HST287 Reading Notes, 23-Sept-2004

History and Social Theory
Peter Burke

Theorists and Historians

Mapping the difference between
    sociology: "the study of human society, with an emphasis on generalizations about its structure and development"
    history: "study of human societies in the plural, placing the emphasis on the differences between them and also in the changes which have taken place in each of them over time." (p. 2)

18th cent. social theorists or "philosophical" historians, sometimes called fathers of sociology though that is not what they claimed for themselves, interested in discussing civil societies:
Charles de Montesquieu - French legal theorist - greatness and fall of Rome
Adam Ferguson - Scottish moral philosopher - progress and termination of Rome
John Millar - the same - relation between government and society from Anglo-Saxon to Elizabeth
Adam Smith - economist - Wealth of Nations - economic history of Europe

19th cent.
Leopold von Ranke - political history (with a bit of social) - followers, strictly political for 2 reasons: 1) need for nation building (p. 5), 2) "professionalization" of methods of research of official records (social history too "soft" based on litereary, etc.)
William Dilthey - distinguished between science (describing the outside) and humanities, including history, describing from the inside (like Croce)

late 19th cent.
concern with longterm trends, evolution permeates everything: economic, historical, etc.
Comte: coined sociology: 3 ages: religion, metaphysics, science
derided historians as collectors of unimportant details (p. 9)

20th cent:
economists drawn in two directions: collecting statistical data to study development, and,
pure economic theory modelled on math,
psychologists: abandoning the library for the laboratory (p. 12)
anthopologists: fieldwork
sociologists: studying data of contemporary society - survey research

Karl Lamprecht - beyond political towards cultural history
Frederick Jackson Turner (American) - similar to Lamprecht
James Harvey Robinson - the "New History"
France 1920s: Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre (Annales)  - replace political with "wider and more human history" (p. 15) analyse structures - learn from other disciplines

1960s to today: increasing social history. Why? "In order to orient themselves in a period of rapid social change, many people find it increasingly necessary to find their roots and to renew their links with the past, particularly the past of their own community." (p. 19)

So, "blurred lines and open intellectual frotiers" between disciplines but, despite the fragmentation, "it is striking how many of the fundamental disciplines about models and methods are common to more than one discipline" (p. 21) hence the structure of this book.

Model and Methods

Compare for similarities or for differences. Use comparison to find "what is missing (Weber)". Dangers: 1) assuming that societies "evolve" 2) ethnocentrism: to compare means to accept one as the norm

Models and Types
Model/type: "an intellectual construct which simplifies reality in order to emphasize the recurrent, the general, and the typical, which it presents in the form of clusters of traits or attributes." (p. 28)
examples: Renaissance, feudalism, capitalism, mercantile system, peasant economy, city-state, class
Danger: "using them leads to indifference to change over time" (p. 31)

Quantitative Methods
statistical analysis: total and sample surveys
limitations: relies on sources (gi-go), relies on 'hard data' when 'soft data' may actually be more useful

The Social Microscope
microhistory, influenced by social anthropology: Montaillou (inquisition), Martin Guerre
Geertz, Foucault
limitations: trivial? 'National Enquirer" history
can one extrapolate from micro to macro?
47 ronin

Central Concepts

Social Role - "norms of behavior expected from the occupant of a particular position in the social structure" (p. 47). Child, royal favorites, etc. Do not judge morally but examine role. By doing so one might see patterns of structural importance rather than just behavior of individual.
Erving Goffman - impression management

Sex and Gender - man and woman are social roles. What happens to a historical study that leaves out women? explicit/implicit

Family and Kinship - by being aware of sociological methods when studying family groups, historians can better distinguish between hard and soft data, what impacts these data have, etc. They have a better vocabulary and can make finer distinctions

Community and Identity - Victor Turner: communitas (collective identities e.g. hippies) but where are the borders - communities are not monolithic - people move freely between them and perceive them differently (African Brazilians)

Class - Marx: "class is a social group with a particular function in the process of production" (p. 59) (see gender!)

Status - better than class? class implies conflict, status implies harmony or at least minimal conflict

Social Mobility - some distinctions: 1) downward mobility, 2) mobility over time, intergenerational and intragenerational, 3) individual vs. group mobility (British professors!)
Ottoman devshirme, Chinese civil servants, clerics

Conspicuous Consumption and Symbolic Capital - cc coined by Thorstein Veblen end of 19th.  "Apparent waste is actually a means for converting economic capital into political, social, cultural or 'symbolic' capital." (p. 68 quoting from Bourdieu)

Reciprocity - tribute, gifts, keeping up appearances, moral economy

Patronage and Corruption - "political system based on personal relationships between unequals" (p. 72)

Power - should be broadly envisioned and carefully defined

Centre and Periphery - things radiate outward from a centre (conquest paying for itself in Ottoman) dangers: ambiguity, is the relationship complementary or conflictual?

Hegemony and Resistance - Gramsci (cc the term) - ruled see themselves through rulers eyes so maintain status quo. Resistance by moving in slow motion.

Social Movements - Hobsbawnm Primitive Rebels charismatic leaders

Mentality and Ideology - "it is impossible to write social history without introducing the history of [everyone's] ideas" (p. 91) collective attitudes, unspoken assumptions, 'common sense' structure of belief systems Problems: how do they change over time? what about homogenization? problems of either/or not many

Communication and Reception - social history of language, cnstruction of meaning, reader response

Orality and Textuality - yeah but how does it read? McLuhan, Ong, etc.what happens in the shift from oral to written?

