Social history
Social history, often called the new social history, is a branch of History
History is the discovery, collection, organization, and presentation of information about past events. History can also mean the period of time after writing was invented. Scholars who write about history are called historians...

 that includes history of ordinary people and their strategies of coping with life. In its "golden age" it was a major growth field in the 1960s and 1970s among scholars, and still is well represented in history departments. In two decades from 1975 to 1995, the proportion of professors of history in American universities identifying with social history rose from 31% to 41%, while the proportion of political historians fell from 40% to 30%. In the history departments of British universities in 2007, of the 5723 faculty members, 1644 (29%) identified themselves with social history while political history
Political history
Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. It is distinct from, but related to, other fields of history such as Diplomatic history, social history, economic history, and military history, as well as constitutional history and public...

 came next with 1425 (25%).

Old and new social history

The older social history (before 1960) included numerous topics that were not part of the mainstream historiography of political, military, diplomatic and constitutional history. It was a hodgepodge without a central theme, and it often included political movements, like Populism, that were "social" in the sense of being outside the elite system. Social history was contrasted with political history
Political history
Political history is the narrative and analysis of political events, ideas, movements, and leaders. It is distinct from, but related to, other fields of history such as Diplomatic history, social history, economic history, and military history, as well as constitutional history and public...

, intellectual history
Intellectual history
Note: this article concerns the discipline of intellectual history, and not its object, the whole span of human thought since the invention of writing. For clarifications about the latter topic, please consult the writings of the intellectual historians listed here and entries on individual...

 and the history of great men
Great man theory
The Great Man Theory was a popular 19th century idea according to which history can be largely explained by the impact of "great men", or heroes: highly influential individuals who, due to either their personal charisma, intelligence, wisdom, or Machiavellianism utilized their power in a way that...

. English historian G. M. Trevelyan
G. M. Trevelyan
George Macaulay Trevelyan, OM, CBE, FRS, FBA , was a British historian. Trevelyan was the third son of Sir George Otto Trevelyan, 2nd Baronet, and great-nephew of Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose staunch liberal Whig principles he espoused in accessible works of literate narrative avoiding a...

 saw it as the bridging point between economic and political history, reflecting that, "Without social history, economic history is barren and political history unintelligible." While the field has often been viewed negatively as history with the politics left out, it has also been defended as "history with the people put back in."

New Social History movement

The "new social history" exploded on the scene in the 1960s, quickly becoming one of the dominant styles of historiography in the U.S., Britain and Canada. The French version, promulgated by the Annales School
Annales School
The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

, was very well organized and dominated French historiography, and influenced much of Europe and Latin America. Americanist Paul E. Johnson recalls the heady early promise of the movement in the late 1960s:
The New Social History reached UCLA at about that time, and I was trained as a quantitative social science historian. I learned that "literary" evidence and the kinds of history that could be written from it were inherently elitist and untrustworthy. Our cousins, the Annalistes, talked of ignoring heroes and events and reconstructing the more constitutive and enduring "background" of history. Such history could be made only with quantifiable sources. The result would be a "History from the Bottom Up" that ultimately engulfed traditional history and, somehow, helped to make a Better World. Much of this was acted out with mad-scientist bravado. One well-known quantifier said that anyone who did not know statistics at least through multiple regression should not hold a job in a history department. My own advisor told us that he wanted history to become "a predictive social science." I never went that far. I was drawn to the new social history by its democratic inclusiveness as much as by its system and precision. I wanted to write the history of ordinary people—to historicize them, put them into the social structures and long-term trends that shaped their lives, and at the same time resurrect what they said and did. In the late 1960s, quantitative social history looked like the best way to do that.

The Social Science History Association, formed in 1976, brings together scholars from numerous disciplines interested in social history and publishes Social Science History
Social Science History
Social Science History is a quarterly peer-reviewed academic journal. It is the official journalof the Social Science History Association. Its articles bring an analytic, theoretical, and often quantitative approach to historical evidence....

 quarterly. The field is also the specialty of the Journal of Social History
Journal of Social History
The Journal of Social History, was founded in 1967 and has been edited since then by Peter Stearns. The journal covers social history in all regions and time periods. Articles frequently combine sociohistorical analysis between Latin America, Africa, Asia, Russia, Western Europe and the United...

