Social History and World History: Toward Greater Interaction

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  • Peter Stearns
    George Mason University
    Fairfax, Virginia

The rise of social history and of world history over the past several decades constitutes two of the most important developments in the contemporary discipline as a whole. Both have substantially altered the way the past is defined and the way it is related to the present. The relationship between the two fields has, however, often been awkward, occasionally downright hostile, and certainly incomplete. In this essay I seek to identify some key problems and urge a more fruitful relationship. The goal is not to merge the fields; each will continue to have many distinct purposes that are legitimate and important. But a greater overlap will benefit both fields, in their teaching and research manifestations alike.

Three vignettes about degrees of separation:

First: Publishers not infrequently request world history textbook authors to "include more social history" in their next revision. It is not hard to respond: one inserts a bit more about women or the lower classes into the discussion of several major civilizations, and technical compliance is easy to demonstrate. What is less commonly accomplished, however, is any real relationship of the inserts to the basic world-historical structure of the text. Not unlike the first response to social history in U.S. survey texts, the new material often stands apart from the principal narrative and is, correspondingly, easily neglected by students and teachers.

Second: The World History Association has recurrently sponsored efforts to highlight social history, in sessions in such venues at the AHA annual convention. Again, a worthy purpose. Too often, however, the main outcome is a paper on women in East Africa in a particular time period juxtaposed with another monographic effort on women in Malaysia. The results add to the store of knowledge, but they have little impact on the basic stuff of world history or on a world-historical formulation of women's history.

Third: A decade ago, in a discussion about launching a world history program at a major university (that has since excelled in the field), an older faculty member questioned the speaker's earnest plea to include discussions of peasants and women in the treatment of the classical civilizations. There was no need, he argued, since the basic oppression of these groups neither varied nor changed significantly. He allowed that this neglect would have to yield in the modern period, when conditions were redefined, but until then the social dimension of world history could be safely skipped. And indeed, classic world history formulations, dealing with the great achievements of the great people in the great civilizations, largely hewed to this formula.

Have we actually made measurable progress toward addressing these limitations, in our presentation of world history? I think we can -- that's the purpose of this paper; but I'm not sure we have, in any consistent fashion.

By social history I mean of course that approach to the past that carefully examines the conditions and contributions of groups of ordinary people, alongside the greats; and that, as a second attribute, expands the topics covered from staples like politics, high culture, and trade to the range of concerns by which, in fact, people live their lives and evaluate them -- from family to crime to emotions or the senses.

There are several reasons that explain the frequent disconnects between this view of the past and that of world historians. Social history originated almost entirely as a research field, and its spillover into teaching has usually been peripheral to the main interests of practitioners; world history, despite research precedents, effectively originated in teaching in its recent surge, and only gradually has moved to identify research strengths. This disparity might pose a barrier. While social history was a vital part of the area studies movement, with particular focus on peasants and peasant protest, the fullest development of social history research has applied to Western Europe and the United States—here is where the range of social history topics has been most fully deployed. World history, in obvious contrast, has focused heavily on repositioning the West to a more appropriately modest share of historical attention. This second disparity is manageable in principle—if and as social history research expands on Africa, Asia, and Latin America; and indeed there are some signs of this, as in the broadening of attention to the history of families and children in Latin America, or the attention to the evolution of consumerism in Africa; but for the moment, social historians often find it hard to talk in world history terms simply because of the unevenness of available secondary work. For its part, world history does have some traditions of focusing on elites, as noted above. This has been substantially modified by attention to such topics as migration and biological exchange, both arguably socio-historical, but some limitations persist. The pronounced tendency to deal with civilizations among other things (despite some useful debate) privileges urban structures in societies that were until recently rural in majority; there is absolutely no question that no world history formulation to date has paid adequate attention to peasantries during the long agricultural period, and while this is more symptom than cause of a social history-world history disconnect, it poses its own problems.

