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Social History

Author(s): Werner Conze and Charles A. Wright

Source: Journal of Social History, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Autumn, 1967), pp. 7-16
Published by: Oxford University Press
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Social histoxyhas enjoyedincreasingpopularityin recent years

and interestin this area of study continuesto grow. For this
reason it seems desirableto discussnot only the conceptof social
history but also its possiblescope, particularlysince ideas about
it are often vague, confused,or even contradictory.
Social historymeans "the historrof society or, more precisely
of social structures,processesand trends' For this reason, it is
"involvednot only with the field of history, but also with that
of sociology."lOf course one cannot conceive of social history
as being in a position to resolve the differencesbetween history
and sociology, differencesbased in part on methodology.It is
possible howeverSfor social history to bridge the usual gap be-
tween the two rigorouslyseparateddisciplines, a gap which is
historicallyexplicable,thoughhighly suspect, as the two areas of
study deal with the same object. It is the task of social historyS
and one quite within its scope to obviate the increasingdangers
of individualizinghistoricismon the one haIld and those of a
"sociologism"which tends to incorporateand subordinatehistori-
cal study on the other.2
NVhatis today termedthe socio-historicalviewpointin historical
researchwas by no meansunknownin-the early modernstudy of
history,ie, up to the time of the classical historiansof the mid-
nineteenthcentury,since the conceptssCsocialand "political'were
not so consciouslyseparatedby these historiansas they were by
the spokesmenof the rising "socialmovement"and the scholars
in the field of sociology. Gennan historical scholarshipin the
traditionof Ranke, Droysen,and Treitschkeadopted a defensive
attitudetoward these ideas and supportedits position with argu-

* TransIatedby CHARLES A. WRICHT.

WERNER CONZE is directorof the InstitutHiirSozial-und Wirtschaftsgeschichte
at the Universityof Heidelberg.
1 WernerConze, Sozialgeschichte, RGG}VI (Tubingen) col. 169.
2 See SIansFreyer,Soziologieund Geschichtswissenschaft, GWU III (1952),
14 ff.; Hans Mommsen,"Sozialgeschichte" in the FischerLexikon,"Geschichte,"
ed. WaldemarBesson (Frankfurtam Main, 1961) 313 ff.

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8 journal of social history
ments of idealism and historicism.3Since this defensivenesshad
imtially been supportedby philosophicalarguments,by the con-
viction of the superiorityof humanistictrainiIlg,and by the belief
that personalresponsibilitywas of decisiveimportancein history,
it led to the danger of underratingor degradingmodern social
trendsand, consequently,to the limitationof the historians'views
to the state in its internal and external affairs and to "political
ideas."Thus, the late nineteenthcenturysaw an inevitablereaction
to this one-sided approach,a reaction which was manifestedas
a particularemphasis in historical scholarship,as "social" or,
characteristically,"socio-economichistory." In addition to the
dichotomy"history-sociology," there developeda tendencyto sub-
divide history into "political,""social,"and "socio-economic."A
new special area of studyconsequentlyarose,with its concomitant
requirementof new, specializedjournalsand separateprofessor-
ships. At the same time, it becameearidentthat social historywas
no longer independentof economic history, but that it was sub-
ordinatedto the latter or incorporatedwith it. This is shownSfor
example,by the term"economichistory,"whichis used extensively
in English-languagepublicationsand which includessocial history
to some extent. Peculiarly enough, no complementaryterm to
designatethe verbal or scholarlyconnectionof "social"and "in-
stitutional"history has become popular, although it seems that
one is scarcely less necessarr,from the historical and scientific
pointof view, to integratethe separateconceptsof state and society
as those of economicsand societyhave been combined.4
This tendencytoward a certainpredominanceof economicsin
the sphereof "socio-economichistory"can, of course,be explainedy
quite aside from the nineteenth-centuryideological assumptioIls

3 RudolphVierhaus,Ranke und die sozEaleWelt (Miinster, 1957), demon-

stratesto what a large extent Ranke has iIlcluded"the social world?'ill his
historiography.The same is tme more clearlyand impressivelyin Heinrichvon
Treitschke'sDeutsche Geschichteim 19. Jahrhundert.Thus, Treitschke(l)ie
Gesellschaftswissenschaft, 1859) refutesthe separationof a social world from
the politicalcontext.See also Hans Droysen,Historik,ed. Rudolf Hubner (3rd
ed.; Munich, 1958),414: Anolder,bynomeansunrealistic, culturaltradition
for which a split of politics into state and society was inappropriatejoins with
an idealisticallyand moraIly based indignationagainst modern "atomism,"
"radicalism"as well as "materialism and nihilism,"which uses "atomisticmen"
"as the basis of its 'sociology'."
4 In Germanysince 1903 the Vterteljahrsschrift ffir Sozisl-nd Firtchafts-

