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.
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:
Most humanities students reading social history will specialise in one or several specific subjects.
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.
You might want to put your emphasis on the ways different social classes lived and interacted.
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:
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.
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.
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 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 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 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 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.