HT 1954-56


Some Theoretical Problems in Social History

After distinguishing social from political or economic history, the author defines social history as dealing with all relevant aspects of human social life, especially when manifested in bigger units or "social groups", and with their internal relations. The author then raises a number of theoretical questions concerning the determination of different group concepts, and different views on the description of social structures.

First, a social history analysis may take place on different levels of abstraction. On the one hand there is the abstract analysis, such as Dagfinn Mannsåker's study about the social background of the Norwegian clergy in the 19th century (1954), concentrating on statistics and structures, rather than individual biographies or psychologically oriented questions. On the other hand there is the concrete analysis, such as the typical community study. Knut Mykland's The History of Trondheim Town (1954) is mentioned as a work combining different levels of abstraction in a good way.

A second difference of definition is between concepts of equality and concepts of the collective. Groups defined by equal characteristics may not have any social network between its units (e g peasants), while the other type is defined by the existence of organized and relatively stable internal relations between its members (e g a congregation). While there are both logical and empiric problems involved in operationalizing equality concepts, the concepts of the collective in addition raise the classic question about using objective (e g occupation) or subjective criteria based on each individuals consciousness when defining social groups. The researcher must decide whether to employ criteria he constructs himself or categories that were known by the historical actors subject studied in his analysis. Usually, concepts of the collective presupposes group consciousness and a certain degree of communication and organisation within the group, based on common interests. The author criticises especially Marxist historians of basing their concepts of the collective on their own rather than the historic subjects' notion of belonging to the same group. He also underlines the distinction between equality of interest and community of interest, as well as the possible distinction between conscious and unconscious interests. It is crucial to make clear whether "interest" means a purpose defined previous to the event, afterwards, or a goal alleged by the researcher.

A third problem is connected with social stratification, especially its vertical dimension and based on either qualitative or quantitative criteria ordered on an ordinal scale. Such divisions into social groups can be more and less efficient, more and less latent, depending on the degree to which the groups discussed were conscious about the categorisation or whether it affected their behaviour. It may in addition be problematic to link a general stratification system to criteria such as income and formal privileges which are easy to operationalize. Attempts to find reasons behind the development of a specific stratification system may also be problematic, since status criteria change over time and traditional symbols of status have a long-lasting significance. The position of the social groups changes both with the difference between them, the rigidity of the social system itself over time and the degree of social mobility going on between the groups. The concept of social distance may be defined in different ways according to the extent of contacts between members of different status groups and the degree of discrimination based on status.

In a society based on fixed social status groups the stratification variable is discontinuous with clearly marked and absolute divisions, while in class society there is a gradual continuum of groups distinguished mostly by economic criteria. Like all the other concepts discussed in this article, the dichotomy between the status based and the class based societies is a theoretical construct which nowhere can be found in its ideal typical form. Even so, such theoretical tools can provide empirically oriented historical studies with coherence, interest and structure, especially if the tools are examined more closely once in a while.

Ottar Dahl (summary by Gunnar Thorvaldsen)

The Black Death. Plague Years and Reproduction

The author looks at the problems of The Black Death - the great cycle of epidemics in the second half of the 14th century - from an actuarial point of view. Although there is no reliable statistics giving basis for an empirical treatment of the problem, he believes that actuarial methods and experience might be helpful in the discussion of the problem.

The paper deals with an analysis of the oldest Norwegian population-statistics - from 1735 onwards - and gives the basis for calculation of,
1) Population by age groups. Relative figures.
2) Deaths by age groups. Relative figures.
3) Mortality quotients by age groups.
4) Survivors by age groups out of 1000.
5) Survivors by age groups. Relative figures.
6) Reproduction.

Applying the figures thus arrived at on the main epidemics in Norway - 1349, 1360 and 1371 - giving hypothetical, alternative values of the death rates those years and reckoning with a maximum possible reproduction between the epidemics, the conclusion is, that around the year 1400 the total population in Norway was still less than half of the population before the epidemics. The calculations are then based on a mortality-rate of 1/2 in the first epidemic and 1/4 in the second and third (Alt. II).

The historians are given the advice not to rely on the thesis that epidemics cannot reduce the population of a country with lasting effect.

Ivar Myklebust