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Social Science History 25.4 (2001) 483-533

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The Shock of the “‘New’ (Histories)”
Social Science Histories and Historical Literacies

Harvey J. Graff

In memoriam: Allan Sharlin (1950–1983)
Social Science Historian

At this meeting, we celebrate 25 years of the Social Science History Association, the SSHA. With appreciation from all of us, I acknowledge the achievements of our founders and our long-time members. We stand on their shoulders metaphorically and historically. We mark this anniversary with a plenary president’s “founder’s session,” a variety of retrospective and prospective panels, and the conference theme “looking backward and looking forward.” 1 We also commemorate more than 25 years of groundbreaking research [End Page 483] and recognition of the presence and practice of social science historians along the hallowed halls of history and social science departments—even if it has not always been accompanied by a ready welcome or complete acceptance. (We mark no fewer years of controversy.) 2

Twenty-five years is a long time in the history of academic disciplines and interdisciplines, a professional association, and professional life courses. The past quarter century has seen the rise, and sometimes the fall, of numerous “‘new’ histories.” Some of the passages have been unusually boisterous. A cry, a refrain of history as a discipline in “crisis” has often accompanied them (see Bogue 1986, 1987; also Fox-Genovese & Lasch-Quinn 1999; Higham 1989; Novick 1988; Ross 1995, 1998, among the literature). For me, these years also embrace my graduate education, my professional vocation as an interdisciplinary and comparative social historian, and my practice as a social science historian.

Despite the recognized achievements of the fields that constitute the SSHA, the status of contemporary social science history is clouded by criticism that risks misconception and distortion. In her recent presidential address to the American Historical Association, Joyce Appleby (1998: 5, 6) complimented social historians but then silenced them: “The new social history swept all before it for a decade or more”—despite its failure to move from data to understanding. By the late 1970s, she said, “social history settled into middle age, its disruptive potential spent.” 3 Acknowledging “the rich contribution of much of what was once called the ‘new social history,’” Eugene Genovese (1999: 6–7) condemned “much of the history now practiced in the academy [for] becoming increasingly specialized, careerist, bureaucratized, and politically conformist. . . . Contemporary academic history is being systematically gutted of the breadth, the drama, and, most dangerously, the tragedy that have accounted for its abiding hold over the public imagination.” Ironically (to choose a word), Genovese’s Historical Society may reflect the historical moment of its founding much like the SSHA reflected its time. Each presented itself as new, in opposition to established or mainstream practice, general and open, and restorative. For the SSHA, the problem was “traditional” or “narrative” history; for Genovese’s Historical Society, it was the “new histories,” like social science history, that came of age in the decades after the 1960s. Their ideals and agendas differ accordingly. 4 More sympathetic to [End Page 484] social science history, Dorothy Ross (1998: 93) observed that “those involved in SSHA’s original aims tend to be disappointed” with the outcomes.

SSHA’s twenty-fifth anniversary provides an appropriate—perhaps a necessary—occasion to review our own history: to reconsider social science history and the SSHA in their historical contexts. As the terms of criticism old and new illustrate, certain fundamental misconceptions plague the field and promote misunderstanding, at times widely. I seek to clarify that understanding by returning to the historical grounds of our origins and development. By renewing that connection, I propose alternative perspectives on several major issues about which misconstruals are common.

Toward that reconceptualization, I offer a set of intersecting reflections. First, perceptions of a discipline of history in crisis are inseparable from considerations of the rise of new histories, such as social science history. Notions of disciplinary crises and reconstructions of conceptions and practices within disciplines intricately interrelate and powerfully influence each other. That recognition aids efforts to understand...


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