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How can sociology contribute to history?

By Aleysha Shergill - History Student @ St Hilda's College, Oxford


Several important methodological differences exist between sociology and history, namely in terms of their research methods and approach to historical change. While sociology has traditionally relied on quantitative research methods (often statistical), historians are also able to incorporate qualitative analysis into their research, including use of written sources and oral interviews. It is through an analysis of social mobility, however, that we can see the way historians have used sociology and built on its methodological shortcomings to strengthen historical research.

One way historians have used sociology is through their application of sociological definitions of social mobility to historically specific contexts. Recent sociological research, for example, has emphasised distinctions between two different types of mobility: relative and absolute. While absolute mobility assesses movement up and down the social scale, relative mobility is a measure of equality which assesses deviations from ‘perfect’ equality of opportunity. For sociologists, downward mobility is just as important as upward mobility from the working class as both are necessary to achieve ‘equality of opportunity’.

Importantly, it is this definition of social mobility which has been used by historians to challenge the perceived ‘golden age’ of social mobility in the period following the Second World War. Studies of social mobility in twentieth century Britain, for example, have used sociological understandings of ‘relative’ mobility to argue that apparent fluidity in British society in the post-war period actually reflected the changing shape of the economy rather than increasing equality of opportunity. Historians have thus used sociological definitions to reveal that in the post-war era there was simply more ‘room at the top’, rather than a substantial shift towards greater equality of opportunity and, indeed, increased social mobility.