Most important, of course, is the fact that social history has been notoriously place-specific. Dealing with new topics, often seeking new materials including the often obscure voices of the inarticulate, social historians have normally taken a regional or at most national approach, judging that in-depth penetrations were crucial to properly anchor their ambitious expansion of the research agenda. Sometimes, not only a narrow place but a small slice of time were selected in order to permit in-depth consideration of, say, the ritual implications of rural festivals or gender differentiation in work. There are social historians still who argue that things should be scaled down even further, in favor of a commitment to microhistory that alone can capture the complexity of the social experience. Certainly, during the past two decades, the so-called "cultural turn" in social history, with attention to values systems and linguistic usage and its partnership with anthropology, has tended further to reduce geographical scope. There are, of course, a few important exceptions, though most go back a few decades: Braudel's embrace of the Mediterranean, Jack Goody's ambitious categorizations of family structures, Carlo Ginsburg's interest in combining sweeping cultural tracings with microhistory. In the main, however, the point stands: social history has been small history, wondrously inventive within this framework; and the challenge of combining it with the big history of world historians has not been, and will not be, easily met.

All this said, I do intend to argue that we could do better in interrelating the fields than we have thus far, while also noting existing connections that can be expanded. Reconsideration is unquestionably timely on the world history side. The waning of the cultural turn has many social historians thinking about next steps and even missteps, and a very common conclusion involves the need to revisit the issue of geographical choice. A recent special issue of the Journal of Social History highlighted this widespread impulse, sometimes with specific invocations of the need to come to terms with world history. Whether world history has a similar current need for sociohistorical injections may be less clear, given the fact that some new complications would also be involved: but the possibility is worth pondering, and we will return to the issue in conclusion.

Existing, expandable connections constitute the first point. From the world history side, in addition to the important attention available on migration, food, and disease exchange and the like, two linkages with social history are already vital, though not always as explicit or systematic as might be desired. The first involves the definition of major societies or civilizations. While earlier world historians tended to focus on political institutions and leading intellectual systems for their definitions, it has become clear that, to extend coverage more globally, other criteria are essential, and sometimes, at least, these must embrace the social. Two cases are particularly obvious: at the elite levels, both Russia and Latin America were in many respects Western by the 18th and 19th centuries. Western-ness recedes, however, when social and related economic features are considered. Russia entered the Western orbit in terms of art and literature, even as conditions for serfs became more rigorous in contrast to the peasant and wage labor system, with its different set of rigors, that was becoming increasingly standard in the West. Latin American elites in the 19th and 20th centuries eagerly projected Western family values, but actual family conditions that included high rates of illegitimacy (by Western standards) and kin-based methods of childrearing were quite different. On social history grounds, then, neither Russia nor Latin America can be easily folded into generalizations about Western civilization; they had distinctive qualities that in turn have inspired distinctive historical trajectories. Given the importance of the comparative civilizational approach in the teaching of world history, these socially-derived judgments loom large. They invite further work on distinctive social profiles as part of definitional efforts in this category.

The second big connection between world and social history, from the former's vantage point, involves characteristic definitions of the early modern period. Whatever one's position on the great debate about the vitality of East Asia in the world economy, it is clear that the early modern period is marked by a number of significant social changes that in turn reshaped the global experience. The exchanges of foods, technologies, and diseases; the spread of slavery with impacts on both sides of the Atlantic; the social results of the new availability of silver in China; the changes in rural labor systems in Latin America and ultimately in Russia, as part of the new patterns of exports and imports; and the expansion of domestic manufacturing and urban economic outreach in Western Europe -- these add up to a sizeable, if complex, social package. Most world historians spend considerable time on these changes as part of setting the stage for the early modern period and then discussing trajectories in individual societies. I will argue below that we can do even more in systematizing the early modern centuries as a period of global social change—and at the same time it is also true that sweeping statements about gender, as opposed to labor systems, do not seem possible for the period; but there's no doubt that the social already commands a sizeable place.

From the social history side, perhaps a bit more tentatively given place specificity, a few connections can nevertheless be mentioned, again with an eye to identifying possibilities that could be expanded given a commitment to a fuller interchange. First, a few social histories have developed with a sufficient comparative sense to place patterns in one area in at least a partially global context. Mary Hartman's new book, on the implications of the unusual European-style family for gender relations in the West since the late Middle Ages, in contrast to several Asian societies, is a recent case in point. It will be interesting to see what world historians make of her effort, which is mainly Western (though not I think pro-Western) but with an explicit attempt at a larger comparative framework. Better known of course are the various comparative surveys of slavery, both ancient and modern, that have done so much to demonstrate the many exceptional features of Atlantic slavery but also the significant differences among major regions within the Atlantic system. While it is woefully true that too little social history has ventured comparison, even from one nation to the next within a single civilization, there are some stellar accomplishments that, in turn, demonstrate the value of the effort.

