Site Loader
Rock Street, San Francisco

popularisation of the concept history from below emerged in a Times Literary
Supplement survey article in 19661,
this radical reduction of historical scale that focuses on individuality rather
than the achievements of great men has undoubtedly changed the way in which history
is revised today but to what extent. The history of people is a landmark
departure from traditional historiography and lays its roots throughout the
inter war years as members of the French Annales School embraced a versatile materialistic
approach, similarly inspiring Marxist historians throughout the United Kingdom
after the Second World War. In this essay, I will evaluate the ways in which historians
now solely use history from below in their practices and the ways it compares with
other historiographies as well as examine the shift from not concentrating on
solely growing political consciousness in strictly ideological relations but
rather focus on underlying mentalities through the rescuing stories from the inequalities
of collective recollection as well as national history. Most importantly
however I will conclude the ways in which I believe Social History and History
from Below has broadened the academic reach for Historiography in ways that no
other approach has by unveiling areas of research that without the concept of
history from below would not have been discovered.



We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

Thompson In the Making of the English Working Class has great relevance to the popularisation
of history from below as being more of an old fashioned country gentlemen rather
than upper-class intellectual the concern he displays for the deficiency of consideration
for the oppressed that died long ago does indeed provide much relevance when
considering how much history  from below
has changed the way we think about the past as he states “I am seeking to rescue
the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand-loom weaver, the ‘utopian’
artisan – and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott – from the enormous
condescension of posterity”2. Although
so commonly alluded to by critics and historians in general, this should prove
to be a vital foundation for the course of this essay as it does so well to
highlight my interpretation on the ways in which we study the past in today’s
day and age and the importance of conservation of qualitative, quotidian
experiences of ordinary people whom would have been forgotten through the façade
of greater men or political ideologies. This condescension of posterity E.P.

Thompson refers to what he is so adamant to remove from society as his work
unearthed doors to ever evolving areas of historical study which will continue
in relevancy until proved otherwise as he goes on to state that “Their
ordinary people crafts and traditions may have been dying; their hostility to
the new industrialism may have been backward-looking; their communitarian
ideals may have been fantasies; their insurrectionary conspiracies may have been
foolhardy  but they lived through these
times of acute social disturbance and
we did not”3.

One criticism of this from below approach is the lack of nuance in the
interpretation of classes as he rarely analyses the diverse complexities
throughout these groups as it was hard to due to the lack of concrete facts the
history from below approach provides, although it must be said that this
approach harnessed by Thompson proved to be a figurehead in the advancement in
historiography but the de-facto aim remained the same to rescue lost histories.

Having never been prioritised before, the lives of ordinary people began to be prevalent
once more as he had succeeded in undercutting reductionism and the elitism that
historiography had suffered before the 1960s thus heralding the first dramatic
change in the study of history.


Some of the
ways that history from below has broadened the academic scope is through the
directly and unfairly oppressed in the past such as those overlooked by society
such as the disenfranchised and most specifically, women. It is only recently from
the evolution of social history and the study from below that historians have
evaluated the plight of women as their past and the acknowledgment of their
heritage has been properly gauged from what little historians can find as Burke
so correctly raises the point that “the further back historians seeking to
reconstruct the experience of the lower orders go, the more restricted the
range of sources at their disposal becomes”4.

Burke does well to raise queries regarding the status of women such as their
role in society as well as political influence and it is largely deemed as
overlooked by the male dominated society as women throughout history were not
considered at all close to the prevalence of what men were therefore
coincidently proves to leave gaps in research and an underlying conclusion is
most hard to come by whilst using the history from below approach. The
depiction of women in their place in society, the kind of work they were
involved in and most predominantly the underlying status of women at the time
is without a doubt a most rigorously researched topic in today’s day and age
and this would not have been without the evolution of the history from below.

