It has been almost 40 years since Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie published an English translation of his (at the time) deeply unsettling essay, “Motionless History,” in the second issue of Social Science History (SSH, Winter 1977).1 For many historians, whose livelihoods depended on narrating the “march of history,” his claim that long periods of history were characterized by a distinct absence of change—his example was Europe from late antiquity up to the early eighteenth century—was nothing short of heretical. The newly established SSH was, however, an entirely logical place from which to launch this fusillade against the disciplinary norms of the Anglo-American historical profession, as the journal was the product of a contra-establishment project, the Social Science History Association (SSHA). Founded in 1974 and hosting its first annual conference in Philadelphia in the fall of 1976, the SSHA emerged out of the more general social and political ferment of that period. Its organizers had the specific intention to disrupt (to use our word and not theirs) what they thought were the rigid practices and limited vision of the then American Historical Association.2 In so doing they hoped to make space for a new kind of historical enquiry that had much to learn from the social sciences, and hoped to teach them something in return. They were joined in that enthusiastic moment by historically minded rebels from the American Sociological Association, as well as small numbers of anthropologists, demographers, economists, geographers, and political scientists who were all eager to incorporate both historical context and a theoretical appreciation of contingency into their work.3 In the intervening years since that hopeful beginning, many have argued that the anticipated interdisciplinary exchange failed in one way or another. But let me not get ahead of myself.
First back to Le Roy Ladurie. “Motionless History” was an article with multiple agendas. One, of course, was to review the evidence for the thesis that “on the whole, the dominant impression up to 1720 is one of stability” (ibid.: 132). Le Roy Ladurie also used this article to announce his plan for a new course of study at the College de France, a development that was little noticed in North America, as attested to by Peter Perdue in his essay in this volume. Finally, and most importantly for my purposes, Le Roy Ladurie offered a summing up of the relationship between history and the social sciences as he saw it from the vantage point of the third quarter of the twentieth century in France. His remarks are worth quoting at length.
By way of conclusion, I would have liked to have emphasized the enormous debt we working historians owe to the social sciences. For lack of time, I shall have to content myself with dispelling a misconception. Up to the last century, the essence of knowledge was founded on the interaction of two parallel cultures: the exact sciences and humanities; mathematics and intuition; the geometric spirit and the sense of nuance. History, from Thucydides to Michelet, naturally formed part of the humanities. And then there appeared on the scene, first discretely, then in full view, a “third culture”—that of the social sciences. For a long time, their practitioners got along well with the historians. One could observe, in the tradition of Marx and Weber, of Durkheim and Freud, a constant exchange of concepts and defectors. More recently, however, there has been an attempt to reject the dimension of past time. The social sciences, which prided themselves on their hard-nosed scientific rigor, undertook to exclude history (considered a “soft” science) from their ranks. The struggle implied a great deal of ignorance and a certain measure of malevolence on the part of the aggressors. One pretended not to know that, since Bloch, Braudel and Labrousse, history had also effected its scientific mutation. History had surprised the social sciences at the swimming hole and made off with their clothes, and the victims had not even noticed their nakedness. . . . Everybody, by now, has been forced to admit the obvious: it is not possible to construct a science of man without a temporal dimension any more than it is possible to construct a science of astrophysics without knowing the age of the stars and the galaxies. History, which for a few decades had fallen into semi-disgrace—the Cinderella of the social sciences—has, therefore, recovered the eminence it deserves. History had the good sense to retire at the proper moment; it refused to become a narcissistic discourse which revels in the contemplation of self and in the commemoration of its own anniversaries. (ibid.: 135–36)
I would be remiss if I did not pause for just a moment to appreciate the irony of his last line here about history's “good sense” to refuse the “narcissistic. . . commemoration of its own anniversaries” on this occasion when SSH is doing precisely that! But the real question I want to ask, on this fortieth-anniversary occasion, is whether history actually did surprise the social sciences at the swimming hole and, moreover, successfully make off with their clothes? Has “everybody” admitted the obvious? Does history (properly) reign again after her derogation to the kitchen hearth?
