This special issue continues a conversation launched in our Winter, 2001 issue, on the future of social history. The first set of papers focused heavily on current problems, including the knotty relationship with the "cultural turn" and its aftermath. The papers collectively generated a clear sense that a further discussion, more focused on new opportunities, would be fruitful. While all sorts of issues might organize such a discussion, including reviving some earlier debates about the role of narrative and modes of presentation in the field or the question of appropriate periodization, four topics commanded greatest attention: the question of social history and choice of geographic units of study; the ongoing analysis of power and the relationship between social history and politics; revived concerns about social structure and inequality; and the relationship between social history and teaching/reaching wider publics. The first four sections of this issue are organized around these topics in sequence with a final section, inherently more open-ended, on subjects for the future.
Papers in this volume were initially presented at a JSH working conference, held at George Mason University in October, 2004.
The intention in all the sections is to provide social historians with the chance to deal with basic analytical issues fundamental to maintaining the field and its sense of identity (in appropriate relationship with other facets of history and with other social sciences) and to recognizing the array of opportunities that remain for the future. The essays in the earlier discussion, in 2001, largely agreed that the field was in transition in several respects, while dividing between optimism over essential tasks to pursue and some sense that the field has passed its prime. This issue—while presenting some explicit disagreements and debates—organizes largely around the more optimistic tack, that there is much to do in the coming years and that, more broadly, social history retains a fundamental mission in providing both data and analytical tools essential in understanding the human experience and social behaviors.