Marc Bloch’s phenomenology

Marc Bloch’s Historian’s Craft: Reflections on the Nature and Uses of History and the Techniques and Methods of Those Who Write It is challenging to read, in part because it is not exactly what it seems to be. The English title suggests it is a handbook of sorts on the art and practice of historical research. But this is not quite right. In fact, the suggestion is partly the result of an unfortunate choice by the translator; the French title Apologie pour l’histoire, ou Métier d’historien might with equal justice be translated as “A discourse on history: The historian’s calling”. It is not a finished manuscript, as Lucien Febvre explains in a preface to the English edition. But it is certainly not organized as a treatise on methods. Instead, it is an extended reflection by Marc Bloch about his own thought processes as a creative, imaginative historical researcher. It includes many examples from Bloch’s own research as a medieval historian, and it illustrates the ways in which he interrogates and contextualizes these “tracks” of medieval historical life.

Throughout the text Bloch questions some of the most basic assumptions that both historians and educated readers often make about the past — periods, social systems, the significance of centuries (twelfth century, nineteenth century history); historical categories such as serfs and servitude; and many other fascinating assumptions that are shattered by Bloch’s careful dissection of the examples he considers.

I am inclined to think of this book as a “phenomenology” of the practice of historical research — a careful, detailed reflection on the particular thought-processes and question-posing that Bloch undertakes in investigating a particular historical problem. It is analogous to the reflections of a great biologist, reflecting upon and analyzing her efforts over decades to solve empirical puzzles in the laboratory and in the field, and to make sense of the phenomena under study. It is as if Darwin had used his notebooks to reveal to the reader the thought processes through which he arrived at various fundamental ideas of the theory of evolution. Brilliant!

The intellectual activities that Bloch illustrates through his phenomenological self-reflection are both “skills”, learned through the training associated with becoming a historian, and “creative acts”, exercised by an innovative and intelligent inquirer who is probing history to uncover some of its processes, mechanisms, and anomalies. Here is just one small example:

I have before me a Roman funerary inscription, carved from a single block, made for a single purpose. Yet nothing could be more variegated than the evidences which there await the probing of the scholar’s lancet. (145)

And Bloch proceeds to identify the numerous angles we can take on understanding and situating this inscription: linguistic, beliefs, political history, economics and trade, …

Some of the particularly important topics that Bloch considers in the later chapters of the book include: identifying and evaluating historical evidence; arriving at appropriate and useful historical concepts and classifications; making appropriate selections of aspects and topics for study within the infinite texture of the past; and synthesizing the phenomena that have been studied into comprehensible statements about the past.

On the topic of historical evidence Bloch is especially emphatic in casting doubt on the primacy of documents as sources of definitive historical truth. He discusses a number of strikingly contemporary issues — the perennial possibility of lies and deception, the cognitive limits of direct participants and observers, the common fact of “fake news” and rumors (yes, he was concerned with fake news!), and the likelihood that some of the documents one considers are deliberate fabrications. The “critical methods” of historians of the previous several generations are specific and logical techniques for evaluating the truthfulness of documents: comparing with other documents, considering spelling and orthography, considering the paper and ink of the document, and considering the consistency of dates and persons mentioned in the documents. Documents certainly have their role in the “epistemics” of historical knowledge. But Bloch emphasizes that many other sources of historical knowledge are equally valuable from an epistemic point of view: monuments, place names, urban geography, excavations, and garbage dumps. All these sources can provide the historian with important traces of the social and economic realities of the past.

But Bloch suggests that these problems concerning historical evidence are less difficult than a second group of problems confronted by the historian, the problem of arriving at a vocabulary for classifying and analyzing the past. He emphasizes that the use of familiar concepts can seriously mislead the historical researcher. The familiar concept may involve the importation of background assumptions that are profoundly misleading about the social and institutional realities of the past. His example of “family law” (148 ff.) is illustrative.

Take the family — whether it be a question of the small matrimonial family of today in a state of perpetual expansion and contraction or of the great medieval house, that community consolidated by such a lasting network of feelings and interests … (148)

These two instances are dramatically different, and the historian needs to reflect upon these differences. The “family” is not the same social entity or arrangement in the two settings. Bloch makes a similar point about the names of things that are used in historical documents. For example, he comments on the use of “aratrum” (“unwheeled plow”) and “farruca” (“wheeled plow”) (159), a pair of terms whose use is often confused in medieval documents and is highly consequential for anyone studying technological change in agriculture. Likewise, he comments upon the changing associations that the Latin term “servus” has had, leading eventually to the French term “serf” (159). Bloch notes that similar language implies similar social realities, but that this is fundamentally misleading in this case; “the differences between the serves of ancient Rome and the serf of the France of St. Louis far outnumber the similarities” (160). 
Another set of concerns in a similar vein bridge between language and social ontology, when Bloch underlines the problem of identifying large social systems in history. 

Even among historians, custom tends to confuse the two expressions, “feudal system” and “seigneurial system,” in the most troublesome manner. This is arbitrarily to equate the complex of dependent ties characteristic of a warrior aristocracy with a type of peasant subjection which not only was very different by nature but had arisen very much earlier, lasted much longer, and was far more widespread throughout the world. (171)

Bloch also casts doubt on the historian’s common predilection for identifying distinctive historical periodization, presupposing a qualitative and substantively important difference between the activities, processes, and institutions of the distinct periods. Against this presupposition he shows that “the Middle Ages” and the “Renaissance” are arbitrary constructions. Here is what he has to say about the “Middle Ages”:

In truth, the term “Middle Age” has no more than a humble pedagogical function, as a debatable convenience for school curriculums, or as a label for erudite techniques whose scope is moreover ill-defined by the traditional dates. A medievalist is a man who knows how to read old scripts, to criticize a charter, to understand Old French. Unquestionably that is something. It is certainly not enough to satisfy a real science in its search for accurate periodization. 181

Even centuries are a misleading historical construct. There is no distinctive historical content or explanatory importance in the designation of “eighteenth-century culture” or “twelfth-century urbanization”; the fact that an event or process occurred between 1700 and 1799 is completely irrelevant from an explanatory point of view.

These kinds of observations add up to a theory of “cognition of historical reality”, or what we might call a “philosophy of historical language”.

Careful re-reading of The Historian’s Craft makes it seem that the real importance and significance of Bloch’s book have not been fully understood. The book deserves a monograph of its own, to unpack the many threads of commentary that are relevant to the philosophy of history today. The book is a rich expression of the intelligence and mental processes of this great historian. It is an important contribution to the philosophy of history, and to the philosophy of language in the context of historical analysis.

New thinking about European genocide and the Holocaust

Image: names of Holocaust victims

It sometimes seems that some questions in history are resolved, finished, and understood. At various times the industrial revolution, the outbreak of World War I, and the French war in Indochina fell in this category. And then a new generation of historians comes along and questions the assumptions and certainties of their predecessors, and offers new theories and interpretations of these apparently familiar historical happenings. the narrative changes, and we understand the historical happenings differently. Sometimes it is a matter of new evidence, sometimes it is a reframing of old assumptions about the time and place of the happening, and sometimes it is a shift from agency to structure (or the reverse). And sometimes it is the result of new thinking about the concepts and methods of history itself — how historians should proceed in researching and explaining complex events in the past.

The occurrence and causes of the Holocaust seem to fall in this category of important historical realignment in the past twenty years. After a period of several decades in which the central facts of Nazi war against Europe’s Jews were thought to be understood — horrible as those facts are — but beyond any serious doubt about causes, extent, and consequences. Perhaps Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews, first published in 1961, captured that postwar historical consensus; Lucy Dawidowicz’s The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945 (1975) falls in that early wave of scholarship as well. But recent historians have offered new ways of thinking about the Nazi plan of extermination, and important new insights have emerged.

Where did the Holocaust take place?

