Guide What is Cultural History? (What is History?)

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Confronted with much of what calls itself social history one might feel inclined to settle for this negative conclusion. But I think that at least for modern history there is a further point to be made. Modern history has witnessed a dramatic increase in the scale of human activity with the growth in size and importance of markets, firms, states and other institutions. People relate to one another in these institutions with little in the way of a common sense of identity or personal knowledge of one another.

The studies of these institutions tend, therefore, to omit a consideration of the ways individuals understand their actions within the institutions. But in the end those understandings determine how the institutions perform. By 'understanding' I do not mean some experience 'behind' what people do, but rather the thinking that directly and immediately informs their actions.

It is this which should always be related to the performance of the institution as a whole. For example, the historical study of the 'adaptation' of rural immigrants to urban-industrial life cannot work either at the level of impersonal analysis how far people adjust to certain 'imperatives' of modernisation or at the level of individual experience what it is like to be a rural immigrant. Rather one should look at distinct actions such as job-changing, absenteeism, patterns of settlement and housing use.

Then one should ask what sort of thinking it is which gives a sense to these patterns of action as well as what this means for the institution concerned. This is hardly the province of a special sort of history.

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Rather it involves making every kind of history explicitly confront the social nature of action and institutions. Social history is not a particular kind of history; it is a dimension which should be present in every kind of history. While on a visit to a mid-western American university not long ago I was invited to 'tell us about the new social history'. Being somewhat at a loss, especially among faculty members whose own great-grandfathers had been among the creators of community life in pioneering times, I fell back on a discussion of the variety of overlapping early modern English communities: village, hamlet, parish and manor; county and 'country'; metropolis and market town; Anglican and Nonconformist congregations; universities and secular academic fraternities; guilds of craftsmen and ships' companies, and so on: the associations were many and varied.

All of this seemed closer to the real world than consideration of 'mentalites' and even of 'total' societies and of the problems of quantification. However as a concession to the last of these I did contribute to the balance of payments by persuading my hosts to acquire not one but two copies of the new Population History of England.


For those who today call themselves social historians but whose early training was in more specifically economic history, the present search for quantifiable data is a natural progression and the urge to encompass the whole of society no more than axiomatic. The advent of computers has undoubtedly played a part, not least in sending social historians in search of new source material, or to rework old sources, both of which can be made to yield hitherto undreamed-of results.

Computers cannot, of course, write history, though from the evidence of some recent historical literature it would seem that they have a good try. Nothing can replace prolonged consideration of the records themselves and the problems of correctly identifying people in the past are enormous. Fortunately one of the effects of finding new uses for the parochial registration of baptisms, weddings and funerals has been the realisation that every living person has a unique identity and life-span. Indeed, what is the now very familiar 'family reconstitution' other than the rediscovery by historians of that most basic and universal human community?

At the same time it must be admitted that the discoveries made by demographers about such things as age of marriage, size of families and birth control in early modern England have been nothing short of revolutionary. There is no better way of charting recent trends in the study of social history than to consider the themes chosen for the annual conferences of the Social History Society.

Under the leadership of Professor Harold Perkin the society has, since , given a new direction to the subject while at the same time holding fast to real history rather than pursuing merely theoretical concepts of human activity. It has considered, usually with contributions from all periods of history, such topics as 'elites' which have little to do with 'class' , 'crime, violence and social protest' a meaningful combination of historical phenomena , 'the professions' drawing on topics as diverse as classical lawyers and Victorian marine-engineers , 'work in its social aspects', 'popular culture' and, this year, 'sex and gender' which, although predictably attracting many specialists in women's studies, also led to a much broader consideration of the differing roles of men and women through the ages.

Next year's theme, that of 'property', promises to produce an equally varied response. Undoubtedly one of the strengths of social history today is the encouragement it has given to, and the response by specialists in such fields as the history of law and its enforcement, of medicine and its practice, of industry, commerce, shipping and seamanship, vernacular architecture, domestic furnishings, costume, the fine arts, music and, to a lesser extent, of literature, to provide for their subjects a social dimension. The vast output of political biography, including that concerned with Members of Parliament, testifies to the need felt by political and even constitutional historians for figures of flesh and blood.

Not even Stubbs's Charters were compiled by mindless robots. Without the aid of such professional expertise social historians would lack access to all these activities which make up the totality of people's achievements. But even to read the relevant published work is a daunting task and this may well result in social historians taking refuge in ever-narrowing territorial and chronological confines.

Indeed some are already doing so. This will at least serve to underline the need for precision, both of time and space. Not only change but also continuity need to be both dated and mapped, especially in a country as diverse in its human ecology as England. The burgeoning of social history, especially during the last decade, has ensured that in the writing of general history people are now firmly in the foreground, their institutions mere reflections of the need to formalise and stabilise their relationships.

More and more historians are seeking to describe society as a whole, being no longer concerned exclusively either with the squirarchy or with the root- less poor, with conspicuous consumption or with crises of subsistence. Cohesion is becoming as important as conflict. Social historians are, then, today's equivalent of the one-time honourable profession of general practitioners, whose only failing was that they concerned themselves with little besides national and international politics.

