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The 'New' Social History and its Connections to Genealogy

Social history focuses on ordinary people like our ancestors, not just the rich and famous. Thus, studying social history will help bring our family history to life.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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For most of the past several centuries, history was the study of famous people, events, and movements. But beginning in the 1970s, a new branch of history began within the scholarly community. It was called the "new" social history because it had a new focus—ordinary people and their everyday lives. This wasn't just the study of the well-known, history-making people like George Washington and Benjamin Franklin. It was the study of women and children, ethnic minorities, how families really lived and what average people did. This new social history brings genealogy and history together.

For a long time, genealogists were sometimes considered non-scholarly hobbyists just looking for names, dates, and relationships. There were few guidelines about carefully recording sources and analyzing records. However, as genealogy has changed, the fields of social history and genealogy have become more compatible and useful to each other.

Social historians use some of the same records as genealogists such as censuses, vital records, deeds, wills, and church records. The difference is that the social historian is looking for patterns that apply to the general population, while genealogists are looking for their ancestors. However, there are natural limitations to the generalizations that social historians can make without having complete histories and pedigrees of individual families. This is where well-documented pedigrees and family histories can be a great asset to social historians who are studying ordinary people. This is one way that genealogy contributes to the field of social history.

There are also many ways that social history can benefit genealogists. One is to help us understand general patterns of human behavior in particular time periods and locations. Our ancestors were not unique. They were very similar to the other citizens in their communities, so studying general patterns of behavior will help us understand our ancestors better.

If you're like me, most of the history classes you took in school focused on the big events—the Pilgrims' arrival, the Revolutionary War, Western Expansion, and the Civil War. Any 20th century history focused on World Wars I and II, the Great Depression, and the Vietnam War. While these events certainly shaped the history of the country, there were many more influences on the American family that are missing from the typical history education.

In college I took a class called "The History of the Family in America." It was one of my favorite classes because it really helped me understand what life was like for my American ancestors over the past few centuries. I learned about the movement into the suburbs during the 1950s and the Civil Rights movement of the 60s, which helped me understand my parents and grandparents better than ever before.

There are numerous social history writings available today, ranging from books about domestic life in America over three centuries to life in a small Colorado town during the 1890s. There are works published by national printing houses and masters theses available at one university. All types of work have value to the genealogist, both as background knowledge and for more specific details about our ancestors. Whomever your ancestors were and wherever they were from, there are books about them: Puritan families, Quaker families, women in early New England and the South, courtship, families on the western frontier, slaves and slave owners, farmers, soldiers, Native Americans, etc. And because social history actually began earlier in Europe than America, social history works are available wherever your research is focused.

Reading books about people in similar situations as our ancestors is very interesting and beneficial to our research and understanding. And when we eventually get around to compiling a family history to share all of our genealogical research, we would be wise to include some social history as historical background for our readers. Social history adds depth and greater human interest, and increases the readability of our family history writing.

For more information about combining genealogy and social history, consult Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History, by Katherine Scott Sturdevant (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000), available at and other bookstores.

Some recommended social history works:

Bleser, Carol. In Joy and in Sorrow: Women, Family and Marriage in the Victorian South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Fass, Paula S. and Mary Ann Mason, eds. Childhood in America. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York: Oxford Press, 1989.

Mintz, Steven, and Susan Kellogg. Domestic Revolutions: A Social History of American Family Life. New York: Free Press, 1988.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2005.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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