In a 1970 article advocating ‘social history as the history of society’, E.J.Hobsbawm concluded that it was ‘a good time to be a social historian’. ‘Even those of us who never set out to call ourselves by this name,’ he wrote, ‘will not want to disclaim it today.’ Twenty years later, Keith Wrightson recollected how it felt to be present at that dawn. ‘The past teemed with questions which had scarcely been asked, let alone answered,’ he wrote. ‘If they were considered of little significance in the traditional hierarchy of historical concerns, then that hierarchy needed to be demolished and the subject restructured.’ A whole range of ‘new histories’ were pounding on the doors of a complacent, conservative academy:
‘Alongside the established and continuing historiographies of politics and government, religion, thought and economic growth, were to be placed histories of family structure, marriage and childhood, adolescence, old age and death; of social stratification and class relations; of popular attitudes and values, literacy, crime and social control; of gender relations and sexuality; of kinship and neighbourhood, deference and resistance, work and leisure, geographical and social mobility, living standards and consumption and the social basis of participation in religious and political movements.’
Wrightson felt in 1990 that, far from fulfilling its projected role as the mother discipline correlating explorations of those teeming new questions into new syntheses, the very success of social historians in answering them had turned the new discipline into a patchwork of ‘enclosures’, each worked by its own autarchic specialists.
The aim of this paper is to cast a friendly but critical eye over fifty years of social history and to try to assess where it stands today: Attention will be given to the relationships between social history, radical history and socialist history.
David Rollison taught history and politics at the University of New South Wales and the University of Western Sydney from 1975 to 2007. He is currently an honorary research associate in history at Sydney University, and visiting research fellow at the University of East Anglia. Author of ‘The Local Origins of Modern Society’ (London and New York 1992) and ‘The English Explosion: the Age of the Commonweal, 1381-1649’ (Cambridge).