As I have already hinted, there are plenty of social science historians (and historically minded social scientists)—many of them in the pages of SSH—who beg to differ. The handwringing began early, indeed almost from the outset. In the very next issue of SSH (Spring, 1977) J. Morgan Kousser had this to say:
To profit from the past experience of other disciplines, historians should move as quickly as possible through the cookbook phase to the stage in which self-conscious theorizing guides sophisticated methodological tools whose use is well understood. Learning from the example of economic history, which has almost everywhere except at the University of Wisconsin been amputated from history departments and grafted onto economics, we should also attempt to avoid the further dismemberment of history as a discipline. Quantitative economic history is, as the brouhaha over Time on the Cross demonstrates, too important to the historical profession to be left to a small group of cliometricians. (ibid.: 388)
In this telling, history is cast as the laggard yet to acquire the rudimentary techniques (the cookbook as it were) necessary to retain control over the important historical work at hand. Subsequent events suggest that history was less concerned about its potential “dismemberment” than was Kousser, at least as far as quantitative methods and the questions they were well-suited to answer were concerned. Only a minority of practicing historians in history departments today are eager readers of serious quantitative work let alone prepared to engage in such research of their own. In any event, it certainly does not appear from Kousser's observation that even in 1978 was history ahead of the game in any normal sense of that word. We might well wonder if these radically opposite views of the then-current state of affairs reflect a very different experience for those in the French Annales School than for their would-be quantitative history colleagues in North America? Again, Perdue's essay in this volume suggests that may have been the case.
Other early voices of the SSHA saw things yet differently from either the annalistes or the eager quantifiers. In the only direct response to Kousser, which appeared in the summer 1980 issue of SSH, William W. Beach expressed deep concern about the errors that might be introduced from too much mixing in the social science sandbox (to switch metaphors ever so slightly). He cautioned, “In their eagerness to see history achieve technical equivalence with the other social sciences, they obscure the intractable temporal problem of history—how to explain change” (Beach 1980: 361). Indeed, the dangers were sufficiently grave that history might lose its very identity. “The other social science disciplines, however, offer history no magic formulas the mere using of which will open the door to the past. If historians look to their nonhistorical colleagues for their sole direction in method, history primarily becomes the testing ground for spatial theory restricted to narrow behavioral assumptions, and history loses its identity and purpose in the process” (ibid.: 363). One wonders what Beach would have to say about the development of the historical geography network (now with geographic information system [GIS] recently added to its name) and the (I think) well-founded enthusiasm for spatial analysis among historians of many stripes. But again, I get ahead of myself.
How does this all look from the other side—from the social sciences proper? Was working with historians making any difference in their disciplines? In a remarkably thoughtful article that appeared in SSH in the summer of 1991, Andrew Abbott determined that no, not enough had actually come of the relationship between history and sociology to make good the early hopes of the founders of SSHA. His article appeared in a special issue of the journal devoted to the theme of “History and the Other Social Sciences”—a title that already made a strong claim for history as (obviously) a social science in its own right. Published as this was at the height of the so-called cultural turn in history departments both in North America and Europe, the presumption of the title seems ironic indeed. In any event, Abbott's cause was not to lament the ascendency of cultural theory across the humanistic disciplines (very much including history in the eyes of most practicing historians at that time), nor the concomitant retrenchment of quantitative history from which we have hardly recovered, but rather to document the missed opportunities for a truly interdisciplinary intellectual engagement redounding to the benefit of both. He concludes his article thus: “So the story of history and sociology is the story of the mutual enlightenment that never happened. . . . Above all, everyone involved missed the conceptually and technically profound critique of causal social science implicit in the traditional narrative conceptions of history” (Abbott 1991: 230). The particular loss in his view was to his own discipline, sociology, which too rarely accounted for “historical context or contingency, and [even] less to qualitative temporal fluctuations in the social categories or attributes analyzed” (ibid.: 205). Not much had changed, it would seem, in the decade and a half since the SSHA began working on its project of explicit interdisciplinary reform.
That any marriage (or was it only courtship?) between history and the social sciences was going to be complicated seems clear. So we might well ask, why bother? To what end, other than shaking up the established disciplinary organizations, was all this effort to be directed? For some the vision was a remarkably clear one, and to my way of thinking perfectly admirable as well. Lee Benson, a founding editor of the journal and SSHA president in 1977, used that platform to offer a clarion call for social change. His exhortation was titled “Changing Social Science to Change the World: A Discussion Paper.” His goal was for history to contribute to “the development of social science to improve the human condition” (Benson 1978: 430). His proposed plan to actually execute that goal went like this:
Suppose we engaged in ruthless self-criticism and conducted systematic, intensive, and responsible empirical research. It seems reasonable to think that we then might develop a good explanation of our present incapacity to generate credible empirical theories that could fulfill the “social function of social science,” i.e., theories that could be used to help the American people cope with the terrible—and terrifying—problems that confront them now that their “Age of Innocence” has ended and History has finally caught up with America. (ibid.: 437)
Writing as I do in the summer of 2016 with fear, anger, greed, mistrust, and mutual incomprehension yielding forth wrenching news from every venue, his words echo as clearly as the day they were written. “Ruthless self-criticism” seems an appropriate standard to hold ourselves to at any time. Yet there is one thing we must add now, especially as the SSHA has become more international in its membership and concerns, and as SSH strives to cover the scope of human history more fully than it sometimes has: namely, that it is not only America that faces terrible and terrifying problems. Looking about the world, both then and now, one finds no shortage of things about the human condition that warrant improving. But are we up to the job, we social scientists, or historians, or even both together?
