Losses, gains and opportunities: social history today

Losses, gains and opportunities: social history today – Introducing The Issues

Jurgen Kocka

The impression is widely spread that this is not a good moment to be a social historian. It has become common-place that our present situation differs strongly from the situation around 1970 when Eric Hobsbawm made his famous proclamation of optimism. Social history seems to have gone through a long period of decline which started in the early 1980s and may not have reached its rock-bottom yet. Mounting challenges to social historical views from outside, increasing internal doubt about

basic principles of social-historical thought, fragmentation and loss of identity, declining popularity among researchers, students and in the public at large have been characteristic for the last 20-25 years, or so it seems. Certainly in Germany nobody would nowadays characterize social history the way it was characterized by Hans Rosenberg in 1969. With irony and sympathy he remarked that social history has become a nebulous code for everything deemed to be desirable and progressive in West German historiography. (1) But the news from other countries is not much better: For decades, a “Social History Seminar” had been offered in Cambridge University. A while ago it was renamed into “Themes in Modern History”, and students talked about “the seminar formerly known as social”.

While there is overwhelming evidence which supports the skeptical notion of a long-term decline of social history, the characterization is only half true. First, there were not only losses, but gains as well. Depending on the criteria used, the latter may be seen as more important than the former. Second, a new turn seems to be imminent which may lead to a renaissance of social history though in a deeply restructured form.

The following remarks will not tell the story of social history as it developed from the 1960s to the present day, for the story is familiar. (2) Rather I shall comment first on some losses and secondly on some gains which social history seems to have experienced since the time when Rosenberg and Hobsbawm wrote. Thirdly, I shall comment on some challenges and opportunities which are visible today. These will be general remarks, but with some concentration on the German case. My field is modern history.

I have two meanings of social history in mind: (1) social history as a specialized sub-discipline concentrating on social structures, processes, and actions in a specific sense (inequality, mobility, classes, strata, ethnicity, gender relations, urbanization, work and life of different types of people, not just elites), in contrast to other sub-disciplines like economic history, constitutional history or the history of ideas; (2) social history as a specific approach to or way of looking on general history, by stressing broad structures and processes as well as those dimensions of historical reality emphasized by social history in sense (1). (3)

History as a discipline is tremendously rich, varied and heterogeneous. For every generalizing remark on the recent and present state of the profession it is easy to find evidence to the contrary and a host of exceptions, particularly in a short comment like the following. If its shortcuts can be excused at all, it is by referring to the larger discussion toward which it is directed.

Social-scientific history in decline

Besides economic history and historical demography social history belonged to those sub-disciplines which have offered most opportunities for the application of analytical methods. It was in the history of social inequality, mobility, migration and protests as well as voting and some other areas that mass-data could be systematically collected and analyzed, by using advanced statistical methods, sharply defined concepts, sophisticated models and rigid procedures for testing them. Impulses from the neighbouring social sciences played a major role. Social-scientific history in this sense was always only a small part of social history. Most historians always knew that it would never conquer the whole since the availability of such sources and the applicability of such methods would always be limited to certain areas and problems, and since they would never be apt to replace the more interpretative methods and fulfill their functions. Still, in the 60s and 70s, social-scientific history was a field of experiment, exitement and innovation in which many new insights were generated, old legends criticized and challenging hypotheses brought forward for further research. This had an indirect impact on other parts of social history. It helped to raise the standards of accuracy, rigidity and self-reflectivity within the historical discipline as a whole.

Social-scientific history has not disappeared altogether. The regular Social Science History Conferences continue to draw sizeable numbers of historians and social scientists, both in North America and in Europe. Those who continue to use advanced analytical methods have further improved them. They are continuously aiming at sophistication and exploring new problem areas. But by and large the appeal of this kind of research has clearly gone down. Social-scientific history has become a narrow specialization in which other historians are little interested. On the one hand disappointment has grown with the asymmetric ratio between invested efforts and resulting insights. On the other hand, new narrative approaches have captured the field. Most important, historians have turned to new or, at least, other types of questions which cannot be answered by quantification, analytical methods and scientific rigour.

