All history is important. Political history provides the climate people lived in, economic
history provides background on the way people made a living. A good social historian must
know the theories and ideas surrounding all aspects of her or his area of research.
To illustrate by example:
A bad social historian will look at the fact that grain exports increased in a certain decade
and will conclude that peasants were living better because they were selling more grain,
and therefore, had more ready cash. The peasant was spending more money, ate meat
every day, built a better house, provided schooling for their children, became literate, ran
for office, and eventually rose to the level of a prosperous, middle class farmer who has a
perpetually pregnant wife who produced more boys than girls.
A good social historian, on the other hand, will not only look at increased grain exports, but
also at seed yields, and the political climate of the time. The good historian (GH) will find
that a law was passed which allowed landlords to arbitrarily raise the rent, and that these
landlords could forcefully requisition grain as payment to increased rent. The GH will also
discover that there was a law which fixed the domestic price of grain at an abnormally low
price. The GH will also discover that seed yields have remained the same during this time
period. The GH will conclude that the peasant was living worse because all the grain he was
growing was being given to the landlord to pay for rent, and since the price of grain was so
low the peasant did not, in fact, have enough grain left over to feed the family, the
livestock, and to use as seed the next year. This peasant family was starving.
Primary Sources: diaries, memoirs, journals, oral accounts, manuscripts, etc.
Secondary Sources: opinions based on primary sources.
At first social history tended to focus on men and the nobility. There was still the idea that
history had to be about movers and shakers. In the mid 1970s, a group of historians (mostly
women) started to look at women’s history. They discovered that women’s lives did not
involve only childbearing and child rearing. Women’s historians disabused the belief that
women did not have a history.
Another offshoot of social history came from labour history. Labour history asked questions
about the formation of unions and other worker’s movements. The new worker’s history
asked questions about how the worker’s lived, what the worker ate, who was involved in
the unions and why. These same questions were asked of rural dwellers, creating the world
of peasant history. There is, unfortunately, gaps in the history of merchants and the middle
Two new and exciting components of social history is gay/lesbian history and gender
history. The former asks questions about what it was like to be gay in the past. Many
people were under the assumption that homosexuality is a late twentieth century
phenomenon. Gay/lesbian history proves that this is definitely not the case. Gender history
examines how being male or female caused you to have different experiences while
involved in the same event. Gender historians ask questions like: what were the
experiences of men at university, what were the experiences of women at university during
the same time period and at the same university.
The concept of gender history came from the idea that masculine and feminine is a social
construction. Historians have found this idea interesting and helpful to understand the
changes society has made to the definitions of masculine and feminine and how these
changes affected peoples’ reactions in certain situations.