Some Sociological Uses of History


Herbert J. Gans served as the 78th President of the American Sociological Association. Between 1953 and 2007, Gans taught it at Penn, Teachers College, MIT, and Columbia. He is now Columbia's Robert S. Lynd Professor of Sociology Emeritus

For a sociologist, or at least this one, history is of two kinds; one which deliberately studies the past to shed light on the present, and the other which recounts and analyzes the past as an end in itself.  Although the dichotomy is fuzzy and the labels I attach to it are inelegant, I think of the first as present-oriented and the second as past-oriented history.

One can subdivide this dichotomy further: among other things, from the historians' and the readers' perspectives.  Historians may write history to shed light on the present but readers may use it learn about the past.  I assume the opposite is equally possible: that readers use past-oriented history to escape an unpleasant present.  In fact, that may help to explain why popular history sells so well, in bookstores and on public television.

I am not thinking here of events but of historiography, although past events can also be divided into those which affect and do not affect the present.  Sociologists describe the former process as path-dependency.

Present-Oriented History

Present-oriented history recounts historical events, processes and other social situations that are useful for understanding what is happening now, even if such comparisons are risky when incompletely done or decontextualized.  This kind of history also reports and analyzes the origin of present organizations, institutions, social processes etc. with special attention to how their pasts continue into or shape the present.

Very few social bodies, formal or informal, large or small that proceed on the basis of overt or covert rules can be understood without knowledge of their origin and past—and even if the reasons why their rules were first formulated may have become irrelevant.

Another kind of present-oriented history originates with currently topical events and explores their past in order to better understand the present.  Americanists can search the past for roots to our current economic troubles, just as historians of the Mideast trace today's upheavals to the region's past.

Actually, both kinds of history, that which begins with the past to provide insights into the present, and that which begins with the present and finds clues in the past, would extend history's relevance and usefulness.  Such present-oriented histories could also be used to help build bridges to the other social sciences.

Of course, present oriented history lends itself to crasser uses as well.  For example, experienced economic and political leaders construct their pasts to indicate their superiority over younger arrivals.

Old institutions often employ their histories to exhibit their pasts for contemporary social, political and other benefits.  Economic institutions—and their stocks become"blue-chip," if they can demonstrate a history of past success.

Conversely, a declining institution can commission an institutional history to try to prop up its current reputation or its institutional morale at least temporarily.

Indeed, societies or social strata that are losing wealth or power may be more interested in their history than those which are currently doing well.  Organizations that point to and are overly preoccupied with a golden age in their past are frequently in current decline.  Admittedly, even an emerging society may claim or construct a noble history unless it has so much present wealth or power to make such a past unnecessary.

Individuals also memorialize their golden age experiences, or recall being present at history-making events.  Traditionally, most such events became history-making ex post facto, and only if they were followed by subsequent events deemed important.  Thanks perhaps to the increasing visibility of historians and history, not to mention journalists eager to write about"firsts," some people now become aware that they are present at history-making events, or believe that they themselves are making history.

Presumably, political leaders thinking about their"place in history" or their"legacy" try to create history-making events—or have a historian nearby who will assist them in doing so.  Older readers may remember Eric Goldman and Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

A sociologist of history should want to study what these history-makers do to make history, and how their activities are affected by their decision that they are making history.

Past-oriented History

Past-oriented history is about events and people that are not relevant in any way to the present, for example a history of Lake Michigan area Native American settlements during the fifteenth century.  I suppose one could even write a history of Reconstruction that makes no connection to the present, although given the continuing interest in the subject, not to mention the role it played in the arrival of Jim Crow, that would be a difficult task.  However, who would find a study of the farm tools of nineteenth-century sharecroppers helpful in understanding the economic condition of today's poor urban African Americans.

Admittedly and as already noted, readers may choose to draw implications for the present from past-oriented history, irregardless of the author's intentions.  Consequently, one would have to consider how the history is received, and someone should long ago have done a study of the various kinds of readers of history, to see whether they read it to learn about the past, or also to derive or infer some implications for the present.

Moreover,"the media" have the power to generate public interest in a work of past-oriented history.  Although media story selectors will generally consider present-oriented history most newsworthy, they make exceptions for selected newsmakers of the past, especially iconic ones such as Abraham Lincoln but also others whose anniversary celebrations can connect a past personage or event to the present.

History as Social Indicator

The above suggests that for the sociologist, history can become a social indicator of the present.  The number of bestselling books that are historical, or the percent and kinds of undergraduates choosing history or a historical liberal arts subject as their major may tell us more about readers and students than appears on the surface.  Perhaps the curricula of schools that aim to educate the old elite, especially a declining old elite, include more history than those attracting the children of the nouveau riche.  Or vice versa, since the latter will need a history to make its way further up the social hierarchy.

So many kinds of histories can be found throughout society, including the autobiographies and memoirs people carry around in their heads, family histories, the ugly histories of workplaces that coworkers exchange, and of course"urban myths" and other memories, collective or not.  Most also tell us something about contemporary social life, for otherwise they would probably have been forgotten.

The moral of the story; history and sociology should work together more often.

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