However as previously mentioned the extent of which history from below in this
case changes the way we view the past is indeed somewhat limited due to one of
the major criticisms being the lack of sources and evidence that can be
uncovered from the time due to the social hierarchy however the value of this
cannot be overlooked. Fundamentally Women are studied where their activities
are deemed as important upon issues that historians define as valuable such as
war work even the entry into the formal political arena through the suffrage,
the from below approach means that “Historians of women are more likely to
argue that the subjective experiences of women – such as personal relationships
and the family, for example – have just as much historical significance as the
public world of paid work and politics”5.

As for many concepts within the approach from below the recovery of Women’s
history is continuous even thirty years after the emergence of the subject
area. The evolution of women’s history is remarkable in the ways in which it
became concerned with not just including women into an already existing
framework but enabling the challenging of definitions by what is seen as
historically significant. The way in which Burke discusses the oppression of
women at the time unearths more doorways for research as he goes on to consider
the usefulness of on the changing relationships of people6 through
gender rather than the specific oppression they received throughout history as
well as consider whether progress for men necessarily mean progress for women?


Following on
from the benefits that history from below provides by opening new academic topics
and the way we view history today can be seen throughout the history of slavery
as it justly highlights the contrast between the traditional historiography
known and people’s history or history from below. Eric Hobsbawm discusses this
matter in depth by saying that the study of slavery is although remotely new
there is a copious number of sources regarding the matter and more information
is revealed consistently about the disturbed past of slaves, the benefits to
the study of slavery however is that “slave owners can not be understood
without slaves, and without the non-slave sectors of society”7. Thus,
not only highlighting the benefits of studying this era but also the eras it
uncovers for wider historical research such as the civil rights movement later
on, which proves to be a significant factor in the extent history from below
provides to historians today. Such as for the working class and culture, the
application of history from below has extended the ways in which we research
this topic diversely as Thompson states “The working class did not rise like
the sun at an appointed time. It was present at its own making,”8.

This refers to the fact that class can be seen as an active process and can
only be analysed throughout time therefore juxtaposing the Marxist theory as in
Thompsons view there is no purpose of the specifics of class consciousness by
the economic existence of class therefore leading onto the point of how history
from below allows historians to broaden their insight on the working class
throughout the late 19th and 20th century which can be
seen through many publications such as Joanna Bourke’s Working-class cultures
in Britain 1890-1960, Gender, Class and Ethnicity. Bourke’s publication
summarises the very benefits gained from the below approach when approaching the
topic of class cultures as throughout the publication the analysis is strictly
from a below approach which provides a view to the working class not yet
properly seen before. The unrefined individualistic stance she provides
focusing on the self-perceived opinion of those in the working class rather
than that of society in general she does this by “seek ing) to return
attention to the working-class individual, and, by extension, to play down the
more familiar manifestation of class consciousness central to most labour
history: ‘trade unions, working men’s clubs, community pressure groups and
political parties’9″10. Bourke
both critically analyses as well as conforms with other books by authors in the
same field of study as E.P Thompsons ‘common experience’ regarding the common
conceptions of what it is to be working class and those who are depicted as in
that class structure is readily referenced by Bourke rather than opposing to
analyse the concept of class. Reminiscing on working-class culture with
‘rose tinted glasses’ is a highly disputed concept for Joanna Bourke throughout
book but most significantly in the chapter on locality. What is discussed
however and stated by the majority of people in the working-class community is the
good experiences mostly produced by media outlets and what they prefer to
remember being long extended hours and under-efficient housing conditions as
Bourke continues to argue that “Much of the rhetoric of community existed only
in people’s imaginations, leading to reminiscences being only positive”11,  ignoring the genuine opinions of those at the
time affected by such class-structures. This opinion although not shared by
many can still be seen in the works of authors such as E.P Thompson as he
states “Their (the working-class) communitarian ideals may have been fantasies”12. As
with most criticisms of the history from below approach Bourke fails to reach a
decisive conclusion due to the open-ended void of information that the
historiographical concept fails to uphold however it must be said that the from
below approach considered throughout the publication by Bourke provides a vital
insight into the lives of working class cultures through the 19th
and 20th century she does this using contextualised first hand
sources whilst referencing others whom hold a similar approach such as



