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Journal of Social History 39.3 (2006) 703
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Issues of Power in Social History: Social History and the State
Social historians have grappled with the issue of approaching the state and politics since the inception of the field. Some were, admittedly, attracted to social history because conventional political approaches repelled them, and the impulse continues in some quarters—including fields like subaltern studies. Pleas to �put the state back in� began to resound from the 1970s onward. At the other extreme, many social historians were drawn to their work by deep political commitments, and this too survives (perhaps more in certain regional fields than others); there is even some hope that recent developments suggest new roles for politically-engaged history. In between, there were some fascinating reversals and re-reversals, as in the decline of social explanations for the French revolution, in favor of the revenge of culture and ideas, and then their partial re-emergence.
The papers that follow demonstrate a deep interest in relating the social experiences and outlooks of ordinary people to state formation and the political process, sometimes by looking at extensive timeframes, sometimes by looking at particularly charged single moments. Social history helps us plot complexities in political change during encounters such as colonialism, as three of the articles suggest, but there are other opportunities as well. The interaction between ordinary people, and their cultural notions of political legitimacy, and state formation and imposition remains a hallmark of the social history contribution to understanding the political process. Even amid marked disparities of power, political arrangements usually need to be seen as negotiated among various groups of players. At the same time, simple equations of class with political stance have fallen aside, as a result both of greater scholarly sophistication and the sheer weight of recent experience. But the importance of evaluating influences on and results of the political process through the lives and beliefs of ordinary people, often across class, remains striking, in times and places such as early modern Europe or the adjustments of colonialism and postcolonialism. The influence of cultural work shows in the newer approaches, leavened however by an awareness of the emanations of power and authority.
This collection does not, admittedly, explicitly address the issue of social historical analysis of state activity in clearly-formed states, such as those of the United States and Western Europe over the past half- century, though the concept of governmentality may relate. Similar basic criteria would surely apply, but an explicit discussion of social history, the state, and politics (including militarism) in additional contexts remains desirable.