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(Materialismand Marxism), by the fact that the concept of eco-

nomics can be abstractedmuch more readily and clearly from its
associationswith historythan can that of "society,"for the former
deals with the "arrangements made and measures[taken]to supply
humanneeds,"5whereasit is scarcelypossibleto abstractthe con-
cept "society"from its relation to political or economic matters.
Thus, it is evident from the basic concept of social history that
"society,"or matterspertainingto it, can only be studied in its
relationto economics.The social historianmust look for the rela-
tionships which determinesocial forms and trends; he therefore
resists the thought patternsappropriateto only a sector of the
problem,to social history.He tends to approachhis study from
the viewpointof social and economichistoryor social and institu-
tional history. More precisely, he proceeds from the realization
that a separationof politicalfrom social historyis possibleneither
logically nor on the basis of content and so will attemptto base
historical researchon social history, or at least to allow social
historyto color historicalresearch.
However one may judge and, accordingto individualconvic-
tion, acceptthe mediatoxypositionof social historybetweenhistory
and sociology on the one hand and between special forms of his-
torical researchon the other, it is in any case difficultto define
social histoxysharply.Attemptsto do this necessatilyinvite con-
troversy,quite unlikesimilarendeavorsin economichistory,which
is more readilydefinable.A referenceto the historyof ideas may
clarify the real basis of the problem."Economics"(oeconomia),
like "society"(societas), is a conceptin Westernpoliticaltradition
dating back to Plato and Aristotle. Both concepts lost their old
meaning in the turmoil of modern revolution and assumed an
entirelynew one.
While economicsdevelopedfrom domesticeconomy into inter-
national economics by way of national economics and became,
even when abstractedfrom geographicalreferences,a relatively
unambiguc)us concept divorcedfrom politicalpolemics,the analo-
gous processwith "society"did not produceso clear a result,and
the concept was enmeshedin the controversybetweenrevolution
and counter-revolution.The conceptualformulationof "society"
65 FriedrichLutge, Wirtschaftsgeschichte:
der SozEalwiss.41st
Pig tGottingenXTubingen,1962), 124.

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10 journal of social history
in the prerevolutionary traditionwas the socieras civilis, the politi-
cal or civil society as a communityof citizensin the
the polis or res publica. In (scientific) politics prior to the
teenth century,societas civilis, divorcedfrom its original
tion to the classical city-state,meant the vertical and
structuringof the community,an orderin which state and society
could not yet be conceived separatefrom one another.For
reason, the equation: civitas sive res publica sive societas
last appearingin Kant's work, was consideredvalid. This
society was, accordingly,a personallyconstitutedorder of
pendent men (heads of families), extendingfrom the monarch
through the nobility and patriciansto the independentmaster
craftsmenand the farmersas membersof village communities,the
latter only to the extent permittedby his limited freedom
positionbeforethe law. It was a patriarchalsystem,in which order
was achievedthroughthe multiplesovereigntyof man over
as well as throughthe responsiblecooperationof citizensor
classes in communal activities from the provincial diets to
village councils. Consequently,there could be no social
distinctfrom political history.In the scientificsystematismof the
sixteenth,seventeenthand eighteenthcenturies,the most extensive
and importantarea of study was the historia civilis or
politica. In termsof modernclassification,this comprehended
politicaland social history,since it was based upon the structural
principleof the personal,patriarchalsystem of a societas civilis
orres publica.Politico-historicalconceptsof this type
astructureof the body politic which was, or was supposed
to be,
thesame at all times, and these conceptswere retained
turmoilof historydue to the rise and fall of personsand
The separationof "state"and "society"destroyedthe
ofviewing politics and history as proceedingin a grand,
;traditionfrom the Greeks and Old Testament Jews up to the
present.Europeansovereignscreatedfor themselvespersonalstates
whichwere superiorto and, so far as possible,independentof
innatepower of the societas civilis. The first steps toward
separation were taken when, on the one hand, the state, as an
impersonal entity, freed itself from the pnnce as a "fatherof the
people" and transformedhim into the "firstservant"of the state,