It was never valid to over-estimate the potentials of social-scientific history, and this is even truer today. It was always obvious that neither history at large nor social history as a whole could be turned into a rigid “science”. Still, at least in Germany, these endeavours have been given up too early. We have criticized social history’s scientification before thoroughly exploiting its potentials, which it undoubtedly offers in certain areas. Counting is certainly not everything, but sometimes it helps. Giving it up altogether means a step back. In this respect we have to register losses. (4)

Losing the economy

Traditionally social history was closely tied to economic history. Both the history of social structures and processes as well as the history of the economy had been neglected and marginalized by 19th and early 20th-century mainstream history. The emerging social sciences did not yet isolate social and economic phenomena from each other. After all, they were intimately related. As a consequence social history was seen and dealt with as an integral part of Wirtschaftsund Sozialgeschichte, Histoire economique et sociale and Economic History (including social aspects), as the emerging subdiscipline was called. This tradition remained very influential throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century. Marxist ideas reenforced the combination of social and economic history, Weberian theories worked in the same direction, and so did prevelant intellectual moods of the time up to the 1970s, which frequently granted remarkable weight to economic factors of different kinds in explaining social, political, and cultural change. (5)

Over the last two or three decades, social history has not only expanded and diversified. It also loosened its ties to economic history while becoming more independent and specialized or while moving closer to cultural history. This was part of a process of the professionalization and the increasing autonomy of social history as a sub-discipline. It was also a reaction to the increasing specialization and self-referentiality of economics (and of those practitioners of economic history who strictly oriented themselves towards the demands, theories and methods of the economists). Finally, social history reacted to the rise of cultural interpretations and the decline of economic interpretations of social change, a decline which preceded but was reenforced by the collapse of institutionalized Marxism in the late 1980s.

As a consequence, social history emancipated itself from problematic “materialist” paradigms, sometimes related to outdated base-superstructure models of thought. At the same time, many social historians have lost interest in relating their topics to broad economic structures and processes, to the modes of production and distribution, to the basic needs of people and the constraints set by scarcity. It is somehow ironic: At a time when capitalism is victoriously completing its world-wide extension, when commercialisation penetrates the most internal and intimate dimensions of our life, and when the power and the crisis of the globalizing economy make themselves felt universally, many social historians display a strange distance from the economic world. Fiddling while Rome is burning? (6)

Paradigm change

The intellectual climate has deeply changed, at least in the West, in the last quarter of the 20th century, and so has the set of predispositions which indirectly influence the study of history. The declining popularity of socio-economic explanations of historical change as well as the rising interest in culture and cultural interpretations both of the present and of the past are part of this change. In addition, we have become much more skeptical about the possibility of grasping broad structures and processes and of using them for explaining actions, biographies and events.

There are many interests which motivate us to deal with history. They usually co-exist and mix. But it seems fair to say that a generation ago many people studied history in order to learn from it, with respect to the present and the future. Nowadays, many people deal with history in order to find out where they come from and who they are, or with the aim of discovering and observing alternative ways of life, or with the desire of enriching their mind, of broadening their base of experience and of educating their senses. “Memory” has become a central concept and a major activity when it comes to relating the past to the present. This was not the case thirty years ago.

It is hard to explain such intellectual changes. To a small degree they may have resulted from dynamics within the historical discipline. Previously held assumptions about the explainability of historical phenomena in terms of economic and social processes were challenged and ultimately eroded, due to more thorough research, its results and its failures. But mostly such intellectual changes are part of larger cultural, social and political evolutions which should be seen as conditions rather than consequences of scholarly work.

Their impact on social history has been manifold and cannot be easily balanced with respect to gains and losses. To be sure, the relative place of social history, in comparison with cultural and political history, has declined. But in itself social history has become much richer and more sophisticated. On the one hand, theory-orientied argumentations and systematic interpretations of interrelatedness–in German: Zusammenhang–have frequently been challenged and rejected, in the postmodern climate of recent years, while they had been and are attempted by some practitioners of social history. On the other hand, the constructivist turn which has made itself felt in the humanities and social sciences over the last decades, has helped to make social history more self-reflective and subtle. In the course of this paradigm shift, explanation has become less obvious, less self-evident, less desirable or less manageable for many historians. Understanding has regained center-stage. Historians have become less interested in establishing the causes and conditions, and more interested in (re)constructing the meanings of past phenomena, i. e. the meanings a phenomenon of the past had for contemporaries as well as the meanings it has or may have for present historians and their audiences. (7)

Clearly, this shift is related to the changing expectations which guide our dealing with history, and which were mentioned before. Some may deplore this shift, and, indeed, question whether it is possible at all to reconstruct the historical meaning of past phenomena without trying to explain them. Others may welcome the shift from explanation to understanding, from causes to meanings, as a step towards more freedom in dealing with the past. But one thing is clear: Social history has not been upgraded by this shift, quite on the contrary, since attempts towards systematic explanation, including causal explanation, have always been and continue to be important in social history.