One of those groundbreaking historians is Tim Snyder, with his books Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin and Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning. Snyder argues that the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews has been importantly misunderstood — too centered on Germany, when the majority of genocide and murder occurred further east, in the lands that he calls the “bloodlands”; largely focused on extermination camps, whereas most killing of Jews occurred near the cities and villages where they lived, and most commonly by gunfire; insufficiently attentive to the relationship between extermination of people and destruction of the institutions of state in subject countries; and without sufficient attention to Hitler’s own worldview, within which the  Nazi war of extermination against Europe’s Jews was framed. And perhaps most striking, Snyder links the mass killings of Jews with the almost equally numerous mass killings by the Soviet state of peasants, Poles, Ukrainians, and other non-Russians in the same region. Here is Snyder’s delineation of the bloodlands and the re-centering that he proposes for the way that we think about the Holocaust:

The bloodlands were where most of Europe’s Jews lived, where Hitler and Stalin’s imperial plans overlapped, where the Wehrmacht and the Red Army fought, and where the Soviet NKVD and the German SS concentrated their forces. Most killing sites were in the bloodlands: in the political geography of the 1930s and early 1940s, this meant Poland, the Baltic States, Soviet Belarus, Soviet Ukraine, and the western fringe of Soviet Russia. Stalin’s crimes are often associated with Russia, and Hitler’s with Germany. But the deadliest part of the Soviet Union was its non-Russian periphery, and Nazis generally killed beyond Germany. The horror of the twentieth century is thought to be located in the camps. But the concentration camps are not where most of the victims of National Socialism and Stalinism died. These misunderstandings regarding the sites and methods of mass killing prevent us from perceiving the horror of the twentieth century. (kl 444)

Here is a map in which Snyder indicates the scope of the bloodlands of slaughter.

Snyder’s approach to the Nazi war of extermination against the Jews in Bloodlands is striking and original, but the approach it takes is not unique. Alexander Prusin’s The Lands Between: Conflict in the East European Borderlands, 1870-1992conceptualizes the topic of mass murder in the period 1933-1945 in much the same geographical terms. Here is the abstract of Prusin’s book:

ABSTRACT The book traces the turbulent history of the borderlands that before World War constituted the frontier‐zones between the Austro‐Hungarian, German, and Russian empires and in the course of the twentieth‐century changed hands several times. It subscribes to the notion that internal socio‐economic cleavages and ethnic rivalries — the most common patterns to the East European landscape — were at the root of conflicts in the borderlands. However, its dominating thrust is predicated upon the notion that the borderlands’ ethno‐cultural diversity was in basic conflict with the nationalizing policies of the states that dominated the region. In peacetime, when the state’s control over all forms of social relations was unchallenged, it acted as the highest arbitrator, manipulating the conflicting claims of rival groups and maintaining relative stability in its domain. But in the time of crisis, when the state’s resources became strained to the limit, suspicions of the groups deemed less loyal to the state blurred the concept of internal and external enemies and entailed the persecution of allegedly ‘corrosive’ ethnic elements. Simultaneously, state‐violence was sustained and exacerbated by popular participation and acquired its own destructive logic, mutating into a vicious cycle of ethnic conflicts and civil wars.

Christian Gerlach reviews the two books together in American Historical Review (link).

Large factors that have been overlooked

In Black Earth Snyder offers another kind of re-centering of the Holocaust, this time by attempting to identify the consistent worldview through which Hitler came to put the extermination of the Jews (of the entire world) as his most important goal. Snyder refers to this as Hitler’s anti-scientific “ecological” theory of race, in which Hitler attributes everything bad in the world to the Jewish people. He places Hitler’s ideas about “Lebensraum” into the context of this batty ecological thinking. So Snyder makes a point about anti-Semitism: was Hitler just another instance of a European anti-Semite, carried to a lunatic extreme? And Snyder’s view is that the truth is much more horrible. Hitler’s war on the Jews derived from a deeply held worldview, not a superficial cultural attitude.

Snyder also introduces a new line of interpretation of the causes of the Final Solution by emphasizing that mass murder by the Nazi regime depended crucially on destroying the state institutions of other countries that might otherwise have interfered with the mass murder of their Jewish citizens.

In 1935, German Jews had been reduced to second-class citizens. In 1938, some Nazis discovered that the most effective way to separate Jews from the protection of the state was to destroy the state. Any legal discrimination would be complicated by its unforeseen consequences for other aspects of the law and in bureaucratic practice. Even matters that might seem simple, such as expropriation and emigration, proceeded rather slowly in Nazi Germany. When Austria was destroyed, by contrast, Austria’s Jews no longer enjoyed any state protection and were victimized by a majority that wished to distance itself from the past and align itself with the future. Statelessness opened a window of opportunity for those who were ready for violence and theft. (Black Earth, pp. 84-85). 

Snyder believes that these attempts at refocusing the way we understand the Holocaust lead to a conclusion: bad as we thought the Holocaust was, it was much, much worse. Referring to the Red Army photographs and films of German concentration camps that reached the West, he writes: “Horrible though these images were, they were only hints at the history of the bloodlands. They are not the whole story; sadly, they are not even an introduction” (Bloodlands, kl 476). 
Both of Snyder’s books have been controversial in the field of Holocaust studies. Some critics are concerned that Snyder diminishes the significance of Nazi extermination of the Jewish people by intermingling his treatment with Stalin’s campaigns of mass murder against peasants, Poles, and other enemies (e.g. Thomas Kühne’s excellent review in Contemporary European Historylink). Kühne also faults Snyder for subscribing to the “Great Man” theory of history, while paying little attention to the agency of ordinary people in the conduct of mass murder. Kühne writes, “The two Great Men who made the history of the ‘bloodlands’ are Hitler and Stalin, of course.” Others have criticized Black Earth for a leaving a sort of disjunct between the theoretical claims of the opening chapters and the actual historical narrative in the substantive center of the book (e.g. Mark Roseman’s review in American Historical Reviewlink).

Ordinary perpetrators

Kühne’s point about “agency” within mass murder identifies another important theme in Holocaust scholarship since 1980 or so — the motivations of the ordinary people who participated in the machinery of mass murder. A number of historians and sociologists who have asked fundamental questions: who were the “front-line workers” of the machinery of murder? What were their motives? Were they Nazi ideologues? Were they coerced? Was there some other basis for their compliance (and eagerness) in the horrible work of murder? Kühne’s own book The Rise and Fall of Comradeship: Hitler’s Soldiers, Male Bonding and Mass Violence in the Twentieth Century takes up this theme. And a major field of research into ordinary behavior during the Holocaust was made possible by the availability of investigative files concerning the actions of a Hamburg police unit that was assigned special duties as “Order Police” in Poland in 1940. These duties amounted to collecting and massacring large numbers of Jewish men, women, and children. Thomas Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992) made extensive use of investigatory files and testimonies of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 and came to fairly shocking conclusions: very ordinary, middle-aged, apolitical men of the police unit picked up the work of murder and extermination with zeal and efficiency. They were not coerced, they were not indoctrinated, and they were not deranged; and yet they turned to the work of mass murder with enthusiasm. A small percentage of the men of the unit declined the shooting assignments; but the great majority did not.

At Józefów a mere dozen men out of nearly 500 had responded instinctively to Major Trapp’s offer to step forward and excuse themselves from the impending mass murder. Why was the number of men who from the beginning declared themselves unwilling to shoot so small? In part, it was a matter of the suddenness. There was no forewarning or time to think, as the men were totally “surprised” by the Józefów action. Unless they were able to react to Trapp’s offer on the spur of the moment, this first opportunity was lost. As important as the lack of time for reflection was the pressure for conformity—the basic identification of men in uniform with their comrades and the strong urge not to separate themselves from the group by stepping out. (74)

Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1996) used mostly the same materials but came to even more challenging conclusions — that a deep and historically unique kind of anti-Semitism in Germany underlay the entire structure of mass murder.

It is my contention that [explaining their actions] cannot be done unless such an analysis is embedded in an understanding of German society before and during its Nazi period, particularly of the political culture that produced the perpetrators and their actions. This has been notably absent from attempts to explain the perpetrators’ actions, and has doomed these attempts to providing situational explanations, ones that focus almost exclusively on institutional and immediate social psychological influences, often conceived of as irresistible pressures. (7)

There is not a very large difference in substance between the books by Browning and Goldhagen: ordinary men did horrible things, knowing that they were horrible. But these books created a large debate among historians. (Here is a symposium organized by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum including extensive contributions by Goldhagen and Browning; link.)

Another important example of research on “ordinary people committing mass murder” is Jan Gross’s Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Gross provides a case study of a single massacre of Jews in a small Polish town during the Nazi occupation, but not ordered or directed by the German occupation. Instead, it was a local, indigenous action by non-Jewish residents in the town who gathered up their Jewish neighbors, forced them into a barn, and burned the barn, killing about 1600 Jewish men, women, and children. What were their motives? Gross refers to a culture of anti-Semitism at the local level; but he also refers to an eagerness on the part of non-Jewish townspeople to expropriate the property of the Jewish victims. (Here is a valuable article in Slavic Review by Janine Holc (link).) Gross raises the question of individual responsibility, but as Hole observes, he is ambiguous about how he views individual, collective, and national responsibility in this case, or in the larger tragedy of the extermination of Poland’s Jewish population (456).

