Family history and social history

Anyone who has read my blogs or who has met me at workshops or Family History Fairs/Exhibitions will know that I am always keen to talk about the close link between family history and social history.

The stories of ancestors uncovered by family historians can be made so much more engaging and interesting by placing these stories in a broader historical and social context and this is where family history and social history start to converge.

Social history is about the lives of ‘ordinary’ people

Social history looks at the events and times surrounding the lives of ‘ordinary’ people. In her book Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, Katherine Scott Sturdevant describes social history as ‘the study of ordinary people’s everyday lives. It is history from the bottom up instead of top down, not focusing exclusively or primarily on the elite and famous’.

Extend your research beyond your own ancestors

By embracing social history, you have the opportunity to look at your research and/or family trees in a different way. For example, you can start to imagine what the lives of your ancestors and their contemporaries would have been like living during a world war, a natural disaster or during a period of social and economic change. 

Nobody’s ancestors lived in isolation and with additional background research it is possible to create unique stories that combine historical details (for example, social, economic, political and environmental) with anecdotes not only about your own family members and the roles they played in their community but also about the wider community in which they lived. 

Not just another list of names and dates

Delving into the social history as well as the history of your family will take your research to a whole new level way beyond lists of names, dates and places. A traditional genealogical history not only has the potential to be a bit dry and dull it also does little to create a picture of what life was like for your ancestors. The lives of your ancestors are unique but there will also be many experiences they shared with their contemporaries. By doing some social history research you will be able to put their lives into a historical context and get a better understanding of how the reality of the life and people around them affected and influenced their lives.

Engage a wider audience

Social history adds colour and depth to your stories and will help draw in family members (who might otherwise have shown little or no interest ) or an even wider audience. There is a growing interest in the stories about the lives and times of ordinary people and as a family historian you are the ideal person to write them.

In my blog Writing for family history magazines I mentioned Discover Your Historyan online magazine which specialises in stories and topics relating to family and social history. They are always on the lookout for readers with an interesting story to tell (particularly for their Times and Lives section) and so if you want to reach an audience beyond your family and friends, you could contact the editorial team with an idea for a story. To get a feel for the magazine without taking out a subscription, go the magazine’s home page using the link above and download an older issue for free.

Related blog posts:

Putting your family history in context

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Family history and social history have close links
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