Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Varieties of History

Social History: Apparently less a formal school of history and more a collection of vaguely related sub-schools.

Sub-schools of Social History include...

Big History: Also called Annales History. This is an interdisciplinary, problem-oriented approach that looks at a major region or historical question over a broad period of time. It sees history as operating on three time scales: histoire événementielle (events and individual time), conjuncture (social time of intermediate duration), and, longue durée (structural and geographic time).

Little History: Also known as History from the Bottom. Written from the perspective of ordinary people, this sub-school focuses on the masses with an occasional emphasis on daily events (Alltagsgeschichte).

Macrohistory: The study of a historical unit through time, which has two sub-schools. “Big History” macrohistorians focus on history from the origins of the universe into the future. “Macrohistorical sociologists" seek to offer a larger world-historical sociological perspective than that of traditional sociology. Examples of macrohistories include: Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire: An Introduction to Big History, by David Christian; The Rise of the West, by William McNeil.

Microhistory: This branch examines the responses of individuals to long duration historical circumstances. It focuses on heuristic analysis of the vestigial and the anomalous, as well as of “forgotten” peoples.

Intellectual History

This school believes that historical change occurs when new ideas motivate people to take action. While its scholars acknowledges that material conditions play a role in change, its founding premise is that ideas are the more powerful of the two factors. Traditionally focused on great books and thinkers, Intellectual History has moved towards a broader scope in recent years.


History of ideas: Traces systems of thought.

The Contextualists: Analyze contexts to ascertain the full meaning of texts.

New Intellectual History: Seeks the “ideas, attitudes, and opinions of the common person” (Wilson, 89)--sometimes refered to as the spirit of the times (mentalitéor / Zeitgeist). A good example of this is Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms, which looks at a medieval Italian cheese maker and the persons surrounding him in order to reconstruct the beliefs of ordinary people within that time period and place.

Cultural History

Cultural historians see culture as more than a reflection of material circumstances. They tend to make use of an anthropological approach and study language as symbolic system by which human beings organize and make sense of their experiences.

“The study of culture becomes more significant if social, political, and economic factors change at different paces because culture allows one to explain regional variations. For example, if economic changes are the causal factors behind the French Revolution, then the historian is faced with explaining why the Revolution took place in France rather than the more economically developed England” (Wilson, pg 91).

Binary schools of thought:

Materialists: Examine material condition to explain changes on other levels. Material realities determine economics, which shapes society, which gives rise to culture.

Nonmaterialists: Cultural factors are the predominant factor and determine economic changes.

Subjects of Cultural History:

Folk Culture: This arose from attempts to preserve regional cultures in the late 19th century. Such historians often agree with the Grimm brothers' assumption that high culture is an artificial construct, while low peasant cultures are organic entities with deep roots.

Space: Unique spaces shape unique cultures. Example: Fredrick Jackson Turner's Frontier Thesis that the United States' frontier was the primary engine behind American democracy.

Comparative History:

Often international in perspective, comparative historians contrast related historical developments in separate places and/or times.

“Comparative history offers historians one of the better responses to universalizing theories because it balances analysis of broad traits and trends while still maintaining the ability to highlight historical specificity. Comparisons allow historians to reconcile the tension between sociology and history” (Wilson, pg 99).

Issues in comparative history:

Delineation: The task of isolating crucial factors from incidentals by the comparison of functions to delineate commonalities.
• It is easier to compare closely related societies.
• It requires choice of meaningful comparisons, rather than just throwing addition unrelated facts at the reader--a not uncommon failing.
• See Peter Kolchin’s Unfree Labor, a comparison of Russian Serfdom and American slavery.

Works cited:

Wilson, Norman J.. History in Crises? Recent Directions in Historiography 2nd ed.. Pearson Eudcation Inc, New Jersey, 2005.

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