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  • Part V: Opportunities for the Future
  • Peter Stearns

Social history has matured as a field. It has lost some of the zeal of youth. It has been shaped by a series of new topical interests and theoretical approaches, some clearly beneficial, some verging on the faddish. It needs now to reassert some older claims, while avoiding mere reaction, while realizing the contributions of more recent approaches, and while continuing to innovate outright. It needs to recognize the dispersion of social historians in a variety of interdisciplinary programs and projects, both inside and outside the academy, while insisting on some core concerns and shared conversations.

This is the context in which the following essays deal with issues and possibilities for social history in the future. Some talk about utilizing but surmounting the cultural turn, dealing with cultural issues in combination with considerations of social structure and lived experience. Two papers point toward enhancing connections with environmental history and with social scientific inquiry with which social history once engaged and where new possibilities are emerging; cultural issues are not absent here, but emphasis goes toward new connections with science, with quantitative analysis, and with engagement with the institutional and material arrangements that, with culture, explain what societies are and how they function.

The result is hardly unitary. Yet most of the authors do share a commitment to social history defined as an interest in whole societies, in big changes in the way societies operate and are constituted, and in ordinary people as a vital aspect of and force in societies in the past. It would be sterile to insist on greater coherence or precise boundaries. As social historians digest the durable contributions of the cultural turn, revive several older emphases and methodologies, and develop new combinations, including transnational formulations, it is clearly time to encourage new experimentation and a new openness. It is appropriate as well to think anew about what social history contributes to the understanding of current issues and policy concerns and to think once more about wider audiences, among scholars, among students, and among the public at large. Here too, moving beyond the assimilation of the cultural turn and its necessary anchors in social history, new thinking will be welcome and, as these papers suggest, both possible and likely.

Peter Stearns
George Mason University


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