Social historians have also used a wide, at least semi-global stage to test patterns or causation. James Scott thus picked up E.P. Thompson's moral economy concept, developed pretty strictly within an English context, and applied it to peasant standards in several parts of southeast Asia. The result was an illuminating similarity among otherwise quite varied lower-class groups, in confronting some of the demands of spreading capitalism and capitalist states. Advocates of Norbert Elias' civilizing offensive mode—which traced and explained increasingly exacting manners and body control—have talked about exploring societies outside the West, particularly in various parts of Asia, to see if a similar dynamic applied as aristocracies became more refined and government control more extensive. The model has been successfully used for the United States, though this may be seen as yet another Western case despite the absence of aristocracy. Projecting the model in order to generate hypotheses about broader global processes could yield even more interesting results. Approaching the emancipations of slaves and serfs from a global standpoint has helped cut through some earlier debates about the balance between humanitarian and economic considerations, in ways that focus on individual societies tended to obscure. We have a much better understanding of emancipations when they are seen in world-history terms, embracing Russia and eastern Europe as well as the Atlantic.

These examples, from both historical camps, are more than straws in the wind: they constitute serious and productive interaction, benefiting both agendas. The examples have not resulted, however, from a self-conscious juxtaposition of the two fields; rather, they have followed from more specific topics and frameworks. There are three related opportunities for this more explicit juxtaposition, that would in my judgment extend the benefits of interaction in both teaching and research.

  • Opportunity #1 applies particularly to conceptually ambitious social historians. Many relatively new topics in social history have been initially and fruitfully explored through big picture attempts, extending over considerable stretches of time. One thinks, for example, of the opening of work on American old age by David Hackett Fischer and Andrew Achenbaum, with studies that spanned the colonial period to the 20th century. Or, even more obviously, the first salvos in the history of childhood by Philippe Aríès, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century; or work on the history of fear, from early Christianity to the 19th century, by Jean Delumeau; or, to take an example already referred to, the ambitious sketch of patterns in manners by Norbert Elias. Chronological ambition has its costs, of course, and many of the pioneering ventures inspired subsequent revisionism—Aríès and childhood, indeed, almost misfired entirely. Nevertheless, initial range set up a rationale for a new historical topic and a combination of suggestions and targets for more detailed follow-ups. It is not far-fetched to suggest that similar ambition could be applied to geographical scope, producing world-history frameworks for sociohistorical explorations. Take, for example, the history of noise, which I understand is currently under inquiry and which relates of course to the existing body of work on the history of sound and hearing. A great idea, with all sorts of fruitful possibilities—but how much more exciting if sketched on a global history scale, with invitations to follow up with more specific inquiries into key points of change, intersocietal comparisons, as well as even more limited monographs. As social historians reconsider their geographical premises, the chance to venture some provocative sketches that span both conventional time periods and regional boundaries can and should be embraced.
  • Opportunity #2 applies to world and social historians alike, and this is simply to take the rich menu of contemporary social issues and develop an appropriate world/social history perspective on them. World historians have been inventive in this regard when it comes to environmental issues, a field which borders social history in any event. That is, recognizing growing environmental concerns, they have combined with environmental specialists to generate significant global histories of environmental change and of environmentalism. We have not been as imaginative, it seems to me, when it comes to the social side. Two examples must suffice. As obesity becomes an increasingly global problem, with manifestations in middle-class children in China and India as well as Western Europe and the United States, the invitation to examine overeating and control attempts as part of world history becomes pretty obvious. And there have been some steps: a forthcoming collection on the body looks at a number of societies, including Australia, and an edited work on foods and globalization has an obesity chapter. Still, a real world history inquiry has yet to emerge. The second example, a larger one and in some ways the mirror image of global obesity, involves poverty. Social historians themselves have recently been reminded that, in their eager embrace of cultural topics, they have increasingly neglected material realities, at a time when, globally, issues of poverty and inequality have been intensifying and taking on new contours. World historians have, it seems to me, been similarly remiss—few overviews even mention the issue explicitly. But the evolution of poverty, including changes and comparisons in definitions, perceptions, and relevant policies, could become a focus for greater understanding of past and present alike, an area where, as with environmentalism, social and world historians could combine to real effect.

