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Hal S. Barron

Univ. of Claremont, California, U.S.A.

"Recent Trends in U.S. Social History,"

This paper provides a critical overview of several important developments

in the field of U.S. Social History over the past fifteen years.

One of these has been the rise of a new rural history. In contrast to the

more traditional field of agricultural history, which focuses primarily on

the history and economic impact of agricultural production, rural history

seeks to reconstruct the social relations that characterized life in the

United States countryside. Along these lines, a central debate has

revolved around the social meanings of the spread of commercialized

agriculture during the first half of the ninteteenth century - America's

Agricultural Revolution. More recent work has looked at the role of

ethnicity in the countryside and the nature of women's work on the farm as

well as such twentieth-century issues as the relationships of rural people

to the rise of the city, the centralization of the state, and the emergence

of consumer culture.

Another dynamic area of inquiry has been the history of immigration and

ethnicity. Following the lead of Frank Thistlethwaite almost forty years

ago, historians of immigration and ethnicity have moved away from a

U.S.-centered analysis, which celebrated the acculturation and

Americanization of immigrants, to a view that is both global and

comparative and emphasizes a more nuanced and complicated process of

cultural transformation marked by continuity as well as change. For

European immigrants at least, a growing sense of "whiteness" proved central

to this process, although the experiences of the southern Italians and

other so-called "in-between" groups offer interesting variations on this

theme. More recent work on immigration across the Pacific has extended the

scope of this historiography even further and has complicated the view of

race in American society as simply a black and white dichotomy.

As the last example implies, the rewriting of the history of the American

West has also been a lively project during the past decade and a half. In

contrast to the triumphalist narratives that have dominated the field since

Frederick Jackson Turner invented it over a century ago, more recent work

reconsiders that history with respect to the experiences of idigenous

people, other people of color, and women, as well as the environment.

Whether the West can be defined best as a geographic region, or as a kind

of unique social process, though, remains the locus of heated debate.