Rethinking Agency, Rethinking Assumptions of the New Social History of Immigration of the Late Twentieth Century
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In the last decades of the twentieth century, the concept of agency – i.e., purposeful self-determination based on calculated choice – enjoyed a hegemonic position in the literature of the social history of European immigration to the United States. The original inspiration for this development in immigration historiography was the path breaking 1964 essay by essay by Rudolph Vecoli challenging the classic work on Oscar Handlin, The Uprooted (1951), which saw immigration as a jarring experience of alienation and confusion that left immigrants defensive and poorly adjusted in their new American homes. This essay reexamines the conflict of views associated with Vecoli’s challenge to Handlin in two contexts. One is the conceptual and empirical foundations of immigration historiography, and the second is the origin and early development of the New Social History, in British and American labor history and in the history of African American slavery and in Western neo-Marxism thought, which sought a humanist alternative to Communist ideology. The essay seeks critical engagement with agency, and advances the view that we should open ourselves once more to seeking guidance in Handlin’s interpretive understandings, which also suggests a reevaluation of the contributions of Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, the now century-old source of Handlin’s views.
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