People

Social History emerged as a field in the mid-twentieth century as a reaction to older fields—political history, diplomatic history, the history of great men and great ideas—that, in their focus on elites, failed to address the historical experiences of the vast majority of the human population. Social historians, committed to understanding the lives of ordinary people, have faced particular challenges locating sources. Across time, most non-elites have have had little access to the written word; most of the textual sources that do yield information about them were created by those who governed or employed them. Rather than being discouraged by these challenges, social historians have responded creatively, turning to quantitative data, material and visual culture, the built environment, and oral histories to supplement more traditional archival and printed sources. Grasping the possibilities and constraints faced by people in the past inevitably entails grappling with the dynamics of categorization, consciousness, and mobilization. The field of social history therefore intersects with the study of families, childhood, gender, race, labor, religion, crime, poverty, health, and disability (to name only a few themes). Parallels in our preoccupations and sources also lead social historians to be in frequent dialogue with scholarship in the disciplines of sociology, anthropology, geography and archaeology.