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.

It was the case, for example, that the professional and managerial roles available (also referred to as white-collar jobs) were growing more rapidly than educational opportunity, hence employers were more likely to recruit individuals on grounds other than education to fill vacant spaces. This is further illustrated by evidence that suggests about half of the working class were upwardly mobile, but that only a fifth had any experience of grammar schools. To put this into perspective, it is difficult for us today, for example, to divorce our understanding of social mobility from increased educational opportunity. Thus, sociological definitions of mobility have strengthened historical analysis of the post-war era and revealed that while there was more upward mobility, there was on balance no more equality of opportunity.

Despite criticisms of sociology’s approach to social mobility, including its over-reliance on quantitative data, which has arguably narrowed the scope of social mobility research, historians have mitigated these shortcomings through use of familiar historical methods. Quantitative methods used by sociologists, for example, have been criticised for their failure to grasp the true complexity of the social processes behind national rates of mobility to help us appreciate how mobility is experienced and perceived by different groups. Historians, however, have incorporated personal narratives into their work on mobility, including Selina Todd’s examination of contemporary social surveys and census and government records, as well as the testimonies of fifty-nine women who entered employment during in inter-war England to help demonstrate how young women’s entry into and choice of employment was influenced by their familial background and expectations. Here, qualitative data is invaluable for providing insight into the ‘subjective experience of mobility’, particularly for women.

Historians have also overcome sociology’s preoccupation with socio-economic constraints on social mobility at the structural level. Sociological approaches to social mobility, for example, have failed to take into consideration factors such as the cultural and the social and their impact on social mobility within a particular social class. Historians, however, have addressed these limitations through their research on social mobility in historically specific contexts.

Selina Todd, for example, has examined how young-working class women in the inter-war period conducted their job search. She argues that while there were expanding employment choices available to women of school leaving age, their choices also remained constrained by social class. She points to the long-neglected role of the support networks developed among working class women, such as the provision of advice on and the location of employment for children especially daughters which prevented them from taking advantage of the structural changes in British industry that had increased demand for semi-skilled and lower-grade non-manual work. Eve Worth’s life history interviews with women born in Britain between 1938 and 1952 also reveal the different factors enabling or inhibiting social mobility, demonstrating how post-war women’s experiences of social mobility enabled by further education were often only possible due to family support and labour. These historical studies of social mobility reveal that the capacity for social mobility is also determined by factors such as community and kinship, often overlooked by sociological research that relies on statistical data.

Moreover, social mobility is not the only way sociology has contributed to historical study. Sociological definitions of class, including those associated with Marx and Weber, are another way the discipline has contributed to historical understanding. However, sociology’s contribution to the study of social mobility in historically specific contexts provides particular insight into the way the two disciplines have interacted to further research. There are, however, still important differences between the two disciplines, differences that are actually invaluable to the historian. History’s use of qualitative methods, for example, such as oral interviews are less familiar to the sociologist but central to historical research, especially for studies of the twentieth century.

Further reading:

  1. Peter Mandler, ‘Educating the Nation: Social Mobility’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 2016

  2. S. Lawler and G. Payne, Social Mobility for the 21st century: everyone a winner?, introduction.

  3. C. De Bellaigue, H. Mills and E. Worth, ‘Introduction’, Cultural and Social History, vol. 16, issue 1, 2019

  4. Eve Worth, ‘Women, Education and Social Mobility in Britain during the Long 1970s’, Cultural and Social History, 2019.

  5. Selina Todd, ‘Poverty and Aspiration: Young Women’s Entry to Employment in Interwar England’, Twentieth Century British History, (2004)