Reconceptualizing the Social: East Central Europe and the New Sociocultural History

In: East Central Europe
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This introductory essay reviews recent debates on social history, with a focus on the revival of this field of studies in post-communist East Central Europe and its potential impact on rejuvenating approaches to the social history of Europe. The first part of the essay provides a brief overview of the emergence of social history as a reaction to the dominant political history of the nineteenth century and its crystallization in different national schools, and highlights recent responses to the poststructuralist and postmodern critiques of “the social.” The second part focuses on traditions of social history research in East Central Europe, taking Poland and Romania as main examples. The third part summarizes the main claims of the articles included in this issue and evaluates their implications for future research. It is argued that, at first glance, post-communist historiography in East Central Europe provides the picture of a discipline in transformation, still struggling to break up with the past and to rebuild its institutional framework, catching up with recent trends and redefining its role in continental and global historiography. The recent attempts to invigorate research in traditional fields of social history might seem largely obsolete, not only out of tune with international developments but also futile reiterations of vistas that have been for long experimented with and superseded in Western Europe. At closer scrutiny, however, historiography in East Central Europe appears—unequal and variegated as it is—as a laboratory for historical innovation and a field of experimentation, and interaction of scholars from various disciplines and scholarly traditions, in which old and new trends amalgamate in peculiar ways. It is suggested that the tendency to reconceptualize the “social” that we currently witness in humanities and social sciences worldwide could be not only reinforced but also cross-fertilized by the “social turn” in East Central Europe, potentially leading to novel approaches.

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