As always, the Social Science History Association meeting in Boston is brimming with great sessions across a wide range of topic areas. There is evidence of lots of new thinking about the intersections of the social science disciplines and various fields of historical research. Here is the SSHA’s description of its mission:
The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.
The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.
New intellectual directions continue to emerge at the outset of the 21st century. Today’s SSHA incorporates a diversity of scholarly styles, with lots of crosstalk among them.
One of the special values of SSHA is the emphasis given to interdisciplinarity. It is a principle of the organization that panels should contain papers by scholars from different disciplines (and different institutions). Why is this valuable? For several reasons. First, every discipline develops a degree of myopia when it comes to the definition of problems and methods. And yet the big questions we would like to address historically do not divide neatly along the domains of the disciplines. Politics, family, culture, environment, markets, warfare — these all correspond to different disciplines. And yet real historical Burma or France unavoidably involves all of them. So bringing the perspectives of specialists in economics, cultural studies, and population history into productive interaction in connection with a question like “Why and how did France become “France?”” is profoundly creative. It leads us to a significantly broader view of the problem, the processes, and the methods that might illuminate.
The other distinctive feature of SSHA, going back to its establishment in the 1970s, is the conviction that the social sciences are deeply relevant to historical understanding. Sometimes this conviction has led to a cliometric impulse — an emphasis on quantitative social history. But it has also been very receptive to qualitative and comparative approaches to historical research as well.
Andrew Abbott describes some of the intellectual and institutional currents that led to this emphasis within and around the history profession and historical sociology in Chaos of Disciplines.
Another great benefit that derives from participating in SSHA is the renewing exposure it permits to brilliant, innovative young scholars in a variety of fields of theory and research. It is so encouraging to see many young scholars whose work goes significantly beyond existing standard approaches. Sometimes PhD students seem excessively beholden to the ideas of their teachers. In the past several years I’ve been very pleased to see confident innovation and creative thinking by the coming generation of scholars in many of the fields of social and historical research. A good example is a couple of papers on the subject of processes and temporality by Tulia Falleti (“Decentralization in Time: A Process-Tracing Approach to Federal Dynamics of Change”) and Matthew Norton (“Processual and Situational Temporalities in Sociological Explanations”). Isaac Reed is another good example of an innovative young scholar who is offering fresh ideas into debates about theory and social science. His recent Interpretation and Social Knowledge, on display at the book exhibit, is a rigorous, fresh approach to post positivist philosophy of social science.
SSHA has been a leader in bringing Geographical Information Systems (GIS) into concrete applications in historical research, and there were a number of panels using this technology with great effectiveness. The Interdisciplinary Consortium for Social and Political Research (ICPSR) is a longstanding partner with SSHA, and there were a number of sessions that illustrated the value of the large databases and advanced historical methods that ICPSR has championed for years. The current president of SSHA, George Alter, is a distinguished historical demographer and also serves as director of ICPSR at the University of Michigan. I’m looking forward to his address later today, “Life Course, Family, and Community.” Historical demography is a longstanding area of focus for scholars within the SSHA orbit.
Some new concepts and methods that are visible in this year’s program include application of social network analytical tools to historical topics; new thinking about temporality and events; steady progress on large studies of population history; new thinking about colonialism and post-colonialism; and new ideas about comparative economic history across Eurasia. The language of causal mechanisms is showing up much more frequently across panels than I’ve noticed in previous years.
The Association’s journal, Social Science History, reflects many of the strengths of the organization.