What is social history and can anyone be a social historian?
There is a growing interest in the stories about the lives and times of ordinary people but whereas professional historians concentrate on the broader historical and political aspects of history, social historians look at the effects politics and history had on ordinary people. So what is social history and can anyone be a social historian?
What is 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’.
If you have an interest in the lives of people and places in the past (maybe inspired by some research you have done on your own ancestors), then the study of social history will help you to build up a picture of what life was like for ordinary people within their communities and beyond.
Social history does not focus on how historical events affected significant individuals but on how these events affected the wider community. Similarly, social history is much more inclusive of ethnic minorities, women and other minority groups than traditional political histories. This does not mean, however, that politics should be excluded from social history. Instead social history views politics through the eyes of local movements and grass routes campaigns etc. initiated and supported by ‘the people’.
Social history topics
There are many different social history research topics you can concentrate on such as:
education health fashion places entertainment work and occupations marriage food language and dialects race and ethnicity religion child raising geography literature migration culture old age and death war and the military transport economics politics class and social ranking architecture recreation social principles and deviations
For example, what was it like living during a war, a natural disaster or during a period of political, social and economic change? What did people eat based on their income, occupation and social class, what clothes did they wear, how did they entertain themselves? How likely were they to receive an education, were their lives affected by their economic and social class? How did the politics of the day affect their lives, what were their living conditions like? What were the attitudes of the time towards crime and punishment, divorce, infidelity, premarital relationships, rights of inheritance etc.?
When you are doing social history research, always bear in mind that people living in a different time will not necessarily have viewed life in the same way as you do now. For example, before the industrial revolution when most people worked on the land, peoples’ lives would have been characterised by the seasons and the weather and their pace of life would have been very different. However, the lives of many people will have changed significantly when they left their rural communities to find work in the increasingly industrialised towns and cities.
Don’t make assumptions
Katherine Scott Sturdevant in her book ‘Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History’ recommends that you should ‘think like a sociologist as well as an historian’ because sometimes you need be scientific as well as impartial ‘in order to handle closet skeletons’. For example, she says that ‘if you can determine that an ancestor’s behaviour was typical of a social problem common in his group or his times, that gives you a context within which to understand and explain his otherwise dubious behaviour’. In other words don’t make assumptions about what you may consider appropriate or inappropriate behaviour. The way people behaved and lived can only be judged by the norms and standards of the period in which they lived.
Becoming a social historian
May be you are a family history historian and want to embrace social history by placing your ancestors’ lives in a broader historical and social context to get a better understanding of how the reality of life affected and influenced their lives. Or may be you have an enthusiasm for history but want to focus on how society and social change affected the lives of communities rather than individuals. It doesn’t matter what motivates and inspires, you can be a social historian.
Write up your research
Don’t keep your research to yourself. If you want to reach an audience eager to discover more about day-to-day people in the past, start writing stories based on your research. Story telling is a key part of our heritage and so writing stories is the best and most enjoyable way of passing on your knowledge.
For some further reading on this subject, take a look at my blog Family history and social history have close links