, edited since 1967 by Peter Stearns
Peter Stearns
Peter N. Stearns is a professor at George Mason University, where he is provost with almost forty years of experience as a teacher and administrator. Stearns was Chair of the Department of History at Carnegie Mellon University and also served as the Dean of the Dietrich College of Humanities and...

  It covers such topics as gender relations; race in American history; the history of personal relationships; consumerism; sexuality; the social history of politics; crime and punishment, and history of the senses. Most of the major historical journals have coverage as well.

However, after 1990 social history was increasingly challenged by cultural history, which emphasizes language and the importance of beliefs and assumptions and their causal role in group behavior.

Demographic history

The study of the lives of ordinary people was revolutionized in the 1960s by the introduction of sophisticated quantitative and demographic methods, often using individual data from the census and from local registers of births, marriages, deaths and taxes, as well as theoretical models from sociology such as social mobility
Social mobility
Social mobility refers to the movement of people in a population from one social class or economic level to another. It typically refers to vertical mobility -- movement of individuals or groups up from one socio-economic level to another, often by changing jobs or marrying; but can also refer to...

. H-DEMOG is a daily email discussion group that covers the field broadly.

Demographic history
Demographic history
Demographic history may refer to:*Historical demography*Paleodemography*Prehistoric demography*Classical demography*Medieval demography*Historical world population-See also:*demographic history by region or country**Americas...

 is the study of population history and demographic processes, usually using census or similar statistical data. It became an important specialty inside social history, with strong connections with the larger field of demography
Demography is the statistical study of human population. It can be a very general science that can be applied to any kind of dynamic human population, that is, one that changes over time or space...

, as in the study of the Demographic Transition
Demographic transition
The demographic transition model is the transition from high birth and death rates to low birth and death rates as a country develops from a pre-industrial to an industrialized economic system. The theory is based on an interpretation of demographic history developed in 1929 by the American...


Black history

Black history or African-American history studies African Americans and Africans in American history. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History
Association for the Study of African American Life and History
The Association for the Study of African American Life and History is an organization dedicated to the study and appreciation of African-American History. It is a non-profit organization founded in Chicago, Illinois, on September 9, 1915 and incorporated in Washington, D.C. on October 2, 1915 as...

 was founded by Carter G. Woodson
Carter G. Woodson
Carter Godwin Woodson was an African-American historian, author, journalist and the founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History. Woodson was one of the first scholars to study African American history. A founder of Journal of Negro History , Dr...

 in 1915 and has 2500 members and publishes the Journal of African American History
Journal of African American History
The Journal of African American History, formerly The Journal of Negro History , is an academic journal covering African American life and history. It was founded in 1916 by Carter G. Woodson. The journal is published four times a year by the Association for the Study of African American Life and...

, formerly the Journal of Negro History. Since 1926 it has sponsored Black History Month
Black History Month
Black History Month is an observance of the history of the African diaspora in a number of countries outside of Africa. Since 1976, it is observed annually in the United States and Canada in February, while in the United Kingdom it is observed in October...

 every February.

Ethnic history

Ethnic history
Ethnic history
Ethnic history is a branch of social history that studies ethnic groups and immigrants. Barkan argues that the field allows historians to use alternate models of interpretation, unite qualitative and quantitative data, apply sociological models to historical patterns, examine more deeply...

 is especially important in the U.S. and Canada, where major encyclopedias helped define the field. It covers the history of ethnic groups (usually not including blacks or Native Americans).
  • The Immigration and Ethnic History Society was formed in 1976 and publishes a journal for libraries and its 829 members.
  • The American Conference for Irish Studies, founded in 1960, has 1,700 members and has occasional publications but no journal.
  • The American Italian Historical Association was founded in 1966 and has 400 members; it does not publish a journal
  • The American Jewish Historical Society is the oldest ethnic society, founded in 1892; it has 3,300 members and publishes American Jewish History
  • The Polish American Historical Association was founded in 1942, and publishes a newsletter and Polish American Studies, an interdisciplinary, refereed scholarly journal twice each year.
  • H-ETHNIC is a daily discussion list founded in 1993 with 1400 members; it covers topics of ethnicity and migration globally.