In the best of today's textbooks social history is no longer reserved for an obligatory final chapter. The most famous definition of social history — always quoted, invariably criticised, and never fully understood - is that of G. Trevelyan, who began his English Social History by defining it as 'the history of the people with the politics left out. Yet, although most social historians today implicitly or explicitly reject Trevelyan's definition, and believe themselves to belong to a more professional, more rigorous, more recent tradition, those who read a little further in his book would be surprised by both the catholicity and contemporainety of his conception of the subject.

To Trevelyan, spelling it out in more detail, social history encompassed the human as well as the economic relations of different classes, the character of family and household life, the conditions of labour and leisure, the attitude of man towards nature, and the cumulative influence of all these subjects on culture, including religion, architecture, literature, music, learning and thought.

This is a formidable and fashionable list. Of course, there was not much sign of such subjects in Trevelyan's own works of synthesis, as the necessary research had not yet been done. And it would be unrealistic and ahistorical to credit him with too much clairvoyance. But in drawing attention to such an agenda of research interests, he certainly anticipated the work of such major scholars of our own day as Eric Hobsbawm, E.

What is Social History? | History Today

Ironically, the last great practitioner of the old social history was one of the first to foresee the scope and shape of the new. So Trevelyan might well be pleased with the massive expansion in social history which took place in the three decades since the Second World War and the writing of his most famous book. In addition, a whole variety of allied subjects — urban history, women's history, family history, the history of crime, of childhood, of education — are its near relatives, each with their own societies, journals and conferences.

But growth can be as disquieting as exhilarating.

Cultural history I: what's in a name?

For as social history becomes more vast and varied, it becomes harder to keep up with it all, and more difficult to define it in any way other than descriptively. Some of its critics most of whom, incidentally, have never tried their hands at it condemn it for being no more than an extension of Trevelyan's laundry list, an inchoate amalgam of fashionable fads.

Others deride it as a new form of antiquarianism, celebrating 'experience' but eschewing 'explanation'. In reply, its foremost champions who are not necessarily its foremost practitioners defend it as an autonomous sub-discipline, intellectually coherent and organisationally confident, offering the best opportunities for the writing of the total history to which, ultimately, we should all aspire. As with all debates on 'what is history? The real problem with social history, whether done by Trevelyan or anyone else, is that it lacks a hard intellectual centre.

Political history is primarily about power, and economic history about money. So, surely, in the same way, social history is about class? Yes, but what is class?

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And where is it? There is no theoretical agreement as to its nature; it can barely be said to have existed, even in the western world, before the Industrial Revolution; and too often, social historians spend all their time looking for it, and do not know what to do with it if they find it. Defining social history is never easy, just as splitting the hairs of Clio's raiment is hard to avoid. In the halcyon days of the s and early s, expansion, proliferation and subdivision were the order of the day, in history as in most other subjects.

And of this development, social history was the prime beneficiary. But now retrenchment is upon us; in history as in everything else, amalgamation and rationalisation are in the ascendant; and there are fears that social history, having gained most in the era of expansion, will now suffer most in the age of austerity. It seems possible, yet unlikely.

For social history is surely easier to defend than to define. And in any case, the best social history, whatever it is, is always more than merely that, and it, most illustrious practitioners rightly spend more time doing it than defining it. Considering the fate of Trevelyan's misunderstood definition one can hardly blame them.

We would be well advised to follow their example, and get on with it. A penalty of taking early retirement is that one's literary output is expected to soar. It is not surprising that my progress reports are received with a mixture of pity and scorn. But is interesting that they should be the subject of a great deal of confusion. Few people may know what social history is, but they are very sure about what it is not.

It is not biography. Biography is about one person. Social history has got to be about more than one person. Moreover, the persons it's about have got to have been unheard of and be of no political importance. Disturbed by the astuteness of this interrogation, I reach out for one last manuscript. With the collaboration of some of my former students I have written a book called Divisions of Labour.

It is a series of studies of the play between technical innovation and craft regulation in a number of British trades and industries between and Most of my questioners find this reassuring. This is what they expected of social history. Besides, it might even be 'relevant'. The more knowing ask whether this is not rather old-hat social history. They were under the impression that social history had out-grown labour history. The short and superior answer is that social history has outgrown more than labour history. It has outgrown all the other historical sub-cultures. One is making a category mistake one tries to think of social history as if it was an area of enquiry. It is not logically similar to political or military, ecclesiastical or diplomatic, imperial or economic history.

It is less a terrain of historical enquiry than a means of conducting one.

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At its very least it is what Professor Harold Perkin claimed for it, when he made its concern gathering 'the sap of the social' where ever it might be found. The phrase may be unfortunate, but the notion is important, For a time, as a matter of historiographical fact, social history may have had to stand up for fledgling enterprises such as labour or demographic history.

But beyond such transitory duties there is an enduring task. It must aid in the desegregation of all the true historical sub-cultures.