So what do these new contributions to the historical study of the Holocaust matter? For all of us, they matter because they promise to provide a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how this horrific part of our recent past came to be — the institutional, political, ideological, and local circumstances that facilitated the mass murder of the majority of Europe’s Jewish population. And there are contemporary consequences that should be considered: does the extremism that is found in radical populism in so many countries, including the United States, create the possibility of horrific actions by states and peoples in the twenty-first century as well? Snyder apparently believes so, at least insofar as a slide from democracy into authoritarian government based on nationalistic ideologies is a possibility (On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century).

These new developments in the field of Holocaust history also create an important reminder for historians: historical events are large, complex, multifaceted, and conjunctural. This means that our understanding of these events, both large and small, can always be improved, and sometimes progress in our understanding involves large shifts in perspective and analysis. We see things differently after reading some of these historians. For example, we may be led to think of the occurrence in different spatial or temporal terms. Was the story of the extermination of Europe’s Jews a German story or a story located on a large, multinational map? Is it best told through national histories or a more synthetic approach? Are extermination camps the most important parts of the story, or are the many thousands of sites at which organized killing occurred more important? Can the story be told in broad strokes at a high level, or does it depend crucially on the micro-processes through which it came about? How much do we need to know about the motivations of participants at the high level and the street level?

Thomas Kuhn demonstrated that the natural sciences (physics, chemistry, biology) undergo paradigm shifts, following which we view the natural world differently and investigate it with different tools. Current developments in historical research on the Holocaust support the idea that historical thinking too undergoes paradigm shifts.

(An interesting resource on the topic of new research on the Holocaust is the Defending History website (link). Based in Lithuania, this site is dedicated to maintaining high-quality historical understanding of the Holocaust and resisting the resurgence of new forms of extremist rightwing anti-Semitism.)

Judt on “A Clown in Regal Purple”

There is an intriguing paragraph in Tony Judt and Tim Snyder’s Thinking the Twentieth Century that made me curious. Judt says to Snyder:

My own tenure case at Berkeley proceeded under the shadow cast by a long article I published in 1979 criticizing popular trends in social history, under the title “A Clown in Regal Purple.” Various colleagues in the history department pompously advised me that, on account of this notorious essay, they would have to vote against me. As one of them explained it to me, this was not because of the essay’s controversial content, but rather because it had “named names.” In particular, William Sewell, one of those whom I had listed as a perpetrator of the more misguided sort of social history, was a Berkeley graduate. For a young assistant professor like myself to dismiss the work of his colleagues’ students was lèse-institution, and unforgivable. Lacking both institutional loyalty and prudential instincts, I of course had never understood the extent of my offense. Thanks to that essay, the tenure vote in my department was split, albeit with a positive majority. Whatever my long-term prospects, the atmosphere felt poisoned. (157)

What was this “Clown in Regal Purple” (link) that stirred up such passions when it was published in 1979? And why would one gifted historian (Judt) take such animus to another gifted historian (Sewell)? The article is worth reading, but frankly — not to Judt’s credit.

The article begins ominously: “This is a bad time to be a social historian.” Surprising — many might say rather that the 1970s and 80s were a particular good time for social history. And Judt’s answer to his own question is also surprising: “Social history is suffering a sever case of pollution.” The pollution in question? It is the intrusion of several pernicious influences into the field: feminism, ethnography, sociological theory, and Chuck Tilly. Ha! Here is Judt’s diagnosis:

Why, it may be asked, do we need a critique of modern social history? The response is that a whole discipline is being degraded and abused; a few more years of the work currently published in certain European and American journals, and social history will have lost all touch with the study of the past. Certain areas of historical investigation, notably the history of women, of revolutions, of industrialisation and its impact, have proved especially vulnerable. (67)

Who does Judt have in mind with his critique of “social history”? He names names — many, many names — which seems to be what particularly annoyed his Berkeley colleagues. But he also paints in broad strokes about the discipline as a whole. In a footnote to this passage he writes:

I have in mind in particular the following: Annales Economies-Societes-Civilisations (cited here as Annales ESC); Comparative Studies in Society and History (cited as CSSH); Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH); Journal of Social History (JSH); and, occasionally, Past and Present. (90)

Judt is generally dismissive of the research, rigor, intelligence, historical acumen, and general competence of the social historians whom he considers. The overall impression that he gives — they are self-inflated dunderheads.

The obsession with structures and demography, with what people ate and how many chairs they owned, is a feature of the pages of Annales, much altered since the halcyon days of Bloch and Febvre. Similar ‘static’ obsessions inform the pages of certain English-speaking journals as well. Such concerns are not laudable in themselves. They represent the mindless scraping of the historical dustbin, with no question or problematic behind them. (72)

Mindless scraping of the historical dustbin — what hubris!

Judt has particular scorn for Chuck Tilly:

Here, as elsewhere in his work, one must choose between a megahistorical theory without explanatory value, and a re-description in pretentious terms of a particular process which could better be described in its empirical detail. The model offered is simultaneously overblown and redundant. (69) 

Tilly divides protest into pre-modern and modern, Sewell divides artisans from proletarians on pre-selected criteria of adaptability to bourgeois attitudes, and so forth. This is rubbish — the changing character of rural protest in late nineteenth-century France has nothing to do with definitions of modernity, any more than we have any reason to expect workers in Marseilles to desire upward mobility. (70)

One key thread of Judt’s screed is his view that social history has forgotten about politics — “the means and purposes by which civil society is organised and governed” (68). This is an odd claim in two ways. First, I don’t think that politics is absent in the writings of Sewell or Tilly, so it is an unfair caricature of their work to suggest that it is. But more important — the claim is categorical: “History is about politics”. But surely history is about many things, not just politics. Judt’s own work illustrates the point: in Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 he gives much attention to film, consumer habits, the educational system, the automobiles people drive, and many other interesting topics that reflect the multidimensionality and heterogeneity of “history”. And, on the other hand, Judt can be faulted for giving little attention to the details of ordinary life in France, Romania, or the USSR — a key topic of concern for the social historians of the 1970s and 1980s. Judt shows in Postwar that he is very aware of the importance of ordinary culture and social roles in historical settings — and these topics are complementary to issues of “politics” rather than subordinate.

It is very interesting that Judt’s diatribe coincides roughly with the point in time at which the Social Science History Association was founded in 1976. The association was founded to create an alternative voice within the history profession, and to serve as a venue for multi-disciplinary approaches to research and explanation in history. It is very interesting that many of the earliest advocates for this new intellectual configuration — including some of the founders of the association — continued their involvement for decades. Chuck Tilly, Bill Sewell, Andrew Abbott, Myron Gutmann, and Julia Adams all illustrate the importance of interdisciplinary work in their own research and writing, and these social researchers have all brought important innovations into the evolving task of understanding the social world. Here is the SSHA mission statement:

The Social Science History Association is an interdisciplinary group of scholars that shares interests in social life and theory; historiography, and historical and social-scientific methodologies. SSHA might be best seen as a coalition of distinctive scholarly communities. Our substantive intellectual work ranges from everyday life in the medieval world – and sometimes earlier — to contemporary global politics, but we are united in our historicized approach to understanding human events, explaining social processes, and developing innovative theory.

The term “social science history” has meant different things to different academic generations. In the 1970s, when the SSHA’s first meetings were held, the founding generation of scholars took it to reflect their concern to address pressing questions by combining social-science method and new forms of historical evidence. Quantitative approaches were especially favored by the association’s historical demographers, as well as some of the economic, social and women’s historians of the time. By the 1980s and 1990s, other waves of scholars – including culturally-oriented historians and anthropologists, geographers, political theorists, and comparative-historical social scientists — had joined the conversation.

In my view these impulses have been enormously valuable for the writing of social history in North America and Europe, and increasingly influential in Asia. And yet it seems entirely clear from the Purple Clown essay that Judt would have fully rejected both the premise of the organization and its work.

