Friday, October 09, 2009

Social history

The conversation we had at breaktime in Public History suggests to me that the discussion we had in Intro/History, regarding social history, was somehow unsatisfying, inconclusive. It was. There's no inherent problem in not resolving the argument, but when everyone leaves confused and adrift, maybe it wasn't the most productive discussion.

The question which we discussed most was: is social history a European construct, and something that does not exist for Americanists--and if it is a European mode of study, does it still exist, in what forms, and how useful is it? I can only give you my particular take on the discussion, and given the comments on my last paper, I am undoubtedly completely misguided. So, like LeVar Burton, I will say, "but don't take my word for it..."

HR had put the question out about Americanists, and my feeling was this: if you are starting with data "from below," (ie. bread riots or labor strikes, or working class insults, or whatever) and your goal is to project the data into a larger and longer social, political or economic trend which says something broad, then you are doing social history, whether or not you choose to call it that. Americanists call themselves political, labor, economic, consumer, environmental, whatever historians but often shun the social history label.

Problem being, there are Americanists calling themselves social historians, and the argument HR makes is that they're doing cultural history instead (let's not get into that can of worms!). The Europeanists (E.P. Thompson, Eric Hobsbawm, a bunch of German historians whose names I can't recall) appear to be working from a Marxian framework regarding capitalism (and possibly even Marxist, if you're talking about Thompson), but unlike some in the class, I did not think that a labor/proletariat oriented Marxian framework was necessary for doing social history. However, I am leaning towards the idea that some framework (of your choosing) is necessary for creating true social history, and the presence of a framework indicates to me that you (the historian) have an agenda that is at least mildly political.

This is not to say that an historian can be without agenda or bias; far from it. I am not (Not Not Not) a positivist... As DG put it to me earlier, "I thought [Peter] Novick had put all that to rest [in That Noble Dream]" and clearly, well, he hasn't. (I remember now, it was Armistead Maupin who wrote (in Brian Hawkins's voice) that his generation would be succeeded by a generation of Calvinists. And so... a generation of groundbreaking postmodernism has been succeeded by the New Positivism.) But I guess my implication about frameworks is that cultural historians write using data "from below," but not generally demographic/quantitative data, but cultural artifacts (art, literature, journals, letters, buildings, music, etc.) in order to draw conclusions in a more specific way, and to prove a point but not to make large political statements or form economic trajectories.

But as I said, the discussion left many adrift, including me. I was hoping to hear from the experts on the matter, and forgive me, but I didn't really. So--I've tried to clarify it for myself as written above. If you think I am way off base, please tell me, and tell me why!

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