Neuendorf on Handley and McWilliam and Noakes, 'New Directions in Social and Cultural History'

Sasha Handley, Rohan McWilliam, Lucy Noakes, eds.
Ulrike Neuendorf

Sasha Handley, Rohan McWilliam, Lucy Noakes, eds. New Directions in Social and Cultural History. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. xv + 275 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4725-8081-8.

Reviewed by Ulrike Neuendorf (University of Applied Sciences Emden/Leer ) Published on H-Socialisms (April, 2019) Commissioned by Gary Roth (Rutgers University - Newark)

Printable Version:

Social and Cultural History

New Directions in Social and Cultural History offers great insight into the field of social history by providing compelling examples of scholarly work that can serve as sources of information to academic disciplines beyond history. From an anthropological perspective, the book offers numerous instances of outstanding interdisciplinary research and embraces alternative modes of investigation and interpretation. It is clear that social history uniquely engages with the historical experience of “regular people,” instead of simply focusing on the unique and isolated experience of elites. This is certainly one of anthropology’s objectives as well. Yet anthropological works sometimes lack an in-depth investigation of the wider historical context of a particular place, which is ultimately essential in understanding contemporary cultural developments. Engaging more actively with sociohistorical literature could certainly benefit many anthropological analyses, and this book provides a great introduction to the field.

The most interesting aspect of this volume is the liberal adoption of frameworks and methods from fellow disciplines. The examination of “representations” in varying sociohistorical contexts, for instance, recognizes the fluid and malleable nature of human cultures throughout time. Based on the understanding that nothing is fixed and that change is inevitable in the study of the human experience, we are confronted with the constant remaking and refashioning of social relationships, identities, their meanings, and the way we shape the world around us.

The book is divided into three parts, each exploring specific challenges that social historians are confronted with today. These include: “Histories of the Human,” “The Material Turn,” and “Challenges and Provocations.” Each chapter sheds light on a particular historical topic and outlines the multiple and novel ways that social historians tackle them. The three parts delve deeply into prominent sociopolitical debates, not only of historical but also of contemporary significance, with a focus on the body (chapters 2 and 3), nations and public cultures (chapters 4, 6, 7, and 9), human-nonhuman relationships (chapters 8 and 10), and the digital age (chapter 7 and the afterword). I personally liked the nuanced and balanced approach taken by the authors. Although I thoroughly enjoyed all the essays, there were some that stood out in particular.

“Subjectivity, the Self and Historical Practice” by Penny Summerfield tackles an issue that is also contested in ethnographic investigations.[1] It examines historical practice as a reflection of the self and the inherent subjectivity that this involves. Summerfield specifically examines autobiographical accounts and their historical validity. She sheds light on the anthropological method of “life history” analysis, stating that many historians would prefer if it was referred to as a “life-story” method, since its use runs the danger of subjectivity and fabrication. This is a valid point, but indeed, this is what sets historians and anthropologists apart. While historians focus heavily on empirical data and facts, we anthropologists, while certainly interested in people’s stories (within a historical context), are also curious about the way history is made sense of. This is exactly where the disciplines can learn from one another, since people’s perception of “what it was like” is as valid as the objective, quantitative approach. Culturally, it is people’s recalling of memories—the personal narratives of their own histories—that are passed to the next generation.

“Public Histories” by Paul Ashton and Meg Foster addresses a range of highly relevant issues in the public representation of historical studies and the role that professional historians, as well as laypeople, play in this. The significant impact of history going “online” is most notable here. Ashton and Foster write, “ordinary people gain access to historical sources, create their own histories and are able to reach millions of people from all over the world like never before” (p. 157). What stands out is the possibility of creating one’s own reality through snippets of data and the various resources available to practically everyone. While there is great value in uncovering new insights and encouraging the publication of subaltern interpretations of history, there are also great dangers in this new type historical writing, as Ashton and Foster show. Indeed, this trend influences not only historical studies but, in fact, also all forms of formal academic scholarship. The rise of “alternative facts” online deeply challenges all forms of academic research. The availability of large amounts of “unfiltered” data online lends itself to uncritical and unreflected use. People looking for data to fit their particular narrative are likely to be successful in finding something.

Overall, part 3 of the volume is the most interesting, because it lays out some of the contemporary challenges and provocations in the field of social history. It also illustrates several innovative, interdisciplinary approaches to prominent topics within social history. “Human-Animal Histories” by Hilda Kean is particularly enjoyable. She examines a surprisingly marginal area of inquiry in history—the relationship between humans and animals. Although this has clearly been an enormous part of human history, it is a fairly new discipline. As is also demonstrated in several other chapters of the book, this essay allows for a glimpse into a growing movement within academic scholarship that looks beyond the predominantly white, male, Eurocentric narrative by including alternative human/nonhuman relationships.

The most thought-provoking chapter for me is “New Directions in Transnational History: Thinking and Living Transnationally” by Durbha Ghosh. Ghosh argues for a “transnational method that puts people into a transnational framework” (p. 191). I believe this approach is something students of many different social science disciplines could learn from. People are very much aware of the transnational lives they lead today, yet there is surprisingly little appreciation of people’s past mobility and transnational existence. This is quite curious considering humanity’s constant global migration throughout history.

In the social sciences, there is now a clear shift away from thinking within the bounds of the nation-state, where new understandings of citizenship are debated.[2] Ghosh offers a wide array of examples of transnational historical research, with novel insights into the movement of people and bodies, with mention in particular of diaspora scholars. This area of historical investigation is fascinating and especially important to contemporary sociopolitical debates. In one example, she highlights Chinese global movements that exist outside the bonds of state regimes, colonial rule, and capitalism. This approach offers unique insights into constantly shifting and changing cultural ideals, community relationships, and notions of selfhood. Combined with new perspectives on transnational intimate relationships and the recent emergence and widespread availability of DNA ancestry testing tools, we are offered exciting new findings of a human history that exists beyond imaginary borders, the confines of the nation-state, and race.

Overall, this volume of essays is an excellent introduction into the discipline of social history. It has certainly sparked my interest to delve deeper into some of the studies and research fields mentioned in this book.


[1]. For instance, Ken Plummer, Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2001); Maurice Halbwachs, On Collective Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992); and Lutz Niethammer, Lebenserfahrung und Kollektives Gedächtnis: Die Praxis des "Oral History” (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1985).

[2]. For instance, Aradhana Sharma and Akhil Gupta, eds., The Anthropology of the State: A Reader (Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2006).

Citation: Ulrike Neuendorf. Review of Handley, Sasha; McWilliam, Rohan; Noakes, Lucy, eds., New Directions in Social and Cultural History. H-Socialisms, H-Net Reviews. April, 2019. URL:

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