Conference Report on "The Next Social History: Practicing Space, Time, and Place"

Geoffrey Klingsporn, Cathleen Cahill, Rebekah Mergenthal, and Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, November 1998

Does social history have a future? Last April 17–18, some one hundred faculty and graduate students from across the country and across disciplinary lines met at the University of Chicago to explore this question. Many never considered themselves social historians (or even historians), but still they ignored a rare burst of gorgeous spring weather to fill the Chicago Humanities Institute and explore what "the next social history" might look like. In two days of workshop-style sessions, participants had the chance to define and discuss the problems of writing social history in the current age—the "global age," the "information age," or the "age of cultural history." "For a while now, social history has been buffeted by traditional historiography on the one side and cultural studies on the other," remarked Prasenjit Duara when the conference was over. "This is really the first time I have heard an effort to articulate how social history as a field with its own organizing principles might chart its course within this larger and changing complex."

Conceived and carried out entirely by graduate students, the conference was as intergenerational as it was interdisciplinary. Panels mixed students and faculty equally, while the student-dominated audience continually pushed the presenters to consider the practice, as well as the principles, of future social histories.

This practical focus turned out to be a major strength of the conference: Edward Ayers, like many, was "struck by the way that a new style of social history has been developing over the last few years without ever having been announced, without a manifesto or tag line." This article, though no manifesto, attempts to share the proceedings of this exceptional conference with the readers of Perspectives.


Like many worthwhile undertakings, "The Next Social History: Practicing Space, Time and Place" originated with a few malcontents who, upon voicing their discontent, unexpectedly found their sentiments to be widely shared. The initial impetus for the conference came from within the University of Chicago's Social History Workshop, the oldest of several dozen interdepartmental groups which make up the Chicago workshop system. Funded by the University's Council on Advanced Studies in Humanities and Social Sciences, these workshops are organized by topic rather than discipline and are designed to bring together students and faculty across departmental boundaries to share work and discuss common concerns. Like most workshops, the Social History Workshop faced the continual challenge of attracting a diverse yet coherent group of participants. To some, it threatened to become merely a "catch-all" for graduate students who didn't fit into any regionally or methodologically defined workshops on campus. The problem, they thought, lay not in the workshop but in its ostensible subject. What was the current definition of social history, and what was its relation to the rest of the discipline and the academy?

Social history, it seemed, had become a victim of its own success, simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. Its basic premises (a focus on "ordinary people" and "everyday life," the use of "nontraditional" sources) are widely accepted, but few scholars who use them would identify themselves primarily as social historians. A small group of graduate students, encouraged by the workshop's faculty advisers, Kathleen N. Conzen and Amy Dru Stanley, proposed to institutionalize this academic identity crisis in the form of a conference. Five of us who were particularly interested in conducting the conference—Cathleen Cahill, Geoffrey Klingsporn, Rebekah Mergenthal, Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz, and Mark Wilson—declared ourselves the Conference Committee, with Klingsporn and Sandoval-Strausz serving as cochairs.

We began with the idea of a small, largely local gathering of graduate students, focused on the practical concern of research design. Conceptually, the main question would be the role of the local case (or "community") study as the historical profession becomes increasingly concerned with global and transnational issues. We quickly realized, however, that larger issues were unavoidable: that the reconceptualization of space, time, and place would be necessary for any future social history, and that these were problems not confined to social history. We hoped that by putting social history into a larger conversation we would attract scholars who had considered these issues from a variety of Perspectives and approaches.

Any doubts about the current appeal of (or concern for) social history were quickly dispelled by the tremendous response to our invitations. We eventually received dozens of submissions from across the country and overseas. This unexpectedly broad and positive response was gratifying, but also daunting: we next faced the challenge of providing space, food, lodging, and publicity on a scale that was both unexpected and unprovided for in our original plan. Our limited experience in such logistics was mitigated by the help of John Hankey, a graduate student and experienced public historian. It was clear that additional funding had to be found outside of the usual sources. Recognizing common interests with the just-launched journal Rethinking History, we contacted its editor, Robert Rosenstone, who secured funding from Routledge, Rethinking History's publisher, and arranged for Laura Mason, an associate editor of the journal, to attend the conference. This success heartened us as we applied for and received additional support from two interdisciplinary programs affiliated with the University of Chicago: the Chicago Humanities Institute and the Center for the Study of Politics, History, and Culture (Wilder House). Much-needed aid was also obtained from our colleagues in the U.S. History and Culture Workshop and the Workshop on Interdisciplinary Approaches to Modern France.

By economizing in other areas—particularly, by relying on electronic communication and distribution of papers&#151we were able to hold the conference on a total budget of $3,500. This amount eventually funded two days of sessions, including five panel discussions and a concluding dinner. Only 6 of the 17 papers ultimately came from Chicago; other panelists traveled from New York, Texas, California and points between to present their vision of the next social history.

The Conference

The conference itself justified our efforts. In order to facilitate as much discussion as possible, the two days of sessions were structured much like the workshop itself. The papers were predistributed by e-mail, rather than presented orally, and sessions were held consecutively to encourage a continuous conversation. Panels were structured to emphasize specific themes: Locating the Political, the relation between the local and the national; Alternatives to History, the transnational in theory and practice; Mapping Space, Time, and Place, changing uses and perceptions of space; Networks of Life and Death, the history of nonlocalized networks; and Hyperhistory, the implications of new strategies and technologies of historical narration. As distinct as these topics may appear on paper, they are only different approaches to the same central issues. We aimed for a kind of "creative incoherence," trusting our presenters and the audience to identify and articulate common themes within and across the various panels.

