Explaining large historical change

Great events happen; people live through them; and both ordinary citizens and historians attempt to make sense of them. Examples of the kinds of events I have in mind include the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the USSR; the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s; the violent suppression of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square; the turn to right-wing populism in Europe and the United States; and the Rwandan genocide in 1994. My purpose here is to identify some of the important intellectual and conceptual challenges that present themselves in the task of understanding events on this scale. My fundamental points are these: large-scale historical developments are deeply contingent; the scale at which we attempt to understand the event matters; and there is important variation across time, space, region, culture, and setting when it comes to the large historical questions we want to investigate. This means that it is crucial for historians to pay attention to the particulars of institutions, knowledge systems, and social actors that combined to create a range of historical outcomes through a highly contingent and path-dependent process. The question for historiography is this: how can historians do the best job possible of discovering, documenting, and organizing their accounts of these kinds of complex historical happenings?

Is an historical period or episode an objective thing? It is not. Rather, it is an assemblage of different currents, forces, individual actors, institutional realities, international pressures, and popular claims, and there are many different “stories” that we can tell about the period. This is not a claim for relativism or subjectivism; it is rather the simple and well-understood point for social scientists and historians, that a social and historical realm is a dense soup of often conflicting tendencies, forces, and agencies. Weber understood this point in his classic essay “’Objectivity’ in Social Science” when he said that history must be constantly re-invented by successive generations of historians: “There is no absolutely “objective” scientific analysis of culture—or put perhaps more narrowly but certainly not essentially differently for our purposes—of “social phenomena” independent of special and “one-sided” viewpoints according to which—expressly or tacitly, consciously or unconsciously—they are selected, analyzed and organized for expository purposes” (Weber 1949: 72). Think of the radically different accounts offered of the French Revolution by Albert Soboul, Simon Schama, and Alexis de Tocqueville; and yet each offers insightful, honest, and “objective” interpretations of part of the history of this complex event.

We need to recall always that socially situated actors make history. History is social action in time, performed by a specific population of actors, within a specific set of social arrangements and institutions. Individuals act, contribute to social institutions, and contribute to change. People had beliefs and modes of behavior in the past. They did various things. Their activities were embedded within, and in turn constituted, social institutions at a variety of levels. Social institutions, structures, and ideologies supervene upon the historical individuals of a time. Institutions have great depth, breadth, and complexity. Institutions, structures, and ideologies display dynamics of change that derive ultimately from the mentalities and actions of the individuals who inhabit them during a period of time. And both behavior and institutions change over time.

This picture needs of course to reflect the social setting within which individuals develop and act. Our account of the “flow” of human action eventuating in historical change needs to take into account the institutional and structural environment in which these actions take place. Part of the “topography” of a period of historical change is the ensemble of institutions that exist more or less stably in the period: cultural arrangements, property relations, political institutions, family structures, educational practices. But institutions are heterogeneous and plastic, and they are themselves the product of social action. So historical explanations need to be sophisticated in their treatment of institutions and structures.

In Marx’s famous contribution to the philosophy of history, he writes that “men make their own history; but not in circumstances of their own choosing.” And circumstances can be both inhibiting and enabling; they constitute the environment within which individuals plan and act. It is an important circumstance that a given time possesses a fund of scientific and technical knowledge, a set of social relationships of power, and a level of material productivity. It is also an important circumstance that knowledge is limited; that coercion exists; and that resources for action are limited. Within these opportunities and limitations, individuals, from leaders to ordinary people, make out their lives and ambitions through action.

On this line of thought, history is a flow of human action, constrained and propelled by a shifting set of environmental conditions (material, social, epistemic). There are conditions and events that can be described in causal terms: enabling conditions, instigating conditions, cause and effect, … But here my point is to ask you to consider whether uncritical use of the language of cause and effect does not perhaps impose a discreteness of historical events that does not actually reflect the flow of history very well. It is of course fine to refer to historical causes; but we always need to understand that causes depend upon the structured actions of socially constituted individual actors.

A crucial idea in the new philosophy of history is the fact of historical contingency. Historical events are the result of the conjunction of separate strands of causation and influence, each of which contains its own inherent contingency. Social change and historical events are highly contingent processes, in a specific sense: they are the result of multiple influences that “could have been otherwise” and that have conjoined at a particular point in time in bringing about an event of interest. And coincidence, accident, and unanticipated actions by participants and bystanders all lead to a deepening of the contingency of historical outcomes. However, the fact that social outcomes have a high degree of contingency is entirely consistent with the idea that the idea that a social order embodies a broad collection of causal processes and mechanisms. These causal mechanisms are a valid subject of study – even though they do not contribute to a deterministic causal order.

What about scale? Should historians take a micro view, concentrating on local actions and details; or should they take a macro view, seeking out the highest level structures and patterns that might be visible in history? Both perspectives have important shortcomings. There is a third choice available to the historian, however, that addresses shortcomings of both micro- and macro-history. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional – for example, G. William Skinner’s analysis of the macro-regions of China. It might be national – for example, a social history of Indonesia. And it might be supra-national – for example, an economic history of Western Europe. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

Here is one strong impression that emerges from the almost any area of rigorous historical writing. Variation within a social or historical phenomenon seems to be all but ubiquitous. Think of the Cultural Revolution in China, demographic transition in early modern Europe, the ideology of a market society, or the experience of being black in America. We have the noun — “Cultural Revolution”, “European fascism”, “democratic transition” — which can be explained or defined in a sentence or two; and we have the complex underlying social realities to which it refers, spread out over many regions, cities, populations, and decades.

In each case there is a very concrete and visible degree of variation in the factor over time and place. Historical and social research in a wide variety of fields confirms the non-homogeneity of social phenomena and the profound location-specific variations that occur in the characteristics of virtually all large social phenomena. Social nouns do not generally designate uniform social realities. These facts of local and regional variation provide an immediate rationale for case studies and comparative research, selecting different venues of the phenomenon and identifying specific features of the phenomenon in this location. Through a range of case studies it is possible for the research community to map out both common features and distinguishing features of a given social process.

What is the upshot of these observations? It is that good historical writing needs to be attentive to difference — difference across national settings, across social groups, across time; that it should be grounded in many theories of how social processes work, but wedded to none; and that it should pay close attention to the evolution of the social arrangements (institutions) through which individuals conduct their social lives. I hope these remarks also help to make the case that philosophers can be helpful contributors to the work that historians do, by assisting in teasing out some of the conceptual and philosophical issues that they inevitably must confront as they do their work.

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