Monday, July 14, 2014

Sociology as context for genealogy

Two 20th-century guys I wish had had longer lives are George Orwell and C. Wright Mills. Mills's 1951 book White Collar is a minute examination of what became of the 19th-century society we often encounter in genealogy. The subjects of my first kinship determination project were three generations of Burdicks: Rodman (1799-1878, carpenter and farmer), son Joseph (1826-1897, farmer, insurance agent, laundry proprietor, clerk, and more), and grandson Frank (1855-1920, printer, express company agent, carpenter for a railroad company). They were all middle class in their times, but during their century-and-a quarter, the meaning of "middle class" changed.

Mills has interesting things to say about this, and while he's no Orwell he does so in language more readable than that of many sociologists:
The most important single fact about the society of small entrepreneurs was that a substantial proportion of the people owned the property with which they worked. . . . perhaps four-fifths of the free people who worked owned property. {7}

What happened to the world of the small entrepreneur is best seen by looking at what happened to its heroes: the independent farmers and the small businessmen. These men, the leading actors of the middle-class economy of the nineteenth century, are no longer at the center of the American scene; they are merely two layers between other more powerful or more populous strata. . . . Democratic property, which the owner himself works, has given way to class property, which others are hired to work and manage . . . .  Work is now a set of skills sold to another, rather than something mixed with his own property. {13, 14} . . . Over the last hundred years, the United States has been transformed from a nation of small capitalists into a nation of hired employees. {34}

Harold Henderson, "Sociology as context for genealogy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 14 July 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Marian Pierre-Louis said...

White Collar sounds like a very interesting book! You've convinced me that I should read it!