What is Social History Now?



I have at the outset two confessions, or at any rate statements, to make. First, I am not myself a social historian, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I would not so label myself. Second, I am an ancient historian, specifically a historian of ancient Greece, and therefore belong to a happy breed not exactly notorious for its devotion to critically reflexive historiography. There are, however, exceptions; indeed, as one of them, the late Sir Moses Finley, was fond of saying, there are always exceptions.1


Social Theory Social History Economic History Qualitative Comparative Analysis Ancient Historian 
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Notes and references

  1. 1.
    Finley’s historiography: M.I. Finley, The Use and Abuse of History (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975; revised edn, London: Hogarth Press, 1986)Google Scholar
  2. Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece, ed. B.D. Shaw and R.P. Saller (London: Chatto & Windus, 1981; Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983); cf. ‘Progress in Historiography’, Daedalus, vol. 106 (Summer 1977), pp. 125–42.Google Scholar
  3. Other exceptions: C. Ampolo, Storie greche: La formazione della moderna storiografia sugli antichi Greci (Turin: Einaudi, 1997)Google Scholar
  4. A. Cameron (ed.) History as Text: The Writing of Ancient History (London: Routledge, 1986)Google Scholar
  5. P. Cartledge (ed.) The Cambridge Illustrated History of Ancient Greece (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997)Google Scholar
  6. J.T. Roberts, ‘Sociology and the Classical World’, Arion (2000); pp. 99–133Google Scholar
  7. F. Hartog, ‘La storiografia fra passato e presente’, in S. Settis (ed.) I Greci, Vol. II. 2, Storia-Cultura-Arte-Società (Turin: Einaudi, 1997), pp. 959–81Google Scholar
  8. A.D. Momigliano, The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (California and London: University of California Press, 1990),Google Scholar
  9. Studies on Modem Scholarship, ed. G.W. Bowersock and T.J. Cornell (California and London: University of California Press, 1994)Google Scholar
  10. N. Morley, Writing Ancient History (London: Duckworth, 1999) especially chapter 1 (What is History?’ Morley’s negatively framed answer is that it is a way of talking about the past, that is different from myth, fiction, propaganda or science)Google Scholar
  11. P. Veyne, Writing History (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984) (French original, 1971).Google Scholar
  12. 2.
    Ancient historians as exiles: R. Syme, ‘How Gibbon Came to History’ (1977), reprinted in his Roman Papers, Vol. III, ed. A.R. Birley (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984) pp. 969–76, at 971. Syme’s greatest historiographical contributions were to the understanding of Tacitus.Google Scholar
  13. Exile and historiography: S. Walia, Edward Said and the Writing of History (Duxford: Icon, 2001).Google Scholar
  14. 4.
    I would add that, since Carr seems to have had no formal training as a historian, I suspect his reading as a classics undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge, of Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius and Tacitus (all cited, briefly, in E.H. Carr, What is History? (1961; 2nd edn ed. R.W. Davies, 1986; reprinted with new Afterword by R.J. Evans)) (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001) may have been more influential on his historiographical outlook than he might have cared to admit. See especially the fascinating anecdote mentioned by R.J. Evans, new ‘Introduction’ to Carr, What is History?, p. xi, about Herodotus’ attitude to the Persian War being shaped by his personal experience of the Peloponnesian War (cf. ibid., p. 7); also ibid., p. xviii: a private letter emphasizing that the function of the historian is to explain; with Carr What is History?, p. 81, quoting Herodotus’CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Preface (contrast the view of G. Hawthorn, Plausible Worlds: Possibility and Understanding in History and the Social Sciences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991) that ‘cumulative and convergent certainty, not just about the workings of the world, but also about its particular contents, which we take to mark knowledge, will always elude the social sciences’, which Hawthorn takes to include history; therefore, understanding not explanation must in his view be the best we can hope for). Carr’s belief in historical ‘regularities’ (Evans in What is History?, pp. xii, xviii) could have come ultimately from Thucydides 1.22.4; likewise, Carr’s contempt for history of the masses until at earliest the mid-nineteenth century (R.J. Evans, In Defence of History (London: Granta, 1997, 2001 with new Afterword), pp. 164–5; cf. below, note 31) would have been shared by his classical forerunners.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. 5.
    On the dispute between methodological individualists and methodological holists, see S. James, The Content of Social Explanation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984); with James, I would give the victory to the latterGoogle Scholar
  17. cf. C. Bird, The Myth of Liberal Individualism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  18. 6.
    On G.M. Trevelyan, English Social History (originally New York: Longmans, Green & Co., Inc., 1942)Google Scholar
  19. see especially D. Cannadine, G.M. Trevelyan: A Life in History (London: Penguin, 1997); cf. briefly Evans, In Defence of History, p. 163. On politics and the political, especially but not only in ancient GreeceGoogle Scholar
  20. see P. Cartledge, ‘La Politica’, in S. Settis (ed.) I Greci, Vol. I, Noi e I Greci (Turin: Einaudi, 1996), pp. 39–75.Google Scholar
  21. 7.
