Periodization in Social History

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Peter Stearns

Periodization—deciding when one pattern ends and another begins in historical time—is a key component of the historian's conceptual arsenal. Through periodization historians seek to identify coherences and breaks in the past, and therefore to indicate particular points that require causal explanations designed to determine why breaks occur. Not all historians deal with periodization, to be sure, and some who employ a periodization scheme do not justify it explicitly, using conventional labels without serious assessment of them. At best, however, careful use of periodization allows historians to explain why they start their chronology when they do—at the outset of some significant shift in the phenomenon under question—and why they end when they do as well, with possible internal junctures added to the mix. Periods can apply to a particular aspect of a society—the rise and fall of a single institution or idea—or to a whole society.

Changes in direction, that is, the makings of new periods, come in several forms in social history. Researchers on Russian peasants, to take one example, can at points use the new frameworks provided by shifts in the law, like the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 or Soviet collectivization beginning in 1928. Other directional changes, while no less real, do not provide comparable precision. It was around the 1770s, for example, that a dramatic increase in the percentage of all births that were illegitimate suggests a clear break—a new period—in popular sexual behavior in western Europe. (A similar new phase of sexual behavior occurred among Russian peasants in the 1880s.)

Overall, social historians use a variety of periodization schemes, like historians of any stripe. But because their topics are often unfamiliar, they cannot necessarily rely on established markers. Often, indeed, they are compelled to more explicit concern with periodization than are historians dealing with political or intellectual history, precisely because familiar frameworks do not work well. The options explored in European social history are numerous, and no single formula has emerged.


Conventional periodization in modern European history is well known. Of course there can always be debates—when, precisely, the Italian Renaissance began, for example. And familiar periods may overlap in confusing fashion; thus the Northern Renaissance continued, in many ways, even as the Reformation period began. But the list, overall, is unsurprising. Renaissance yields to Reformation. The seventeenth century is often categorized in terms of absolute monarchy. The eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment. A period of revolution follows, with an interim conservative reaction between 1815 and about 1830. After 1848 national unifications and then the alliance system may seem to set the tone for several decades. Conventional periodization almost always recognizes the basic importance of World War I. The twentieth century is then further divided by World War II and the rise and fall of the cold war. Some historians have tentatively argued that the end of the cold war marks the beginning of yet another period which will ultimately be seen as the first phase of the twenty-first century.

Periods of this sort are not only well established, but have the merit, usually, of cutting across wide swaths of European geography, because of the Europeanwide impact of diplomacy, imitation of key political forms like absolutism or the contagion of revolution, and the spread of key intellectual movements like the Enlightenment.

Before the rise of social history, when textbooks or other surveys embraced some social history materials, the periods were set by political or intellectual patterns. Thus the famous Rise of Modern Europe series, edited by William Langer, or the Peuples et civilisations series in France, used markers such as the French Revolution, the Napoleonic era, and so on, dealing with phenomena like urban growth or shifts in work patterns in discrete chapters within this framework. Obviously, the dominant assumption was that political or in a few instances intellectual developments set the basic tone for European history, and what social and even economic innovations there were could be fit within the resultant borders.


Social history complicates standard periodization in European or any other history. Take a specific example. There is no reason to assume that changes in popular childrearing patterns in England—an obvious social history topic—follow the same rhythm as changes in the political party system, a staple of conventional English history. The key question is whether the causes of change in the two areas are shared. At the very least, this requires explicit determination.

Social historians do not assume that high politics or great ideas necessarily shape the phenomena that interest them. Work on the important contributions of peasants, workers, or women to the historical record deals with groups for whom the state may be a fairly remote force, and on whom Great Ideas may have little direct impact. Research on additional facets of social behavior—demography, or crime, or household functions—similarly must take into account factors beyond politics and intellectual life. The result, in principle at least, opens modern European history to a host of new periodization questions. E. P. Thompson's pathbreaking The Making of the English Working Class thus begins toward the middle of the eighteenth century, which few conventional historians would dignify with the inception of much of anything, and ends around the 1830s. Not only this, but key developments within the span, such as the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon, are not seen as significantly reshaping the phenomena in question. Even a historian dealing with protest itself over a long span of time, like Charles Tilly, may downplay the significance of the French Revolution of 1789, in favor of fitting it into a larger periodization scheme. Or a social history survey may jump over World War I, using a definition of a mature industrial society that begins around the 1870s and ends after 1945, within which the world wars had some impact that fell short of redirecting basic social processes such as class struggle or the domestic emphasis for women.

