In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Sociability in the British Atlantic

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Theory and Historiography of Sociability
  • Commerce and Transatlantic Connections
  • Urban Sociability
  • Print Culture and Communication
  • Taverns and Coffeehouses
  • The Sociable Benjamin Franklin
  • Consumer Culture, Recreation, and Leisure
  • Polite Culture, Elite Sociability, and Social Networks
  • Sociability, Civic Culture, and Politics

Atlantic History Sociability in the British Atlantic
Valérie Capdeville
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 July 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0339


Sociability is both a value and a social practice, yet it is not universal. The ability to live in society as well as the degree of sociability of an individual seem to depend on his/her culture and on the character of his nation. The exceptional development of forms, practices, and institutions of sociability in early modern Europe was mainly linked to urban expansion, to the growth of commercial society, and to the expansion of print culture and communication. Recent scholarship has focused increasingly on the emergence of different models of sociability in 18th-century Europe. The French model of sociability was built due to the idealization of the Parisian salon and the ideal of politeness and to the privileged role it granted to women. A distinct British model of sociability took shape from the Restoration period and developed throughout the 18th century, defining itself thanks to exchanges and tensions with France and expressing itself through paradoxes that both reflected and constructed the national character. The relatively new field of British Atlantic studies has opened new paths for the exploration of sociability, a central phenomenon that informs the social, cultural, and political histories of colonial societies and, especially, refines our understanding of the social interactions, behaviors, and structures of the British Atlantic world and of their important role in shaping new identities. The “transplantation” of forms, practices, and institutions of sociability from Britain to its colonial empire with the creation of transatlantic networks of sociability constitutes a fertile research area, benefiting from insights drawn from various disciplinary fields. This article provides a selection of bibliographic references thematically arranged into sections, all topics constituting central aspects of the study of sociability in the British Atlantic.

General Overviews

No general overview on the topic of sociability in the British Atlantic is available. Recent scholarship on British sociability has produced important work on various aspects of this social and cultural phenomenon. The essays in Capdeville and Kerhervé 2019 and in the multi-volume series Cossic-Péricarpin 2012– follow interdisciplinary and comparative approaches. They provide stimulating analyses and have opened new research paths toward more transnational and global perspectives. The imperial dimension of British culture and identities in global contexts are efficiently addressed in Wilson 2004. The study of sociability in combination with other concepts has proved a particularly useful strategy for exploring diverse practices and institutions of sociability not only in Europe but also around the Atlantic and beyond. Duthille, et al. 2013 demonstrates that conviviality served to reinforce sociability and helped cement social relationships in 18th-century Europe and America. Breuninger and Burrow 2012 offers a geographically wider perspective and explores the notions of sociability and cosmopolitanism as ways in which people sought to improve society to the confines of the Empire. Research on sociability in the British Atlantic can be approached through the study of colonization and transatlantic circulations. First, migration to and settlement in the British colonies of the Atlantic Basin constitute the points of entry into the history of Atlantic sociability (Armitage and Braddick 2009 and Boorstin 2000). Second, the colonial experience includes the transplantation of sociable practices and institutions from Britain to its colonies, thus allowing us to use the notion of cultural transfer as a key methodological framework for interpreting the variations in the development of Atlantic sociability. In that respect, Hall 1982 places specific social groups and institutions of sociability at the core of the development of American nationality and culture, while defending the primacy of New England. On the contrary, Greene 1988 reinterprets the social evolution of colonial America and convincingly argues for the central economic, social, and cultural role of the Chesapeake. Shields 1997 is the only study that addresses aspects of British Atlantic sociability but it mainly focuses on the intellectual forms and practices of sociability and belles lettres as found in Philadelphia, Charleston, and Boston.

  • Armitage, David, and Michael J. Braddick, eds. The British Atlantic World, 1500–1800. 2d ed. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

    Rich collection of thematic essays on the history of the British Atlantic by leading scholars focused on the notions of migration, circulation, and networks as well as civility, gender, and class. Also raises important historiographical questions such as Armitage’s introduction, which proposes a threefold typology of Atlantic history: circum-, trans-, and cis- Atlantic history.

  • Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans. Vol. 1, The Colonial Experience. London: Phoenix, 2000.

    Originally published in 1958. A reinterpretation of American history stressing the role of the colonial experience in shaping American civilization and culture, rather than being a mere European export. Confronts the vision with the reality of settlement, analyzes the transplantation of institutions and practices and the transformative role of the American experience. Interesting developments on the gentleman ideal and on the cultural role of Philadelphia.

  • Breuninger, Scott, and David Burrow, eds. Sociability and Cosmopolitanism: Social Bonds on the Fringes of the Enlightenment. London: Pickering and Chatto, 2012.

    This collection of essays explores how notions of sociability and cosmopolitanism were articulated in a variety of national contexts during the long 18th century. Divided into three geographic sections: “European Peripheries,” “Eurasian Borders,” and “The Atlantic World,” this study combines sociability and cosmopolitanism to illustrate the vitality of Enlightenment thought.

  • Capdeville, Valérie, and Alain Kerhervé, eds. British Sociability in the Long Eighteenth Century: Challenging the Anglo-French Connection. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2019.

    This innovative collection explores how a distinctively British model of sociability developed from 1660 to 1830 through a complex process of appropriation, emulation, and resistance to what was happening in France and other parts of Europe. The contributors use a wide range of sources and a variety of methodological approaches to explore philosophical, political, and social aspects of the emergence of British sociability.

  • Cossic-Péricarpin, Annick, ed. La sociabilité en France et en Grande-Bretagne au siècle des Lumières: L’émergence d’un nouveau modèle de société. Transversales. Paris: Éditions le Manuscrit, 2012–.

    Important series devoted to the study of sociability in the long 18th century by an interdisciplinary network of French and international scholars. Thematic volumes with essays in French or in English that use comparative perspectives and thematic approaches, thus bringing new insights into the history of sociability in France and in Britain.

  • Duthille, Rémy, Jean Mondot, and Cécile Révauger, eds. “Sociabilité et convivialité en Europe et en Amérique du Nord, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècles.” Lumières 21 (1er semestre, 2013).

    Rich collection of sixteen essays by European scholars reflecting on the articulation between the notions of sociability and conviviality. Presents a variety of institutions and forms of sociability in Europe and America: from London gentlemen’s clubs to Viennese gardens, from French salons to some North American ritual gatherings, and from epistolary sociability to discursive forms of sociable exchange.

  • Hall, Peter Dobkin. The Organization of American Culture, 1700–1900: Private Institutions, Elites, and the Origins of American Nationality. New York: New York University Press, 1982.

    A work on the role of social institutions and groups in shaping American cultural and social identity. Argues that New England played a leading role in setting economic, cultural, and social patterns of colonial development.

  • Greene, Jack P. Pursuits of Happiness: The Social Development of Early Modern British Colonies and the Formation of American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

    Seminal work on pre-revolutionary British America, which offers a transatlantic framework for studying the social and cultural development of the colonies. Raises the issue of the influence of the mother country on the shaping of American culture and highlights the transplantation and hybridization process at stake. Questions older accounts of American history, which emphasize the primacy of New England.

  • Shields, David S. Civil Tongues & Polite Letters in British America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

    Influential work on the culture of polite sociability in British America, showing how metropolitan English practices were imitated and adapted across the Atlantic. Studies a variety of social practices and institutions in relation to literature, polite conversation, and print culture (tea tables and assemblies, coffee houses or taverns, gentlemen’s clubs, booksellers’ shops, etc.).

  • Wilson, Kathleen, ed. A New Imperial History: Culture, Identity and Modernity in Britain and the Empire, 1660–1840. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

    Groundbreaking collection of sixteen essays in the emerging field of “new imperial history” that discusses the mutual impact of empire on culture, politics, and society in Britain. The contributors employ an interdisciplinary perspective, and these stimulating chapters on ethnicity, gender, the arts, or politics highlight the influence colonized societies and people exercised in shaping European societies and cultural identities in proposing a fluid “Atlantic interculture.”

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