It can be
said that the history from below approach is no longer as popular as it once
was throughout the mid to late 20th century and the reasons for this
are intriguing as to finding out how to what extent the from below approach
influences historians today. By the end of the 1980s the from below approach as
well as social history had been overcome by newer prospects such the insight
into post-modernism and cultural history mainly wrought throughout the United
States. However, no matter how new the approach a trend arises most commonly
sharing an affinity with its predecessor most predominantly through vital
figureheads and institution and not to mention the rise of social science
history associated with a resolute materialist interpretation of how history in
itself works. Many historians to this day still produce work on this genre of
historiography mainly between state and society regarding the soviet bloc, this
relationship shows how history from below and the understanding of life at its
most common values can explain things that politics, institutions and parties
cannot. It must not be ignored however that the boom in History from below through
the research and interest into ordinary lives, protest and slavery throughout
the 1960s heralds itself somewhat to the social and political upheaval at the
time. Since then the political orientation have turned a major shift from the
intrigue into the working class and more towards ethnicity as well as the
oppression of women as Wendy Goldman states that “today, historians seem more
interested in identity, nationality, ethnicity, globalisation, and transnational
histories, which re?ect in turn preoccupations of our contemporary world”13.

Goldman does well to sum up the underlying view shared by many that is although
the concept of historiography changes the fact that history from below having
been unearthed by E.P Thompson in the 1960s will forever play a vital role in
influencing all forms of historiography in the future.


To sum up
the extent in which history from below has changed our perception of the past
is a challenging concept as the ideologies used today although do not implicitly
refer to what we know as history from below but do indeed continue to reference
it in our everyday lives. The shift that Thompson represented and the enormous
condescension of posterity he provided with it did justice in the undercutting
of reductionist histories and will forever do so but the question remains as to
how long it will remain important and vital to the field of study it is
unknown. The significance of history from below for now stands as a crucial
factor when interpreting the majority of periods of history when needed and
most importantly if available contextually, as discussed, the history from
below approach is much more contextually lacking than other subject areas.

Asides from this Thompsons work was the catalyst to ever evolving
interpretations of history that shape our view of the past even today and will
likely do so for many more years. Thompsons view of history is not only
subaltern but purposely inclusive of “the blind alleys, the lost causes, and
the losers themselves”14
and this philosophy undoubtedly asserts the ways in which the working class are
portrayed today in the attempt to tell the stories of as many people and as
many ways of being world as it possibly can do in order to minimalize the loss
of historical facts from every corner of history as well as making History the
constantly flowing engine of everyone’s collective social maturity.


1E.P. Thompson, ‘History from Below’, The
Times Literary Supplement (Thursday, 7 April 1966), p. 279, issue 3345.

2 E.P. Thompson. The Making of the
English Working Class. Penguin 1968 p. 13.

3 E.P. Thompson. The Making of the English Working
Class. Penguin 1968 p. 13.

4 Peter Burke, ‘History and Social Theory’
(1992), p. 51


6 Peter Burke, ‘History and Social Theory’
(1992), p. 52

7 Eric Hobsbawm, ‘From Social History to the
History of Society’ in Historical Studies Today (1971), Vol 100. No. 1, p. 37

8 E.P. Thompson. The Making of the
English Working Class. Penguin 1968 p. 9

9 Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in
Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class

Ethnicity (1994) p.1

10 John Davis, The Working-Class life (1995) Twentieth
Century British History, Volume 6,
Issue 2 p.245

11 Joanna Bourke, Working-Class Cultures in
Britain 1890-1960: Gender, Class

Ethnicity (1994) p.136-137

12 E.P. Thompson,
The Making of the English Working Class Penguin (1968) p.12

13 Bucur M, Gavrilova R, Goldman W, Healy  M, Lebow K, Pittaway M, 2009. Six historians
in search of Alltagsgeschichte.

14 E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English
Working Class, 1963 p.12.

Post Author: admin


I'm Dora!

Would you like to get a custom essay? How about receiving a customized one?

Check it out