A cautionary note should surely be sounded by the history of the development of the social sciences. As Barbara Laslett argues so convincingly in her presidential address to the association published in the summer 1992 issue of SSH, social scientists are hardly immune from bringing their own social positioning to the development of their theories. This includes not just the reasonably well-attested influence of structural conditions such as “political developments, professional aspirations, and material interests,” but also the until-recently-entirely-overlooked impact of “gender relations, sexuality, and personal life” (Laslett 1992: 179). In her biographical study of William Fielding Ogburn (one-time president of both the American Sociology Society and the American Statistical Association and staunch champion of what he believed to be objective scientific practice free of all emotion or distortion), she “came to see that the development of scientism in the social sciences in the early decades of the twentieth century was connected to changes in the family and in gender relations in the nineteenth century. Of special relevance was the organization of family, economic, and political life around the rhetoric and practice of separate spheres” (ibid.). The implicit gendering of the rhetoric of scientific practice is visibly instantiated in the early-twentieth-century division “between academic sociology, practiced primarily by men, and reform-oriented sociology, or social work, practiced primarily by women—a separation that limited the social science work in which women could engage” (ibid.: 185). Even now, well into the second decade of the twenty-first century, and not coincidentally about 40 years into the aftermath of the “woman's movement,” we have yet to shake the gendered language employed by early social scientists to characterize the rigor and rationality (masculine) of scientific work in juxtaposition with the cultivation of sensibility (feminine) through humanistic inquiry.
It seems to me that history remains unsure about where it wants to position itself in this fight, although the material rewards clearly fall most generously to the former, offering endless temptation thereby. The SSHA, however, and very much to its credit, offered from its earliest days a space that was open to alternative voices. Even when theory took a while to catch up, as Laslett's presidential address might suggest, the practice of the annual meetings was self-consciously egalitarian, not least along the gender dimension. Lynn Lees, in her reflection in this volume on the early years of the association, remembers fondly the “atmosphere. . . of gender neutrality” so different from the other professional society meetings she attended. Closely linked with the heterogeneity of the conference audience was the unexpected emergence of work in social history as a major presence at the meetings, despite what Samuel Hays had noted was the dominance of political science topics in the pages of the journal.4 All of this gave the fledgling SSHA a kind of informality and openness to experimentation that Erik Monkkonen hailed in his presidential address (published in SSH in the summer of 1994) as a “lack of foundational clarity” that was “the key to the health, energy, and meaning of the organization” (Monkkonen 1994: 166).
I have perhaps indulged too long in mulling over from whence it is that we have come—the particular curse of the historian to be sure, whether they are of the rigorous sort or the sentimental. Our purpose with this anniversary issue is to get us thinking about where we might go in the future at least as much as it is to look backward. What role is there for social science historians and historically minded social scientists to strengthen their respective home disciplines, to advance knowledge on questions of critical importance for our understanding of the world particularly along its temporal dimension, and then to use that knowledge to address the pressing social problems of our own day—ethnic and racial tension, jarring disparities in access to economic and educational opportunities, the ubiquity of violence, and the massive scale of displaced persons, to name but just the most obvious. Can we bring our historical expertise to bear to make our world a better place?
As I reflect on the contributions to this special anniversary issue—some of which were solicited for this purpose while others were selected because they addressed the broad questions of methodology, interdisciplinarity, and the state of the conversation between history and the social sciences that comprised the founding agenda of the SSHA—I want to begin on a note of optimism. Deirdre McCloskey's essay celebrates what is perhaps the signal achievement of the modern period—what she calls “the Great Enrichment.” Even with the tremendous disparities in income that exist globally today, and the spectacular increase in global population since 1800, nevertheless, the average wealth per person is ten times greater in real terms now than it was a mere two centuries ago. For those “that have agreed to the Bourgeois Deal” the increases have been far greater. Social scientists must ask if this accomplishment can be further replicated for the many who are as yet left behind by the averages. McCloskey is very hopeful. “It was the politics, not the economics,” she says, that precipitated the enrichment in the first place. “Ideas, not capital or institutions, made the modern world,” and ideas can spread (McCloskey 2016: 596). The dignity of all persons, and the right of everyone to make a “go” of their lives is surely an idea we could support on its own merits; if it yields prosperity too, so much the better.
