Use Your Ancestors' Social History to Your Advantage

by Stephanie Pitcher Fishman | Aug 13, 2013

Stephanie Pitcher Fishman

Many of us try to understand why our ancestors made the choices that they did. Why did they migrate? Why did they follow the trade that they did? We look for a common thread from their experiences to our lives. We long for a future generation to value the work that we've so painstakingly curated over our time as the family historian. Social history can help you with each of these while making your genealogy projects more fulfilling for you in the process.

What is Social History?

Social history is the social, economic, and cultural history of people. This area of history centers on the experiences and events in a person's life. Family historians are familiar with local history. We search for recorded memoirs telling us of events in our ancestors' region and how it affected them. Local history is quite possibly the most recognizable forms of social history. However, there are more that are also helpful in understanding and telling the story of your family.

Recent generations have added women's history, labor history, and cultural history specific to a group of people such as African American history or Latino history. By studying this targeted history we can learn about the type of lives our relatives may have had. It can tell us a lot about the places, spaces, and faces that may have crossed their paths.

Why Study Social History?

social-history.jpgOne of the first realities we face in our research is the challenge to find proof of the facts that we assert in our family story. Just as we could learn that a record has been destroyed, we may also find ourselves learning that perhaps that record didn't exist in the first place. As we are looking for those pieces of proof, often times we end up with a brick wall when we focus narrowly on the individual receiving our immediate attention. This is where social history comes to our rescue!

Our ancestors didn't live in a bubble devoid of interaction. They had neighbors, employers, and church leaders who all functioned within their social structure. They attended town hall meetings and had reactions to local, national, and world events in ways specific to their culture or social mores. If we take a look at where they lived or the culture with which they identified we can unearth clues to point us towards a different type of proof than we first sought. By understanding the culture and social structure around these areas of their lives we may discover a different way of seeing the past. And, it makes our projects much more interesting!

Even without researching the social history of a region, I can guess that my city-dwelling immigrant ancestors in the Northeast would have face different challenges at the turn of the century than my rural farming ancestors in the Gulf South. However, how much stronger would my research be if I actually understood the ways that their individual societies functioned? I would be able to see their choices and actions in historical context, and I may be able to identify a different type of record. Given this small example, I was able to understand that one group of ancestors would likely appear in a far different section of the local newspaper than another.

Get the Attention of the Next Generation

Our younger generations are growing up in a time when storytelling is big business and appears in advertising as well as their history books. They no longer care for dry facts. They want substance. My teenager wants to understand why a choice was made. She doesn't simply want to see a date beside it. Show them the substance in your family tree by putting flesh on the bones of fact.

We hear genealogy societies cry out for the attention of the next generation. We're all struggling at times to find a way to hook our family members onto the stories that we've located. We long to hold their interest long enough that they would want to learn how to not only care for the research that we've completed but also one day start their own projects. Social history can be that hook.

Practical Applications of Social History

Now that we've identified what social history is and why we would want to include it in our research, let's locate some sources and specific uses in our personal projects.

Reading county histories and local newspapers is a simple way to begin looking at social history in relation to our ancestors. Instead of looking through the index for your surname, take the time to read the events that occurred. Apply these events to your ancestor's personal timelines to see if they were affected by the events recorded. One county history in connection to my paternal line discusses the damning of a creek and the subsequent redirection of water. Is it connected that my ancestors suddenly relocated to a different area? The map reveals that their fields may have been flooded due to this change. Their migration may have been related to the search for new farm land. Understanding the history of the community gave deeper meaning to their relocation than a note on a timeline ever could.

Take it one step further towards the national level. For instance, we discuss the homefront during World War II and the effects it had on our families. Women began working outside the home. Rationing took place. Compare these changes in your ancestor's home life to the traditions currently found in your family. These events could have had an impact on the types of family recipes handed down to your generation or the types of jobs held by your grandparents and parents. Perhaps it even changed the family business in the process.

When looking for ways to connect your children and grandchild to the names and dates in your research try to use a social timeline to your advantage. Identify cultural movements or events in the general region of your ancestors and see if you show any affect in your family history. Knowing that a great-great-grandfather enlisted in the military days after a major battle shows the personality and conviction of a man greater than any date could do alone.


Many people find social history hard to define and even harder to pin point in their research. However, the vast definition can be narrowed down to a feeling: it is the history of people. It isn't a history of dates or places. It is a history that tells stories. This type of history can tell the story of your family in a way that generations are united and names become ancestors. Challenge yourself to discover the history of your ancestors' culture and experiences in your next family history project.

Further Learning


American Social History Project 

International Institute of Social History (Netherlands, with a global focus)  

Journal of Social History (Oxford University Press; available on Project MUSE)

Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media 

Social History Society (UK) 


Jacobson, Judy. History for Genealogists: Using Chronological Time Lines to Find and Understand Your Ancestors.

Kyvig, David E. and Myron A. Marty. Nearby History: Exploring the Past Around You.

Smith, Bill. 13 Ways to Tell Ancestor Stories.

Sturdevent, Katherine Scott. Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History.

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