It would be wrong to overstress losses. Gains have been at least as important. Two of them should be mentioned without describing them in detail.

If one compares the social history of 1970 with the social history of 2000, the changes are deep reaching, broad and encouraging. The challenges of women’s and gender history; a new stress, in the 1980s, on perceptions, experiences and actions as dimensions of historical reconstruction (in addition and in relation to structures and processes); the rise of different variants of cultural history; the “linguistic turn” and the challenges that it posed–these were some of the important innovations. Partly they emerged from inside social history, but largely they came from other spheres of scholarly and intellectual life. They led to vivid debates and fights, there was much competition, there were winners and losers. On balance, social historians learned from these challenges; they adopted and incorporated what they perceived as valid among the suggestions and demands of the challengers.

As a consequence social history has changed. In some respects it has greatly improved. Social historians have learned to analyze the manifold relations between different dimensions of social inequality, especially class, gender and ethnicity, but also age. The stories they tell have become more complex. Social historians have become better in relating structures and processes to perceptions and actions. The study of interests has been supplemented by the study of experiences. Social historians have learned to take language seriously. They are more aware nowadays of the “constructed” character of their objects, constructed by semantic, social and political acts of contemporaries as well as by the categories of the researcher. Social historians have become more sensitive towards contextualization. They have developed new alliances with anthropologists and cultural historians. They have learned to decode symbolic practices. Their work has become more self-reflective though not more analytical. Many of them now know how better to play with macro-, meso-, and micro-levels of interpretation and analysis. Social history has strongly expanded and, at the same time, diversified: by and large much enrichment and a lot of progress. (8)

At the same time, social historians have penetrated the fields of general history to a remarkable extent. Take a German example, the major handbook of German history, the Gebhardt, and here the volume on the 19th century. The 8th/9th edition was conceptualized in the 1950s. The chapters, which followed a chronological order, were basically chapters on the history of politics and ideas. Since this was so, a final chapter was added which encompassed the whole century and dealt with “German economic and social history”. Presently the 10th edition has begun to appear. The volume on the 19th century will no longer have a separate chapter on economic and social history. Instead, each of the chronological chapters thoroughly deals with social history and interconnects it with political, economic and cultural history. (9)

Take both gains of social history together: internal expansion, enrichment, differentiation and sometimes fragmentation; external expansion, i. e. social history’s victorious entry into general history which, as a consequence, has been deeply restructured and made more social-historical. If one considers this it is very understandable why it has become less necessary, less meaningful and even less possible to continue speaking of social history as a well identified subdiscipline or approach.

Up to the 1960s and 70s, social history established itself in contrast to general history which had been largely political history, in essence. Social history emerged either as a marginal or as an oppositional subdiscipline or approach, in contradistinction from the received type of conventional history. It dealt with problems and used methods which the mainstream of the discipline largely neglected or marginalized. It identified itself by stressing this difference.–But: in the meantime social historians’ approaches, viewpoints, topics and results have been accepted and incorporated by many other historians who would not call themselves social historians. Social history has successfully penetrated its opponents. By losing its opponents it is losing part of its identity. A victory? A crisis? Or both? At any rate: nothing to complain about, on the contrary.

Present opportunities

It is not likely that social history will become again the fascinating alternative to mainstream history which it used to be in the third quarter of the 20th century. The concept will not regain this magic power. The internal heterogeneity of social history has grown. Its outside borders were never sharply drawn. They have been further blurred over the last decades. Social history today is even less clearly defined than it used to be three decades ago.