Labor history

Labor history (discipline)
Labor history (discipline)
Labor history is a broad field of study concerned with the development of the labor movement and the working class. The central concerns of labor historians include the development of labor unions, strikes, lockouts and protest movements, industrial relations, and the progress of working class and...

, deals with labor unions and the social history of workers. See for example Labor history of the United States
Labor history of the United States
The labor history of the United States describes the history of organized labor, as well as the more general history of working people, in the United States. Pressures dictating the nature and power of organized labor have included the evolution and power of the corporation, efforts by employers...

  The Study Group on International Labor and Working-Class History was established: 1971 and has a membership of 1000. It publishes International Labor and Working-Class History. H-LABOR is a daily email-based discussion group formed in 1993 that reaches over a thousand scholars and advanced students.

Kirk (2010) surveys labour historiography in Britain since the formation of the Society for the Study of Labour History in 1960. He reports that labour history has been mostly pragmatic, eclectic and empirical; it has played an important role in historiographical debates, such as those revolving around history from below, institutionalism versus the social history of labour, class, populism, gender, language, postmodernism and the turn to politics. Kirk rejects suggestions that the field is declining, and stresses its innovation, modification and renewal. Kirk also detects a move into conservative insularity and academicism. He recommends a more extensive and critical engagement with the kinds of comparative, transnational and global concerns increasingly popular among labour historians elsewhere, and calls for a revival of public and political interest in the topics. Meanwhile Navickas, (2011) examines recent scholarship including the histories of collective action, environment and human ecology, and gender issues, with a focus on work by James Epstein, Malcolm Chase, and Peter Jones.

Women's history

Women's history
Women's history
Women's history is the study of the role that women have played in history, together with the methods needed to study women. It includes the study of the history of the growth of woman's rights throughout recorded history, the examination of individual women of historical significance, and the...

 exploded into prominence in the 1970s, and is now well represented in every geographical topic; increasingly it includes gender history.

Gender history

Gender history focuses on women's history, the gender roles and homosexuality, in terms of actual behavior. However the "construction" of gender roles is usually part of cultural history.

History of the family

The History of the family emerged as a separate field in the 1970s, with close ties to anthropology and sociology. The trend was especially pronounced in the U.S. and Canada. It emphasizes on demographic patterns, and public policy. It is quite separate from Genealogy
Genealogy is the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. Genealogists use oral traditions, historical records, genetic analysis, and other records to obtain information about a family and to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees of its members...

, though often drawing on the same primary sources such as censuses and family records. An influential pioneering study was Women, Work, and Family (1978), by Louise A. Tilly
Louise A. Tilly
Louise A. Tilly is a historian known for utilizing an interdisciplinary approach to her scholarly work, fusing sociolology with historical research. Born December 13, 1930, in Orange, New Jersey, at a young age Tilly was influenced to study history by a fourth grade teacher...

 and Joan W. Scott. It broke new ground with their broad interpretive framework and emphasis on the variable factors shaping women's place in the family and economy in France and England. It considered the interaction of production and reproduction in analysis of women's wage labor and thus helped to bring together labor and family history. Much work has been done on the dichotomy in women's lives between the private sphere and the public.

The history of childhood
History of childhood
The history of childhood has been a topic of interest in social history since the 1960s.-Preindustrial and medieval:Wilson rejects a widely held popular opinion that medieval and early modern child reading was indifferent, negligent, and brutal...

 is a growing subfield.

