Social History: Legacy and Prospects

In 2016, as the Social History Society celebrated its 40th birthday, the annual conference returned to the SHS’s spiritual home at the University of Lancaster. As part of the more-than-usually reflective proceedings, the outgoing Chair of the Society, Dr Karen Hunt, chaired a roundtable on the state of the discipline.

The plenary roundtable discussion on ‘Social History: Legacy and Prospects’, featured a panel of the University of Manchester’s Professor Penny Summerfield, Anglia Ruskin University’s Professor Rohan McWilliam and the University of Nottingham’s Dr Kate Donington.

While the new social history and history from below of the 1970s, reflected in the founding of the Social History Society, did much to broaden out to recognise the importance of social forces and social groups, Penny Summerfield said during the roundtable, it also tended to treat “subjectivity as a defect for which historians needed to compensate. Since then there’s been quite a change, and I see the 1990s as a key decade. A decade in which there was growing interest in the self, in selfhood and a sort of humanisation to humanise and democratise history and rehabilitate the individual in history… And there was not so much of a concern to establish typicality than to ask what the exceptional and unusual and obscure person could tell us about the rest of society, about social relations, about ways of thinking and feeling, about strategies for living… Over the last four decades, subjectivity and the self have been put on the agenda for social and cultural historians, and that’s in complete contrast to how things were in the 1970s, when subjectivity was almost a dirty word. Whereas now, for many, though obviously not all social and cultural historians, subjectivity is a legitimate matter for historical inquiry and a route to understanding the past.”

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