    And these are examples only. Social historians have been extremely creative in using changing contemporary realities as spurs to significant historical research. The opportunity now, amid increasing globalization, is to apply the same creativity to appropriate world history ventures that use the past in order better to grasp the present. The benefits to world history teaching—which too often tends to run out of gas when it comes to contemporary issues and developments—are significant, though a research response is vital as well.
  • Opportunity #3 involves teaching as well as research from the outset, and offers the most systematic means of extending the interactions between the two fields. What is the relationship between major changes in world history—commonly expressed in a world history periodization that is widely agreed upon—and significant social developments, whether for masses of ordinary people or for the wider range of human activities that social historians explore. Is there any pattern, beyond developments in individual societies, to changes in social or gender structure, or the nature of childhood, or crime, or the evaluation of the senses?

Asking, in essence, how much social change connects to global change, in terms world historians have already laid out, involves three facets. The first entails somewhat more systematic discussion of the social results of the transition from hunting and gathering to agricultural or nomadic societies than many world history courses currently provide. This is one of the "big changes" that scholars like David Christian have explored, but we have not always fully probed or integrated the social impacts—partly of course, because there is need to borrow from other disciplines, and to deal with fragmentary data. It's clear, for example, that the transition to agriculture involved major changes in childhood, toward fuller association with labor and encouragement to higher birthrates; but the major breaks in childhood history are not normally utilized in world history.

The second facet applies to the other end of the chronological scale. It may be useful, despite the risks involved, to redevelop a somewhat firmer idea of the dominant and novel features of modern society than most of us have employed in recent years—since the discrediting of the modernization concept. Such an idea would deliberately be a work in progress, a challenge to determine what social features can, and what cannot, be so widely characterized on a global scale. It would admittedly involve a recognition that modern patterns often first emerged in the West, which may run against the grain for some world historians; but it does not require a commitment to literal Westernization either as desirable or as a description of contemporary global reality. It would also apply primarily to the 20th century, for the world at large; indeed, social change can become an integral part of the definition of the 20th century as launching a new world history period, including of course the global decline of the aristocracy and the more gradual and varied, but also global, reduction of the peasantry. Take childhood again by way of a more specific example. Modern societies have been moving toward three fundamental changes from the agricultural patterns of childhood, though of course the movement involves different timing, degrees, and combinations with other social patterns. Change one involves replacing work with schooling as children's fundamental task; change two involves reducing the birthrate; and change three involves reducing the mortality rate among children. Each of these changes brings additional consequences in its wake, which amplifies the modern model. Again, this focus on modern-premodern social contrasts, and processes of change, has to include some real flexibility. Not all regions will necessarily move to the modern model; currently, for instance, South Asia and Southeast Asia see an increase in child labor, against global trends. Regions that do follow the model may also carefully avoid a specifically Western version; Japan, in moving quickly toward global childhood patterns beginning in 1872, quite consciously worked to dissociate their patterns from the individualistic implications of Western socialization. Interestingly, by the 21st century Japan, rather than the West, would emerge as a leader in certain global consumer trends for children, another complexity that an exploration of the modern must allow for. Marxist societies, adopting the fundamental features of the model with surprisingly little discussion, obviously had their own versions of childhood within the modern framework. With all this, an effort to define some basic patterns can usefully join social and world historians in a common set of inquiries about recent periodization.

The third facet is, however, the crux of the matter: what about world history periodization within the long dominance of agricultural economies—the classical, postclassical, and early modern where world historians have had their greatest impact in improving our picture of the past? Are there significant social changes, on anything like a global scale, during the agricultural centuries? (Revealingly, David Christian, with his big history approach, views the agricultural period as a single basic lump, though he offers some variation on the early modern centuries.) We know that the advent of civilizations, as a form of human organizations, tended to sharpen and solidify social and gender differences, generating also variations in specific iterations of these systems. Whether this constitutes a major social marker, compared to the advent of agriculture, is worth discussing. We know also that there were social features and social consequences to the fall of the great classical empires, though these too could merit more attention (particularly in the Asian empires). The advent of what some call the postclassical period, by the 6th century, has been, it seems to me, less explored in social terms; but there are important possibilities. Were there general social consequences, for instance, quite apart from cultural particulars, in the spread of the world religions? In general, women gained new opportunities for spiritual expression and, through religious institutions and the commitment to spiritual equality in principle, some new vehicles for power outside of marriage. But there was also, in many societies, a deterioration in women's conditions during the postclassical period overall—the advent of foot binding, sati, the narrowing of craft outlets in Western Europe by the later Middle Ages, and so on. Was this an ironic coincidence, or did it have some relationship to religious change (as in Chinese Buddhism, which some men came to view as desirable because it distracted their wives and mothers from family politics)? New contacts played some role, as in the partial influence of Chinese patriarchy on gender relations in Japan. This point is not to claim a definitive periodization for global women's history within the agricultural era, but to indicate real issues for analysis and for exploration in teaching; and the same could well apply to other central topics in social history in dealing with the consequences of cultural change, new trading relations, and broader contacts across AfroEurasia more generally.

