SSHA 2015 themes

The 40th annual meeting of SSHA took place in Baltimore this weekend. The Social Science History Association is an especially rewarding academic meeting for scholars interested in the intersection between historical processes and social scientific research tools and explanations. The rationale for the organization is to provide a venue for bringing together the study of specific historical topics and the use of tools and methods of the social sciences to further understand those episodes. History and social science methods mutually inform one another at the SSHA. The membership is highly interdisciplinary — in fact, interdisciplinarity is the theme for the 2016 meeting in Chicago — and every meeting offers a chance for participants to discover new research and new theories that are relevant to their own areas of work. The overall theme for the conference was “Pluralism and Community”, and a significant number of panels did indeed strive to shed new light on these topics.

Several large themes were evident in the program. One is the broadening understanding scholars are reaching about the dynamics of human population behavior — historical demography — through the development of new tools of research and analysis of population and health records. Particularly interesting is the continuing research of the EurAsian Project in Population and Family History (EAP) (link). On a related panel on mortality patterns during the Spanish influenza pandemic Matthew Miller, a molecular biologist, introduced what was to me a novel concept: viroarchaeology, or the use of data about antigens in the tissue of living individuals to work out the sequence of viral epidemics in the past. Miller showed how we might use antigen levels in living individuals for several varieties of influenza virus to draw inferences about a prior (and historically unnoted) H1 influenza virus prior to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. And Svenn-Erik Mamelund demonstrated the degree to which influenza mortality rates reflected indicators of socio-economic status.

Other large themes included fiscal systems and their politics; race and resistance; GIS analysis of historical patterns; conflict and states; and new tools of formal social analysis that may be useful for historical research. My own paper, “Fissioning Community”, falls in the category of applying new tools from the social sciences to historical topics; I considered the relevance and applicability of agent-based modeling techniques for understanding processes of ethnic and religious conflict. The paper and slides can be found here.

Several panels were very relevant to contemporary social developments. There was a very interesting session that was relevant to the contemporary “Black Lives Matter” movement that looked back to Detroit’s progressive left in the 1960s and 1970s. Austin McCoy offered a fascinating and detailed description of the DARE movement during that period, a multiracial movement for racial justice. And the real-world tragedy in Paris last weekend found its academic counterpart in a panel on ethnic and religious identities in Europe, “Am I Charlie or Am I Ahmed? Comparative and Historical Perspectivism on Pluralism and Communities in Crisis in Contemporary Europe.” This panel allowed participants to reflect on the social factors and processes that surround the formation of community in multi-cultural and multi-religious Europe. Also relevant on this topic was “Rethinking Pluralism in France: The 10th Anniversary of the 2005 Riots”, with papers by Patrick Simon, Jean Beaman, and Crystal Fleming.

For many readers of Understanding Society the Social Science History Association will prove to be a particularly rewarding intellectual destination. The call for papers for the 2016 meeting of the association will appear here as soon as it is available. Here is a link to the organization’s journal, Social Science History.

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