Social history compounds the periodization problem by rarely focusing primarily on events and specific dates. Events may matter occasionally as causes of social phenomena—thus any history of women's work will pause in each of the two world wars to note some impact in increasing women's employment, and the end of serfdom clearly matters in the chronology of peasant history. Or events may illustrate some larger social trend, but they rarely form clear boundaries for the topics social historians study. Correspondingly, social historians are usually much more comfortable pinning the beginning of a new trend to a decade or so, rather than a specific year, much less a month and day. Thus the dramatic decline of infant mortality that is a key part of demographic transition began in western Europe (and the United States) in the 1880s—not 15 April 1881. The witchcraft furor drew to a close by the 1730s (though here, admittedly, the dates of the last formal trials can add some unwonted precision). The modern Europeanstyle family began to take shape in the later fifteenth century, not in 1483. Social history periodization focuses on new directions in collective behaviors, not tidy single occurrences.

In principle the rise of social history opens conventional European history periodization to a host of probing questions. What was long assumed must now be reexamined. The result is no small challenge to historians also busy with new topics, distinctive kinds of source materials, and so on. Challenge, in turn, explains why social history options have been varied, and variously satisfactory.


Two choices minimize social history's disruption to established periodization. One involves using the periods already available; the other involves using no real periods at all.

In the first choice, for reasons both good and bad, many social history topics are placed within familiar chronological boundaries. Very few social history books that get to 1914 do not simply stop there or at least acknowledge a major break. Very few early modernists—people who concentrate on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries—actually continue their work past 1789 or 1815. There are hosts of French social histories that fit within the framework of 1815 to 1848, a familiar political chunk.

Use of conventional periodization can be explained in several ways, with varying degrees of validity in consequence. Sometimes it simply reflects convenience. Dealing with new topics, it proved too demanding to think through fundamental beginnings and endings, so an acknowledged periodization was tacked on. The result might also help reader-historians who are not specialists in social history make more sense of the novel topic. Even if 1848 saw no major changes in the accelerating pattern of factory work in France, for example, stopping the study in 1848 would hardly be questioned. Archival materials might also be organized according to established dates, which would provide further fuel. All these justifications are perfectly understandable, especially in the early years of the newer social history research, and the resultant periodization could frame exciting studies. But the result involved dates of convenience, not a really thoughtful approach to periodization in terms of basic change and continuity.

Conventional periodization could take on added importance when historians argued more directly that familiar phenomena, and their dates, related directly to social change, either as cause or effect. For example, many social historians use the Reformation as a legitimate beginning point for examination of changes in family life, though in most cases the studies extend well into the seventeenth century to catch the full impact of the developments involved. Studies of European society between the world wars may explicitly establish that the topics involved changed shape as the result of World War I and would change again with the advent of World War II; here, periodization may be conventional but it is explicitly applied. Without question, some conventional periods work better than others for social history topics, because the impact of political or intellectual developments varies.

The second way to minimize periodization issues while dealing innovatively with social historical phenomena is through what might be called postholing—exploring an aspect of the past for its own sake, without caring too much when the phenomena involved began or ended. Thus a social historian might explore mid-seventeenth-century rituals that shed light on marriage or the roles of women. The result might add greatly to the store of knowledge, but the task of fitting into a chronology or of explaining when the phenomena began and why would be left to others. Certain kinds of microhistory have probed exciting specific materials that illuminate the characteristics of a point in the past, but again without worrying about chronological boundary lines. At times, to be sure, this postholing approach is combined with some reference to how different all this is from what would come later—a "world we have lost" approach—but there is no explicit attempt to decide when the changes occurred or even what caused the patterns explored to lose their validity.


At the other extreme, some pioneering social historians have urged a totally different approach, arguing that social history cannot be trapped within conventional periodization at all but also that the need to address periodization questions cannot be evaded simply because topics and materials are unfamiliar.

