an enduring task. It must aid in the desegregation of all the true historical sub-cultures. Thus, military history ought not to be focused exclusively on armaments, strategies and tactics. It ought – and it increasingly does – look at armies in terms of their social composition: their hierarchies in their relation to larger social divisions: their functions in relation to the civil power and so forth. In short, social history has not got its own agenda. At its best it extends the agendas of the specialised historians. It encourages them to speak to each other and occasionally to nod in the direction of the social historian himself.

However, there are some social historians who feel that going after 'the sap of the social' is too modest a function. They suspect that in practice it will consign them to the role of scavengers or beachcombers sorting through the junk which 'Historians Properly So-Called' have thrown out. While agreeing that social history is not just another sub-culture they if want it to insist that its programme is nothing less than writing the history of society. If economic history ought to be the economics of the past then social history ought to be the sociology of the past – and sociology ought to be understood in the most all-encompassing way. It is a fact that a more and more social historians have moved out of the protective shade of economic history in favour of closer association with anthropology and sociology. This has often proved fruitful, Yet sociology is simply not in the sort of shape which would make this ultimate programme remotely realisable in the near future. Imagine what it would have been like to have tried to make economic history the economics of the past in the days when Alfred Marshall ruled. Marshall was far too interested in the economics of the firm or the industry under conditions of static equilibrium to have been of much use to the historian, except in points of detail. Despite its considerable achievements, contemporary sociology is in an even less satisfactory state. And even if this was not so, a social science seeking to discover statistical regularities will never be able wholly to assimilate history, which must be concerned with recovering unique experiences in their chronological sequence.

When I was conscripted into the ranks of social history as E.P. Thompson's successor at the University of Warwick, I assumed that my first duty was not to write some approved form of social history myself but to create the conditions under which others might write it. This meant sustaining Thompson's challenge to what he called the 'artisanal' tradition in historian's research culture. It meant opposing miscellany, isolation, and loneliness in historical research. One important sense of social history is that it does tend, whether it is pursued at Cambridge, Warwick or Oxford (Ruskin) to be more social and less individualistic in its ways of carrying on. This is not easily achieved. It means encouraging good students to go elsewhere because their interests don't fit into any of your concentrated and inter- related research areas. It means bringing primary sources to your own doorstep so that your students don't have to spend all their time in London (The Modern Research Centre at Warwick). It means doing it in a way which takes constructive account of the legitimate interests of existing archivists. It means producing tools of the trade such as the Warwick Guide to British Labour Periodicals (1977): drudgery for which one gets little thanks and less recognition. It means getting staff and students to come together in literary co-operatives to produce books such as Albion's Fatal Tree (1975), the Independent Collier (1978) and Divisions of Labour (1985). It may be a pleasure to teach the Economic and Social Science Research Council that its distinction between money for 'teaching' and money for 'research' is meaningless, but the social production of social history is a very arduous business.


‘Social history is made to seem the sort of history that socialists write’

J.C.D. Clark is Professor Emeritus of British History at the University of Kansas. His books include The Dynamics of Change: the Crisis of the 1750s and English Party Systems (1982), English Society, 1688–1832: Ideology, Social Structure, and Political Practice During the Ancien Regime (1985) and Revolution and Rebellion: State and Society in England in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (1986)

What is social history? The question used to be asked differently: what is history tout court? Philosophers laboured to defend the viability of 'historical explanation' as such against the claims of the natural or social sciences. Yet practising historians know that history is not one thing, but many things. University history faculties are battlefields where different sorts of history compete for space, each sort equipped with a different methodology and value-system. Social history is a natural loser in such a contest: its nature isn't obvious. In rough but useful terms, politics generates political history, war outlines military history, churchmanship identifies religious history. But 'social history' seems a portmanteau term: 'social' action is too general to define an academic genre. So the debate is partly semantic (shall we call this or that sort of history 'social'?), partly a search for a Holy Grail (is there a holistic social history which transcends and incorporates everything else?). Despite Harold Perkin's impressive achievement, this last idea hasn't been generally persuasive, any more than Leavis' attempt to turn literary criticism into the holistic study in the arts.

Social historians are still divided. So what is the semantic debate? What are the divisions? I must answer for my own field, England between the Restoration and the Reform Bill. First in time, but still influential, were the' Fabians and Marxists of the pre-1945 generations: the Webbs, the Hammonds, Wallas, Cole, Laski, Tawney and their modern successors. For them, social history was small-scale economic history: standard of living, enclosures, transport, public health, poor law, the economically-generated categories of 'class', municipal matters, drains. It was worthy, but now seems desperately Attlee-esque. And why was this different from economic history as such? On the basis of their reductionist methodologies, no distinction was possible. Nor was it possible in the work, secondly, of subsequent cohorts of New Left historians, writing on radicalism, popular protest, riots, crime, prisons, revolution, 'social control'. The structure of the argument was the same: Roy Porter's concept of social history in English Society in the Eighteenth Century is identical to Christopher Hill's concept of economic history in Reformation to Industrial Revolution. R.W. Malcolmson's Life and Labour in England 1700-1780 still touches its forelock to Marx and Engels. One sense in which this work approaches the holistic is that social history is made to seem the sort of history that socialists write.

The third party in the semantic debate seeks to break this closed shop by building its research on a non-positivist, anti-reductionist methodology. Emancipated from its servitude to economic history, social history might be reformulated as the historical sociology of power, ideology and belief, of structure, cohesion, allegiance, faith and identity as well as of innovation and dissent. If politics and ideology (rather than economics) are used to provide a framework for social history, three things, conventionally ignored, would be placed at the top of the social historian's agenda in 1660-1832: religion; the aristocracy and gentry; the monarchy. Social structure, seen in non-positivist terms, highlights England as an ancien regime state, with a dominant Church, a clerical intelligentsia, an elite defined in cultural, not economic, terms, and as a polity from which 'liberal(ism)' and 'radical(ism)' as political nouns were appropriately absent. Too often, the period still takes its chronology from economic history: 1660-1760 is a desert; 1760 onwards is dominated by a reified Industrial Revolution (with invariable capitals), a category discredited by the 'new' economic history. Church history is still a neglected specialism, like military and naval history; the universities are ignored until the era of reform; studies of the aristocracy and gentry are still mainly studies of land-ownership.

We all know (after all, J.H. Plumb's generation said so) that England from 1688 was secular, contractarian, Lockeian, a world made safe for bourgeois individualism. The 'new' social history will replace this model with an England distressingly different in its priorities from those of the 1960s intelligentsia, so bridging the adjacent achievements of Laslett, Schochet, Thomas, Perkin, Moore. It seems easier for outsiders, free from our parochial commitments: Alan Heimert, Bernard Semmel, Gordon Schochet, Alan Gilbert, Rhys Isaac on religion and society put their English colleagues to shame. Is this social history? Partly the question is semantic, but more is at stake in the clash of materialist and idealist methodologies, and the cultural hegemonies that academic debates echo. Semantic debates matter little; methodologies, which set the agenda, matter greatly. In respect of the social history of 1660-1832, Englishmen are still burdened with a world-view appropriate to the days when cotton was spun in Manchester, ships built on Clydeside, and coal mined for profit in South Wales.