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Social History: What Does It Entail?

By Yann, published on 15/12/2018 Blog > Academia > History > What Is Social History?

Not interested in political history and the rise and fall of Empires? Curious about how people lived in ancient societies on a day-to-day basis? Then maybe social history is the thing for you.

What is Social History?

While political history studies types of government and how entire nations interact with each other, social history focuses on how people lived in those nations. It includes, of course, the types of tools people used and how they dressed, but generally, a scholar studying social history takes a broader perspective, seeing how whole populations lived and interacted with each other.

Some sub-fields of social history are:

  • Agricultural history
  • Ethnic history (including black history)
  • Labour history
  • Gender history (including women’s history)
  • History of family
  • History of education
  • Rural history
  • History of religion and religious practices

Most humanities students reading social history will specialise in one or several specific subjects.

What Are Some Aspects a Social Historian Studies?

When doing historical research, there are a number of aspects you might want to focus on. To give you an idea of what part of human history you might expect to find yourself concentrating on, here are a few areas of significance from the many secondary fields of world history that you might find interesting.

History of social classes

You might want to put your emphasis on the ways different social classes lived and interacted.

Social history includes factory workers. Class history includes not just the ruling class, but also the history of farmers and workers. Photo credit: greger.ravik on Foter.com

Over time, this dynamic changed:

  • The serfs of the medieval history, not exactly slaves but unable to leave the land they worked without permission
  • The different levels of the feudal aristocracy, all with ties binding them to each other
  • The new merchant class of the Renaissance
  • The first information revolution of the seventeenth century
  • The emergence of new dialogues on social classes and politics during the Enlightenment
  • The changing dynamics and the emerging power of the working class with the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century
  • The re-invention of the British aristocracy after the First World War decimated the servant class and the children of the aristocracy, pioneering social change
  • The emergence of the middle class as a serious economic and political factor after World War II and the presentation of the middle class as an ideal life in the 1960s

History of slavery

Or you might be interested in the various ways people found to subjugate their fellow humans throughout global history – attempting to reconstruct the lives of slaves through many a primary source as well as by ploughing through libraries for primary texts – that one manuscript you’ve been looking for since forever – and scholarly articles as a secondary source.

Slavery had an impact on cultural history and economic history and has severely impacted racial-oriented thought – as in the US, where the descendants of slaves still often struggle with poverty and racial discrimination, almost two centuries after slavery was abolished.

Many an early civilization practised slavery, with men and women becoming commodities just as much as flint or ivory or gold. The Greeks of Antiquity and the Roman Empire utilised slaves in many areas of life, working hard labour jobs and producing in artisan workshops and teaching the children of the wealthy reading and writing in Latin, geography and philosophy.

Early forms of slavery in Greece and Rome. Slavery has been known since Antiquity – even earlier. Photo credit: archer10 (Dennis) 150M Views on Foter.com

Slavery never quite disappeared from Europe in medieval times, subsiding in some form through Colonial times and into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Many European countries did not abolish slavery until then, although slaves played little to no part in the economy.

Of course, it was another thing entirely in the colonies, with whole merchant empires based on the slave trade to increase profit on plantations of cotton, sugar cane and tea. This had an impact not only on the colonies but on African history as well.

Even here we see the emergence of different classes of slaves; the house slaves generally being treated better than slaves that work in the fields.

History of Migration

You might wonder why the history department of a university would be interested in migration.

Migration has shaped history since the Early Man first left Africa to colonize the world. To show you their importance, here are some of the great migrations that shook Europe and the Mediterranean and influenced its cultural history:

  • The Sea People migration in the Bronze Age (1200-900 BC) which contributed to the Late Bronze Age Collapse, during which several large Empires of the time including the Hittite Empire, the Mycaenian Kingdom and the Egyptian Empire of the New Kingdom.
  • The Dark Age migrations, due in part to pressure from the expanding empire of the Huns, led through a process of attrition to the fall of Imperial Rome. The Anglo-Saxon invasion of Britain was a migration – the evidence of archaeology suggests that rising poverty drove them from the shores of Germany. These migrations shaped the world of Medieval Europe.
  • Migration to the New World – with its heyday starting in the seventeenth century – had a profound impact on the native societies and led to the creation of the countries of the modern world.

The Anglo-Saxons were immigrants. The Saxons came to England during a wave of migrations that changed the political map of Europe. Photo credit: EccyLad on Foter.com

Modern history is also shaped by migration – as evidenced by the internationally destabilising effect of the current immigration crisis in Europe and the US.

Studying the history of migrations is understanding how different cultures shaped and influenced our own both from the point of view of history and that of anthropology, rethinking what we think is “British” or “European” in view of ethnic influences and looking at the world from a wider perspective.

Social History, Economic History and Political History: Conclusions

Social history doesn’t exist in a vacuum – it is influenced by a lot of factors. Economics is one of them.

Whether in the twentieth century or the second, economic factors are one aspect to have influenced social phenomena – and vice-versa. The creation of centralised workshops and the specialisation of artisans as a profession made trade easier, while the increasingly widespread use of banks made it possible to do business on a truly international scale, making the merchant class a true force in politics. Poverty breeds dissatisfaction and revolution (ask the French), while the growing working class during the Industrial Revolution of the Victorian age brought a new type of consumer to the market and a new social stratus ready for reform and eager to break with tradition – eager for a voice of their own in a democracy.

Revolution affects political and social history. Revolution is often an agent of social change. Photo credit: Crethi Plethi on Foter.com

The Cold War fought between capitalism and communism, a clash of both political and economic ideological views, spurred on the race to the moon and fuelled advancements in technology that, in turn, bolstered the economy, at least for a while.

Today, the common conflict throughout American history between the concept of a welfare state and unbridled capitalism, a debate raging since Industrialization came across the Pond in the nineteenth century, is coming to a peak.

So when you are studying social issues, don’t shy away from a comparative approach. Whether it be political history or intellectual history, history of philosophy or even archaeology for the material remains – it’s all connected. If you want to study social history, consider taking courses in another social science among the humanities. Sociology is another good discipline to gain a theoretical background that will help you find new approaches for studying social phenomena from an interdisciplinary point of view.

Gender Studies: Re-Evaluating Social History

Gender Studies for gender roles. Gender studies often focus on women in history, but generally observe gender roles in society. Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold on Foter.com

An interesting evolution in intellectual historiography is the rediscovery of the role of women within history. Technically, Gender Studies is the study of the relative roles of men and women throughout the centuries; however, the fact that even up to early modern times the study of history focused almost entirely on the male side of the question (unless the woman happened to be in a politically significant role), means that a great many of the themes of modern gender studies centre around rehabilitating women in history and exploring their narrative – from the queens behind the thrones to the role of domestic production within the economy.

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