Following the lead of Fernand Braudel and the French Annales school, many social historians argue that certain kinds of social phenomena change very slowly, if at all, across long stretches of time in the European past. Many of the structures of peasant life can be seen through this lens. Methods of work, or land tenure, or popular beliefs and values may long persist, often from the Middle Ages into modern times. There is a beginning to the phenomena, though sometimes shrouded in the mists of a remote past, and there may be an end, but there is no need for a periodization that would identify a few decades, or even a few centuries. Arguments in terms of long duration have been applied less often to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries than to medieval and early modern European history, but survivals are not impossible even into recent times. Thus, without necessarily explicitly invoking longue durée (long duration), many historians of European witchcraft have noted important persistence of popular belief into the mid-nineteenth century, even though the formal trials period (dependent as it was on acquiescence of church and state leaders) ended more than a century before.

A longue durée approach often allows for identification of key regional patterns within Europe more generally, where persistent structures relate to some combination of geography and cultural tradition. Braudel himself explored particular dynamics in Mediterranean Europe. Others have identified durable structures in eastern Europe or elsewhere, sometimes related to land tenure patterns or other basic rural dynamics.

Periodization based on the longue durée framework is also open to criticism. Many social historians have challenged impressions of a stable, even changeless peasantry, noting that persistence sometimes reflects simply a lack of surviving information and that sharp, sudden changes in peasant behaviors and beliefs are common. On the whole, longue durée approaches have declined in popularity since the 1980s.

A second approach to social history periodization—not necessarily contradicting longue durée arguments about persistence, but offering a different emphasis—focuses on what Charles Tilly has called a quest for "big changes." Here the assumption is that every so often, but not too often, European history tosses up some structural shifts that are so massive that they have a wide array of social consequences. Tilly sees two changes, which he dates back to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, as reshaping European society in some senses all the way to the present. Commercialization of the economy, and the attendant formation of a property-less proletariat, is one of his key forces. The growth of the European state through the accumulation of new bureaucracy, new functions, and (gradually) new popular expectations, is his other great force. Tilly argues that the combined effect of his two big changes reshaped popular protest patterns in Europe in ways that can still be traced through the nineteenth century.

Other social historians might dispute Tilly's chronology or his choice of forces. For example, "big changes" in popular culture can also be traced back at least to the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The specific terminology of "big change" is not widely used, but the idea of major turning points gains ground increasingly in the more ambitious social history inquiries. The turning points may bear some relationship to conventional periodization, but they usually require separate definition, dating, and explanation. Thus the protoindustrialization concept, though disputed by some economic and social historians, argues that the spread of commercialized but domestic manufacturing in the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries ushered in important changes not only in work life, but also in consumption habits, gender relations, sexual behavior, and generational tensions—a kind of "big change," in other words, from which a host of other social shifts directly ushered. Many social historians see the industrial revolution in terms of sweeping social consequences—indeed, they are more comfortable with the industrial revolution concept as marking a whole set of social changes than are their economic historian counterparts, who variously debate the term according to a narrower set of economic indicators. Another big change point—perhaps the overused label "postindustrial" will turn out to apply—may enter in around the 1950s, associated with some familiar developments in the post–World War II state but also changes in family structure and popular values.


Along with long duration and big change, social historians increasingly contribute to periodization by dealing with specific chronological frameworks for specific sociohistorical phenomena. Examples here range as widely as social history itself. One historian, Eric Hobsbawm, sees the first key signs of instrumentalism among British workers in the 1850s; it was at this point, he argues, that some workers stopped viewing work in traditional terms and began to negotiate with employers in the belief that work should be an instrument to a better life off the job. The history of women and work notes the reduction of women's participation in the western European labor force during the initial decades of the industrial revolution (while women did gain jobs in factories, they were pushed from domestic manufacturing work in greater numbers still) but then notes the dramatic reentry of married women into the labor force in the 1950s and 1960s. A new concern for slenderness and avoidance of overweight arose in western Europe in the 1890s. It was in the eighteenth century—probably between 1730 and 1770—that women, rather than the aristocracy, began to be seen as the group in European society that should be particularly associated with beauty, and therefore with particular attention to costume. It was also at this time—in a change that has yet to be fully explored—that dominant cultural assumptions began to shift away from traditional assumptions that women were more naturally sinful than men, to an argument that they were in crucial respects, particularly concerning sexuality, more moral. It was in the 1890s that targets for murder in several parts of western Europe began to focus more on family members than on barroom companions—a fascinating if very specific kind of periodization shift. It was in the 1920s that old people began to stop coresiding with younger kin (a pattern that had actually increased in the nineteenth century), a trend that has continued to the present day. It was in the late sixteenth century that modern prisons began to reshape ideas and practices of punishment in western Europe.

