Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Confusing Social and Cultural History

I've nearly finished my preparations for the PhD qualifying exams in Russian History. My dissertation proposal is, I believe, about 80% complete and in need of only a little rewriting and reorganizing. I have also been reading more about the defining of several strands of history past and current in "the academy," at least in the United States. I've had a lot of difficulty compartmentalizing Social versus Cultural History.

Part, or perhaps most, of the confusion arises in changes in day-to-day speech in English-speaking America. In short, I have read that today we speak of culture in a very similar way to how Americans spoke of society a generation ago. Social problems and societal strife were topics of interest not too long ago but perhaps have been replaced by cultural concerns and the so-called culture wars.

At one point, social history meant for some of its proponents Marxist History, i.e., Labor History. It was characterized as "history from below," in opposition to "Great Men" history, Diplomatic History, Military History, and other brands of writing about the past that did not necessarily put "the masses," "the workers," and "the proletariat" at the center. Part of the concern with writing a history from below, however, is that the proletariat and the masses aren't truly "the bottom" of any society. By nature of being workers, they are among the employed and employable - for much of the industrial revolution, women, the elderly, and the physically impaired were a small part of the overall workforce, pigeon-holed into specific professions. As this has changed, the history of "the worker" may seem to be closer to a "history from below," but I think sometimes the Labor Historian's reach may exceed his grasp. This is hardly a negative characteristic, as it showcases a desire to attain the impossible.

In any event, I wanted to share these thoughts because so often a discussion of Cultural and Social History quickly devolves (evolves?) into jargon and terrifying phrases like "discourse," "dialectic," and strange alternate uses of common words like "archaeology" and "knowledge."