In the same vein, the early modern period, already well treated in social terms in several respects, may merit more comprehensive attention. David Christian sees the period in terms of big historical change, citing the emergence of commercial societies that presumably differ both from purely agricultural and from industrial or modern. Is this both a valid and a socially generalizable characteristic? Were there both common and significant results from heightened commerce not only in the West, but in East Asia, Africa, and the Americas? The answer is probably yes, and we could begin to unify our generalizations about the spread of wage labor, new economic inequalities in China resulting from the uses of silver, and of course newly-commercial forms of slavery. But we're not yet in a position to trace concomitant changes through the wider range of social history topics, and the possibilities are intriguing, without rushing into premature identifications of the explicitly modern.

The central point is, of course, a greater commitment to thinking in terms of more systematic social change, at least as a challenge to analysis in teaching and research alike, rather than plugging social topics into discussions of particular societies in more haphazard fashion. The approach can admit some world history periods that don't have much resonance in key social history categories, some facets of social history that are worth discussing but offer no particular pattern at any point (is there a world history of crime?). But the desirability of using known social divides more fully—the Neolithic and industrial revolutions—and of working on degrees of change within the agricultural period—is quite genuine. We could open some new analytical frontiers.

Social history and world history do not have identical purposes. There is ample room for social historians to continue to pursue new (or less-new) topics on regional bases, and world historians will remain interested in discussing balances and connections among different parts of the world (as against West-centrism) in ways that do not always embrace social characteristics. Difference, however, should not preclude more concerted interaction. In exploring the implications of world-history periodization, for example, or the even more obvious opportunities for more ambitious comparisons, social historians can act on the general injunction to reconsider their geographical bases, while enhancing their teaching impact as well.

Benefits to world historians may be less clear. There is already a great deal on the world history plate, and one can imagine the groans that would accompany an expanded list of topics to include in the world history course. More broadly, social history, precisely because of its tendency to generate new research targets in seeking historical understanding of the range of human activities, has always been a bit messy, not always balancing its innovations with equal attention to coherence or teachability. World historians should be advised. Against the problems, however, social history can also help world history gain greater contact with the lived human experience, can help anchor and illustrate generalizations about new contacts or world economies that otherwise risk seeming unduly abstract. Too often, now, we find social history topics like childhood taken up, if at all, only for the modern period. In related fashion, social history offers concrete ways to realize the common exhortation of dealing simultaneously with the local and the global. Finally, as world history moves increasingly into combinations of research and teaching, social history offers an immense store of potential topics, a source of enhanced innovation; not all of the results need be included in every teaching effort, but there will be increased opportunities for choice and illustration in a lively field that, through this interaction, will become more lively still.

Social and world history do maintain one final commonality that can justify this further interaction and expand from it: both fields work on redoing standard teaching narratives. The goals of getting away from an exclusive diet of great white men and great Western societies overlap substantially. Already fields like African history, increasingly sophisticated in dealing with the mixtures of resistance and collaboration that greeted Western intrusion, are routinely mixing the social and the global. Still more can be done, well beyond the understandable fascination with resistance. The appeal, again, is not for union but for more deliberate collaboration, more testing of mutual findings and premises. And while part of the challenge involves new research and synthesis, there are opportunities to use new teaching formulations to further the agenda, as has so often occurred with advances in world history in the past.

Biographical Note

Peter Stearns is currently provost at George Mason University. He is editor of the Journal of Social History and is the distinguished author of numerous books on world history, including Consumerism in World History, Gender in World History, and World History: Patterns of Change and Continuity. Stearns is also the former chair of the AP World History Development Committee.

A version of this essay was given as the plenary lecture for the World History Association annual meeting at George Mason University in June, 2004.


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This article was originally presented online at World History Connected Vol. 2, Issue 2. The online journal World History Connected is partially supported by the College Board and published in association with the History Cooperative. Copyright © 2005 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Reproduced here with permission.