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The "New History"

- Abstract

A SOCIOLOGIST FRIEND recently complained to me of the amorphous state of his discipline. Sociology, he said, is totally undefined, both as to subject matter and methodology; no one knows what it is supposed to comprise or how it is supposed to do what it purports to do. He envied history its good fortune in having fixed boundaries and focal points-periods, countries, regimes, dramatic events, and great leaders. And he admired its clear and firm notions of scholarly procedure: how one inquires into a historical problem, how one presents and documents one’s findings, what constitutes admissible evidence and adequate proof. I gently disabused him. Whatever advantages history may once have enjoyed, it is rapidly disburdening itself of them all. In fact, it seems bent upon transforming itself into something like sociology.

Anyone who has followed recent historical literature, watched the proliferation of new journals and the transformation of the old ones, served on panels for the distribution of research grants, or looked at the latest program for the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, can testify to the revolution that is taking place in historical studies. Where once the great masters of history were Gibbon, Macaulay, and Ranke, they now seem to be Durkheim, Weber, and Levi-Strauss. The currently fashionable subjects come directly from the sociology catalogue: class, mobility, family, childhood, work, leisure, literacy, poverty, crime, violence, mobs, ethnicity, deviancy, sexuality…. And the new subjects are accompanied by new methods. Where history was once primarily (often entirely) narrative, now it is primarily (often entirely) analytic. The old questions, What happened? and How did it happen?, have given way to the question, why did it happen? And prominent among the methods used to answer the question of “Why” are psychoanalysis and quantitative measurement.

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