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and when,on the other, the social classesof the old societascivilis
rose againstthe state in the name of freedomand law.
When, however, this developmentcontinued, and a group of
enlightenedintellects,hommesdes let1;res, arose in the eZighteenth
century,conceptsof an entirelynew, class-nullifyingsocietyafford-
ing basic equalitybegan to develop,and the progressiveseparation
of state and society becameembroiledin the revolutionof thought
and deed. The state stood betweenthe revolutionaryand the tradi-
tional concept of society. Depending upon how much the state
disappointedthe expectationsof the extremelyradicalproponents
of a new society,or opposedthem,or even supportedthe powerof
the historicallyreactionarysocial stratificationof the old societas
civilis,the discordbetween state and society increased.The long
reveredsocietascivilisceasedto be a normativemodelfor political
constitution.Whereverthis view was advocatedafter the French
Revolution,the idea was attackedas "reactionary" or "rexranchist."
The old social order,in whichthe nobilityhad occupiedthe highest
position,was brandedas "feudalism."6 In place of the socio-politi-
cal structurewhichhad beenlegitimatedby its age andits character
as the "eternalorderin the worldwilled by God,"there appeared
sharplycontrastingmodels which enjoyedthe advantageof being
plansfor the future,prognosesandutopias.Moderntrendsreplaced
the progressivereturnto, or movementtoward,the basicallyun-
alterableorderof man as animaliasocialia.
Since the key to understandingmodernrevolutionwas, and still
is, to be found in the changedconceptionof society from that of
the res publicaof publicly active, propertied"fathers"to that of
the associationof all men of every social stratum,engagedin all
mannerof pursuits,it is not surprisingthat "the social question"
assumeda primaerrole in politicalhopes and worries,to such an
extent, indeed,that historywas conceivedto be an entirely"social
movement":the worksof Lorenzvon Stein and Karl Marx esem-
plifythis.Around1840, the catchword"socialquestion"was coined
with referenceto that part of the populationwhich had not be-
longed to the old societas civilis and whose emancipationcon-
6 Cf. Otto Brunner,"Feudalismus:Ein Beitrag ztlr Begriffsgeschichte,"
Alkademieder Wissenschaftenund der Literatur;Abhandlungender geistes-und
Klasse, 1958, No. 10 (Wiesbaden,1959), 591 ff.

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12 journal of social history
sequently became a major plank on the platform of the new
society. In the middle of the nineteenthcentury,'4socialquestion"
meantthe conquestof masspoverty("Pauperism")and the "prep-
arationof the proletanatfor admissionto full citizenship"(Fr. von
Booder) by means of education,moral training,aIld welfarepro-
grams.The final formulation,by Karl Marx, postulateda revolu-
tion of the proletariat,of the social class which was the absolute
negation of the cnsis-bound developmentcharted by the bour-
geoisie, a class which was, consequently,destinedto bring about
the revolutionarychange to a new ';socialistic"(i.e., "classless")

Howeverthe "socialquestion"or '4socialmovement"was under-
stood, evaluated,and utilizedfor politicalpurposes,it was decided
in the decadesafter 1850 that the politicalmovement(which dealt
wlth the structureof the state) was semanticallyand conceptually
distinctfrom the social movement(which was to realize the new
sociegr) in the same way that Mars and other revolutionariesdis-
tinguishedthe all-embracingsocial revolutionfrom a merelypoliti-
cal one. Correspondingto this there was, in the latter half of the
nineteenthcenturtr,and particularlyin Germany an increasing
de facto separationof history (state) and sociology (society). It
was a separationwhich was never completelyachieved,but it led
to a methodolopcal division of which increasingcognizancewas
taken, as in Max Weber'sgeneral observation,"Sociologyforms
type-conceptsand searchesfor generalrulesto explainevents.This
is in contrastto Histoly, which deals with the analysisof causes
and the evaluation of individual, culturally significant actions,
schemesand personalities."7 If we considerboth: the division of
"socialS'and "political"characteristicof the politicaland histoncal
situation in the "Age of Revolution" (Burckhardt), and the
methodologicaldistinctionbetween the analysis of types (sociol-
ogy) and the analysis of individuals(history), it is evident that
two things are implied by the rise of social historyin the closing
decades of the nineteenthcentuer. First, that the understanding
of the "social world," as it had been developedby the study of
history (in conscious oppositionto sociology), was not at all (or
at least not any lotlger) adequate,and second, that the supposed

