What is social history?

Raphael Samuel

Ever since its elevation to the status of a discipline, and the emergence of a hierarchically organised profession, history has been very largely concerned with problematics of its own making. Sometimes it is suggested by ‘gaps’ which the young researcher is advised by supervisors to fill; or by an established interpretation which, iconoclastically, he or she is encouraged to challenge. Fashion may direct the historians’ gaze; or a new methodology may excite them; or they may stumble on an untapped source. But whatever the particular focus, the context is that enclosed and esoteric world in which research is a stage in the professional career; and the ‘new’ interpretation counts for more than the substantive interest of the matter in hand.

Social history is quite different. It touches on, and arguably helps to focus, major issues of public debate, as for example on British national character or the nature of family life. It mobilises popular enthusiasm and engages popular passions. Its practitioners are counted in thousands rather than hundreds – indeed tens of thousands if one were to include (as I would) those who fill the search rooms of the Record Offices, and the local history rooms of the public libraries, documenting family ‘roots’; the volunteer guides at the open-air museums; or the thousands of railway fanatics who spend their summer holidays acting as guards or station staff on the narrow gauge lines of the Pennines and North Wales. Social history does not only reflect public interest, it also prefigures and perhaps helps to create it. Thus ‘Victorian Values’ were being rehabilitated by nineteenth-century enthusiasts for a decade or more before Mrs Thatcher appropriated them for her Party’s election platform; while Professor Hoskins’ discovery of ‘lost’ villages, and his celebration of the English landscape anticipated some of the animating sentiments which have been made the conservationist movement a force for planners to reckon with.

As a pedagogic enthusiasm, and latterly as an academic practice, social history derives its vitality from its oppositional character. It prides itself on being concerned with ‘real life’ rather than abstractions, with ‘ordinary’ people rather than privileged elites, with everyday things rather than sensational events. As outlined by J.R. Green in his Short History of the English People (1874) it was directed against ‘Great Man’ theories of history, championing the peaceful arts against the bellicose preoccupations of ‘drum-and-trumpet’ history. In its inter-war development, represented in the schools by the Piers Plowman text-books, and in the universities by Eileen Power’s Medieval People and the work of the first generation of economic historians, it evoked the human face of the past – and its material culture – against the aridities of constitutional and administrative development.’ The Annales school in, France called for the study of structure and process rather than the analysis of individual events, emphasising the grand permanencies of geography, climate and soil.

Urban history, pioneered as a cottage industry by H.J. Dyos in the 1960s, and labour history, as redefined in E.P. Thompson’s Making of the English Working Class, was a protest against the routinisation and narrowing of economic history, together with (in the case of Thompson) sideswipes at the invading generalities of the sociologists.

Social history owes its current prosperity, both as a popular enthusiasm and as a scholarly practice, to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and reproduces – in however mediated a form – its leading inspirations. One is dealing here with homologies rather than influences or, in any publicly acknowledged sense, debts, so that any coupling is necessarily speculative and might seem impertinent to the historians concerned. Nevertheless, if only as a provocation and as a way of positioning history within the imaginative complexes of its time, some apparent convergences might be suggested.

The spirit of 1960s social history – tacking in its own way to the ‘winds of change’ – was pre-eminently a modernising one, both chronologically, in the choice of historical subject matter, and methodologically, in the adoption of multi-disciplinary perspectives. Whereas constitutional history had its original heart in medieval studies, and economic history, as it developed in the 1930s and 1940s, was centrally preoccupied with Tudor and Stuart times (the famous controversy on ‘The Rise of the Gentry’ is perhaps representative), the ‘new’ social history, first in popular publication in the railway books (as of David and Charles) and later in its academic version, was apt to make its historical homeland in Victorian Britain, while latterly, in its enthusiasm for being ‘relevant’ and up-to-date, it has shown a readiness, even an eagerness, to extend its inquiry to the present. Methodologically too, in ways presciently announced at the beginning of the decade in E.H. Carr’s What is History? the new social history was hospitable to the social sciences, and much of the energy behind the expansion of Past and Present – the most ecumenical of the social history journals, and the first to be preoccupied with the inter-relationship of history and ‘theory’ – came from the discovery of historical counterparts to the categories of social anthropology and sociology: e.g. ‘sub-cultures’, social mobility, crowd psychology, and latterly gender identities.

One way in which numbers of the new social historians made them- selves at home in the past was by projecting modernity backwards, finding anticipations of the present in the past. This seems especially evident in the American version of social history, where modernisation theory is a leading inspiration (Eugen Weber’s Peasants into Frenchmen, a celebration of the allegedly civilising process, is an accessible and influential example). It can also be seen in the preoccupation with the origins of ‘companionate’ marriage and the modern family, a work pioneered in a liberal-humanist vein by Lawrence Stone, and in a more conservative one by Peter Laslett and Alan Macfarlane. Keith Thomas’ magnificent Man and the Natural World, like his earlier Religion and the Decline of Magic, though finely honed and attentive to counter-tendencies, might also said to be structured by a version of modernisation theory documenting the advance of reason and humanity.

