CFP: Social Cohesion in Pre-Modern England, 1500–1800 (Oxford)

Historians currently face a range of problems in describing the social order of pre-modern England. This is seen, on the one hand, in the lack of recent monographs addressing the nature of social change between the early modern world and the long eighteenth century, with few social histories crossing the divide marked by 1688. On the other, it appears that while leading historians in both these fields have identified many important factors shaping social relations, scholars remain divided over how these often disparate forces interacted with each other to produce larger social structures.These are symptoms, firstly, of a lack of dialogue between specialists of the two periods, which are often separated from each other by syllabi, departmental structures and the criteria of research grants. For each period, differing assumptions about the nature of society have given rise to incompatible and imbalanced models for conceptualizing the social order. For instance, the social order of early modern society is assumed to have been a rather fragile phenomenon, with large social groups juxtaposed in such stark inequality that only a coherent top-down ideological programme was capable of maintaining order. By contrast, eighteenth-century society is assumed to have been a loose aggregation of more fluid social identities, where a common engagement with the market and its corresponding values of social improvement were sufficient for ensuring stability.

Secondly, these symptoms reflect an ongoing uncertainty over how to describe society and social change following the collapse of class as an analytical category. With the linguistic and cultural turns revealing social identity as a construct rather than a pre-existing condition, historians have looked to a series of economic, political and cultural factors to explain the social lives of pre-modern individuals. While this subordination of social grouping as a structural aspect of society has exposed the fluid and contested nature of social relations, it has also tended to portray people as atomistic entities with limited ties to broader communities. However, existing work on the subject also implies that society was more than a disaggregated collection of individuals, and that it somehow cohered in a structured way-persisting through time but still capable of change. Considerable disagreement therefore remains over how to conceptualize the pre-modern social order and how to use such models to understand society.

It is suggested here that greater dialogue between early modernists and historians of the eighteenth century will help to identify and define some of the major challenges which pre-modern social history may face going forward. With commentators now announcing the death of ‘social’ history itself, historians need to reflect on how they can give an account of social cohesion without seeking some single structural force acting alone to give society its shape. Papers are therefore invited for a one-day conference, addressing social cohesion, to be held in Oxford on Saturday, May 2nd 2009. Proposals of up to 300 words on any aspect of social identity or social structure in either of these two periods will be welcomed. The conveners are particularly interested to hear from those working across the longue durée and those addressing the methodological frameworks which inform our approach to the social order as it is maintained as well as transformed over time. The deadline for abstracts is Friday, January 9th, 2009.

Plenary speakers include:
Professor Martin Ingram (Oxford)
Dr. Faramerz Dabhoiwala (Oxford)

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Published in: on October 1, 2008 at 3:14 pm  Leave a Comment  

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