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  • Part I: Social History and Spatial Scope
  • Peter Stearns

Social historians' decisions about geographic framework, or regionalization, are rarely as explicit as those involving chronological framework, or periodization. This is particularly true in the common tendency to choose national units for topics ranging from family to patterns of work—whether national political factors enter in strongly or not. Subnational selections—for example, the many regional studies in France characteristic of the Annales school—may be more carefully justified in terms of internal coherence and demonstrable distinctiveness, though even here a certain amount of routine may prevail. But the possibility of supranational regionalization, in preference to national choices, is rarely considered. Not only routine-mindedness around the sanctity of the nation state, but also a frequently erroneous assumption that cosmopolitan connections are for the upper classes and the powerful, not ordinary folks, tends to obscure the consideration of larger spatial contexts. This is not for want of inspiration in theory—one needs only think of the international perspectives of Marxism. In point of fact, however, it has been the rare social historian who has even tried to probe capitalist structures beyond the national level. The whole subject, as many scholars have noted particularly in the aftermath of the "cultural turn", has been undertheorized and undervalued.

Small wonder, at a time of self-examination in social history, and amid the contemporary commonplaces about globalization and the rise of world history, that many social historians are calling for a more explicit and open-ended attention to spatial choices. The recent special issue of the JSH generated more appeals for new geographical range than any other topic commanded.

The essays that follow illustrate various approaches to the spatial question (some, in combination): they include crossnational comparison; exploration of the travel networks of ordinary people, beyond the already-familiar example of emigration-immigration; larger regional options, particularly the Atlantic world; and global or near-global contexts—not only with globalization per se, but with factors such as the ubiquity of European-derived racial constructs and their role in international urban configurations. The importance of the spatial frameworks carried in peoples' heads, or mental maps and identities, also figures into the conversation.

While deliberately varying in approach, depending on topic, the papers concur on several points beyond the plea for explicit discussions of space. They acknowledge that spatial choices will vary with topic and time, and should not be expected to hold constant. They firmly insist on the importance of interregional contacts for many ordinary people, whose geographical range may sometimes surpass that of elites, and they suggest possibilities for discussing hybrid class formations for people on the move. They reflect some of the challenges of wider geographical choice, in terms of the range of archives that must be consulted. They urge further interdisciplinarity, particularly with geographers [End Page 613] and anthropologists who deliberately consider spatial issues, and appropriate attention to physical environments—there are many additional opportunities to pursue. Opportunities also include the desirability of more formally analyzing different velocities of international transmission, and different inertias in reacting to international influences, depending on time and topic, and the desirability of active dialogues among some of the large regional analysts—Indian ocean regionalists, for example, with Atlantic world adepts and Europe-wide formulations. They suggest opportunities to build on local and national findings—one of the reasons wider geographies can be considered involves a maturation of social history beyond initial discovery. But they also, quite deliberately, suggest that local evidence and the power of local example can be combined with wider geographical range.

The papers that follow center on particular topics, valuable in their own right, but their authors agree on the importance of seeing their work also as case studies on the possibility of reevaluating choices of space, as part of a process of moving social history forward and linking it more clearly to some of the leading issues of the contemporary world.

Peter Stearns
George Mason University


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pp. 613-614
Launched on MUSE
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