Sociology Social History
Peter N. Stearns
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0131


Many historians have contributed to what is now social history, but as a field social history was increasingly precisely defined beginning in the 1930s in France (as part of the Annales school), and from the 1960s in the English-speaking world. (Indeed, for several decades the field seemed so innovative that it was regularly termed the “new” social history.) The field has two foci, though these give it only a loose unity; for some, social history is more a collection of various topics than a fully defined approach. First, social history focuses strongly on large numbers of people in the past, rather than just elites or leading individuals. Common categories include social classes, Gender, Race and ethnic group, and age. Social historians see the history of ordinary people as contributing greatly to an understanding of the past, and often they argue that ordinary people have more agency than was often assumed by conventional historians. Often some tension emerges between a focus on groups of ordinary people as targets of mistreatment and the claims of more active agency. Second, and closely linked originally to the focus on ordinary people, social historians analyze a variety of aspects of human and social behavior. They reject the tendency of conventional historians to focus heavily on formal politics and great ideas. This aspect of social history has expanded steadily. It leads to a host of subfields, including family and childhood, leisure and consumerism, health and disease, and crime, and the list continues to grow. Some tension has developed between interest in a wider range of topics and the earlier commitment to ordinary people, as some new topics are best explored, at least initially, through elite or middle-class sources. Many historians identified themselves strongly as social historians during the early decades of the field’s emergence. This singular identification has softened over time, and many historians in the early 21st century “do” social history as part of a larger commitment, usually to a geographical region. Social history has also drawn different levels of attention in various world regions. The field is better developed, for example, in China or the West than in the Middle East. Finally, social historical work has often but not always developed with some interdisciplinary connections, particularly to historical sociology.

Classic Works

An excellent way to gain a sense of the social history field is to explore one or more of the founding studies that emerged over several decades. Many continue to serve as basic reference points, even as the field has increasingly divided into more specialized research areas. Bloch 1966 conveys some of the core strengths of the Annales approach, which helped launch the field in terms of research and analysis. Hosbawm 1965 and Handlin 1952 focused on similarly basic work in the fields of social protest and immigration, respectively. Fogel and Engerman 1974 generated wide debate over the history of slavery and also showed the importance of quantitative techniques in the field. Demos 1970 was a pioneering work of another sort, in the exploration of family history and related topics.

  • Bloch, Marc. 1966. French rural history: An essay on its basic characteristics. Translated by Janet Sondheimer. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

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    Originally published in 1931, this was a basic contribution to the understanding of French agricultural society in the Middle Ages, by one of the cofounders of the Annales approach. Bloch focused on the importance of technology in rural life, and the peasant community structure that grew up around the introduction of a distinctive plow. He also strongly emphasized the region—in this case, the north of France—as a basic unit for social analysis.

  • Demos, John. 1970. A little commonwealth: Family life in Plymouth Colony. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

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    Demos was one of several colonial historians who burst on the scene in the early 1970s, establishing the centrality of family history to the social history field but also a particular approach to family history that did less with household structure and quantitative data (in some contrast to Laslett’s approach; see Laslett 1983, cited under General Overviews), and more with a qualitative assessment, including the nature of family relationships. The range of topics Demos explored prefigured important subsequent extensions of social history.

  • Fogel, Robert, and Stanley Engerman. 1974. Time on the cross: The economics of American Negro slavery. 2 vols. New York: Norton.

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    This study used the kind of quantitative data becoming dominant in economic history to explore the profitability and conditions of the American slave system. The book challenged earlier analyses that had held slavery unprofitable and likely to decline, insisting that a more scientific and quantitative approach produced quite a different interpretation. The book caused great controversy because of findings that slave owners may not have treated their slaves quite as badly, from a material standpoint, as had been thought.

  • Handlin, Oscar. 1952. The uprooted: The epic story of the great migrations that made the American people. Boston: Little, Brown.

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    Handlin was not the first historian to deal with the history of immigration, but he unquestionably elevated and extended it, ultimately inspiring a torrent of research in American social history. The book combined fascinating data from immigrants themselves, and wider social inquiries, with considerable passion on the part of the author, himself the son of immigrants.

  • Hosbawm, Eric. 1965. Primitive rebels: Studies in archaic forms of social movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. New York: Norton.

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    This study focused on the goals, composition, and impact of largely peasant bands, whose risings predated more “organized” social protest and operated independently of more formal revolutions. The book inspired considerable additional research, and contributed as well to persuasive historical models about the evolution of popular protest over time. Case studies concentrated particularly on southern Europe, but the approach has been extended to eastern Europe, Latin America and elsewhere.

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