Myth - stories with social functions that 1) help define good and evil, positive and negative and 2) are recreated generationally and adapted to emphasize what is important to that society.

Central Problems

Function - as in "form follows..." (Louis Sullivan, Bauhaus) or in this case "social equilibrium follows..." What look like difficulties are often the ways a society maintains stability - it will do what it needs to do. Problems with this view: "temptation to neglect social change, social conflict, and individual motives" (p. 109)

Structures - systems of thought or culture (Saussure: code and message) Problems: meaning cannot be abstracted from context. Petterns are too rigid. And if you study structures do you leave out people.

Psychology - psychohistory, Problems 1) whose psychology? 2) came at a time when studying "great men" was going out of fashion. Also, how do you define 'basic' personality across cultures and time. Yet there are 3 uses:
1) Theory (more exactly, rival theories) may reveal the rational roots of apparently irrational behavior and vice versa, thus discouraging historians from assuming too easily that one individual or group acts rationally, while dismissing other individuals or groups as irrational." (p. 115)
2) process of source criticism: examine not only the culture and literary conventions but also age and position of author.
3) can add to debate on relation between individual and society, for example, psychology of followers of charismatic leader, or practices of chold rearing
The fit between private motives and public reasons (ex: reasons 19th cent. women writers gave for writing)

Culture - 1) has moved beyond "opera/high" culture to embrace popular culture, 2) is thought of as active rather than passive (ex: gender is culturally constructed, not an objective structure)
Bourdieu: habitas - regulated improvisation
post-structuralists: undermining categories
the study of change: cultural reproduction - how does a society replicate itself/its traditions?

Facts and Fictions - [Hayden] White also claims...like...Northrup Frye, that historians--like poets, novelists, or playwrights--organize their accounts of the past around recurrent plots or mythoi." (p. 126) "The myth of realism": historians claim to write what really happened (and people claim to know what really happened after reading them!)



1) Collingwood framed history against a backdrop of science. Burke is framing it against a backdrop of sociology. They both, on occassion, define what history is by trying to define what it is not. That is, they both try to carve out a niche for history in the context of other disciplines. I wonder how much this is shaped by academia's need for staying within the confines of disciplines, or, rather, how much the academic tradition of disciplines shapes their approach to defining history. In a truly multi-disciplinary system would such artificial distinctions be necessary? Could distinctions be made where needed based on methodologies instead? What changes/developments in historical theory and practice are missed or ignored by focusing on history as a product/concern of academics? These types of "what if" questions are problematic, but perhaps such reframing might provide another angle on how we define history. (And suggesting that reframing is a useful tool, is, in itself, an acceptance of and tribute to Burke's general thesis in this work.)

2) The question came up last time: What distinguishes history from fiction (myth?), that is, how do we know which is which? Burke addresses the fluidity of the border between the two, as well as suggesting that "we should be discussing. . .the compatibility or conflict between [the criteria used to define history and fiction] and different forms of text or rhetoric" (p. 129).  I'd like to enlarge the latter to include that there are differences in authorial intent and authorial practice.

The writer of fiction, while he or she may provide elements of verisimilitude, provides the story alone, usually adhering to an accepted form or forms of narrative recognizable as one of the standard fictional genres.  The historian also writes according to recognised formulas, and provides footnotes. Footnotes are the historians bargain with the reader, asking for the reader's trust and supplying reasons for that trust. Of course (!) the author can also betray the reader's trust by subverting these tools. (ex. Sokal/Social Text, as well as the classic "Felines and Bearded Men" study)

3) It might be fun to plug Mechal Sobel's "The World they made together : Black and white values in eighteenth-century Virginia" into Burke's list of monographs, either between numbers 5 and 6, or as number 7. Sobel argues that the acculturation of African slaves into 18th cent. Virginia society was not a "one-way street" and goes on to explore the impact of African culture on Virginia and Anglo culture, instead of the more traditional process of exploring the impact of the "dominant" culture on the "subordinate" culture. (Also, for acculturation, viewpoints and the history/fiction writing discussion, Lee Miller's Roanoke Lost Colony book)

The question is, do these works represent one current (major or minor?) thrust of historical study: the need to consider the "elephant in the corner", i.e. to ask the question "what questions are we not asking?"

4) ...and because I must: Burke's idea of the possibilities of 'braided narrative' makes me think (of course) of the possibilities of hypertext, especially hypertext+other media forms. Problem: it's still a form of linear reading/experiencing on the part of the reader. Pro and con: it can certainly be more reader-driven, reader-centric (cons have to do with readers' self-selection leading to limiting of experience). Possibilities? Definitely. Also, what happens to notions of history and research in a world where "all the answers are online" (the quotes because of the dual difficulties of "all": if all is assumed/perceived to be true because that's the only place people will look, and the difficulties, political, technical, and cultural, of getting things online...will continue to consider this one. Meanwhile it might be good to re-check the progress of Ed Ayers "Valley of the Shadow". )

OK he's British so did he have ulterior, humorous, motives in choosing Mar(ks)x and Spencer ...


hope.greenberg@uvm.edu, created/updated: 23-Sept-2004
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