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Reviews in American History 30.3 (2002) 355-364
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Social History and the Multicultural Turn
Thomas C. Holt. The Problem of Race in the 21st Century. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2000. xi + 146 pp. Notes. $24.00 (cloth); $13.95 (paper).
Gary Y. Okihiro. Common Ground: Reimagining American History. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001. xvi + 158 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $12.95.
Olivier Zunz. Why the American Century? Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. xvi + 254 pp. Notes and index. 24.00 (cloth); $15.00 (paper).
The year 2003 will mark the fortieth anniversary of the publication of E.P. Thompson's The Making of the English Working Class, widely regarded as the key text inspiring the revival of social history in the United States. Before Thompson's Dickensian analysis of class consciousness and formation burst onto the American scene, social historians on this side of the Atlantic wallowed in the shadow of intellectual history, their endeavor often trivialized as history with the politics left out. This, of course, all changed in the 1960s and especially the 1970s when a generation of baby-boomers, influenced by the political movements and cataclysms of their day, transformed social history into a vehicle for social critique and consciousness raising. While much of it still ignored politics proper, this sixties-inspired social history posed clear and convincing alternatives to "consensus" history. The subsequent dominance of social history resulted in the shrinking of differences between it and rival fields of American history. The reason had to do with more than the overall blurring of genres taking place between history and the social sciences. The rise in status of social history made its practitioners less defensive about incorporating new methodologies and appropriating from traditional fields such as political history. It was much easier to borrow as an equal than as an inferior.
One of the unfortunate consequences of social history's expansion in conceptual territory and methodological practice was that it lost coherence. While social historians never had marched in lockstep, there was, in the [End Page 355] aspiration for acceptance and respect, a strong need for a shared identity. In this sense they could gather under the anti-consensus banner of "history from the bottom up." Today, as this review essay will make clear, the ties that bind them are far less clear, while their differences have become strikingly apparent. Each of the historians considered here began his career as a new social historian and has become a leading figure in his respective area of research. Yet, interestingly, none of their latest books—each of which is a trim, problem-oriented synthesis—provides a classic "bottoms-up" view of American society, nor do they share a common vision for understanding its history. Taken together, Olivier Zunz, Thomas Holt, and Gary Y. Okihiro's recent books present the opportunity to comment on the path of American social history since the 1960s.
Of the three books, Zunz's Why the American Century? is the most self-conscious departure from the original direction of the new social history. The purpose of the book is to reinterpret the origins of U.S. global domination in the twentieth century by focusing on the domestic linkage between institution building and knowledge formation. Zunz's formidable reinterpretation highlights the innovative ways Progressive, and later liberal, elites faced the challenge of mass society by shaping the function of the social sciences, and reshaping relationships between social classes and the value and reach of cultural pluralism. In this sense, the title question refers to the attempt to explain the triumph of liberalism in American society with some attention to its failures. A second, interrelated theme seeks to explain the transition of liberalism from its American roots to its transplantation abroad. Here "American century" refers to the title of an editorial written by Life publisher Henry Luce, with whom Zunz begins and ends the book. The editorial, published in February 1941, opposed American isolationism in maintaining that democracy at home could only be secured by the exportation of democratic principles abroad. This...