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  • Social History and Antisocial History
  • Michael Seidman (bio)

Why not narrate a politics of contempt for group difference, a glorification of individual difference? . . . the people who don't give a damn about the group are as intellectually and morally responsible as the people who do give a damn about the group.

—Richard Rorty, Against Bosses, Against Oligarchies

A number of distinguished historians have recently been inquiring into the meaning and future of social history. One of this subdiscipline's most prominent practitioners, Peter Stearns, defines social history as the practice of examining "groups of people," and individuals only in so far as they are "ordinary people." Paul Cartledge agrees: "Stearns very properly treats readers to a definition of social history . . . as 'changes and continuities in the experience of ordinary people'."1 Of course, this emphasis on groups and on experience defined as ordinary came as a reaction against prior forms of historiography. The bulk of history [End Page 40] writing before the second half of the twentieth century dealt with "great men" whose greatness was connected primarily to the nation or to public life.

Social history has always been related intimately to sociology, whose mainstream practices attend closely to social norms and, accordingly, ignore alleged exceptions. Perhaps the most influential representative of the sociological orientation in historical studies is the Annales school, which stresses climate, geography, and demography. The theoretical disregard of many Annales scholars for the personal is extreme but indicative of what has been the climate of the humanities and social sciences generally. To take another prominent example, Jürgen Kocka: "Social historians," he writes, "continue to be characterized by convictions and practices not shared by all historians. They reject all forms of strict methodological individualism. They are not primarily interested in single biographies and specific events, but rather in collective phenomena."2 Kocka's "they"—all social historians—are said to agree that starting from the exceptional, singular, or specific will lead to methodological (and political) failure.3

The very formulation social science (emphasis on social) presupposes a consensus against the consideration of individuals acting individually. Steven Lukes, among other Durkheimians, has explained why: methodological individualism does little but mask unacknowledged social explanations.4 Furthermore methodological individualists, such as Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, are hopelessly reactionary and capitalist. Remarks of this kind reveal the degree to which an emphasis on collective phenomena can lead a historian into mistaken generalizations. It was Louis de Bonald, the classic Catholic reactionary, who first challenged the methodological individualism of Thomas Hobbes by arguing that the individual can be known only in society.5 Generalizations like those of Lukes require that exceptions go unmentioned or be regarded as inconsequential—and it now appears to some social historians, myself included, that our work could only benefit by research into what has been considered marginal.6 Although group concepts are indispensable, historians have no reason to agree a priori to the argument that Homo sapiens is a social being. As Richard Rorty has said, "Some people take no pleasure in other people—only in their own solitude. Some people do the reverse. Most of us are in between."7 We have been [End Page 41] accepting too much on faith: it is easy to say that human subjectivity is unintelligible outside a social context but just as easy to say that social context is unintelligible without the individual. Neither is true; both are truisms. Less otiose is the claim, which I am inclined to support, that emphasis on collective experience encourages the "discovery" of communities or commonalities that do not exist now or did not exist in the past.

In this regard, the new cultural history is no improvement on the old social history. As Christophe Charle has written, "the most coherent of 'culturalists' adopt an anthropological viewpoint, replacing the sociological framework dominant until now in classical social history," but the concentration of the new culturalists, like that of the old social historians, remains on groups.8 E. P. Thompson, sometimes regarded as the transitional figure between these two phases of historiography, wrote most famously about groups—about social class—and Thompson's key concept of "moral economy" lends to the working class...


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