The plebeian subject matter favoured by the new social history, corresponds to other cultural manifestations of the 1960s, as for instance ‘new wave’ British cinema, with its cockney and provincial heroes, ‘pop art’ with its use of everyday artefacts, or the transformation of a ‘ghetto’ beat (Liverpool sound) into a national music. Similarly, the anti-institutional bias of the new social history – the renewed determination to write the history of ‘ordinary’ people as against that of statecraft, could be said to echo, or even, in some small part to be a constituent element in, a much more widespread collapse of social deference, and a questioning of authority figures of all kinds. In another field – that of historical conservation – one could point to the new attention being given to the preservation and identification of vernacular architecture; to the spread of open-air, ‘folk’, and industrial museums, with their emphasis on the artefacts of everyday life; and on the retrieval and publication of old photographs, with a marked bias towards the representation of scenes from humble life. The democratisation of genealogy, and the remarkable spread of family history societies – a ‘grassroots’ movement of primary research – could also be said to reflect the egalitarian spirit of the 1960s; a new generation of researchers finds as much delight in discovering plebeian origins as earlier ones did the tracing of imaginary aristocratic pedigrees.

Another major 1960’s influence on the new social history – very different in its origins and effects – was the ‘nostalgia industry’ which emerged as a kind of negative counterpart, or antiphon, to the otherwise hegemonic modernisation of the time. The animating sentiment – a very opposite of Mr Wilson’s ‘white heat of modern technology’, or Mr Macmillan’s ‘winds of change’ – was a poignant sense of loss, a disenchantment, no less apparent on the Left of the political spectrum than on the Right – with post-war social change. One is dealing here with a whole set of transferences and displacements in which a notion of ‘tradition’, previously attached to the countryside and disappearing crafts was transposed into an urban and industrial setting.

Automation, electrification and smokefree zones transformed steam-powered factories into industrial monuments. Property restorers, working in the interstices of comprehensive re-development, turned mean streets into picturesque residences – Victorian ‘cottages’ rather than emblems of poverty, overcrowding and ill-health. The pioneers here were the railway enthusiasts who, in the wake of the Beeching axe and dieselisation, embarked on an extravagant series of rescue operations designed to bring old lines back to life. A little later came the steam traction fanatics; the collectors of vintage fairground engines; and the narrow-boat enthusiasts and canal trippers, bringing new life to disused industrial waterways. Industrial archaeology, an invention of the 1960s, followed in the same track, elevating relics of the industrial revolution, like Coalbrookdale, to the status of national monuments. In another sphere one could point to the proliferation of folk clubs (one of the early components of 1960s ‘counter- culture’), and the discovery of industrial folk song, as prefiguring one of the major themes of the new social history: the dignity of labour. Another of its major themes – solidarity – could be said to have been anticipated by that sub-genre of autobiography and sociological enquiry – Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy (1957) was the prototype – which made the vanishing slum a symbol of lost community.’

So far as historical work was concerned, these sentiments crystallised in an anti-progressive interpretation of the past, a folkloric enthusiasm for anachronism and survival, and an elegaic regard for disappearing communities. ‘Resurrectionism’ – rescuing the past from the ‘enormous condescension’ of posterity, reconstituting the vanished components of ‘The World We Have Lost’ – became a major impetus in historical writing and research. The dignity of ‘ordinary’ people could be said to be the unifying theme of this line of historical inquiry and retrieval, a celebration of everyday life, even, perhaps especially, when it involved hardship and suffering.

The general effect of the new social history has been to enlarge the map of historical knowledge and legitimate major new areas of scholarly inquiry – as for example the study of house- holds and kinship; the history of popular culture; the fate of the outcast and the oppressed. It has given a new lease of life to extra-mural work in history, more especially with the recent advent of women’s history to which social history has been more hospitable than others. It has built bridges to the popular representation of history on television. In the schools it has helped to produce, or been accompanied by, a very general turn from ‘continuous’ history to superficially project and topic-based learning – a change whose merits the Minister of Education, as well as others, are now challenging. It has also produced a number of ‘do-it-yourself’ historical projects, as in local history, labour history, oral history, woman’s history, which have taken the production of historical knowledge far outside academically defined fiefs.

The new social history has also demonstrated the usefulness – and indeed the priceless quality – of whole classes of documents which were previously held in low esteem: house- hold inventories as an index of kinship, obligations and ties: court depositions as evidence of sociability; wills and testaments as tokens of religious belief. It is less than a century since a distinguished scholar remarked that no serious historian would be interested in a laundry bill. The publications of the Historical Manuscripts Commission and the patrician collections of ‘family’ papers which adorn the County Record Offices testify to the representative character of this bias. It is unlikely that even so determined a critic of the new social history as, say, Professor Elton, with his belief that history is ‘about government’, would want to repeat it today.

