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History and Social Science

History and Social Science
 

It strikes me – though this is as much a question to my disciplinary colleagues as a statement – that it might be timely to remind ourselves and others of the social science components of historical research and analysis. The point is not to ignore the clear links between history and the humanities, but to revive a tension that once helped situate historical study.

Back in the 1950s and 1960s, when among other things the field of social history was effectively birthed in the United States, there was a really active debate about where history stood – as an art or a science. Eminent scholars debated the subject, the Social Science Research Council sponsored relevant publications. My sense at the time, entering the field as a professional, was that the debate was inconclusive, and that is still my belief. But I was cheered, taking my first job at the University of Chicago, that the department was clearly located in the Social Science Division (though with a few individual practitioners in the humanities). And I did think that some awareness of the issues involved was desirable, even though a clear-cut decision seemed unlikely.

In one sense the social science potential remains strong. We have an active Social Science History Association, with many historians and joint appointees participating, with its own journal, clear offspring of the social science enthusiasm of a half-century ago.

But for much of the field, many younger practitioners, and the impressions held about history by the academy at large, I think social science components have receded considerably. Even the important innovations around information technology in the field are seen as part of the digital humanities, with no clear social science link. Substantial (and excessive) abandonment of quantitative methods by most historians by the 1980s, along with increasing quantification in many social science areas themselves, plus the famous “cultural turn” in historical research, sealed the deal in the eyes of many scholars, in history and without. Economic history was largely lost to the discipline in the process. And even now, with the cultural turn itself in decline, a fuller reengagement with social science has yet to occur.

The change is abundantly clear in a sub discipline of deep interest to me. When work on the history of emotions began, in the 1980s, interdisciplinary collaborators centered in the social and behavioral sciences, with sociology in the lead but anthropology and social psychology deeply involved as well. After all, these were the fields that studied in emotion, and if historians had anything to add they needed both to use what these fields already knew, and address the fields in turn as part of their core audience. But as emotions history has gained ground – really impressively – it has substantially turned away from these collaborations, and focuses either on historian clientele or, if interdisciplinary, on the arts and literature. This orientation is particularly marked in some of the leading current academic centers, as in Western Australia.  Nothing wrong with this as part of a broadening out; but to lose the social science connection is to distance history from the core of emotions study – and this is a disservice to all concerned.

So I wonder if some renewed discussion of our social science links might be timely, both for history and for the unavoidable historical components of the social sciences themselves. I’m not urging a literal revival of the formal debate, though rereading what was ventured before might be methodologically useful. But seeking a new take on social science links, and involving some of our students in more active interdisciplinary connections, could be genuinely stimulating, helping to attach historical research to some of the larger questions in society today – from the problem of growing inequality to the assessment of globalization.