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The Case for ‘Bottom-Up’ History

E. P. Thompson, the most outstanding social historian of the twentieth century, published his massive and beautifully written work, The Making of the English Working Class, in 1963. Three years later he wrote a concise overview of labor and social history, “History from below,” in The Times Literary Supplement. Emphasizing that this was an engaged and at times combative field of study, Thompson said, “It is one of the peculiarities of the English that the history of the ‘common people’ has always been something other than—and distinct from—English History Proper.” Further, he said, “The people of this island…appear as one of the problems Government has to handle.”

Thompson’s historical analysis centered on the lives and experience of common people—laboring individuals, families, and communities—from the 18th to 20th centuries. Focusing on both adults and children, he traced their learning, work, and culture.

Shifting Views of Humankind
“What used to be Labour history can in fact become a great testing-ground for historical sociology,” Thompson argued. He hoped that expanded cross-disciplinary study would not only preserve a bottom-up approach within his field, but also benefit history and society as a whole.

The aftermath of World War II brought a great reconsideration of the dominant ideas within the academic sphere, as well as in the broader global sphere of social action. Decolonization brought the democratic spread of national recognition worldwide; racial hierarchy was challenged; and overall human unity advanced.

In the world of science, threats of atomic destruction were balanced somewhat by the discovery of DNA, which emphasized the biological unity of humankind. The spread of area studies (of former colonies) also demonstrated this concept of unity. Nevertheless, new knowledge remained in separate silos, failing to meet Thompson’s goal of interdisciplinary research. Thus, Thompson was concerned that such a siloed approach threatened the study of labor history. (He did not speak of “silos” directly, but he showed how political history, historical sociology, and labor history were kept separate as categories of knowledge.)

World History Takes Form—and Evolves
World history was an innovation of the postwar era, recognized especially through William McNeill’s The Rise of the West, published in 1963. Unlike fields of study before it, world history comprised a wider geographic scope and a longer time frame. The essential element was connections among spaces, times, and structures. World history reviewed past empires, religions, and the rise of nations, with a focus on literate societies and relatively recent times. World history thus began with a top-down focus—while social history continued expanding its bottom-up focus.

Gradually, new knowledge led world historians to link once-isolated disciplines. Economic change was added to political history, migration studies opened the door to social history, and environmental change emerged as an essential topic. Still, world history and its connections were overshadowed by recent histories of national powers.

By 2020, world history (now also known as global history) had advanced greatly. Especially in study of the years since 1500 CE, multidisciplinary analysis has become exemplary. For instance, historians borrow from anthropology to better study the colonies, while anthropologists borrow from biology to study families. And every discipline has found the need to study environmental change.

But for longer-term analysis, not much has changed. The three great eras of world history are still led by separate disciplines: historians study literate societies after 1500 CE; anthropologists study non-literate peoples of the era from 10,000 years ago to 1500 CE; and biologists focus on the era before 10,000 years ago.

There are pressures for change. New areas of research and discovery—from group behavior and networks to human emotions and genomics—press us to consider expanding the scope of world history to that of human evolution.

Will world history eventually expand to include human evolution? One can envision a transformation similar to the one that Thompson described from labor history to social history.

“Bottom-up” Logic in Human History
What precisely does it mean to study history from the “bottom up”? Explorations can begin at the level of the individual and local groups (“the bottom”), then move “up” to histories of regional groups, and, eventually, to the entire human population. “Bottom-up” can also refer to the scale of society, considering the population of a small group within the context of the whole world. Or it can refer to spatial study, examining a smaller locality in contrast to a larger region. In terms of topics, a “bottom up” approach begins with a specific subject (e.g., salt manufacture) before expanding to the more general (e.g., chemical production). And in the context of time, “the bottom” can mean a very short time (a day or a week), as well as the beginning of time.

Taken together, this means that a bottom-up approach to world history begins at very early times, focusing on small social groups in small spaces, short time periods, and specific topics. But it also includes bottom-up views from as late as the present and looks at every topic imaginable. Therefore, one can see that bottom-up world history in fact overlaps greatly with the study of human evolution, because it explores biological, cultural, and social evolution. Thompson described this overlap as “mutual interpenetration, in which the historian finds in contemporary sociological writing new problems, or new ways of looking at old problems.”

Tackling Big Problems in History
When interpreting history, it is not obvious where to begin. But based on recent research, I propose 300,000 years ago as a viable “starting point” for human society. By that time, communities of genus Homo lived throughout Africa, in households of perhaps six members that combined into bands and communities of 100 to 200 members. They were using fire and honing new techniques for stone tools. A bottom-up strategy can help us understand some of the key issues and developments since this early time:

  • Innovation: In one recent example of a historical problem, Graeber and Wengrow seek to demonstrate the importance of innovation and variety in the lives of foragers more than 10,000 years ago.
  • Language: How and when did syntactic language arise? A bottom-up approach assumes that invention of language took place in a community, through a mix of learning, work, and culture.
  • Scale of society: How was the scale of society able to rise from communities of 100–200 people to that of huge societies? The changes took thousands of years, but how did humans learn to create more acquaintances or to build indirect networks of expanded size—for towns, trade networks, and kingdoms?
  • Agriculture: How and when did agriculture arise and expand in numerous regions?

To tackle such big questions, one needs to draw not only on history, but also on anthropology, biology, and other disciplines. Each discipline has its own disputes and complex past, so one’s study will always include debate in addition to the connection of disciplines. Through such an approach, students’ learning and our broader understanding of history is deepened. E.P. Thompson would surely be delighted.

2 thoughts on “The Case for ‘Bottom-Up’ History”

  1. Comment on review of Dawn of Everything (see History from Bottom Up web page)


    Interesting review of The Dawn of Everything. I really do have to read it. I am a little puzzled, however, by your description of the current division of historical labor: historians study literate post-1500 CE societies, anthropologists pre-1500 CE non-literate societies, and biologists everything in what is usually called prehistory. I feel a little left out. World historical themes characterized the work of ancient historians like M. I. Rostovtzeff and Eduard Meyer in the 20th century and they are important again in comparative studies of Rome and China and recent work on ancient diasporas, especially Greek and Phoenician. Equally seriously, it omits the work of a whole body of archeological world historians like Brian Fagan and especially Bruce Trigger whose Understanding Early Civilizations really should be better known, not to mention V. G. Childe, S. Piggott, G. Clark, etc.

    1. Stanley,

      I acknowledge, with thanks to you, that my three-part summary of world historical literature is oversimplified, especially the middle period. There I overlooked ancient history, notably your leadership in using Greek-language sources to explore Africa and Asia in global context – and I swept archaeologists Bruce Trigger, David Wengrow, and others into invisibility in the category of anthropology. I will seek to devise a better picture of world-historical writing in its middle period, pointing to excellent works in several fields yet to the difficulty of linking them.

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