Much has become accepted and integrated which had been controversial in the 60s and 70s. In many quarters social history is doing well without being specifically labeled. In many cases one reaps today what has been sown in the 70s. The field remains dynamic, full of innovations and capable of surprises. (10)

At the same time, social historians continue to be characterized by convictions and practices not shared by all historians. They reject all forms of strict methodological individualism. They are not primarily interested in single biographies and specific events, but rather in collective phenomena. They try to reconstruct “the social” including social inequality. They do not accept that the past can sufficiently be understood as a context of perceptions, experiences, discourses, actions and meanings, alone. They insist that conditions and consequences, structures and processes have to be taken seriously and brought back in. They try to combine understanding and explanation. Faced by the increasing “Balkanization”, i. e. fragmentation, of the discipline and of historical reconstructions, they stress the need for context and interrelation. (11)

It may well be that, after the cultural, linguistic and constructivist turns of the past, a new “social turn” is imminent. It is likely that the waves of cultural history and discourse history which have swept the discipline in the last two decades have now reached and transcended their high point, and a new demand for social history is going to surface. But in this case it will not be the social history of the 60s and 70s. Rather it will be a social history after the linguistic turn. It will have to incorporate ingredients from political and cultural history, analyze social phenomena as constructed, combine structure, agency and perception. Maybe it will be a history of practice. (12)

The bulk of the production in social history (as far as it relates to modern history) remains closely tied to the national historical paradigm. When social historians leave the national historical level of analysis they tend to move to smaller spaces (regions, towns, villages) rather than to more comprehensive ones (although there are of course splendid exceptions to this rule, e. g. Braudel’s work). This is largely due to the same reasons which explain why other historical sub-disciplines and approaches frequently stick to the national historical frame of analysis: convention, language, accessibility of sources, the desire to deal with one’s own history, the continuous effects of collective self-identification in national terms still today. It is remarkable how much even the most radical social historical revisions of the traditional political history paradigm have stayed within the national historical framework, similar to the literature which they sharply criticised in most other regards. Do some of the central concepts used in social history–like “society” e. g.–direct historians’ attention to the national or to a sub-national level of analysis but not to a more comprehensive one?

On the other hand, the quest for trans-national approaches is rapdily growing. Different types of “global” or “world history” are experimented with. This has undoubtedly something to do with the recent waves of “globalization” which create or strengthen networks, experiences and expectations far beyond the scope of the national states.

How do social historians cope with this challenge? International comparison has been the classical answer, for many years. Comparison can be an excellent way of transcending the limits of national boundaries. Comparison has led to remarkable results, and its potentialities are far from being exhausted. (13) Still, international comparison presupposes the notion of state and, in a way, sticks to it, as much as it tries to overcome it.

“Connected histories”, “entangled histories”, histoire croiseee, Verflechtungsgeschichte, these are programmatic metaphors for approaches which try to be trans-national in another way. They intend to reconstruct interrelations, mutual influences, interconnections and border-crossings, e. g. between the West and other parts of the world, in the periods of colonization, imperialism and after. They study travelling ideas, exported and imported goods as well as migrating people, and they discover the built-in dynamics of change due to interrelations. Networks and relations become objects of study, instead of social entities like specific societies or groups within specific societies. (14)

So far it seems easier to apply this approach to the historical study of mutual perceptions and influences, cultures and ideas than to social structures and processes. But the recent experiences of internationalization and the increasing quest for trans-national approches in historical thought, research and writing have started to confront social historians with new challenges and opportunities. It will be interesting to see how they can cope with them and transform themselves again.

FB Geschichts-und Kulturwiss

14195 Berlin



(1.) E.J. Hobsbawm, “From Social History to the History of Society,” in: Daedalus 100, (Winter 1971), pp. 20-45, 43; H. Rosenberg, Probleme der deutschen Sozialgeschichte (Frankfurt, 1969), p. 147; G. Eley. “Is All the World a Text? From Social History to the History of Society Two Decades Later,” in: T. J. McDonald, ed., The Historic Turn in the Human Sciences (Ann Arbor, 1996), pp. 193-243; P. Cartledge, “What is Social History Now?,” in: D. Cannadine, ed., What is History Now? (Houndsmills, Basingstock, Hampshire, 2002), pp. 19-35.

(2.) Ch. Conrad, “Social History,” in: N. J. Smelser/P. B. Baltes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 21 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 14299-306.

