The People’s History

When the social sciences were first created, it was at a time when science was believed to be the answer to all things. It was a time when the physical sciences were growing by leaps and bounds, and people — at least the educated ones — knew in their hearts that the scientific method would crack the code of all things.

The idea was to take the methods of science and apply them to the behaviors of people. Anthropology, economics, political science, sociology, and the like all were ways of stepping away from softer approaches to humans, like history, and give the topic a more rigorous basis.

As it turns out, trying to use scientific rigor on complex systems is a lot harder than it looks. If we’ve learned anything, it’s that people are more complicated than we suspected.

The (Post?)Modern Human

Homo erectus endocast - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-17
Are you thinking what I’m thinking?
Probably not.

People are complicated. So complicated, in fact, that we mostly understand them (ourselves!) through statistics and trends. Culture itself can only be understood in that way.

When we first started looking at culture, we really wanted to say “culture X believes Y” like it was some mathematical model. But now we have discovered that there is little in any culture that is truly uncontested.

Even what we once thought were simple cultures of simple people are incredibly complex, with “core” beliefs that are no more than trends. Even if we want to say something like “the Ancient Greeks were polytheistic” we can only say it with some certainty.

Complexity Isn’t New

Plato in Thomas Stanley History of Philosophy
from Thomas Stanley’s The History of Philosophy (1655)

Some of the Ancient Greeks believed that all the “gods” were expressions of one higher source. So, does that make them polytheists? Did they believe the myths we ascribe to them? Well, sort of.

Think of it this way: “do Westerners today believe in evolution?” Or how about “do Christians believe in the creation of the world in seven days?” The answer is “some of them” or maybe even “yeah, they trend that way in some sub-groups.”

To make things seemingly less complicated, we look at what beliefs are associated with other things, like political power. We choose to narrow what we’re looking at in order to make some kind of sense.

But at the same time, we have to realize that when we narrow down what we look at and see only dominant trends, we do the same thing that we do by choosing to watch only certain news sources in our own culture. Since we only have limited attention, we chop off a chunk of what’s going on, placing abstract boundaries that reflect our own values.

Like the postmodernists argue, we can’t pay attention to everything. And choosing what we pay attention to is an act of politics and an act of power.

Rise of the Machines

Daniel Maclise - Caxton Showing the First Specimen of His Printing to King Edward IV at the Almonry, Westminster
The printing press revolutionized History by making its creation accessible to all.

But we can no longer pretend that we’re passive consumers of culture and history. The “common man” has access to more education and wealth than ever before in history.

With the rise of the printing press, mass literacy, and more recently the Internet, we’ve given voice to people and groups that were previously silenced. Where once putting pen to paper was the domain of the elites, now it’s open to nearly everyone.

The cost of publishing has gone down to near-free, and the challenge is getting people’s attention in the resulting cacophony. The question isn’t “can I get published?” anymore. While the gatekeepers of traditional publishing still hold the keys tightly, there are other kingdoms of communication, and some of them aren’t so hard to enter.

Now that the means of communication are open to all, it is harder to cling to the old adage that “history is written by the victors.” History, as always, is written by the literate. But more and more, that’s nearly everyone.

Not only can we see how complicated and varied people are in their decisions and lives, but we’ve become engaged in documenting it in ways that couldn’t even be dreamed of a generation ago. Though we have hardly begun to scratch the surface of it, social media has become “The People’s History.”


One thought on “The People’s History”

  1. I would add that it takes more than literacy to write social history—it takes an audience. After all, if a word is typed on the keypad and there’s nobody around to read it, does it make an impact?

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