    I mention, but shall not discuss, the congruent opinion, expressed recently by the classically inspired literary critic Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods (London: Vintage, 2001), p. 173, in specific relation to the rise of totalitarian regimes, that ‘the very notion of society has appropriated an unprecedented power, one previously the preserve of religion’.Google Scholar
  22. The ‘daily life’ genre runs the risk of being merely antiquarian; but that it need not be so is shown by, for example, R. Garland, Daily Life of the Ancient Greeks (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998).Google Scholar
  23. 8.
    Quotation from E.J. Hobsbawm, ‘From Social History to the History of Society’ (1972), reprinted in his On History (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998), chapter 6, at p. 99. The desired goal, as he phrases it, should be ‘the formulation of the nature and structure of societies and the mechanisms of their historic transformations (or stabilizations)’ (ibid., p. 109).Google Scholar
  24. 9.
    P. Burke, The French Historical Revolution: The Annales School 1929–1989 (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1990)Google Scholar
  25. a work to be reconsidered in the light of B. Lepetit (ed.) Les formes de l’expérience: Une autre histoire sociale (Paris: Albin Michel, 1995)Google Scholar
  26. as reviewed by G. Stedman Jones, Annales HSS (mars–avril 1998), pp. 383–94.Google Scholar
  27. 11.
    A. Wilson, Rethinking Social History: English Society 1750–1920, and its Interpretation (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1994).Google Scholar
  28. 12.
    I suppose the reductio ad absurdum of the parcelling or compartmentalization of History was the monthly magazine History Today’s ‘What is [social, and so on] History Today?’ series of articles, edited as a book under that title by Juliet Gardiner, What is History Today? (London: Macmillan, 1988); see Evans, In Defence of History, pp. 170, 351. The contribution on social history, coincidentally by an ancient historian, was predictably jejune.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 13.
    P. Burke and A. Briggs, A Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  30. 14.
    P. Stearns, Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350–2000 (six vols) (New York: Scribner’s, 2001).Google Scholar
  31. 18.
    P. Abrams, Historical Sociology (London: Open Books, 1982) contended in a proto-postmodernist way that history and sociology were divided, not by logic, but only by rhetoric; history for Abrams was not just a factual presentation of the past but the social reconstruction of the past. A conventional rejoinder by Frank Parkin pontificated that ‘social theory is to history as the philosophy of science is to science’ (Times Literary Supplement, 23 July 1982, p. 801).Google Scholar
  32. 19.
    Time in history, time(s) of history: L. Jordanova, History in Practice (London: Edward Arnold, 2000), chapter 5Google Scholar
  33. M. Pearson and M. Shanks, Theatre/Archaeology (London: Routledge, 2001), especially pp. 41–4.Google Scholar
  34. 20.
    A.D. Momigliano, Time in Ancient Historiography (Histoty & Theory, Beiheft, [supplement] 1966).Google Scholar
  35. 21.
    P. Burke, The Renaissance Sense of the Past (London: Edward Arnold, 1969).Google Scholar
  36. 22.
    D.P. Henige, Oral Historiography (New York and Lagos: Longman, 1982)Google Scholar
  37. M. Herzfeld, The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1985)Google Scholar
  38. and cf. P. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997), chapter 3 (‘History as Social Memory’ (originally 1989)); his thesis in brief is that ‘all of us have access to the past (like the present) only via the categories and schemata — or as Durkheim would say, the “collective representations” — of our own culture’ (ibid., pp. 45–6).Google Scholar
  39. 23.
    T.W. Gallant, Modern Greece (London: Edward Arnold, 2001), p. 75; chapter 5 is devoted to ‘Greek Society in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries’. For Gallant in his earlier role as ancient social and economic historian of Greece, see his Risk and Survival in Ancient Greece: Reconstructing the Rural Domestic Economy (Oxford: Polity Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  40. 24.
    P. Burke, Eyewitnessing: The Uses of lmages as Historical Evidence (Ithaca, NY, and London: Cornell University Press, 2001) might be read as a cautionary manual on the fickleness of images.Google Scholar
  41. 25.
    A small illustration: E. Le Roy Ladurie, Le Territoire de l’historien (Paris: Gallimard, 1973), pp. 169–86 (Événement et longue durée dans l’histoire sociale: l’exemple chouan’) (English translation, 1979); cf. Burke, The French Historical Revolution, pp. 61–4. A typical, conservative criticism of this type of history is that, as it is concerned with structures rather than events, it cannot easily convey a sense of change over time, let alone explain it, without connecting with the established narratives of political or economic history.Google Scholar
  42. 26.
    W.G. Runciman, A Treatise on Social Theory, 3 Vols (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983, 1989, 1997). The quotation is from Perry Anderson, London Review of Books, 6 July 1989, p. 6, reviewing Vol. II. But the entire work is overlooked, remarkably, by Jordanova in History in Practice, an otherwise excellent primer, and even by Evans in In Defence of History. Google Scholar
  43. 28.
