What is Social History?
As a subgenre of historical research, social history delves into the societal aspects of a certain time and place. Social history is different than personal history in that it looks at the wider population—structural change within society, social change, and social movements. It also deals with how things were for the common man during any time period. Social history focuses on the group rather than the individual, but it can be just as fascinating as learning one of your ancestor’s personal stories.
Ask yourself these questions about a particular ancestor:
- Was there a war going on? (Did my ancestor serve in the military, marry a soldier, have a relative who went overseas, etc.?)
- Who was president/king/prime minister/etc.? Are there any clues about who your ancestor may have supported?
- What kinds of social events did people attend during this time period?
- What did my ancestor most likely eat every day? (Based on social class, location, gardening habits, income, recipes passed down to you, etc.)
- What kinds of clothes were in style? Did my ancestors’ photos reflect this, or did they make their own style?
- What recreational opportunities were nearby? (Theaters, parks, choir performances, libraries, clubs, pubs, etc.)
- What job opportunities were available? What education did my ancestor receive, and where did they learn?
As an interesting addition to recorded personal histories from times past, social history gives you an idea of what life might have been like for your progenitors on a daily basis. If you know, for instance, that one of your ancestors lived in Germany during the mid-1800s but you know nothing of her actual story other than a few dates listed in a government record, social histories about that time can help you gain an understanding of what your ancestor was likely facing. You can see what tides were sweeping social change, how people of specific economic classes lived, and how people went about the daily business of surviving. While you may not know anything about your ancestor beyond a name, you can get a general idea of what life was like for the average person at that time.
Social history is different than political history. If it is people who forge the politics of any particular group in any age of the world, knowing the influences in society that caused change or impacted the main body of people in significant ways can help you better understand why things happened in politics. What were their beliefs? Their needs? Their passions? These things shape political history, but by broadening your understanding of an era through social histories, political history can make more sense.
As you immerse yourself in your family tree, don’t forget to spend some time studying the social history of some of your more interesting relatives. Knowing social changes and structures can help you understand where you come from and why you have some of the opinions and perspectives that you do.
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