What is Judt’s summary judgment about social history as a discipline in the 1970s? It is glum:

One should not be over-sanguine. A return to the study of politics and ideology, a willingness to criticise and condemn where appropriate, an improvement in the level of scholarship and literacy are none of them very likely in the near future. Newcomers (the history of women, the history of the family) might yet force some rethinking on the profession, in order to avoid being stillborn. But that, too, is unlikely. The pessimistic prognosis is much the more realistic. We are witnessing the slow strangulation of social history, watching while a high fever is diagnosed as blooming good health. If the deity who watches over the profession did indeed desire the death of the past, what better way than to drive its high priests mad? It is quite disconcerting to be associated with this scene of progressive dementia. Now is truly a bad time to be a social historian. (89)

This is certainly not a fair, balanced, or intellectually generous assessment of the research of hundreds of young scholars at work in the 1970s and 1980s. The tone of the article from beginning to end is needlessly polemical and disrespectful — editors “pontificate”, social historians show “their inability to write the English language”, the historians are “academic juveniles”, their arguments are “ludicrous”, they place their “ignorance on display”. The only unambiguously positive remark that comes to mind is about Lefebvre and Soboul on the French Revolution (87) — and actually, Lefebvre and Soboul can only be loosely classified as “social historians”.

What is fundamentally disappointing about Judt’s article is not that it is devoid of legitimate intellectual criticism. It is rather that Judt has adopted such an aggressive, combative, and derogatory tone that it is impossible to take seriously the weightier criticisms that are embedded. The article gives the impression of an extremely dogmatic thinker who is unable to see the purpose or value of the other person’s work. It is a bridge-burning manifesto. In an odd way it finds echoes in comments that Judt makes in Thinking the Twentieth Century about his one-time colleagues at Emory University, whom he described as “rather dowdy”, “mediocre”, and “unforgiving” about his end-run to the dean over a hiring decision. (His comments about his several wives are sometimes just as derogatory.) So maybe the Berkeley faculty members made the right call after all — Judt’s collegiality quotient was low enough to suggest that he was likely to harm the intellectual culture of the department.

Is there a better way of doing “critique” of a whole field? There is. For example, Peter Perdue is an accomplished historian of China who recently wrote a valuable and penetrating assessment on the achievements of the Social Science History Assocation and its journal, Social Science History, over several decades, “From the Outside Looking In: The Annales School, the Non-Western World, and Social Science History” (link). Perdue’s assessment is measured and critical, and it is a valuable contribution to scholars interested in contributing to future research in the field. Perdue’s essay presents a superb point of contrast with Judt’s article. It is critical but not polemical, and it leaves plenty of room for scholars from various points of view to learn and improve their understandings of the challenges facing social history. Significantly, Perdue dismisses Judt’s “vitriolic diatribe” against the Tilly school in a single sentence. Perdue attests to the importance of Tilly’s work in shaping Perdue’s own approach to understanding Chinese social and economic history, including especially China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, and notes the important and constructive influence that Tilly’s writings have had in the China field more broadly. (Here is an appreciation of Tilly’s contributions to the China field; link.) Perdue offers a number of criticisms of the way that research within this community has unfolded over the forty years since 1976. He finds that the Annales school had surprisingly little influence within the SSHA research community. He is disappointed to find that environmental history did not find a secure foothold in SSHA or Social Science History. And he finds that SSHA has a relatively poor record of dealing with transnational and non-European history, including Asian historical topics. These are fair comments, and can serve as valuable navigation points for editors of Social Science History and program organizers of the SSHA. This is useful and constructive commentary and can lead to better and more insightful research in the future. In all these ways Perdue’s critique is fundamentally different from Judt’s “diatribe”: it provides helpful guidance for future directions in the research field.

(Here is an insightful assessment of Judt’s intellectual character in StrangeHistory; link.)

Samuel Dill on the late Roman Empire

An anonymous reader responds to my short discussion of Patrick Geary’s treatment of the late Roman Empire to recommend Samuel Dill’s treatment of this process 100 years ago in Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire and Roman Society in Gaul in the Merovingian Age, books written in 1898 and 1926 respectively. In the anonymous reader’s opinion, many of Geary’s insights are already there in Dill’s books.

Surprisingly enough, Roman Society in the Last Century of the Western Empire is available in digital editions; so it is easy enough to consult it. (I can’t locate a digital copy of the Merovingian Age book.) How sophisticated was the understanding of the late Roman Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century? Does a book of history written over a century ago have the potential for giving us new insights into its subject matter? Or are we always better off turning to the most recent scholarship when it comes to history and historical social science?

The thrust of Dill’s Last Century is quite different from Geary’s approach one hundred years later (not surprisingly). Dill’s approach is more categorical about the abruptness and distinctness of the changes that took place during the century under treatment. His evidence is drawn largely from classical historians, whereas Geary’s approach takes advantage of the most recent archaeological evidence. Much of this method and style is expressed in the preface to the first edition:

The limits of the period covered by this study of Roman society have not been arbitrarily chosen. The last hundred years of the Western Empire seem marked off both by momentous events, and, for the student of society, by the authorities at his command. The commencement of the period coincides roughly with the passage of the Gothic hordes across the Danube, the accession of Gratian and Theodosius, the termination of the long truce between paganism and the Christian Empire, and the reopening of the conflict which, within twenty years, ended in the final prohibition of heathen rites. It closes not only with the deposition of the last shadowy Emperor of the West, but with the practical extinction of Roman power in the great prefecture of the Gauls. Perhaps even more obvious are the lines drawn by the fullest authorities for our subject. The earliest extant letters of Symmachus, which describe the relations of the last generation of great pagan nobles, belong to the years 376-390. The literary and political activity of Ausonius coincides with the same years, and from his poems we derive an invaluable picture of a provincial society in the reigns of Gratian and Theodosius. A searching light is thrown on the same generation by some of St. Jerome’s letters, by the Saturnalia of Macrobius, and by many Inscriptions. At the other end of our period we are almost equally fortunate in our information. The works of Apollinaris Sidonius of Auvergne are a priceless revelation of the state of society, both in Rome and in Gaul, from the accession of Avitus till the final triumph of the Visigothic power.

As historiography, in other words, Dill’s scholarship suffers from the “great men, great dates” problem of nineteenth century historians more generally. His book is very much about the individuals who made this history — at the top — and the chronology of their actions and effects. This impression is born out by the extensive table of emperors, kings, and dates that Dill includes in the opening matter of the book:

A related observation is the cultural and normative commitments that are exposed by the narrative. The work is deeply etched by its normative attitude towards Christianity:

In spite of the moral force which ensured the future to the Christian faith, its final triumph was long delayed. Religious conservatism is, of all forms of attachment to the past, probably the most difficult to overcome. It has its seat in the deepest and most powerful instincts of human nature, which, when they have once twined themselves around a sacred symbol of devotion, are only torn away after a long struggle. (3)

This passage illustrates the moral entwinement of Christianity into the historian’s apperception of the period; it also reveals a kind of teleological thinking about history that would no longer find support among academic historians. Dill denounces “heathenism” and paganism repeatedly.

In the final stand which paganism made against imperial edicts and the polemic of the Church, many different forces were arrayed. Sensuality and gross superstition in the degraded masses clung to the rites of magic and divination, to the excitement of the circus, and the obscenities of the theatre. (70)

Few inquiries should be more interesting than the attempt to form a conception of the inner tone and life of society in Western Europe on the eve of its collapse. Was society as corrupt and effete as it has been represented? Were its vices, as Salvianus insisted, the cause of the triumph of the barbarians? (115)

But Dill also finds an underlying current of monotheism pushing its way through the thought of the ancient world: “More than five centuries before Christ, Greek speculation had lifted men’s minds to the conception of a mysterious Unity behind the phantasmagoria of sense” (8). This seems to illustrate the teleological bent of Dill’s thinking.

Dill is centrally preoccupied with the moral and intellectual character of the period about which he writes. He wants to know about the morals, the spirituality, the religious piety, and the poetry of the prominent people who made up Western Europe during these centuries; and he wants to view these characteristics as having crucial causal force in the direction of change that occurred. Here is how he begins a chapter late in the book (“Relations of Romans with the invaders”):

In the previous chapter an attempt has been made to collect the views and feelings of persons, representing various localities and differences of circumstance and character, about the condition and future of the Empire in the face of its assailants. (347)

And earlier he emphasizes the moral decline of Roman civilization:

A careful study of the Code will correct many a popular and antiquated misconception of that great event. It will reveal the fact that, long before the invasions of the reign of Honorius, the fabric of Roman society and administration was honeycombed by moral and economic vices, which made the belief in the eternity of Rome a vain delusion. The municipal system, once the great glory of Roman organising power, had in the fourth century fallen almost into ruin. The governing class of the municipalities, called curiales, on whom the burdens of the Empire had been accumulated, were diminishing in number, and in the ability to bear an ever -increasing load of obligations. (245)

Further, unlike contemporary approaches to history that emphasize obscure social actors, Dill explicitly excludes the plebeian class from his treatment.

