What is Social History?

Tiffany Foresi's picture

How would we as historians define social history?  This question might seem broad, but it allows us to create boundaries that significantly affect Material Culture.  It's easy to periodize history and classify each era as a culture, but Social History needs to have more commonalities. 

I've cross-posted this discussion post to H-Sci-Med-Tech, hoping to hear some thoughts from Social Historians of Medicine. I was thinking about a chapter by Roger Cooter (2004) on ‘“Framing” the End of the Social History of Medicine’, in: Warner, J and Huisman, F, (eds.) Locating Medical History: The Stories and Their Meanings (Johns Hopkins University Press). A somewhat controversialist piece, but interesting.

      John Breuilly, author of Nationalism and State, recently took part in a series labeled “What is History,” which was published by History Today.  Breuilly poses the question of if there is even society to study.  By doing a simple internet search, Google classified “societies” as, the aggregate of people living together in a more or less ordered community, or an organization formed for a particular purpose.

     Judging by this definition these ideas of society could be broken down and studied.  According to Breuilly, this can lead the historian to generalize various elements of society, which he felt propagates an unhistorical argument.  What was the most intriguing was the fact that Breuilly states:

     "The temptation to go 'behind' those actions to the 'real' people can lead to unverifiable speculation. It can lead away from the concern with specific events, which is the essence of history. Finally it can lead away from the social into the psychological."

            Many people who work within the discipline of history have a tendency to "fill in the gaps," which Breuilly felt renders a historians work as circular.  Of course that seems nearly impossible for a historian, because it is part of their job to create a story.  So where does one draw the line?  Does being a historian mean we cannot teach/write about the past without ethically crossing the line into psychological fiction?