Social History

What is social history and why does it matter in genealogical research?


Many genealogists, after years of researching the names and dates and locations of their ancestors, thirst for something more. The files and notebooks filled with pedigree charts, family group sheets, vital records, censuses, deeds, wills—the list is endless—provide the necessary statistical details of your ancestors’ lives. But these files and notebooks, and the documents they hold, are really quite meaningless to the non-genealogists in your family. They tell only part of the story. Stimulate interest in your research by writing the stories. Turn those documents into a narrative that can be passed down through the generations.


What is Social History?

Social history is the study of the lives of ordinary people. Where history focuses on the who, what, when, and where, social history looks at why and how. It looks at why things happen and how events affect people. Social history is the study of society and cultures. Social history looks at how events affect people collectively.


Why Social History?

To make your stories more compelling, add a social history element. Social history helps us to understand how our ancestors interacted with their surroundings and how those surroundings impacted their lives. Placing your ancestors within the context of their social and historic surroundings will help you get to know them better. It would be wrong to think of your great-grandfather’s life against the backdrop of the twenty-first century New York. He didn’t have television, telephones, cars, or even indoor plumbing. His own world was unique and interesting. Spend some time researching the time and place your ancestors lived in. Immerse yourself in their era and culture. Connect yourself to their world.

A written family history needn’t be boring. By incorporating social history into the context of your family history research, you will move beyond the dates and begats and will begin to bring your ancestors to life. A narrative written within the context of well-researched social history can be interesting, even fascinating. Your ancestors’ lives were filled with much more than their marriage date and the birth dates of their children. While traditional genealogical research uncovers these required vital statistics, a healthy dose of social history research can provide details about the connecting days and months in our ancestors’ lives. Social history elements will breathe life into genealogy research and to your written family history.  Social history can talk to why your ancestors lived where they lived, did what they did, even felt what they felt. Learning about social history allows you to step into your ancestors’ world, to walk in your ancestors’ world.


Social History Topics



Family and Home Life



Work and Occupations

Bibliography of Social History Books


Updated July 2017