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Before the 1960s, most labor historians around the world focused on the history of labor unions. In the United States, for example, labor economists at the University of Wisconsin dominated the academic discipline of labor history. Paramount in their research were the development of markets, trade unions, and political philosophies.
In the 1950s, British and other European historians developed the field of social history to correct the structuralist imbalances they perceived in the study of history. Social historians not only sought to enlarge the study of history but to refocus it on the experiences of common people rather than institutions or elites.
British social historians such as E. P. Thompson, in particular, had a significant impact on American labor historians. Labor scholars to the right and left of the American political spectrum found it difficult to explain the rise of labor in the late 19th century, and social history offered at least a new approach to solving the riddle. Social history also took root at the same time that American organized labor began to decline. For left-leaning labor scholars, social history suggested a new way to revitalize the U.S. labor movement by focusing attention away from conservative leaders and institutions, as well as a means for academics to engage with workers themselves. For some, the new labor history moved the discipline of labor history away from the Marxist theoretical perspective that saw trade union movements in terms of elites, classes and institutions (see Rogin, 2002).
European and American critics of the "new labor history" charge that historians now neglect institutions and elites. They argue that labor leaders and unions shape workers' goals and values as much as reflect them. They also point out that the "new labor history" has a tendency to ignore larger cultural trends and movements and technological developments which operate on a more systemic level than the individual.
Especially in the U.S., many young labor historians are attempting a new synthesis of the "old" and "new" labor histories.
Examples of "new labor history" scholars
- David Brody
- Melvyn Dubofsky
- Herbert Gutman
- David Montgomery
- E. P. Thompson
- Chitra Joshi
- Prabhu Mohapatra
Examples of "old" labor history scholars
- Brody, David. "Reconciling the Old Labor History and the New," Pacific Historical Review 72 (February 1993), 111-126.
- Brody, David. "The Old Labor History and the New: In Search of an American Working Class," Labor History 20 (Winter 1979), 11-26.
- Buhle, Mari Jo and Buhle, Paul. "The New Labor History at the Cultural Crossroads." Journal of American History. 75:1 (June 1988).
- Dubofsky, Melvyn. "The 'New' Labor History: Achievements and Failures." Reviews in American History. 5:2 (June 1977).
- Fink, Leon. "The New Labor History and the Powers of Historical Pessimism: Consensus, Hegemony, and the Case of the Knights of Labor." Journal of American History. 75:1 (June 1988).
- Gerstle, Gary, preface to the Princeton Edition, Working-Class Americanism: The Politics of Labor in a Textile City, 1914-1960, (reprinted Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2002), xi-xxiv. ISBN 0-691-08911-6 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]
- Kimeldorf, Howard. "Bringing the Unions Back in (Or Why We Need a New Old labor History)," with responses by Michael Kazin, Alice Kessler- Harris, David Montgomery, Bruce Nelson, and Daniel Nelson, Labor History 32 (1991), 91-129.
- Painter, Nell Irvin. "The New Labor History and the Historical Moment." International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society. 2:3 (March 1989).
- Rogin, Michael. "How the Working Class Saved Capitalism: The New Labor History and 'The Devil and Miss Jones.' " Journal of American History. 89:1 (June 2002).