THEORY AND SOCIAL HISTORY / Vol. 47, No. 3 (Fall 1980)
Georg G. Iggers and Harold T. Parker, Guest Editors
Arien Mack, Journal Editor
A forward on the bias that was widespread in the historical profession against the introduction of theory into historical research and writing.
The politico centric character of traditional historical studies in Italy prevailed until about 1960 when, with the coming of age of a generation of postwar historians, social and economic history came to the fore accompanied by profound methodological revisions. Marxist theory, which had reached its height during the postwar period, has been increasingly challenged by more exotic varieties and by analytical procedures borrowed from economics, anthropology, and sociology.
Until after World War II, German historical studies were dominated by historicism, the belief that political phenomena were at the center of historical process, and German historians were even more opposed than their European and American counterparts to the use of Marxist and social science theory; the rupture in German history created by Germany's defeat in World War II and the demand of young historians in the 1960's for a new type of 'historie engagé' or critical history, however, had made German historians more sensitive to socioeconomic issues and more willing to borrow or construct and apply theories.
Karl Marx's historical materialist theories of the process of history, of transformations of that process, and of socioeconomic formations provide the historian with certain methodological directives; G. Bois's 'Crise du Feodalisme' (1976), an analysis of the feudal formation, while it successfully follows most of the directives derived from Marx's theories, fails to take into account conclusions that follow from the directive of combining the objective and the subjective factors (in this case the relation between feudal incomes and feudal needs) when formulating a historical synthesis.
The 1960s debate between Perry Anderson in "Origins of the Present Crisis," 'New Left Review' 1964 23: 26-54, and E. P. Thompson in "The Peculiarities of the English," 'Socialist Register' 1965: 311-362, regarding the history of British capitalism and the role of theory in historical analysis prefigured present debates on theory and historiography; according to Anderson's theory of British history, bourgeois revolutionary failures from the 17th century on led to proletarian failures in the 20th century; Thompson, by successfully accusing Anderson of deriving a large-scale and illicit deduction from a French metaphysical model, drove such a wedge between historiographical "theory" and "concrete analysis" that the two have yet to be united.
Fernand Braudel in the second and third volumes of 'Capitalism and Material Life' (1979), a sweeping study of preindustrial capitalism the world over, returned to economic history as practiced by the 'Annales' historians of the 1930's in that he relies on descriptive detail rather than on theoretical constructs and on the non analytical use of statistics.
In the late 1960s German social scientists began to make use of psychoanalytic theory though German historians remained dubious of its value; a costs-benefits analysis of psychoanalytic theory as an aid to historians suggests that, despite undeniable parallels between the two disciplines and the ability of psychoanalysis to offer an occasional historical insight, social psychology will probably prove of more enduring value to the historian because of its applicability to groups as well as individuals.
Anthropologist Clifford Geertz has done for nonquantitative social historians what statistics and historical demography have done for quantitative social historians; his technique called "thick description," described in 'The Interpretation of Cultures' (1973), involves a close reading of particular bits of human behavior to unmask the nature of a larger society and culture, and is based on the assumption that culture is "an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols"; Geertz's attention to particularity, however, while an analytical strength, is a weakness for synthesis and has contributed to the fragmentation of social and cultural history in the United States, and his emphasis on symbols, by elevating human behavior to the level of literature, can be just as harmful as the emphasis on quantification, which reduces human beings to mere numbers.
The development of capitalism altered the structure of social synthesis in the direction of market integration and so completely transformed man's relationship with nature that developed economic social theory, both capitalist and Marxist, excluded nature from its concerns except as an endless and undifferentiated source of supply for the productive incursions of society; nature thus removed to the periphery of life became an object of aesthetic appreciation and assumed a transcendental and utopian dimension which helped, in part, to compensate man for the ever-increasing emphasis on profit and production and the accompanying secularization of his life.
Despite the methodological disputes of the 1970's, historians today agree that social historians, even though they view the past from the perspective of the present, can arrive at historical reality, that the procedures of technical historical criticism can confirm the status of "facts" as facts, and that social history is concerned with the everyday but that the everyday must be placed in a larger social or cultural context; social historians today, however, occupy a wide spectrum from those who concentrate on concrete social facts and artifacts, eschewing theories and generalizations, to those who view their research from the perspective of an all encompassing theory, but among those who generalize there is a discernible trend in the direction of rediscovering the individual as well as discernible differences as to the nature of man and the roles of psychology and economics in historical analysis.