7 Mas Weber,Wirtschaftund Gesellschaft(3rd ed.; Tubingen,1947)>9.

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methodologicaldifference (or, indeed, contrast) was rejectedor

Understan-dablyS the content of the newly developed study of
social history was determined frequently,if not in the majority
of casesjby the "socialquestion"of the nineteenthcentury,so that
it might almostbe identifiedwith the historyof workers'problems
and movements.8Such a limitationis now increasinglyless con-
sonant with the social and political realitiesof nations having an
older industrialsystem and with the problemsof modern social
science, which deals with the structureof society as a whole, in
all its manifestations.Moreover since a sharpdistinctionbetween
state and societyis scarcelypossibleany longer, due to the present
interpenotration of the two areasof study, the conceptualdistinc-
tion between"political"and "social"is only possible to a limited
extent. It follows that present-daysocial history cannot be the
historyof a "socialquestion7"as was posed to the nineteenthcen-
tury, nor can it be consideredas separatefrom sCpoliticalhistory.
Social historyis not ". . . the historyof a people with the politics
left out.'9
There are no social structureswhich have not arisen from or
been influencedby politics and which conversely,have not had
an effect on the structureof the state or on political affairs,once
they have matured and become self-suflicient.Social history is,
therefore,nothingless than "political"history,the historyof events
and decisions.In social history,however, interest is not directed
at eventsin themselvesbut at their determinantsand social mani-
festations. In this sense, Fernand Braudel distinguishesbetween
"histoire des structures"and "histoire evenementielle.''l°These
terms are not mutuallyexclusive,but supplementand affect one
another.Insofaras the historianfollowsone approachor the other,
it is a matterof focusingdifferentlyon the same facts in a single,
indivisiblehistoIy. Preciselyfor the sake of historicalunity, we
requirethe socio-historicalmode of investigation,for the funda-

8 In part this reductionis still used, as for instancein the Archivfur $ozial-
geschichte,publishedby the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung since 1961.
9 As George M. Trevelyandefinesit, howevernegativelyand with qualifica-
tions, in the Introductionto his EnglishSocial Hastory(London, 1942).
10 FernandBraudel,La Mediterraneeet le Monde mediterraneen a l'Epoque
de Philippe11 (Paris, 1949), with the divisioninto "geohistoire," "histoiredes
structres" "histoiredes evenements."

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14 journal of social history
mental questionof histoxy,that of the relationbetween freedom
and determinism,can only be answered(approximately)at those
timeswhen the factorsin social determination,in connectionwith
those in industty and technology, are perceived as clearly as
The peculiarityof a "histoiredes structures"is most emphasized
in the varietyof ways in whichit measureshistoricaltime. Between
the instantof the passing event and the concept of infinite time,
thereare tempi of time moving at diSerentrates, dependingupon
whetherwe observeparticulartypicalprocessesas economiccycles
or as particularlydurableformsof social and governmentalorder,
institutions,and so on. This determinesthe problemof greateror
lesser durationin social history,the "longuedurees'(Braudel).ll
Periodizationin historyalso appearsdiSerentlyin socio-histori-
cal studies than in our customarydivision of it into "epochal
years"of greatevents.In the Marxismof present-daySoviet states,
for example we encounter the socio-historicalperiodizationof
worldhistoryadvancedby Marxand propagatedby Engels, Lenin,
and Stalin: primitive society, slave-holdingsystem, Feudalism,
Capitalism,Socialism,and Communism.Even though this theory
of historicalstages is partiallyquestionable,and less Marsist than
a combinedMarxist-Leninistform,l2it doubtlessincludes correct
or possible type-concepts,by means of which understandingcan
be gainedor, to be sure, impaired.From the socio-historicalview-
point, anotherdivisionof epochs in universalhistoryis suggested.
One may conceive the :first100,000-yearpenod in the primitive
historyof mankindas endingwith the rise of high cultures,those
in whichthe plannedincreasein agriculturalproductivity(by the
introductionof the wheeledplow and cart,teamedowenand irriga-
tion) freedhumancreativeand productiveenergiesfrom the need
to satisfydaily requirementsand nothingmore,thus makingpossi-
ble a more advancedculture. Subsequently,there has been only
one epochaldivisionat a similarlyextensivealterationin the social
structure:the modern technologicaland economic revolution at
the end of the eighteenthcentury, with its related political and
socialinnovations.It is worthnotingthatevenin such an economic,
social, and technologicaldivision of time into primitivehistoxy,
Annales, XIII (19583, 725 ff.
Cf. FriedrichVittinghoff,Saeculums ca. 1960/61.