McCloskey's optimism is not the only mood represented here, however. Roger Ransom offers a more sober reflection on the follies of war and speculative bubbles based on the experience of the twentieth century; what he, and others, calls the “Age of Catastrophe.” His analysis “shows how confidence, fear, and a propensity to gamble can encourage aggressive behavior that leads to speculative ‘bubbles’ in financial markets and military or political crises” (Ransom 2016: 599). These are our worst failures, especially as they so obviously (certainly from hindsight anyway) go against our own self-interest. So for Ransom, it is “the puzzle of how to tame the animal spirits that cause ‘rational’ people to make ‘irrational choices’ [that] remains for the next generation of Social Science Historians to resolve” (ibid.: 623).
The strong influence of “the politics” (to borrow McCloskey's phrase again) makes yet further appearances in the work of Michele Alacevich and Steven Hochstadt. For the former, the 1952 reorganization of the World Bank that eliminated the Economic Department and radically separated the theoretical study of development economics from the execution of on-the-ground development policy was the product once again of ideas. As Alacevich argues, “[T]he strategic choice was taken not on the ground of efficiency, but on the basis of what kind of development institution the top officers had in mind. In evolutionary terms, the clash of visions that emerged prompted a transformation primarily based on cultural and ideological grounds, not on any efficiency-driven or maximizing strategy” (Alacevich 2016: 629). Similarly, Hochstadt's research on the practice and ideology of German historical demography in the later nineteenth and twentieth centuries highlights the power of ideas to overcome what we might want to think of as an “objective” social science. He documents the increasing dominance after World War I of a deeply conservative, and increasingly racist, orientation to the study of German migration that rejected the competing tradition of statistically rigorous practices in favor of an ideologically grounded opposition to the (at least partially imagined) rural-urban migration that they believed was “politically and morally injurious to the German people” (Hochstadt: 657). Remarkably, the dominance of this tradition persisted even after 1945 despite the discrediting of the rest of the Nazi ideology. It was only after a generation of researchers born after the end of the war came to maturity in the 1980s, that the liberal statisticians of the nineteenth century were rediscovered and “the conservative orthodoxies [could be] overthrown.” Hochstadt's research reminds us all too clearly about the ever-present dangers of “shoddy social science,” which in this particular case was used “to advance theories based on the assumptions of a racist biological determinism” (ibid.: 676). Surely bad social science is worse than none at all! A cautionary tale we disregard at our peril.
This special issue features a variety of developments in what we expect will prove to be social science at its finest. John Logan and Benjamin Bellman's paper on residential segregation in nineteenth-century Philadelphia utilizes new data sources and new GIS techniques to question the established orthodoxy about the rise of residential segregation along black/white lines only in the latter nineteenth and especially the twentieth centuries. They examine the fine-grained residential information made possible by geocoding building-level data for 1880 from the Urban Transition HGIS, along with the rich material provided by the Philadelphia Social History Project, and show that racial segregation was already extraordinarily high in 1880, with blacks living overwhelmingly in alleys and short streets located behind main street fronts. What had long appeared to be racial integration at the block level was just a different kind of segregation from the form that would come to dominate in the twentieth century. The implications of this finding could well open up new avenues of understanding about the historical experience of racial tension in the United States.
Likewise, the multiauthored “Big Data” project of Myron Gutmann, Daniel Brown, Angela Cunningham, James Dykes, Susan Hautaniemi Leonard, Jani S. Little, Jeremy Mikecz, Paul Rhode, Seth Spielman, and Kenneth M. Sylvester also uses new data and new methods to add a rich layer of nuance to our understanding of migration patterns in the 1930s, a critical period both in historical fact and especially in the historical imagination. They find that the classic Dust Bowl region was not the only part of the United States that expelled people in response to environmental (and related economic) distress. Many regions that were hot and/or dry during the 1930s lost population while those that remained relatively cool and wet held their populations. Nonetheless, theirs is not a simple environmental story, as they demonstrate that the actual mechanism of displacement was through falling wages and not just weather patterns alone. This project is an excellent example of the explosion of highly quantitative, spatially and analytically complex scholarship increasingly featured in the historical geography/GIS network, the history of which is highlighted in Anne Kelly Knowles's essay in this volume. Indeed, GIS was only added to the name of the network at the 2016 annual meeting, in recognition of the fact that despite having a strong foundation in the discipline of historical geography, GIS and other spatial analytical techniques appear to be the new core of the network at the SSHA, at least for the foreseeable future. The methods of GIS are also increasingly spilling into the family/demography, urban, health, and environment/rural networks as evidenced by the many cosponsored sessions during the last several annual meetings. Finally, I would note that all of this recent activity should redress somewhat Perdue's expressed discouragement at the lack of a strong environmental history focus in either SSH or the annual meeting program. The tide appears to be turning across a number of the networks, including, of course, the relatively newer macro historical dynamics network that has focused on the very long-term history of the whole world, much of it with an environmental focus.