Despite the novelty of its subject matter, social history reproduces many of the characteristic biases of its predecessors. It is not difficult to find examples of displaced ‘Whig’ interpretation in ‘modernisation’ theory; or the ‘idol of origins’ in accounts of the rise of the Welfare State or the development of social movements. Social historians – proceeding, as Stubbs recommended a century ago, ‘historically’ rather than ‘philosophically’ – are no less susceptible than earlier scholars to the appeals of a commonsense empiricism in which the evidence appears to speak for itself, and explanation masquerades as the simple reproduction of fact. Many too could be said to be influenced, albeit subconsciously, by an aesthetic of ‘naive realism’ (something to which the present writer pleads guilty) in which the more detailed or ‘thick’ the description, the more authentic the picture is supposed to be. Social historians are good at amassing lifelike detail – household artefacts, time-budgets, ceremonial ritual: they leave no conceptual space for the great absences, for the many areas where the documentary record is silent, or where the historian holds no more than what Tawney once called ‘the thin shrivelled tissue’ in the hand.

Social history has the defects of its qualities. Its preference for ‘human’ documents and for close-up views have the effect of domesticating the subject matter of history, and rendering it – albeit unintentionally – harmless. The ‘sharp eye for telling detail’ on which practitioners pride themselves, the colloquial phrases they delight to turn up, the period ‘atmosphere’ they are at pains faithfully to evoke, all have the effect of confusing the picturesque and the lifelike with the essence of which it may be no more than a chance appearance (much the same defect can be seen on the ‘background’ detail of historical romance and costume drama). Whereas political history invites us to admire the giants of the past and even vicariously to share in their triumphs, its majesty reminds us of the heights we cannot scale. Social history establishes an altogether intimate rapport, inviting us back into the warm parlour of the past.

The indulgence which social historians extend towards their subjects, and the desire to establish ’empathy’ – seeing the past in terms of its own values rather than those of today, can also serve to flatter our self-esteem, making history a field in which, at no great cost to ourselves, we can demonstrate our enlarged sympathies and benevolence. It also serves to rob history of all its terrors. The past is no longer another country when we find a rational core to seemingly irrational behaviour – e.g. that witchcraft accusations were a way of disburdening a village of superfluous old women; or that printers who massacred cats were engaging in a surrogate for a strike.

The identifications which social history invites – one of its leading inspirations and appeals – also have the effect of purveying symbolic reassurance. It establishes a too easy familiarity, the illusion that we are losing ourselves in the past when in fact we are using it for the projection of idea selves. Recognising our kinship to people in the past, and tracing, or discovering, their likeness to our selves, we are flattered in the belief that as the subliminal message of a well-known advert has it, underneath we are all lovable; eccentric perhaps and even absurd, but large-hearted generous and frank. Our very prejudices turn out to be endearing – or a any rate harmless – when they are revealed as quintessentially English. The people of the past thus become mirror images – or primitive versions of our ideal selves: the freeborn Englishman, as individualist to the manner born, acknowledging no man as his master, truculent in face of authority; the companionate family, ‘a loved circle of familiar faces’, living in nuclear households; the indulgent and affectionate parents, solicitous only for the happiness and well-being of their young. These identifications are almost always – albeit subliminally – self-congratulatory. They involve double misrecognition both of the people of the past and of ourselves, in the first place denying them their otherness, and the specificity of their existence in historical time; in the second reinforcing a sentimental view of ourselves. The imaginary community with the past can thus serve as a comfortable alternative to critical awareness and self-questioning, allowing us to borrow prestige from our adoptive ancestors, and to dignify the present by illegitimate association with the past.’

Social history, if it is to fulfill its subversive potential, needs to be a great deal more disturbing. If it is to celebrate a common humanity, and to bring past and present closer together, then it must take some account of those dissonances which we know of as part of our own experience – the fears that shadow the growing up of children, the pain of unrequited love, the hidden injuries of class, the ranklings of pride, the bitterness of faction and feud. Far more weight needs to be given, than the documents alone will yield, to the Malthusian condition of everyday life in the past and to the psychic effects of insecurities and emergencies which we can attempt to document, but which escape the categories of our experience, or the imaginative underpinning of our world view, ‘Defamiliarisation’, in short, may be more important for any kind of access to the past than a too precipitate intimacy. Perhaps too we might recognise – even if the recognition is a painful one – that there is a profound condescension in the notion of ‘ordinary people’ – that unified totality in which social historians are apt to deal. Implicitly it is a category from which we exclude ourselves, superior persons if only by our privilege of hindsight. ‘There are… no masses’, Raymond Williams wrote in Culture and Society, ‘only ways of seeing people as masses’. It is perhaps time for historians to scrutinise the term ‘the common people’ in the same way.

Raphael Samuel is a tutor at Ruskin College, Oxford, and on the editorial collective of History Workshop Journal.


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