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What Is Social Science History, Anyway?

This group of essays came out of an attempt to address the “usually unasked,” “bound to embarrass” question that Eric Monkkonen raised in his 1994 presidential address to the Social Science History Association. As both the social sciences and history have been reshaped in recent years by intellectual tendencies variously labeled “postmodernism,” “poststructuralism,” or the “linguistic turn,” the never especially clear relationship between the social sciences and history has grown even more muddy. The essays that follow [End Page 475] are drawn from two sessions of the 1998 annual program of the Social Science History Association. The sessions brought together scholars from a variety of disciplines and cohorts who held divergent ideas about the links between social science and history and different substantive agendas for explaining historical change. A mix of essays that highlight new methodologies for analyzing the past and pieces that offer explanations or remedies, the articles printed here point to some of the central issues in the debate about what social science history might mean today. 1

Articles that find their way to the mailbox of Social Science History can cover any time, any place, and any subject and can be rooted in any number of disciplines. What belongs in the journal? Like Social Science History Association meetings, the journal on one level is devoted to a method or an approach—“research that attempts generalizations of some breadth verified by systematic examination of the relevant evidence and supported by quantitative analysis when appropriate,” as the editorial statement describes it. The “quantitative” clause reflected both the state of the art in the 1960s and 1970s and the sensibility of the organization’s founders. Quantification was the high road to locating central tendencies and general patterns, social scientific historians’ hope for conquering “traditional” history’s obsession with the particular and distinctive. Interdisciplinary and comparative work would also contribute to the cause of systematic, theoretically informed history. But as social science theory has changed, has the meaning of social science history changed with it? Is “social science history” any work that examines the past using the tools of another discipline? Does any theory, systematically applied to a historical problem, make social scientific history?

The question, then, is what kinds of work fall under the heading social science history. Answers to it sooner or later go to the venerable problem of the nature of social theory, of settling on the meaning of science and social science. Almost as soon as the social sciences and history had fully professionalized, epistemological debates roiled the disciplines. A few episodes seem especially nasty and pointed. In the 1930s and early 1940s, the battle lines emerged between the partisans of absolute values and the devotees of scientific naturalism. Those social scientists who argued that values had to be grounded in something decried the anti-intellectualism, mindless faith in the scientific method, and Deweyian relativism of the scientific naturalists, while [End Page 476] their opponents dismissed them as superstitious zealots whose thought had not advanced since maybe the eighteenth century. The rise of European fascism took the argument beyond the usual academic squabble: those who held that truth was knowable (if not known) claimed that relativism gave rise to fascism and that relativism had no grounds on which to launch opposition to fascism. Scientific naturalists replied that fascism was nothing if not absolutist; it demonstrated the danger and the folly of belief in Truth. The 1960s and 1970s supplied another episode, as some scholars denounced what had become of the scientific naturalist project, with its concern with midrange theory and unified social systems as an elitist project that preserved the status quo. Calling for history from the bottom up and dissent from what they saw as the mindless empiricism that reigned in the social sciences and history, some scholars produced what they saw as truly critical work that overturned both the received disciplinary wisdom and its related comfortable judgments about the inherent goodness of American democracy and social structure (Purcell 1973).

The Social Science History Association drew on both scientific naturalism (and its heirs in the 1950s and 1960s) and its critics in the 1960s and 1970s. Many of its members retained a healthy respect for formal hypothesis testing and midrange theory. They also had a commitment to a bottom-up approach that turned its attention to the experiences of ordinary people (workers, slaves, peasants) and broad patterns of change. Armed with new sources, quantitative techniques that tapped them, and sometimes an arrogance about their ability to change the way history was done, social science historians challenged standard interpretations of the history of slavery, political and social movements, and numerous other topics.