History of education

Most histories of education deal with institutions or focus on the ideas histories of major reformers, but a new social history has recently emerged, focused on who were the students in terms of social background and social mobility. In the U.S. attention has often focused on minority and ethnic students. In Britain, Raftery et al. (2007) looks at the historiography on social change and education in Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, with particular reference to 19th-century schooling. They developed distinctive systems of schooling in the 19th century that reflected not only their relationship to England but also significant contemporaneous economic and social change. This article seeks to create a basis for comparative work by identifying research that has treated this period, offering brief analytical commentaries on some key works, discussing developments in educational historiography, and pointing to lacunae in research.

Historians have recently looked at the relationship between schooling and urban growth by studying educational institutions as agents in class formation, relating urban schooling to changes in the shape of cities, linking urbanization with social reform movements, and examining the material conditions affecting child life and the relationship between schools and other agencies that socialize the young.

The most economics-minded historians have sought to relate education to changes in the quality of labor, productivity and economic growth, and rates of return on investment in education. A major recent exemplar is Claudia Goldin and Lawrence F. Katz, The Race between Education and Technology (2009), on the social and economic history of 20th century American schooling.

Urban history

The "new urban history" emerged in the 1960s seeking to understand the "city as process" and, through quantitative methods, to learn more about the inarticulate masses in the cities, as opposed to the mayors and elites. A major early study was Stephan Thernstrom
Stephan Thernstrom
Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University. and was the editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups ....

's Poverty and Progress: Social Mobility in a Nineteenth Century City (1964), which used census records to study Newburyport, Massachusetts
Newburyport, Massachusetts
Newburyport is a small coastal city in Essex County, Massachusetts, United States, 35 miles northeast of Boston. The population was 21,189 at the 2000 census. A historic seaport with a vibrant tourism industry, Newburyport includes part of Plum Island...

, 1850-1880. A seminal, landmark book, it sparked interest in the 1960s and 1970s in quantitative methods, census sources, "bottom-up" history, and the measurement of upward social mobility by different ethnic groups. Other exemplars of the new urban history included Kathleen Conzen, Immigrant Milwaukee, 1836-1860 (1976); Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (1975; 2nd ed. 2000); Michael B. Katz, The People of Hamilton, Canada West (1976); Eric H. Monkkonen, The Dangerous Class: Crime and Poverty in Columbus Ohio 1860-1865 (1975); and Michael P. Weber, Social Change in an Industrial Town: Patterns of Progress in Warren, Pennsylvania, From Civil War to World War I. (1976).

There were no overarching social history theories that emerged developed to explain urban development. Inspiration from urban geography and sociology, as well as a concern with workers (as opposed to labor union leaders), families, ethnic groups, racial segregation, and women's roles have proven useful. Historians now view the contending groups within the city as "agents" who shape the direction of urbanization. The subfield has flourished in Australia—where most people live in cities.

Rural history

Agricultural History
Agricultural History
Agricultural History is a quarterly peer reviewed academic journal published by the American Agricultural History Society. It was established in 1927 and is edited by Claire Strom .-External links:* at JSTOR...

 handles the economic and technological dimensions, while Rural history
Rural history
Rural history is historical research into rural life. Agricultural history handles the economic and technological dimensions, while rural history handles the social dimension...

 handles the social dimension. Burchardt (2007) evaluates the state of modern English rural history and identifies an "orthodox" school, focused on the economic history of agriculture. This historiography has made impressive progress in quantifying and explaining the output and productivity achievements of English farming since the "agricultural revolution." The celebratory style of the orthodox school was challenged by a dissident tradition emphasizing the social costs of agricultural progress, notably enclosure, which forced poor tenant farmers off the land. Recently, a new school, associated with the journal Rural History, has broken away from this narrative of agricultural change, elaborating a wider social history. The work of Alun Howkins has been pivotal in the recent historiography, in relation to these three traditions. Howkins, like his precursors, is constrained by an increasingly anachronistic equation of the countryside with agriculture. Geographers and sociologists have developed a concept of a "post-productivist" countryside, dominated by consumption and representation that may have something to offer historians, in conjunction with the well-established historiography of the "rural idyll." Most rural history has focused on the American South
Southern United States
The Southern United States—commonly referred to as the American South, Dixie, or simply the South—constitutes a large distinctive area in the southeastern and south-central United States...

—overwhelmingly rural until the 1950s—but there is a "new rural history" of the North
Union (American Civil War)
During the American Civil War, the Union was a name used to refer to the federal government of the United States, which was supported by the twenty free states and five border slave states. It was opposed by 11 southern slave states that had declared a secession to join together to form the...

 as well. Instead of becoming agrarian capitalists, farmers held onto preindustrial capitalist values emphasizing family and community. Rural areas maintained population stability; kinship ties determined rural immigrant settlement and community structures; and the defeminization of farm work encouraged the rural version of the "women's sphere." These findings strongly contrast with those in the old frontier history as well as those found in the new urban history.


Social history has dominated French historiography since the 1920s, thanks to the central role of the Annales School
Annales School
The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

. Its journal '"Annales focuses attention on the synthesizing of historical patterns identified from social, economic, and cultural history, statistics, medical reports, family studies, and even psychoanalysis.


Social history developed within West German historiography during the 1950s-60s as the successor to the national history discredited by National Socialism. The German brand of "history of society" - Gesellschaftsgeschichte - has been known from its beginning in the 1960s for its application of sociological and political modernization theories to German history. Modernization theory
Modernization theory
Modernization theory is a theory used to explain the process of modernization within societies. The theory looks at the internal factors of a country while assuming that, with assistance, "traditional" countries can be brought to development in the same manner more developed countries have...

 was presented by Hans-Ulrich Wehler
Hans-Ulrich Wehler
Hans-Ulrich Wehler is a German historian known for his role in promoting social history through the "Bielefeld School", and for his critical studies of 19th century Germany.-Career:...

 (1931- ) and his Bielefeld School
Bielefeld School
The Bielefeld School is a group of German historians based originally at Bielefeld University who promote social history and political history using quantification and the methods of political science and sociology. The leaders include Hans-Ulrich Wehler‎, Jürgen Kocka and Reinhart Koselleck...

 as the way to transform "traditional" German history, that is, national political history, centered on a few "great men," into an integrated and comparative history of German society encompassing societal structures outside politics. Wehler drew upon the modernization theory of Max Weber, with concepts also from Karl Marx, Otto Hintze, Gustav Schmoller, Werner Sombart and Thorstein Veblen
Thorstein Veblen
Thorstein Bunde Veblen, born Torsten Bunde Veblen was an American economist and sociologist, and a leader of the so-called institutional economics movement...


In the 1970s and early 1980s German historians of society, led by Wehler and Jürgen Kocka
Jürgen Kocka
Jürgen Kocka is a German historian.A university professor and former president of the Social Science Research Center Berlin , Kocka is a major figure in the new Social History, especially as represented by the Bielefeld School...

 at the "Bielefeld school" gained dominance in Germany by applying both modernization theories and social science methods. From the 1980s, however, they were increasingly criticized by proponents of the "cultural turn" for not incorporating culture in the history of society, for reducing politics to society, and for reducing individuals to structures. Historians of society inverted the traditional positions they criticized (on the model of Marx's inversion of Hegel). As a result, the problems pertaining to the positions criticized were not resolved but only turned on their heads. The traditional focus on individuals was inverted into a modern focus on structures, the traditional focus on culture was inverted into a modern focus on structures, and traditional emphatic understanding was inverted into modern causal explanation.


With the collapse of Communism in Hungary in 1989. Marxist historiography collapsed and social history came into its own, especially the study of the demography patterns of the early modern period. Research priorities have shifted toward urban history and the conditions of everyday life.


Social history had a "golden age" in Canada in the 1970s, and continues to flourish among scholars. Its strengths include demography, women, labour, and urban studies.