Of the three great classes into which Roman society was divided, the plebeian class, composed of traders, free artisans, etc., who possessed no property in land, may, for our present purpose, be left out of consideration. The other two classes must, from their ownership of the land, and from their relations to one another and to the treasury, engage our sole attention. Of the tone and character of the highest order in the social hierarchy we have attempted to give some account in a previous chapter. They have left us literary materials which enable us to form a tolerably clear idea of their spirit and manner of life; but they seldom speak of their material fortunes or of the classes beneath them, and on these subjects our information must be drawn chiefly from the Code. (248)

So social history, and careful documentation of the role of ordinary people in the events of the time period, plays virtually no role in Dill’s approach. By contrast, Geary and other contemporary historians of the ancient world pay substantial attention to the material constitutes of governance, migration, taxation, agriculture, and war — topics which Dill mostly ignores.

Finally, the evidence that constitutes the foundation of Dill’s research is entirely textual and literary. Unlike Geary, who gives substantial weight to archeological evidence, but also unlike Theodor Mommsen, who in mid-nineteenth century made innovative use of inscriptions and steles and won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1902 for his historical writing (The History of Rome Vol. 1-5), Dill’s account is almost exclusively literary. Dill tells a story, and it is an interesting story; but it has very little of the efforts towards uncovering underlying social structures and realities that are defining features of much contemporary historiography.

So it is hard to see that reading Dill today would enlighten us much about the causes and dynamics of change in the late Roman Empire. The history is antiquarian and personalist, it proceeds with a background commitment to the moral superiority of Christianity, and it provides no insight into the kinds of material and structural factors that are of primary interest today. Reading Mommsen sounds like a much better investment.

The historian and the archives

 

Generally speaking everyone understands that one important kind of research conducted by historians takes place in archives — repositories of records and documents that have been preserved by governments or organizations for some purpose, in which documents are preserved that shed light on the past. But it is common to imagine that the trip to the archive is instrumental and wholly focused on the gathering of information that sheds light on the activities of individuals and organizations in the past. The purpose and value of the visit, on this account, is the gathering of information.

Arlette Farge is one of France’s leading contemporary historians and is the author of Fragile Lives: Violence, Power, and Solidarity in Eighteenth-Century Paris. Her recently translated book The Allure of the Archives casts archival research in a very different light. Her use of archival materials is of course aimed at learning some of the details of the activities and practices of the past. But she very eloquently expresses the idea that archival work goes well beyond the mundane gathering and noting of facts. In fact, much of this short book reads as an almost poetic expression of the experience of engaging with old documents and scraps of paper in archives across France.

The taste for the archive is rooted in these encounters with the silhouettes of the past, be they faltering or sublime. There is an obscure beauty in so many existences barely illuminated by words, in confrontation with each other, imprisoned by their own devices as much as they were undone by their era. (kl 605-607)

The archive’s allure, nonetheless, lives on. The taste for the archives is not a fashion that will go out of style as quickly as it came in. It comes from the conviction that the preservation of the judicial records has created a space of captured speech. The goal is not for the cleverest, most driven researcher to unearth some buried treasure, but for the historian to use the archives as a vantage point from which she can bring to light new forms of knowledge that would otherwise have remained shrouded in obscurity. (kl 668-672)

The book can be read as a counterargument against the idea that historical research can be done almost entirely in a digitized world of scanned documents available on the Internet. For Farge, the tactile and practical experience of spending hours, days, and weeks in direct contact with the documents of the past is an irreplaceable part of the historian’s art. (Robert Darnton takes up this aspect of the book in his fine review of The Allure of the Archives here in the New York Review of Books.)

Farge provides a nuanced explanation of the unavoidable need for interpretation when the historian confronts a set of documents. This involves selection: “Purposefully focusing on a particular theme (drunkenness, theft, adultery) creates a specific viewpoint that requires explanation, because the space is necessarily reorganized by the research objective” (kl 778-780). And it involves reconstruction: It is necessary to be able to mentally reconstruct some of the context in which the documents were collected. But more, it is necessary to find ways of “hearing” the voices of the men and women whose moments of experience are captured on these scraps of paper. (As she points out in her description of the writings of the mad Thorin, it was literally necessary for her to vocalize the words and letters he had written to be able to guess the intended sentences. “Thorin might have been illiterate, but his writings, in their clumsy calligraphy, transmit what no ordinary text can: the way in which they were pronounced and articulated” (kl 750).)

Farge has written a personal book, almost an ethnographic book about the experience of using and learning from the miscellaneous documents of an archive (a judicial archive, in her case). But some of her own sensibilities as an interpreter and writer of history come through as well: an emphasis on the centrality of conflict in historical settings, a concern for the material and meaningful lives of ordinary women, an interest in the particulars of home and work for ordinary people, attention to the strategic intelligence of ordinary people in their interactions with police and the judicial apparatus.  Like Robert Darnton in The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History, she is interested in finding small clues in the evidence of the archive that shed light on aspects of ordinary social interactions and meanings in eighteenth-century Paris.

In particular, Farge is insistent that historians should not treat the archive as simply a source of interesting or surprising singular stories (the surprising discovery of a letter from one man to another about the charms of his wife, the marvelous discovery of report of a traffic incident involving the Marquis de Sade, a sword, and a horse). Her goal, and the goal of historians more generally, is to find ways of extracting a narrative from the material that somehow honors both the singularity and the thematic:

Our task is to find a language that can integrate singular moments into a narrative capable of reproducing their roughness, while underlining both their irreducibility and their affinity with other representations. We need a language that is capable of reconstructing and deconstructing, playing with the similar as with the different…. If we aim to “defend stories” and bring them into history, we must commit ourselves to demonstrating in a compelling manner the ways in which each individual constructed her own agency out of what history and society put at her disposal. When examined in this way, interrogations and testimonies shed light on the spaces where an individual entered into both peaceful and tumultuous relationships with different social groups, while at the same time struggling to preserve her freedoms and defend her autonomy. (kl 1073-1075)

And she steers a careful course between objectivity and subjectivity in telling history — between “one truth about the past” and “all perspectives are equally valid”:

The archive is a vantage point from which the symbolic and intellectual constructions of the past can be rearranged. It is a matrix that does not articulate “the” truth, but rather produces, through recognition as much as through disorientation, the elements necessary to ground a discourse of truth telling that refuses lies. Neither more nor less real than other sources, the archival documents display the fates of men and women whose surprising and somber actions crossed paths with an authority that had many faces. (kl1121-1125)

She finds that there are “foundational events” in history — the Holocaust, the French Revolution — whose features can and must be known. And the archive plays one important role in helping us know those facts:

It is important to understand that outside of certain rare exceptions, archival documents cannot be definitive proof. But they are reference points we cannot ignore, whose meaning must be constructed through rigorous and precise questioning. As historians we must recognize that “the validity of the knowledge depends on the validity of the purpose,” and that we must carefully navigate between recognizing the influence of our choices and the impossible theory of history as an objective compilation of facts. (kl 1164-1168)

These many documents and the voices they imperfectly capture give the historian a way of discerning some of the realities that underlay the grand events:

Through the archive we can glimpse what became of these people who were constantly in movement, and whose agency was composed of a continual combination and recombination of action and reaction, change and conflict. We must seize on to what happened, recognizing that in the facts we find in the archive something was always going on inside social relationships. As we abandon abstract categorizations, we can bring to light something that moved, arose, and fulfilled itself through continual change. (kl 1309-1312)

It is interesting to compare the central thrust of this book with some of the comments Farge made about archival research in Fragile Lives (first published in French in 1986, three years before the publication in French of Le gout de l’archive):

This book [Fragile Lives] was born out of the archives — not from a set of documents, nor from chronicles, memoirs, novels or treatises of a judicial, administrative or literary nature. No, none of the above.

It came quite simply from the judicial archives — the odd scrap, snatch of a phrase, fragments of lives from that vast repository of once-pronounced words that constitute the archives — words emerging from the darkness and depths of three successive night-times: of time and oblivion; of the wretched and unfortunate; and last (and most impenetrable for our ow stubborn minds), the night of guild and its grip…

Historians who find themselves caught up with original sources become so fascinated by the archives that involvement with them makes it almost impossible to avoid self-justification through them or to resist the temptation to suppress any doubts these might cast on their own perceptions and systems of rationality or those of others. The impact the archives have on the historian (scarcely ever recognized explicitly) sometimes has the effect of actually denying their value. Fine though they might be, they are nonetheless full of pitfalls, and the corollary of their beauty is their deceptiveness. Any historian taking them on board cannot but be wary of the improbable outlines of the images they conceal. (1)

Here, it seems, Farge takes a somewhat more cautious view of archival research.