And they continue to do so, often as respected practitioners in their disciplines rather than rebellious outliers, even if interdisciplinary work is still more often praised in the abstract than rewarded in the concrete. Many of them, along with scholars using everything from Marxist and neo-Marxist frameworks to traditional narrative techniques, find themselves pitted against those who have adapted methods from cultural studies. The argument echoes some elements of the earlier debates, as Mary Jo Mayne pointed out at one of the SSHA sessions. If social science historians were once accused of presumptuousness and producing ugly work that might not [End Page 477] pass as “real” history, scholarship that borrows from “postmodern” theories encounters equally negative aesthetic judgments. There is more. Like the episode in the 1930s, this debate is sometimes mixed in a hazy way with current political quarrels, especially the contention over the merits of “multiculturalism.” And like the 1930s arguments, too, the recent ones go to fundamental questions about what we can know about the past or anything else. The radical skepticism about claims to knowledge in some versions of postmodernism goes well beyond the relativism of the 1920s and 1930s, treating claims to knowledge as nothing more than assertions of power. These arguments have arisen, ironically, just as some social scientists have found various ways to unite the formerly scorned hallmarks of traditional history—narrative and uncertainty—using formal models (Bates et al. 1998).

Because the “postmodern” challenge reaches into both the social sciences and history, the SSHA meeting seemed like a good place to revisit the ongoing discussion about the meanings of social science history. The sometimes heated conversation in the sessions turned to the history and nature of the association and to a debate about theory versus formal theory and modernism versus postmodernism. Among the SSHA’s charms has been its pluralistic, eclectic character. Skeptical about nostalgic talk that implies that the SSHA and the practice of social science history were once both more unified and more likely to push scholars beyond their topical homes, Andrew Abbott’s essay asks us to consider time and position. The meaning of “social science history” or anything else can’t be accurately defined by the impressions or memories of a single cohort. But is “social science history” what happens at the meetings or what a given cohort, defined by age or discipline, makes it out to be? Charles Wetherell, in an essay that inspired much discussion, says no. His contribution makes a spirited case for formal theory as the fundamental meaning of social science history and warns that the “science”in social science is in danger of slipping away at least in history, as training in formal methods gets harder to come by and the rewards for that training become more uncertain.

The next three essays are examples of some methodological innovations and new thinking about how we deal with time and space. Alice Bee Kasakoff’s essay analyzes the relationship between history and the least “scientific” of the social sciences, anthropology. In order to both reconnect the [End Page 478] disciplines and deal more accurately with the past, she proposes reconceptualizing how historical anthropologists and demographers think about space. Dealing with flows of people—the movement of people across space—rather than constructing the classic local study that largely ignores movement focuses attention on an important population often left out of case studies bounded by space. It also fits with work in history that analyzes transnational processes rather than national developments. Peter Bearman shows how sociologists or historians might apply the techniques of social network analysis to events rather than people. Illustrating how to construct event structures through the example of revolution in a Chinese village, Bearman’s article shows that new methods in the social sciences can produce (rather than consume) history. Through network analysis, history retains context, varied interpretations of events, and attention to meaning, while retaining sociology’s concern with structure and general patterns. Tse-min Lin returns to a classic problem in political history and political science—why voters made the choices they did—with innovative methods. He applies time-series analysis to the question Walter Dean Burnham raised about American electoral politics to determine the importance of economic considerations to electoral behavior. In the process he contributes both to methodological debates and to an important historical problem. His essay indicates that new methods as well as new sources (I have in mind the large data projects) will generate fruitful debate on classic problems and generate new questions.

These are hardly the last words on a subject that will perhaps be picked up, if nothing else, by some confused journal editor in the future. They were not the only words even at the sessions. But they do reflect both the big issues at stake and some of the methodological excitement in social science history.

Paula Baker

Paula Baker teaches history at the University of Pittsburgh and is the corresponding editor of Social Science History. Thanks to the participants and audiences of the session on the past, present, and future of social science history.


1. There were also presentations by Barbara Laslett, Carole Turbin, Mary Jo Maynes, and Margaret Somers, and a paper by Steven Haber. Due to the authors’ time constraints, their essays do not appear here.


Bates, Robert H., Avner Greif, Margaret Levi, Jean-Laurent Rosenthal, and Barry R. Weingast (1998) Analytic Narratives. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Purcell, Edward A., Jr. (1973) The Crisis of Democratic Theory: Scientific Naturalism and the Problem of Value. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky.