Cultural History Writing Guide

Most history courses require either one large paper of varying lengths or several smaller essays spaced out through the semester. Social and cultural history offers a variety of colorful, fun topics that can make the paper assignment more palatable.

Social History Tells the Story of Everyday Life and Ordinary People

Most students confronted by the research paper requirement begin the process with dread. Picking a topic can be difficult and students often prefer to be given a topic or a menu of ideas to guide them through the selection process. Unfortunately, the research and writing usually ends up becoming just another chore in fulfilling syllabus requirements.

Social history, however, better connects students with the past. Rather than writing about the Second Punic War, for example, researching the dining habits of Romans or recreational activities can be more fun and add an entirely new perspective to what life in Ancient Rome was truly like.

Interest in everyday life has been expanding. Bill Bryson’s recently published At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Doubleday, October 2010) is characteristic of the trend to delve into the everyday lives of ordinary people. What was important to them? What can be learned from what they read, ate, and wrote? What did they do for fun? How were their lives impacted by the historical events they witnessed or were a party to?

Spiegel magazine reported on new studies relevant to the use of torture in Medieval Europe (October 28, 2010) that highlights interest in the more unsavory aspects of social and cultural life. An earlier Spiegel article explored new historical studies on European cannibalism. (January 30, 2009). Such examples point to academic interest in areas previously neglected by historical research.

Great Historical Events Change the Habits of the Common People

In the 18th Century, no event was more profound and long lasting than the French Revolution of 1789. For centuries, student papers focused on the causes of the Revolution, the effects, and the key events like the Reign of Terror.

In 1990, historian Robert Darnton published The Kiss of Lamourette: Reflections in Cultural History (W.W. Norton & Company). His chapter on the French Revolution details the tremendous impact on everyday Frenchmen. Street names were changed (many had been named for King Louis); clothing styles changed; the calendar was altered. The Revolution even affected playing cards because there were kings and queens in the deck. Researching and writing about these kinds of cultural and social changes adds a new dimension to the study of history.

Similarly, the “discovery” of the New World in 1492 was a significant historical event for European life. The Columbian Exchange, for example, resulted in long lasting dietary changes among ordinary Europeans that affected health, mortality rates, and crop diversity.

Anthropologist Jack Weatherford, in his book Indian Givers: How the Indians of the Americas Transformed the World (Fawcett Books, 1988), for example, asserts that the potato played a dominant role in producing a healthier Prussian army under Frederick the Great. Students researching the long term effects of the tomato might find themselves writing about the first Pizza Margherita in Naples.

Social and Cultural History Paper Topics are Endless

Social and cultural history topics involve women’s studies, the history of sexuality, sports history, and many other similar general areas from which to narrow great research topics. Such topics might include the following examples or variants of them:

  • the treatment of women in Ancient Egypt (or any ancient culture)
  • Etruscan banquets and funerals
  • Greek bisexuality
  • festivals and carnivals in the Middle Ages
  • peasant superstitions
  • food history (during any age)
  • wine in the Ancient World
  • the homosexual underground in Victorian England
  • sanitation in Medieval towns and villages
  • how the advent of printing changed reading habits
  • ballads and songs of the common people
  • twenty-four hours in an English factory town

Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (NAL, 2009), for example, is a microcosm of life in Josef Stalin’s gulag. The account looks at camp life through the eyes of one man, an everyday, ordinary Russian trying to survive until his sentence has been completed.

Social and Cultural History

Research Paper Topics Students like talking about food and will kidnap a class discussion on the topic if given the chance. Why not write a research paper on food history? The same can be said of so many other cultural and social topics. Additionally, history papers on such differing themes bridge other disciplines like liberal studies, humanities courses, religion, sociology, and anthropology. Such curricular connectivity adds to academic relevance. Finally, many instructors bored with reading a dozen papers on Gettysburg or the Causes of World War I will find such diverse topics refreshing.