The Field of Cultural History
Culture is an umbrella term that encompasses the social behavior, institutions and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, customs, capabilities and habits of the individuals in these groups. It is also often used to describe the way that a population is organized and developed over time, whether by ancestry or by the impact of migration.
Cultural history is a discipline that studies the processes of development and evolution of cultures, and the ways in which culture has shaped societies and nations throughout human history. It seeks to understand the relationships between people and cultures, the ways in which culture is passed down through generations and the differences between them, and how these are reflected in art and literature.
The field of cultural history is a broad discipline that includes both classical and contemporary approaches. It is an interdisciplinary field and draws on the work of many other disciplines, including history, anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology, and philosophy.
Classical or traditional cultural history (also called the history of culture) focuses on the development of cultures and their relationship to the larger social and political contexts in which they emerged. In this tradition, scholars make use of archaeological evidence, primary sources, texts and visual media to investigate the development of a given society or region in its historical context.
In contrast, new cultural history takes a more critical and reflexive approach to the study of culture, in which a more thoroughgoing application of anthropological understandings of culture is required. It often incorporates semiotics into its research and seeks to show how systems of signification that are shared across societies and even within a single society play a key role in the production of both the forms and consciousness of those societies.
Moreover, new cultural historians often use an anti-disciplinary approach to the study of culture, in which they engage with other fields in the humanities and social sciences. They do this in part because the theories of language and semiotics have a strong influence over most of these other disciplines, and in part because many of the developments that have occurred in these other disciplines have been prompted by the growing emphasis on the centrality of culture to the construction of human knowledge.
Some social historians, in particular those who remained committed to traditional approaches to social history, have been wary of the new cultural history movement, questioning whether the study of culture should eclipse other concerns, such as mass movements and political structures. They have argued that discourses of class cannot be thoroughly severed from their extralinguistic referents, and insisted on the primacy of social relationships over other considerations in thinking about human consciousness.
The new cultural history movement has invigorated the field of social history by bringing new methods and insights to bear on problems that have long been the subject of that discipline. These include the question of power and the construction of authority, and the examination of how and why people from different social classes have come to think differently about the same things. It has also helped to reclaim the role of culture as a primary concern in the writing of history, challenging the idea that history is invariably a solitary exercise.