(Chuck Tilly refers to his first visit to a French archive in his preliminary phase of research on The Vendee: A Sociological Analysis of the Counter-Revolution of 1793 in the interview he did with me a few years ago (around minute 3 in the clip below). His excitement about that first visit persisted for almost fifty years.)

A new history of China

James Lee and Byong-Ho Lee have created a remarkable new course on Coursera titled “A New History for a New China, 1700-2000: New Data and New Methods, Part 1”. This production is a genuinely important contribution to Chinese history. The course is not designed as an up-to-date summary of the history of early modern China, along the lines of Fairbank’s China: A New History, Second Enlarged Edition. It is not a survey of Chinese history as traditionally treated.  Instead, it is a clear and logical presentation of a very different way of thinking about China’s history: not as a chronology of events, dynasties, revolutions, rebellions, and notable individuals, but rather as an analytical study of the forces underlying pervasive social realities in China over this three-hundred year period. The key topics are privilege, wealth, power, and health, and the methodology is solidly quantitative. The analysis depends on a number of large data sets of sub-populations that James Lee and colleagues have assembled in the past thirty years. And Lee and Lee use advanced statistical and quantitative methods to probe the associations that exist within these datasets that would cast light on topics like political power, social mobility, and the workings of institutions. Most importantly, Lee and Lee are determined to probe the large sociological questions on the basis of demographic and social data about historical individuals.

The Lee-Campbell research group has created eight data sets with millions of unique individuals from specific places and periods in China over the past three centuries. These sets include population registers for over 500,000 distinct individuals. These datasets constitute the empirical core of the course.

The course is organized in three large segments:

  • Part I. Who Gets What? social structure, mobility, distribution
  • Part II. Who Survives? mortality, fertility, marriage
  • Part III. Who Cares? religion, gender, ethnicity, nationalism

Part I is underway now, and later parts will be produced in the near future.

Lee’s organizing questions are sociological and demographic. In Part I the key questions are these:

  • Why do some people rise to the top while others do not?
  • Why is wealth more unequally distributed in some societies than in others?

The approach taken here, and pervasively throughout the research of the Lee-Campbell research group, is quantitative.

We present the results from a new scholarship of discovery based largely on the creation and analysis of big social science data from historical and contemporary China…. [This allows us] to construct a new sort of history from below that contributes to a more global understanding of human history and human behavior.

So what are the statistical foundations of their analysis? Here are the datasets that are used in the course:

  1. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Liaoning (1.2M records for 260K individuals)
  2. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Shuangcheng (1.5M records for 125K individuals and 19K land plots, 1870-1906)
  3. China Multi-Generational Panel Data-Imperial Lineage (250K individual life histories 1640-1935)
  4. dataset of 350K+ individuals with university academic records or civil service examination results
  5. dataset of 75K successful Imperial Examination Juren and Jinshi, 1371-1904
  6. dataset of 120K Chinese university graduates, 1902-1951
  7. dataset of 175K Peking and Suzhou university students, 1952-2004
  8. dataset from Chinese collectivization, 1947-48, Shuangcheng County

It is plain that there are a large number of individuals included in these datasets. These bodies of data permit a very precise and rigorous level of analysis by the researchers in probing various kinds of causal associations. But it is also plain that they offer very focused and specialized points of observation of the social processes taking place across China and across time. So there is a background premise that seems credible but also seems to require more explicit discussion:

  • there are identifiable and pervasive social processes at work in China, and detailed study of Liaoning or Shuangcheng can identify some of these processes. 

The discoveries about the causal factors involved in Chinese social mobility that can be drawn from dataset #3, for example, are most interesting if we can infer that the contours of causation that we discover here are roughly similar to social mobility processes in other parts of China in the Qing period. On the other hand, it might turn out that mobility in the Lower Yangzi region is based on factors having to do with commerce and wealth to a greater extent than was true in North China’s Liaoning.

It is also interesting that Lee and his collaborators take a somewhat structural approach to social causation:

The driving factors of history are not just the ideas or actions of Great Men (or Women), but also from society as a whole, and that socio-economic forces including social stratification and wealth distribution together with politics are important factors that “push and pull” on actors and actions to create historical change.

This description singles out socio-economic forces as objects of study.

Another thing that strikes me is that the work presented here is “comparative historical sociology” rather than traditional historical research. (Lee sometimes refers to his discipline as “historical social science”, and he emphasizes that the course is “explicitly comparative”.) The approach seeks to evaluate hypotheses about how these large variables are influenced (wealth, power, longevity, health status, education). The opening comments James Lee makes in the introductory lecture about intuitive and anecdotal historical interpretation, and the comments about analytical rather than chronological organization, underline the point: this is not traditional history.

Our class eschews the standard chronological narrative arc for an analytic approach that focuses on specific discoveries and on how these new facts complicate our understanding of comparative societies, human behavior, and the construction of individual and group identities.

Unlike traditional history which focuses largely on the biographies and actions of specific historic figures, A New History for a New China seeks to write a history based on the experiences of all people, elites and non-elites.

This might imply that Lee and his colleagues mean to replace traditional historiography of China with the “big data” approach. But James Lee and others in this research group make it clear (outside this course) that these researchers are in fact pluralistic about historical research; they don’t mean to say that historians who are more interested in the specific circumstances leading to change in a largely chronological structure are doing shabby history. There is a great deal of very exciting new historical research on China that has come forward in the past twenty years, and much of that research takes the form of organized narratives. (Peter Perdue’s China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia is a very good example.) These are good pieces of rigorous historical knowledge creation as well, though not based on large quantitative data sets. So this sociological, “big data” approach is one important new contribution, but not a replacement for all other historiographical approaches.

This course is well worth following. It does an excellent job of tying together the diverse and rigorous work that the Lee-Campbell research group has been doing for thirty years, and it provides a coherent framework and scheme of presentation for that work. In this sense I think it illustrates a virtue of the MOOC format that hasn’t yet been discussed very much: as a platform for the presentation and dissemination of specialized ongoing research programs for a broader specialist public. The lectures are downloadable, and when completed they will represent a highly valuable “new media” presentation of some very interesting and challenging results in the historical sociology of China.

(James Lee and his colleagues have published quite a number of books relevant to this course. Particularly significant are One Quarter of Humanity: Malthusian Mythology and Chinese Realities, 1700-2000, Fate and Fortune in Rural China: Social Organization and Population Behavior in Liaoning 1774-1873, Life under Pressure: Mortality and Living Standards in Europe and Asia, 1700-1900 (Eurasian Population and Family History), each with co-authors.)

World history

 

World history is more timely today than ever. “Globalization” is almost a cliché, from “The world is flat” to “the homogenization of cultures” to the “commodification of place.” Everyone recognizes the fact of globalization in the contemporary world. But we need to understand the many ways in which many parts of the world were deeply and systemically interconnected long before the post-World War II wave of revolutions in communications networks, rapid travel, containerized shipping, and military power contributed to the current interconnectedness of most countries and peoples. We need a strong historiography for the global world. And we need better and more detailed understandings of the histories of many of the regions of the world, taken in their own terms.

To be most productive, however, we need to approach the tasks of global history with some fresh thinking. There are several key points that have emerged as fundamental.  The first is to be vigilant about making Eurocentric assumptions about development and change.  Whether in the domains of politics, economics, or culture, it is crucial to avoid the assumption that Europe set the model for developments in key areas of historical change.  New historiography of Eurasian economic development illustrates the power of an approach that avoids Eurocentrism, including Bin Wong (China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience), Ken Pomeranz (The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy.), and Prasannan Parthasarathi (Why Europe Grew Rich and Asia Did Not: Global Economic Divergence, 1600-1850).

A second is to expect variation rather than convergence. There are many ways that human societies have found to solve crucial problems of coordination, order, production, and the exercise of power. Global historians need to be alert to the development of alternative institutions of politics, economics, culture, or social cohesion in different locales. In particular, it is important to take note of divergences as well as parallels in the political and economic development of great civilizations like those of India, China, Southeast Asia, or West Africa.