A particularly interesting example of the latter can be found in the contribution by Daniel Curtis, Bas Van Bavel, and Tim Soens in this volume that proposes that “disaster studies” could be one promising avenue to connect even (the presumably more chronologically distant and thus generally less engaged) medieval historians with developments in the social sciences. They argue—convincingly I believe—that there is much for social scientists to learn from the way medieval populations responded to natural disasters, as long as they (i.e., the social scientists) can resist the temptation to “over-privileg[e] the religious responses to terrible shocks and hazards, without recognition that medieval people did not merely accept imposed religious ‘disaster discourses,’” and while also recognizing that “religious or spiritual responses to hazards and shocks did not preclude other coping mechanisms” (Curtis et al. 2016: 768). They argue, moreover, that “medieval economic historians can use their own training to provide much needed source criticism and contextual background to forge new narratives based on the pool of historical climatological data now being uncovered.” Here we see a working out of the happy marriage between the specialized expertise of the historian and the theoretical insights of the social scientist that so strongly animated the early proponents of the SSHA. That the enthusiastic proposal offered here comes from a group of medievalists suggests that perhaps our enterprise has come further than we sometimes give ourselves credit for.
Finally, we must turn to the overarching question of interdisciplinarity—the last of the goals of the fledgling movement to establish the SSHA. Harvey Graff offers in this volume a deep reflection on the history of that concept encouraging us to take the long view of interdisciplinarity as both a proposed method of research and education, and as a talisman for creativity or progress. He reminds us forcefully that interdisciplinarity is not something we just discovered recently in the era of high-speed computing and big data. We have been engaged in projects of classification (for both good and ill) for a very long time, and once items have been put in their boxes, it is but a matter of little time before proposals emerge to combine the contents of those boxes in new ways, and seemingly always with the hoped-for benefit of new insight into our fundamental problems. Graff's essay further suggests to the editors of SSH that it might be fitting for the SSHA to explore the terms, including the history and the contradictions, of its own interdisciplinarity. What are the relationships within and across its defining and sustaining networks, and how might they inform the kind of work we will do in the decade leading to our fiftieth anniversary?
Although Abbott was discouraged back in 1991 about the limited progress he saw at that time toward a truly productive merging of the temporal insights of history with the theoretical conceptualizations of social reality as offered up by the best social science, he nonetheless ended his essay by noting that “there is every hope that such a revolution can yet take place” (Abbott 1991: 130). This is still very much the goal of SSH, and I hope this special issue moves us yet further in that direction. As with Lee Benson's early call to change the world—success will require “hard thought, hard work, and good luck” (Benson 1978: 440). I would add to this that success will also require of us to be of goodwill. For there is not just one “objectively” true approach to solving our human problems. All of our proposed solutions are going to depend on our values. And as the ancients knew long before us, it is possible to hold good (morally sound, widely accepted) values that are sometimes in conflict with each other. For us as social science historians in the twenty-first century, it seems likely that our values are going to include a strong universalist commitment to the dignity of every human and support their right to live as an emancipated individual. Yet as Susan Carter tells us so poignantly in her 2015 presidential address also published in this special issue, we are not just atomized individuals. We live in communities. When they are not cohesive we suffer. We prize them when they are strong, when they provide networks of care and support. How do we balance the “rights” of the individual, their freedom from oppression by the group and their liberty to pursue their own course, at the same time that we preserve or even strengthen the communal bonds that we know are necessary for economic exchange, political cooperation, social reproduction and our very well-being? Is it possible for social science historians to bring to the public table, not just a deep understanding of our collective past, and intelligent theories about what motivates different types of social behavior and yields different kinds of outcomes—all useful things to be sure—but also genuine insight about the values we should hold, especially when those values might be in conflict? Do we have any wisdom to offer the public that will redound to our good, as collectivities and as individuals? After more than a century of striving to make the social sciences an “objective” enterprise—rational, scientific, impassionate, “masculine” as Barbara Laslett has shown—has the time come to acknowledge openly the value-laden passions we bring to bear (along with our logic, evidence, and causal theories) on the many pressing, indeed grievous, problems that confront us? It is my hope as editor of SSH that our future endeavors as a journal and as a society of scholars will do just this.