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high culture,and the modernworld,the era of Christ'sbirth,which

is today neglectedor dismissed,once again achievesprominence,
since the revolutionary,socially emancipatingbreakthroughto
modernworld civilizationwas begun and completedin the Chris-
tian Westernworld,and this was presumablymade possibleby the
Christians'freer relation to the "world.'7
The proceduresof socialhistoryarecharacterizedby the analytic
and synthetic methods generally accepted in historiography-
which means that they lead to typologizing.* This, of course, in-
volves generalizationswhich are alwayssubjectto rearision through
an examinationof the sources and the method of concretizing
particulartypes.l3 The distinguishingof structural,procedural,
and formal types is appropriateto histoer. (Th. Schieder).l4
In conclusion, three of the many methodologicalpossibilities
for the social historianshould be emphasized.These three, the
conceptual-historical,the biographical,and the statistical, have
provento be particularlyfruitful.
It is well known that our traditionalsocio-politicalconcepts
have been plunderedof their traditionalcontent, more or less
radically revised, and transformedin the storm of ideological
debates which arose from the Enlightenmentand revolutionin
the eighteenthcentury.Moreover,neologismshave had to sene the
purpose of designatingthe new social world or expressingthe
changedsocial consciousness.Ambiguity,confusion,and the polit-
ico-ideological transformationof socio-political concepts and
new slogansare characteristicsof the age of revolutionand social
change. The practices of socio-historicalresearch and reporting
have often sufferedfrom the poor developmentof conceptual-
historical consciousness. Research in social history now faces
One scarcely need emphasizethat the biographicalmethod is
indispensablein social history.In it lies the concretizationor indi-
vidualizationof the typical, of which I have just spoken. In the
biographyof not only the "greats"iIl history,but of the "small,"
13 Cf. ReinhardWittram,Das Interessean der Geschichte(Gottingen,1958)
54 ff.
14 Theodor Schieder,"Der Typus in der Geschichtswis senschaft
," in Studillm
GeneraleV ( 1952).
15 Cf. Brunner,"Feudalismus," as an examplefor a socio-historicaland con-
ceptual-histoncalclarificationalong these lines.

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16 journalof social history
"unimportant" men, social historyachievesexemplaryindividuality
and typologizationof groups.Thereis a greatdeal of unexamined
materialhere, and genealogyis becomingan importantauxiliary
study to social history.l6As early as the late nineteenthcentury,
the idea of writing biographiesof common people was
workers'biographiesin particular,which were compiled through
interviewsand transcriptions,with an occasionalautobiographical
work. The collectionof the Norsk FoLkemuseum in Oslo is to be
noted as offeringprime examplesof the method used.l7
In contrastto the clarityof biography,statistics,in many ways
the basic requisiteof the method, is abstract.In any event,
quantificationof structuresand movementsis indispensablefor
the social historian.The degreeof perfectionwhich can really
achievedby modern mathematicalstatisticsin some cases is not
only a questionof ability on the part of the social historians,but
even more a question of the applicabilityof historicaldata and
the utility of pertinentand authenticsocial ideas, the
of which determinesthe value (or lack of value) of
formulationsand caIculations.
Methodologically,social history is now engaged in forging
strongerrelationsbetweenthe too-frequently-isolated special areas
of history and sociology, a procedurewhich is vital to
ment.Here and there,more intensifiedexaminationof basic prin-
ciplesin this area is beginning.Good monographshave appeared
in increasing numbers of late. Grand socio-historical
developedin detail are still lacking however, as no one has at-
temptedan examinationof even one country,let alone a social
historyof Europewith particularattentionto the "modernworld."
16 For an excellent recent exampIe, see Joachim Lampe,
undStaatspatriziat Arisfokraties
in Kurhannover:Die Lebenskreiseder hoheren Hofadel
denkurhannoverschen Beamtenan
Zentral-und Hofbehorden,1714-1760,2 vols. (Gottingen
1963) . For a fruitful approach to social history,
combining the conceptual-
historical,intellectual-historical,and biographical methods, see
Anfangeder deutschenArbeiterbewegung Wolfgang Schieder,
(Stuttgart, 1963).
17 C. Edvard Bull, Arbeidermil j0 underdet industrielle(Gjennombrudd, Oslo

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