(3.) M. Perrot, “The Strength and Weaknesses of French Social History,” in: Journal of Social History 10, 1976, p. 166; J. Kocka, Sozialgeschichte. Begriff–Entwicklung–Probleme, 2nd ed. (Gottingen, 1986).

(4.) Cf. L. J. Griffin/M. van der Linden, eds., “New Methods for Social History” (International Review of Social History, suppl. 6), Cambridge 1999 (most authors come from Departments of Sociology). H. Best/W. Schroder, “Quantitative Historische Sozialforschung,” in: Ch. Meier/J. Rusen, eds., Historische Methode (Munich, 1988), pp. 235-66; D. S. Landes/Ch. Tilly, eds., History as Social Science (Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1971).

(5.) Cf. G. G. Iggers, New Directions in European Historiography (Middletown, CT, 1975).

(6.) Again, one at once thinks of many exceptions, e. g. the history of consumption or the history of entreprise (as far as it has a social historical dimension). But consider the decline of working class and labour history in the last fifteen years. Cf. J. Kocka, “New Trends in Labour Movement Historiography: A German Perspective,” in: International Review of Social History 42, 1997, pp. 67-78.

(7.) Cf. the two recent essays with bibliographical references by D. Cannadine and R. J. Evans, in: Cannadine, ed., What Is History Now?, pp. VII-XIV, 1-18.

(8.) Take social history in Germany as an example: J. Kocka, Sozialgeschichte in Deutschland seit 1945. Aufstieg–Krise–Perspektiven (Bonn, 2002); Th. Welskopp, “L’histoire sociale du XIXe siecle: tendences et perspectives,” in: Le Mouvement social 200, July/September 2002, pp. 153-62.

(9.) Cf. H. Grundmann, ed., Bruno Gebhardt, Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, vol. 3: Von der Franzosischen Revolution bis zum Ersten Weltkrieg, 8th ed. (Stuttgart, 1960); J. Kocka, Das lange 19. Jahrhundert. Arbeit, Nation und burgerliche Gesellschaft (Gebhardt, Handbuch der deutschen Geschichte, 10th ed., vol. 13, Stuttgart, 2001).

(10.) P. Stearns, ed., Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350 to 2000, vols. 1-6 (New York, 2001); H.-U. Wehler, Deutsche Gesellschaftsgeschichte, vols. 1-3 (Munich, 1987-95) (vol. 4 to appear in 2003).

(11.) “Balcanization” is discussed in Cartledge, “What is Social History Now?” (note 1 above), p. 21.

(12.) Cf. V. E. Bonnell/L. Hunt, “Introduction,” in: id., eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn. New Directions in the Study of Society and Culture (Berkeley, 1999), pp. 1-32, 26; See also the contributions by Thomas Mergel, Sven Reichardt and Thomas Welskopp in the panel “Gemeinschaft und Politik. Praxistheoretische Ansatze in der Geschichtswissenschaft,” Deutscher Historikertag in Haale/Saale, September 11, 2002. Further examples in: Le Mouvement social, no. 200 (July/September 2002). The issue has the title “L’Histoire sociale en mouvement”.

(13.) Cf. H.-G. Haupt/J. Kocka, eds., Geschichte und Vergleich. Ansatze und Ergebnisse international vergleichender Geschichtsschreibung (Frankfurt, 1996); H. Kaelble, Der historische Vergleich. Eine Einfuhrung zum 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Frankfurt, 1999); H.-G. Haupt, “Comparison in History,” in: N. J. Smelser/P. B. Baltes, eds., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, vol. 4 (Oxford, 2001), pp. 2397-2403.

(14.) Cf. C. Charle, ed., Histoire Sociale, histoire globale? (Paris, 1993); S. Conrad/S. Randeria, “Geteilte Geschichten–Europa in einer postkolonialen Welt,” in id., eds., Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften (Frankfurt, 2002), pp. 9-49; J. Osterhammel, Geschichtswissenschaft jenseits des Nationalstaats. Studien zu Beziehungsgeschichte und Zivilisationsvergleich (Gottingen, 2001); J. Kocka, “Comparison and Beyond,” in: History and Theory 42, 2003, pp. 39-44 (appearing).

By Jurgen, Kocka

Freie Universitat Berlin

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