We were not disappointed. The enthusiastic and free-flowing conversation (which at one point gathered such momentum that the lunch break was postponed by general assent) revolved around several interrelated issues:

  • The importance of space. Several papers moved beyond the geographic, defining their projects in terms of sacred, diasporic, or militarized space. This tendency—what Conzen described as making space "a character in history" rather than simply accepting it as the bounds of study—was widely praised. Most agreed with Stanley that "space itself, as opposed simply to a region, [will be] an important new focus of inquiry in the next social history." Even when defined geographically, the issue of space stimulated much discussion, particularly around the challenge of identifying transnational forces and linking them to local stories.
  • The local, national, and transnational. "Many of us reflected on the ways in which social history can be transformed by wider geographical lenses," recalled Martha Hodes, "and one of many paths into the future of social history, I believe, involves studying local communities in global contexts." Some felt that this could only be accomplished by complicating traditional (i.e., political) definitions of global and local. Lizabeth Cohen described several of the papers as "reconstituting the local," studying networks of correspondence, kinship, travel and technology as their own localities. Similarly, Julie Saville called for a "re-consideration of the extent to which our notions of relationships between local and global phenomena have been inadvertently (and misleadingly, in my view) shaped by the administrative organization of national states, with their subdivisions of municipal, county, state, and national jurisdiction."
  • The role of (self-conscious) theory. Most participants agreed that historians must inevitably use some form of "theory," and the discussion focused on what this might mean. Duara began the conversation by asking if the historical discipline is constitutionally "anti-theoretical," and suggesting that a self-conscious use of theory would shake its foundations. Cohen asserted that history was not about testing the validity of theories, because theory was often vague about the role of agency. Instead, history was best in conversation with theory, simultaneously testing theories from other disciplines and producing its own. "The discussions showed the face of a social history as much engaged with understanding its own historical specificity as it was devoted to understanding various historical problems," remarked Saville. "This analytical engagement with the conditions that have shaped scholarly ways of knowing strikes me as a new spirit. ... To me, knowledge that is cognizant of its limits approaches real wisdom." Such issues of disciplinary definition were at stake throughout the conference, particularly in the discussions of history writing and professionalization which followed.
  • Narrating the next social history. Questions of theory often took the form of asking how historians would communicate the next social history. This discussion was frequently intertwined with the conceptual issues at hand. Hodes, for example, remarked that "narrative is in fact a wonderful device for multi-sited social history," and also urged that it was "crucial for historians to train students ... in the possibilities of increasingly experimental forms of writing that history." Several of the papers put this into practice, using memory, oral histories, and maps to structure nonlinear narratives. In this fashion, they argued, historical subjects are allowed to shape their stories, rather than being treated solely as evidence to be slotted into standard academic arguments. Ayers's demonstration of hypertextual history, which offered his "Valley of the Shadow" web archive as one possible future for the practice of history, ignited the most animated of these debates.
  • Who will be the next social historians? These experimental forms of history raised the issue of institutional hierarchies and academic boundaries. The graduate students present were particularly concerned that they would be excluded from new modes of telling history because of the current text-based requirements of historical professionalization. Similarly, the suggestion that the next social history will depend upon large-scale, collaborative projects and expensive technology raised several troubling questions: who will fund these projects, who will have access to them, and who will receive credit of authorship? The question of authorship soon led to a discussion of audience. What will be the impact of new narrative techniques that blur the distinctions between historians and their audiences, and where do academic historians fit within the constellation of filmmakers, web masters, web surfers, re-enactors, novelists, and others who tell about the past? Who will have the opportunity to experiment, and the power to define "academic" history?


The conference's concluding panel, Lizabeth Cohen, James Grossman, and Laura Mason, undertook to pull together these various themes. Like good historians often will, they began to define the next social history by comparing it to its antecedents. Willfully suppressed for most of the weekend, here the question of the "old New Social History" came to the fore. Describing the old New Social History as a people-centered analysis from the bottom up, Cohen viewed the next social history as a means for historians to "rededicate" themselves to these goals, and reinvigorate their analyses with new methods. Grossman suggested that the next social history would offer new possibilities of interpretation resulting from changes in "content, form, and analysis." As Ayers described it, "the 'next' social history builds out of the inclusivity of the 'old new' social history but adds certain characteristics to it: a focus on the connections and interactions among historical actors, a greater self-consciousness about the categories we use to explain the past, and more attention to the forms of narrative and analysis. It seems an evolution rather than a revolution, one informed by cultural history but not merely an extension of it."

After acknowledging on whose shoulders we stood, the final conversations turned again to the question of the directions in which we should be looking. If the experience of grassroots activism inspired many of the original "new social historians" to focus on the everyday lives of ordinary men and women, should the strong perception of globalization lead current scholars to abandon boundaries, whether geographic, heuristic, or disciplinary? Will experimental histories which challenge these boundaries find a place within the existing structure of the academy? In the words of the initial call for papers, "the future is in the practice"&#151the value of the next social history will depend upon the explanatory power of the work it produces. Many participants left the closing dinner late Saturday night with a strong feeling that while a single conference could hardly provide definitive answers, it had at least begun to ask the right questions; and that the concerns of a coming generation of scholars were appreciated and shared by those who currently define the field. Social history, far from being in crisis, is in a strong position to confront the challenges of making future histories.

—Geoffrey Klingsporn, Cathleen Cahill, Rebekah Mergenthal, and Andrew K. Sandoval-Strausz are graduate students at the University of Chicago.