Political history

While the study of elites and political institutions has produced a large and growing body of scholarship, social historians have complained about elitism, and want more emphasis on the common people. Political historians have responded with the new political history," which shifts attention to the behavior and values of voters. Recently some scholars have tried a cultural approach to political history. Political historians complain that social historians are likely to put too much stress on the dimensions of class, gender and race, reflecting a leftist political agenda that assumes outsiders in politics are more interesting than the actual decision makers.

See also

  • Marc Bloch
    Marc Bloch
    Marc Léopold Benjamin Bloch was a French historian who cofounded the highly influential Annales School of French social history. Bloch was a quintessential modernist. An assimilated Alsatian Jew from an academic family in Paris, he was deeply affected in his youth by the Dreyfus Affair...

     (1886–1944). Medieval, Annales School
    Annales School
    The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

  • Martin Broszat
    Martin Broszat
    Martin Broszat was a German historian specializing in modern German social history whose work has been described by The Encyclopedia of Historians as indispensable for any serious study of the Third Reich. Broszat was born in Leipzig, Germany and studied history at the University of Leipzig and...

     (1926–1989), Germany
  • Natalie Zemon Davis
    Natalie Zemon Davis
    Natalie Zemon Davis is a Canadian and American historian of the early modern period. She is currently a professor of history at the University of Toronto in Canada. Her work originally focused on France, but has since broadened to include other parts of Europe, North America, and the Caribbean...

    , (b. 1928) France
  • Herbert Gutman
    Herbert Gutman
    Herbert Gutman was an American professor of history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, where he wrote on slavery and labor history.-Early life and education:...

     (1928-1985), American social and labor history
  • Eugene D. Genovese
    Eugene D. Genovese
    Eugene Dominic Genovese is an American historian of the American South and American slavery. He has been noted for bringing a Marxist perspective to the study of power, class and relations between planters and slaves in the South. His work Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made won the...

     (b. 1930), American slavery
  • Oscar Handlin
    Oscar Handlin
    Oscar Handlin was an American historian. As a professor of history at Harvard University for over 50 years, he directed 80 PhD dissertations and helped promote social and ethnic history...

     (b. 1915), American ethnic
  • Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
    Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie
    Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie is a French historian whose work is mainly focused upon Languedoc in the ancien regime, particularly the history of the peasantry.-Early life and career:...

    , leader of Annales School
    Annales School
    The Annales School is a group of historians associated with a style of historiography developed by French historians in the 20th century. It is named after its scholarly journal Annales d'histoire économique et sociale, which remains the main source of scholarship, along with many books and...

    , France
  • Ram Sharan Sharma
    Ram Sharan Sharma
    Ram Sharan Sharma was an eminent historian of Ancient and early Medieval India. He had taught at Patna University, Delhi University and the University of Toronto and was a senior fellow at School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; University Grants Commission National Fellow...

     (b. 1919), India
  • Stephan Thernstrom
    Stephan Thernstrom
    Stephan Thernstrom is the Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University. and was the editor of the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups ....

     (b. 1943), ethnic U.S.
  • E. P. Thompson
    E. P. Thompson
    Edward Palmer Thompson was a British historian, writer, socialist and peace campaigner. He is probably best known today for his historical work on the British radical movements in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, in particular The Making of the English Working Class...

     (1924–1993), British labour
  • Hans-Ulrich Wehler
    Hans-Ulrich Wehler
    Hans-Ulrich Wehler is a German historian known for his role in promoting social history through the "Bielefeld School", and for his critical studies of 19th century Germany.-Career:...

    , 19c Germany
  • History of sociology
    History of sociology
    Sociology emerged from enlightenment thought, shortly after the French Revolution, as a positivist science of society. Its genesis owed to various key movements in the philosophy of science and the philosophy of knowledge. Social analysis in a broader sense, however, has origins in the common stock...

Primary sources

  • Binder, Frederick M. and David M. Reimers, eds. The Way We Lived: Essays and Documents in American Social History. (2000). 313 pp.

External links

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