The list of specific periodization findings is vast. Some, of course, relate to wider claims; the boundary between specific periodizations and a "big change" argument is not hard and fast. One of the major periodization findings of social historians since 1980 has emphasized the origins of modern consumer society in the eighteenth century. In contradistinction to the older view that consumerism resulted from industrialization, we now realize that in western Europe it preceded it. Demographic historians urge a fairly basic periodization as well, with emphasis on the beginnings of a declining birth rate in the later eighteenth or early nineteenth centuries, measurable population ageing by the early twentieth century, and so on. The work of Norbert Elias, recently revived in several studies, has called attention to the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as a time of a change in manners and a growing insistence on self-restraint in a variety of aspects of life, from eating to emotion.

Specific periodizations in social history not only vary with particular topics, since clearly not all aspects of human behavior tidily change in concert, but also with regions. Choice of periods and change points for the history of manorialism, for example, obviously vary with each European region, but the same is true for shifts in family structure or sexuality. At times, at least in recent centuries, regional differences in periodization reflect different dates of phenomena such as industrialization, so that the nature of periods is more similar than the specific chronology. Peasant sexuality in Russia, for example, which was beginning to alter in the late nineteenth century as a function of new contacts with cities, enters a new period somewhat similar to that which can be discerned in western Europe in the mid-eighteenth century. But regularities cannot be pressed too far: the regional factor adds further complexity to periodization in European social history.


No single periodization scheme currently dominates European social history. Useful approaches range from acceptance of familiar chronologies to a clearly alternative scheme such as long duration or big change, to the array of specific periodizations that have resulted from studies of social classes, gender, and popular behaviors. Add to this the different periodizations necessary for different regions of Europe—such as the decline of manorialism in early modern western Europe even as serfdom intensified in Russia and Poland—and the pattern is unquestionably complex.

And from this welter of approaches, three results stand out. First, while social historians have not fully replaced conventional periodization, they certainly tend to challenge it. Some staples survive better than others. While studies of social history during the Renaissance abound, particularly for Italy, the Renaissance is not usually highlighted as a basic social history period. As a largely elite cultural phenomenon, with some ramifications in politics and commerce, the Renaissance did not have wide enough social resonance to be terribly useful as a social history period overall. As indicated earlier, the Reformation has retained greater utility as a social history period, though only if extended in time. Correspondingly, some developments long linked uncomfortably to political periods, such as the industrial revolution, now gain greater prominence. The concepts are not entirely new, but their priority shifts once the topics to be accounted for are redefined. Few late-twentieth-century social historians chop up the nineteenth century according to political and diplomatic shifts. Indeed, periodization based on diplomatic developments has survived particularly badly, except when diplomacy breaks down and society-shattering wars ensue. The social history periodization scheme, in sum, looks considerably different from the more conventional markers. The difference includes the need to focus more on transition points for social processes than on precise events and single dates.

Second, no fully agreed periodization has replaced the conventional markers. There are too many aspects of society, too many particular schemes, to yield substantial coherence as yet at least. To some observers or critics, the result is an unfortunate messiness or lack of coherence. One of the motivations behind the "big changes" push was a desire for synthesis, a hope that a few dramatic forces could unite a wide variety of social phenomena. At worst, a separate periodization scheme attaches to every major social history topic, and sometimes even this must be modified depending on the geographic region under examination.

Third, however messy, the ongoing exploration of social history has at its best made the search for appropriate periods more explicit, more open to assessment and debate, than was true for some of the older formulas. Determining when basic changes in direction occur (and what continuities survive them), and what caused them, is much of the stuff of history. Precisely because social history has redefined what the past entails, the need to seek out the appropriate chronology becomes part of the task. Whether some larger unities will emerge in future is anyone's guess, though some clusters of particularly important changes are widely recognized already. For some the need to move into a topic with questions about appropriate chronology make the resultant history more exciting and more usable than when less-examined assumptions predominated. For researchers and history-users alike, the need to think about periodization unquestionably adds to the task of being engaged with social history.

See also other articles in this section.


Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. Translated by Sian Reynolds. New York, 1976. Translation of La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l'époque de Philippe II.

Laslett, Peter. The World We Have Lost. New York, 1965.

Stearns, Peter N., and Herrick Chapman. European Society in Upheaval: Social History Since 1750. 3d ed. New York, 1992.

Tilly, Charles. Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons. New York, 1984.

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Periodization in Social History

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