The Historical Method of Karl Marx
Thirdly, the opening story presents a paradox. The old slave-owner loved her slave; the young slave-girl was taking singing lessons. Both the emotion and the behaviour recorded violate our expectations. Surely that was not how Roman slave-owners normally felt or normally treated their slaves. Probably not. But we should be cautious about imposing our own prejudices and categories on to other societies.
That way, we miss half the fun of studying history; that way we look into the past and see only ourselves. Finally, as with the opening story, most of our evidence about Roman social life is fragmentary. Surviving sources provide only illustrative vignettes of daily life. Statistics, which are the bread and butter of modern social and economic history, are missing or, if they do survive, can rarely be trusted.
The large gaps in our records highlight the social historian's obligation to reconstruct the past with imagination, even with artistic creativity, but constrained from flights of pure fantasy by the authenticating conventions of scholarship. Imagination is needed, not merely to fill the gaps in our sources, but also to provide the framework, the master picture into which the jigsaw fragments of evidence can be fitted.
Social history is not, or should not be, a blindly accumulated pile of facts whatever they may be. It should not even be a quilt of testimony, however cunningly devised, each piece cut from abstruse sources.
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Social history has to be thought out, as well as artfully presented, as a story, a moral tale, a belle-lettre or an essay in intellectual adventure. It has to be thought out, because we interpret the past to the present.
We cannot confine ourselves to the intentions and perceptions of historical actors. We know what they did not; we know what happened next. We should not throw that advantage away lightly. We have to identify and to analyse long-term forces, the structure which moulded individual actions forces of which many actors were often only dimly aware: for example the growth of Christianity, or the increased costs of defending a large empire against barbarian attacks.
And above all, the historian has to choose a topic that interests him and his readers. That is one reason why all history is contemporary history and repeatedly needs to be rewritten. We look into the past and inevitably write something about ourselves. I began with a triviality — against my better judgement.
Trivialities are what social history used to be about: clothes, hunting, sex, weddings, houses, eating, sleeping. For most people, in all periods, major preoccupations; but for serious historians, marginal matters compared with politics, laws, wars and foreign relation. Social history provided mere light relief, the tail-piece for proper history, just enough to convince the reader that the subject matter was human after all.
Fashions have now changed. And, thanks to the work of Norbert Elias, we can see changing habits of eating and lovemaking, not only as part of the cultural transformation of western civilisation, but also as a reflection of changes in the extent of state power. But that is sociological history, and another story. Social history is more difficult to define than political or economic or military history. Whereas those terms apply to the history of distinct kinds of activity, the term social covers virtually everything. In fact there have been three very different views about the nature of social history.
The oldest view of social history was that it was the history of manners, of leisure, of a whole range of social activities which were conducted outside political, economic, military and any other institutions which were the concern of specific kinds of history. One problem with this rather residual view of social history was that its domain shrank as historians of women, the family, leisure, education, etc. There was also the danger that these histories could become trivialised by the exclusion of politics, economics or ideas from the activities they were investigating.
In a reaction against this some historians have gone to the other extreme and argued that social history should become the history of society: societal history. The idea is that political, economic, military and other specific types of history each study only one aspect of a society. It is necessary to bring these various types of history together into a single framework if that whole society is to be understood.
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This is the task of societal history. There are many difficulties with this view of social history. First, the whole approach is based upon the assumption that there is a society to study. But when we use the term society we do not normally mean a distinct social structure, but rather the inhabitants of a certain territory or the subjects of a particular political authority. It remains to be established whether there is a distinct social structure which shapes the way these people live their lives.
There is a danger that this assumption of a single society will be imposed upon the evidence. Thus the assumption that English society was becoming industrial during the nineteenth century, along with various ideas about what a pre-industrial and an industrial society are like, can distract from the proper task of the historian. Instead of describing and analysing specific events, the historian is lured into categorising various elements of 'society' according to where they are located on the path from pre-industrial to industrial.
This 'evidence' is then cited in support of the original assumption. The argument is unhistorical, circular and empty of real meaning. A much more promising way of bringing the different branches of history together into a single framework is to distinguish between different dimensions such as the political, the economic and the ideological.
Then one tries to relate these different levels together. Marxist history is the best example of this kind of enterprise. But equally the tradition associated with Max Weber can lead in the same direction although with important differences. In both cases, however, the central concern is no longer with 'society' but rather with other concepts such as 'mode of production' or 'types of legitimate domination'.
It makes little sense to call these approaches examples of social or societal history. There may still be the assumption that the ultimate purpose is to understand 'society as a whole' or a 'social formation', but this assumption is not an essential element in these types of history. What is essential is how the different dimensions are defined and then related to the evidence and to one another.
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A third view of social history is that it is concerned with experience rather than action. One might argue that people who are wage-earners, parents, citizens, consumers and much else besides must possess some sense of identity which underlies all these particular roles and must experience the world in ways which extend beyond these roles.
The job of the social historian is to provide a general understanding not at the level of 'society as a whole' but at the level of the individual or the members of particular social groups. But there are problems with this.
All the historian can do is study the records of people's actions in the past which still exist. 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. The recent upsurge of interest in the history of 'everyday life' has sometimes demonstrated these weaknesses when it has sought to go beyond the rather antiquarian pursuit of bits and pieces of 'ordinary life'.
These three views of social history — as a residual history of assorted social activities, as societal history, and as the history of social experience — seem to lead nowhere. 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. 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.
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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.