Sunday, December 30, 2007

Whither social history?

In updating the "Historians' Debates" sections of the social and cultural history chapters for the 2nd ed. of Sources and Debates in English History, 1485-1714, we discovered a wealth of new studies. We list those at the end of chs. 1, 5, and 9. There appear, however, to be two general critiques of the directions taken by current soc/cult history.
  • First, it is increasingly common to reject any binary like elite/popular (or perhaps a multiplicity of those binaries). Ultimately, however, this comes down very much to insisting that there is also a middling sorts.
  • Second, new cultural history often means a search a la James Scott for hidden transcripts--how the non-elite worked secretly or obliquely to modify the public transcripts. The latter is what is in most records (e.g. State Papers, Quarter Session records) and is how the elite wants the relationship to be seen (there is irony in the attempt to denigrate elite/popular, while letting it reappear as a way to talk about these things). So the public transcript is always in contestation, is always being challenged, and the only way to get at this challenge, the hidden transcript is to read the pubic transcript obliquely. Years ago, USA Republican VP Spiro Agnew attacked effete, impudent snobs (those who didn't like the government's approach) because the silent majority was really on his/Nixon's side. Hidden transcripts, like the silent majority's intention, is essentially in the eye of the beholder.
  • The new social/cultural history is probably correct in its general assessments. And it can be very exciting for students (like approaching history through borderlands, or margins, or transgressions). But isn't it also in some sense constructed, instead of flowing from the record?
  • A corollary of the weapons of the weak/hidden transcripts argument: is that the people were decidedly political (pretty much in a timeless fashion) but were too bright to confront power directly (oh and to look at crowds and incipient political belief is wrong because they are already political--this one confuses me a bit)--and earlier historians are wrong for insisting that village rioters could ever have been pre-political.

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