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  • Part III: Reintroducing and Refining Social Structure in Social History
  • Peter Stearns

There is widespread agreement that attention to social structure has declined in historical research over the past two decades, partly as a result of changes in the classic structures of industrial society and the decline of Marxism, partly as a result of the cultural turn. There is far less agreement as to whether this matters much. Social historians who take advantage of the cultural turn and its frequent amorphousness on class, risk appearing as outdated throwbacks, even by scholars who have also tired of the cultural emphasis.

Why, then, discuss some form of revival? Societies do organize inequality, and understanding their systems and the ways these systems change and persist, is a fundamental responsibility of historians who attend to the nature of societies and the social experience. There's an obvious contemporary twist as well: as historians have turned away from precise examination of systems of inequality, inequality has in fact been deepening in many societies, and with it issues of poverty and a stiffening of hierarchy. The goal of connecting the social past to the social present, and of bringing wider publics to some understanding of these connections, may well demand a return to issues of structuring.

Advocating greater attention to the analysis of social structure, often though not always involving attention to social class, does not require insistence on a sterile or purely quantitative anatomical approach. Three additions, at the least, are essential. First is a recognition that a finer-grained analysis, into subgroups of, say, larger entities like the middle class, is often desirable and possible—the subgroups may derive from particular income or work categories, but also from clusterings around issues of culture or taste. Second, deriving from the cultural turn but predating it in social history itself, structure must be intertwined with lived experience, with the perceptions and usually multifold identities of participants. The old interest in structure, including mobility, must combine with the results of linguistic and cultural analysis, while adding to a purely cultural approach a greater interest in material realities. This hybrid approach includes of course the understanding that power relationships are not political alone, that various facets of life define and emerge from the organization of inequality; and also that social structural analysis, like the social history of the state, must avoid simple models of imposition and resistance toward more interactive frameworks. Third, it is vital to see different aspects of social structure as particularly salient at different times—there is no set repertoire of classes, and indeed structuring, rather than structure, best conveys the unfolding of systems of inequality over time.

And of course there are creative disagreements about how to approach social structure and what, if any, theoretical frameworks to apply. The two papers [End Page 779] that follow concur on the importance of dealing with social structure, including its political manifestations, but they differ considerably on both focus and approach. While not providing a single model, the potential debate suggests the vitality of the issues involved. Attention to social structuring is not a matter of reactionary revival; it will contribute to new understandings of the past and of the emergence of contemporary systems.

Peter Stearns
George Mason University


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pp. 779-780
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