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U.S. Social History


The "new" social history that emerged in the United States in the 1960s and came to dominate the profession by the 1980s, conjoined two scholarly agendas. The first was a program for reshaping history along the lines of the behavioral sciences—in particular economics, political science, and sociology—and employing quantitative methods and models in historical research. The second was the project of rewriting history from the "bottom up," and providing a "usable past" for contemporary movements for social change. Although the advocates of social history might differ in their methodological or ideological commitments, they agreed on the need to displace "traditional" narratives of the American past—ones that privileged high politics, diplomacy, or intellectual life—and to replace them with "new" histories that emphasized social and economic processes and phenomena. Their efforts prompted extensive discussions about the means and ends of historical analysis, and produced a major reorientation within the profession.

Among the earliest, and most forceful, proponents of social science history were Lee Benson and Robert Fogel. Benson, and other practitioners of the "new" political history, urged historians to develop systematic methods and generate quantifiable data with which to verify hypotheses. In The Concept of Jacksonian Democracy: New York as a Test Case (1961), Benson used electoral returns and census data to suggest that ethnic and religious factors, rather than social class, best accounted for party affiliation and voting behavior. Fogel and his fellow "cliometricians" developed a "new" economic history that adopted complex mathematical models and counter-factual questions from economics, and applied them in statistical analyses of serial data. In Time on the Cross: The Economics of Negro Slavery (1974), Fogel and Stanley Engerman drew upon a wide variety of sources in order to demonstrate that slavery was a profitable and efficient system of labor, and that in terms of material conditions, the lives of slaves could be compared to those of wage workers. The interdisciplinary interests and the collaborative activities of the new historians led to the establishment of such institutions as the Inter-University Consortium for Political and Social Research (1962), which served as an archive for machine-readable data and as a center for training in quantitative methods; the publication of such periodicals as Historical Methods Newsletter (1967), the Journal of Social History (1967), and the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (1970); and the organization of the Social Science History Association (1974).

For other scholars, the turn to quantitative methods was more a matter of pragmatic choice than professional manifesto. Stephan Thernstrom, in Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (1964), sampled city directories, and censuses in order to determine rates of occupational mobility in Newburyport, Massachusetts. Social mobility, he discovered, was a far less common phenomenon than was assumed by scholars or celebrated in popular culture. Poverty and Progress came to serve as a model for a number of social mobility studies, and as one of the key texts in the development of a "new" urban history. Thernstrom's creative use of sources, in particular manuscript census returns, also generated significant interest among historians who wished to examine the lives of a great majority of Americans, those whose experiences were missing from the pages of histories focusing on elites. Recovering the histories of workers, women, immigrants, and minorities—"anonymous Americans" as Tamara Hareven (1937–2002) characterized them—became a central concern for social historians. So, too, did the need to connect these histories to such contemporary issues as civil rights and feminism. To many aligned with the New Left, writing social history was both a professional and a political activity.

Both the historiographical critiques and the methodological prescriptions of the new social historians became matters of controversy. Scholars interested in such areas as foreign relations, finance, and the presidency rejected characterizations of their work as "top down" or "great man" history. Historians whose works were dismissed as being "impressionistic" rather than "rigorous" replied that not every past event or piece of evidence was suitable for quantification. Whether to count or not should be a matter of choice, not creed. The most extensive, and rancorous, exchanges over the implications of quantitative history came in the wake of the publication of Time on the Cross. In such works as Herbert Gutman's Slavery and the Numbers Game (1975), critics of Fogel and Engerman pointed to problems in their statistical analyses and the scope of their data sets. They raised moral objections as well. Should the suffering of slaves be reduced to a series of indices and equations? Could the complex system of chattel slavery be adequately represented with the tools of cliometrics?

Among those who identified themselves as social historians, there were also differences in approaches to materials and methods. While social science historians preferred to make their claims on the basis of "objective" sources—city directories, wills, estate inventories—historians of the marginalized and of social movements also continued to rely on "subjective" sources—letters, diaries, and newspapers—for evidence of consciousness or culture. Sean Wilentz and other "new" labor historians questioned the suitability of concepts imported from liberal social theory, such as modernization and social mobility, and the utility of elaborate statistical modeling. They preferred instead the style of social history done by such British Marxists as E. P. Thompson (1924–1993) and Eric Hobsbawm (1917–). In Chants Democratic: New York City and the Rise of the American Working Class, 1788–1850 (1984), Wilentz examined the interaction of socio-economic transformation and political mobilization, in particular in the era of Andrew Jackson. Where Lee Benson had found cross-class alliances along "ethno-cultural" lines, however, Wilentz discovered class conflict and the development of an oppositional working class culture. Though not all social historians were Marxists, the revival of interest in modes of Marxist analysis, and the return of interpretations, which emphasized conflict instead of consensus, were among the most important changes that were wrought in the profession.

By the mid-1980s, much of what the first behavioralists and "bottom up" historians had envisioned was being realized. Major periods and problems in American history had been reinterpreted and revised along social history's lines. New fields of study, such as women's history, had been opened up; and others, such as urban and labor history, had been renewed. A once-dominant political and diplomatic grand narrative of national development was being replaced by one that concentrated on questions of race, class, and gender, and that stressed conflict as the engine of social change. Scholars who wrote about members of the elite assumed defensive positions; prominent intellectual historians called for a new social history of ideas.

Yet a number of social historians, including Lee Benson, expressed doubts about the enterprise. The serious critiques of positivism gaining currency among social scientists could be directed toward social history as well. So, too, could questions about agency, and postmodern rejections of the possibility of objectivity. More than a few social historians turned away from the assumptions of behavioral economists and sociologists, and toward an engagement with methods of cultural anthropologists and literary critics. In these moves from statistics to symbols, and from verification to interpretation, the "new" social history began to give way to a "new" cultural history. Quantitative social science history did not disappear, however, and remains important in such areas as demographic history; yet when compared to cultural history, it is no longer as influential a force. To the extent that the new cultural historians employ American history in terms of oppression, resistance, and emancipation, they are carrying on the mission, if not always using the methods, of history "from the bottom up."

See also Cultural History.

Martin J. Burke

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