Third, it is important to avoid the conceptual schemes of nationalism and states. “France,” “Indonesia,” and “India” are places with diversity and internal variation, and they each followed distinct rhythms of consolidation as states and nations.  It is often more revealing to look to regions that cross the boundaries of existing states; we learn much by looking at the dynamics of change in regions that are smaller than nation-states (the American South, for example, as an economic and racial regime that had little in common with Northern cities); and it is sometimes the case that we are best off considering the histories of dispersed peoples and activities (Zomia (James Scott, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (Yale Agrarian Studies Series)), diasporic histories (Tai Lands and Thailand: Community and the State in Southeast Asia), bandits (Bandits, Revised Edition)).

Fourth, the way in which we consider historical time sometimes needs more critical reflection. Victor Lieberman’s focus on the punctuated patterns of consolidation that took place from Burma to Kiev is one aspect of this reflection; the world’s clock was synchronized in a pattern that was quite distinct from the internal patterns of change in each of the affected countries.  And the historian needs to be attentive to both clocks. Likewise, world historians need to be open to considering temporality on a range of scales — from the months of the Terror to the decades of contention that preceded and followed the French Revolution, to the century and a half that separated the French Revolution from the Chinese Revolution.

Fifth, the global impact of environmental factors needs to be given the emphasis it deserves. Climate change, exhaustion of woodlands, extension of mining and extraction — all these processes and factors influence human activity at a range of levels, and their impact needs to be assessed carefully on the basis of historical and physical data. Mark Elvin’s environmental history of China is a great example (The Retreat of the Elephants: An Environmental History of China).

Finally, world historians need to pay particular attention to the mechanisms of influence through which places exchanged cultural and economic material in the long centuries from the development of substantial Mediterranean trade in the ancient world to the shipping lanes of the contemporary world. Trade, the diffusion of ideas through cultural contact and migration, the effects of the book trade, the military logic of colonialism, the advent of organized long-distance communication and travel, the creation of international governance institutions — these mechanisms of social exchange constitute many of the pathways through which global integration occurs, and their dynamics are worthy of close attention by historians.

Significantly, almost all these factors find their way into the work of many recent historians who are taking on the challenge of making sense of the history of the modern world. World historiography is on a very promising trajectory.

Intellectual history as history?

How do fields like the history of art or the history of philosophy relate to history simpliciter? Are there similar problems and methods in the history of ideas to those facing social or economic historians? Or is the idea of examining a series of events possessing temporal order the only thing these fields have in common?

Take the history of philosophy as an example. When philosophers analyze and present the history of their discipline for undergraduates, there is a fairly standard narrative in Anglo-American philosophy. The narrative begins with the pre-Socratics, with a set of questions about the nature of reality and some examples of how to reason about such questions. It moves then to classical ancient philosophy and considers the questions, theories, and methods of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Here a broader range of questions come into play, including the nature of knowledge, the nature of reality, and the nature of virtue and justice. The medieval philosophers come next, including Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and perhaps Maimonides. Theological questions are center stage. Sometimes the Islamic world is given credit for maintaining knowledge of the ancients, especially Aristotle, through the upheavals of the post-Roman Empire dark ages. Then we come to “modern” philosophy, including the empiricists (English-speaking) and the rationalists (Continental).  Kant generally gets a page of his own, seeking to reconcile these two traditions, and then we hurtle into Hegel and the nineteenth century philosophers.

This narrative is largely structured around topics, theories, and methods, and the named philosophers are characterized in terms of their distinctive contributions to these items. When the historian of philosophy invokes change or dynamics, it is founded on the dialectic of the ideas and theories. Empiricism developed through as series of intellectual problems and inadequacies in earlier treatments. So in a typical history of philosophy, the narrative takes an internalist perspective — an argument about how one set of theories and methods led logically or dialectically to another. The biography and historical setting of the philosopher is considered to be irrelevant, with occasional exceptions. (The setting of civil war is sometimes considered relevant to the development of Hobbes’s theory of the state.)

An externalist approach to the history of philosophy would take a different tack.  The historian of philosophies might look at philosophy as a grounded intellectual practice, thoroughly embedded in a certain set of social and political activities. The philosopher’s system of ideas would not be viewed as a purely autonomous intellectual activity, but rather a set of formulations that are responsive both to earlier arguments and social and political realities and assumptions. The circumstances and settings of particular philosophers would be highly relevant for the historian on this approach. This approach might look at the systems of thought created by philosophers as ideologies — idealized expressions of more widespread systems of social ideas that serve the interests of various powerful groups. This is roughly speaking the approach taken by CB McPherson in The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism: Hobbes to Locke (link). And it would be a variation of the approach taken by current work within the Sociology of Scientific Knowledge (SSK) (link).

The internalist approach to the history of philosophy doesn’t really seem to have much to do with history in any genuine way. And perhaps this applies to internalist approaches to other fields as well — literature, painting, cuisine. And yet ideas do play important roles in history — they have consequences and they ate influenced by social and material conditions. The challenge for the historian is how to make these connections through careful investigation while at the same time giving systems of thought and creativity the degree of autonomy they also possess.

Here are a few threads that are relevant to these questions. First, in the history of ideas we can always ask questions about the social conditions or influences on ideas. We might argue, as TJ Clark does in The Painting of Modern Life: Paris in the Art of Manet and his Followers and Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution, that social conditions in the 1830s in rural France made the realism of Courbet possible.  This brings social and intellectual history onto the same canvas.

Second, we can use tools of sociological analysis to provide a framework for thinking about art and philosophy. Bourdieu’s concept and theory of field are relevant: an art tradition develops within a field of artists and a set of cultural institutions (The Rules of Art: Genesis and Structure of the Literary Field). This too provides a social and material context for the history of ideas.

Third, it is both legitimate and necessary for social historians to take the development and currency of ideas seriously. Certain instances of popular politics, for example, may not make sense unless we explicate the religious or cultural ideas of the population.

So a truly insightful history of ideas and thought shouldn’t be either purely internalist or purely externalist. Rather, the historian needs to be able to both respect the discipline while at the same time tracing the material processes through which it develops. An in fact, we do have examples of scholars who have managed to do both; a good example is Randall Collins’ The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change.

Who was Leon Trotsky?

Leon Trotsky was something of a hero for a part of the anti-Stalinist left from the 1930s through at least the 1970s. Sidney Hook and John Dewey offered substantive support to Trotsky and his reputation during and after the end of his life through Dewey’s role in the “Commission of Inquiry into the Charges Made against Leon Trotsky in the Moscow Trials”. Trotsky was a theoretician of communism, a strategist, a man of letters, and the merciless chief of the Red Army immediately following the success of the Boshevik Revolution (represented by the character of Strelnikov in Dr. Zhivago!). Expelled from the USSR by Stalin in 1929, he spent the rest of his life in exile in a series of countries and was assassinated by Stalin’s agent in 1940 in Mexico City. The Trotskyist left opposed Stalin’s policies long before other segments of the European left did so.

There is a narrative that places a lot of the history of the USSR into the framework of personality and character of its early leaders, including Lenin, Trotsky, and Stalin. The legend is that Trotsky was a principled revolutionary but a poor street fighter, and that Stalin was a power-hungry and ruthless opportunist who out-maneuvered his primary opponent after the death of Lenin. And Trotsky was too full of amour-propre to fully engage in the battle with Stalin. But it wasn’t all about personality; Trotsky and Stalin differed substantially about the future course of Communism, and Trotsky’s was the more radical view (permanent revolution versus socialism in one country). So who was Trotsky, and how would we know?

Trotsky himself addresses these topics in his autobiography, and indicates that he thinks they are unimportant: personality and character have less to do with his life than theory and the inevitable currents of history, in his own telling of his story. Here are a few lines from My Life: An Attempt at an Autobiography:

My intellectual and active life, which began when I was about seventeen or eighteen years old, has been one of constant struggle for definite ideas. In my personal life there were no events deserving public attention in themselves. All the more or less unusual episodes in my life are bound up with the revolutionary struggle, and derive their significance from it. This alone justifies the appearance of my autobiography. But from this same source flow many difficulties for the author. The facts of my personal life have proved to be so closely interwoven with the texture of historical events that it has been difficult to separate them. This book, moreover, is not altogether an historical work. Events are treated here not according to their objective significance, but according to the way in which they are connected with the facts of my personal life. It is quite natural, then, that the accounts of specific events and of entire periods lack the proportion that would be demanded of them if this book were an historical work. I had to grope for the dividing line between autobiography and the history of the revolution. Without allowing the story of my life to become lost in an historical treatise, it was necessary at the same time to give the reader a base of the facts of the social development. In doing this, I assumed that the main outlines of the great events were known to him, and that all his memory needed was a brief reminder of historical facts and their sequence.