    P. Cartledge, ‘Democratic Politics Ancient and Modern: From Cleisthenes to Mary Robinson’, Hermathena, vol. 166 (Summer 1999 (2000)), pp. 5–29.Google Scholar
  44. 29.
    M. Midlarsky, The Evolution of Inequality: War, State Survival and Democracy in Comparative Perspective (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999). War for the ancient Greeks was an agôn, a contest, whence we derive our word ‘agony’; it was typically ‘people’s’ warfare, if not total warfare.Google Scholar
  45. On ancient Greek warfare, see recently H. Van Wees (ed.) War and Violence in Ancient Greece (London: Duckworth, 2000); and for two very different comparativist collectionsGoogle Scholar
  46. K. Raaflaub and R. Rosenstein (eds) War and Society in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999)Google Scholar
  47. and D.R. McCann and B.S. Strauss (eds) War and Democracy: A Comparative Study of the Korean War and the Peloponnesian War (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2001).Google Scholar
  48. 30.
    Midlarsky also thinks A.C. Renfrew, ‘Polity and Power: Interaction, Intensification, and Exploitation’, in C. Renfrew and J.M. Wagstaff (eds) An Island Polity: The Archaeology of Exploitation on Melos (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982), to be worth citing on the spread of democracy in the Aegean islands under ‘Ionian’ influence — alas, poor Melos … which in actual fact was an unreconstructed Dorian oligarchy.Google Scholar
  49. 32.
    G. Levi, ‘On Microhistory’ in P. Burke (ed.) New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), pp. 93–113Google Scholar
  50. P. Burke, History and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993) identifies four general approaches to the conjoining of history and social theory: comparative analysis, modelling, quantitative analysis, and microhistory (‘the employment of the social microscope’).Google Scholar
  51. 33.
    J.C.G. Röhl, ‘Ordinary Germans as Hitler’s Willing Executioners? The Goldhagen Controversy’ in W. Lamont (ed.) Historical Controversies and Historians (London: University College London Press, 1998), pp. 15–21Google Scholar
  52. R. Eaglestone, Postmodernism and Holocaust Denial (Duxford: Icon, 2001), pp. 30–4Google Scholar
  53. and above all C. Browning, ‘German Memory, Judicial Interrogation and Historical Reconstruction: Writing Perpetrator History from Postwar Testimony’, in S. Friedländer (ed.) Probing the Limits of Historical Representation: Nazism and the ‘Final Solution’ (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992), pp. 22–36, and Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (original edn 1992; new ‘Afterword’ 1998) (London: Penguin, 2001).Google Scholar
  54. 34.
    D. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Alfred Knopf; London: Little, Brown, 1996).Google Scholar
  55. 36.
    Perhaps the same will be said in due course for what seems to be the current contender for the Most Universal Form of History crown — cultural history (about which see Miri Rubin’s contribution to this volume). See, for example, Burke th, Varieties of Cultural History; though perhaps even he would not have anticipated D.M. Friedman, A Mind of Its Own. A Cultural History of the Penis (New York: The Free Press, 2001).Google Scholar
  56. 38.
    Evans, In Defence of History, especially pp. 165–70 (different constructions of ‘social history’), 183–90. Yet note his observation that ‘Even in the 1990s, the view that history is essentially political history remains widespread within the profession’ (p. 162). J. Arnold, History: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 86, gives a rather wider than Evans’s — perhaps a too wide — interpretation of the scope of social history as people’s ‘family structures, their conduct in daily life, the way they arrange and give meaning to the social spaces around them’CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. J. Tosh, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (2nd edn) (London: Longman, 1991) p. 96, (3rd edn, 1999), cautiously ventures that ‘Social history is less self-evident in its identity and scope than any of the categories discussed so far’; cf. ibid., pp. 209–17 (oral history)Google Scholar
  58. M. Bentley (ed.) Routledge Companion to Historiography (London: Routledge, 1997) notably has no separate entry for ‘social history’.Google Scholar
  59. 40.
    However, to call it a ‘dead end’, as does W.G. Runciman, ‘Doomed to Extinction: The Polis as an Evolutionary Dead-End’, in O. Murray and S. Price (eds) The Greek City from Homer to Alexander (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 347–67, is a bit too strong; for a dead-end, the ancient Greek city had and indeed retains an awful lot of vitality, as an imagined eu-topia (place of well-faring) as well as an ou-topia (no-place): Cartledge, ‘Democratic Politics Ancient and Modern’. Runciman’s earlier essay, ‘Origins of States: The Case of Archaic Greece’, Comparative Studies in Society and History, vol. 24 (1982), pp. 351–77, is more successful.Google Scholar
  60. 41.
    This is notwithstanding the best efforts of G.E.M. de Ste. Croix, The Class Struggle in the Ancient Greek World. From the Archaic Age to the Arab Conquests (London: Duckworth, 1981) to find a definition of ‘class’ that would capture both ancient and modern situations and conditions with equal validity and explanatory force.Google Scholar

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