I am obliged to write these lines as an émigré— for the third time— while my closest friends are filling the places of exile and the prisons of that Soviet republic in whose creating they took so decisive a part. Some of them are vacillating, withdrawing, bowing before the enemy. Some are doing it because they are morally exhausted; others because they can find no other way out of the maze of circumstances; and still others because of the pressure of material reprisals. I had already lived through two instances of such mass desertion of the banner: after the collapse of the revolution of 1905, and at the beginning of the World War. Thus I know well enough, from my own experience, the historical ebb and flow. They are governed by their own laws. Mere impatience will not expedite their change. I have grown accustomed to viewing the historical perspective not from the standpoint of my personal fate. To understand the causal sequence of events and to find somewhere in the sequence one’s own place —that is the first duty of a revolutionary. And at the same time, it is the greatest personal satisfaction possible for a man who does not limit his tasks to the present day. (preface)

So it is all about ideas, political commitments, and the march of history (as well sometimes as the personal weaknesses of others). But biographers need more than this.

A key source for the past fifty years has been the magnificent biography of Trotsky in three volumes by Isaac Deutscher, beginning publication in 1954 (The Prophet: Trotsky: 1879-1940 (Vol. 1-3)). Deutscher was a Polish writer and historian who was more or less miraculously posted to England at the time of the Nazi conquest of Poland; so he spent the rest of his life in England, while almost all of his family perished in the Holocaust. Deutscher’s work is an admirable piece of historical writing, with appropriate attention to historical detail and available historical sources, including a major archive at Harvard University. The book is favorable to Trotsky as a tragic and outcast leader, but is not sycophantic. It weaves together the biographical narrative with the great struggles in the USSR and Europe that took place during Trotsky’s life and to which he was an important contributor. (Here is the Google Books link to the first volume, The Prophet Armed.)

Deutscher puts the arc of Trotsky’s revolutionary leadership at the end of the Civil War in 1919 in these theatrical terms:

At the very pinnacle of power Trotsky, like the protagonist of a classical tragedy, stumbled. He acted against his own principle and in disregard of a most solemn moral commitment. Circumstances, the preservation of the revolution, and his own pride drove him into this predicament. Placed as he was he could hardly have avoided it. His steps followed almost inevitably from all that he had done before; and only one step now separated the sublime from the sinister — even his denial of principle was still dictated by principle. Yet in acting as he did he shattered the ground on which he stood. (486)

This step was the decision to establish a system of dictatorship by the Communist Party. And this step led to some of the worst atrocities of the twentieth century, including Stalin’s war on the Kulaks.

When Trotsky now urged the Bolshevik party to ‘substitute’ itself for the working classes, he did not, in the rush of work and controversy, think of the next phases of the process, although he himself had long since predicted them with uncanny clear-sightedness. ‘The party organization would then substitute itself for the party as a whole; then the Central Committee would substitute itself for the organization; and finally a single dictator would substitute himself for the Central Committee.’ The dictator was already waiting in the wings. (522)

In these three volumes Deutscher provided a detailed account of Trotsky’s actions and theorizing as well as their impact on history. But what were Trotsky’s motivations? Not much of the character, personality, or singularity of Trotsky emerges from Deutscher’s treatment.

In 2011 Robert Service published a new biography of Trotsky (Trotsky: A Biography), making use of sources that were not available to Deutscher in the 1950s. This book of more than 600 pages presents itself as the most historically authoritative treatment of its subject yet.  But the book has created great controversy about some of its most basic claims. Service has previously published biographies of Lenin and Stalin.  But the Trotsky book has generated huge criticism. A well documented but scathing review of the book was published by Bertrand Patenaude in the American Historical Review (AHR (2011) 116 (3): 900-902), and the review is summarized in Inside Higher Education (link).  Patenaude asserts that Service makes dozens of important errors of fact in the course of the book, and that it sets out to “thoroughly discredit Trotsky as a historical figure;” and Patenaude concludes that the book falls woefully short of the standards of historical rigor that it should have met. “[The publisher] has placed its imprimatur upon a book that fails to meet the basic standards of historical scholarship.” (902)  Patenaude also reviews David North’s In Defense of Leon Trotsky. North is himself an American Trotskyist and Patenaude was prepared to find a hatchet job in North’s treatment of Service. Instead he finds a powerful and well founded critique of the many errors, distortions, and bias in Service’s treatment of Trotsky. So the partisan gives a more faithful account of the facts than the professional historian!

Patenaude’s own treatment of Trotsky’s life in Trotsky: Downfall of a Revolutionary is restricted to the Mexico years, and is very detailed and interesting.  His narrative moves back and forth between Mexico and earlier periods as needed, but is focused on the final years of Trotsky’s life. Trotsky’s personality and behavior are made very clear in the narrative: socially difficult, harsh to those closest to him, dogmatic, committed, egoistic, and courageous. (Patenaude provides details of Trotsky’s affair with Frida Kahlo that were unknown to Deutscher at the time of writing The Prophet Outcast: Trotsky 1929-1940. Deutscher doubts the existence of the affair, whereas Patenaude provides the evidence.)

So thousands of pages have been written, but we still don’t really have a clear answer to the question, “Who was Leon Trotsky?”. The Service biography appears to be thoroughly discredited for the most basic faults a historian can possess: lack of attention to the historical facts, and bringing an axe to grind to the subject matter. The Deutscher biography is less about the person than the actions he took. And the controversies about Trotsky persist.

Here is a fascinating discussion with Christopher Hitchens and Robert Service about Trotsky’s life and impact.

(There are many other reviews of Service’s book, and some are more favorable and some even more negative. Here is a detailed discussion by Paul Le Blanc in the International Journal of Socialist Renewal (link), and here is a review by philosopher John Gray in Literary Review (link). Baruch Knei-Paz’s The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky is a generally respected treatment of Trotsky’s thought as an organized system.)

Hempel after 70 years

Carl Hempel published his sole contribution to the philosophy of history in 1942, almost exactly 70 years ago. The article is “The Function of General Laws in History” (link), and it set the stage for several fruitless decades of debate within analytic philosophy about the nature of historical explanation. Hempel argued that all scientific explanation has the same logical structure: a deductive (or probabilistic) derivation of the explanandum from one or more general laws and one or more statements of fact. Explanation, in Hempel’s view, simply is “derivation of the explanandum from general laws.” Here is the opening paragraph of the essay.

It is a rather widely held opinion that history, in contra-distinction to the so-called physical sciences, is concerned with the description of particular events of the past rather than with the search for general laws which might govern those events. As a characterization of the type of problem in which some historians are mainly interested, this view probably can not be denied; as a statement of the theoretical function of general laws in scientific historical research, it is certainly unacceptable. The following considerations are an attempt to substantiate this point by showing in some detail that general laws have quite analogous functions in history and in the natural sciences, that they form an indispensable instrument of historical research, and that they even constitute the common basis of various procedures which are often considered as characteristic of the social in contradistinction to the natural sciences. (35)

And here is the logical structure of such a “covering law” explanation, according to Hempel:

(1) a set of statements asserting the occurrence of certain events C1, . . . C, at certain times and places,
(2) a set of universal hypotheses, such that
(a) the statements of both groups are reasonably well confirmed by empirical evidence,
(b) from the two groups of statements the sentence asserting the occurrence of event E can be logically deduced. (36)

He is emphatic, moreover, in insisting that valid explanations in history must have this form:

We have tried to show that in history no less than in any other branch of empirical inquiry, scientific explanation can be achieved only by means of suitable general hypotheses, or by theories, which are bodies of systematically related hypotheses. (44)

Hempel concedes the point that few existing historical explanations actually look like this, with explicit law statements embedded in a deductive argument; but he argues that this shows only that existing explanations are elliptical, incomplete, or invalid. And often, he finds, what is offered as a historical explanation is in fact no more than an “explanation sketch” (42), with placeholders for the general laws.

What kinds of general laws does Hempel think that historians have in the back of their minds when they offer elliptical explanations? He refers to regularities of individual or social psychology (40), regularities of collective behavior (“groups migrate to regions which offer better living conditions”), or at the macro level, regularities linking growing discontent to the outbreak of revolution (41). Further:

Many of the universal hypotheses underlying historical explanation, for instance, would commonly be classified as psychological, economical, sociological, and partly perhaps as historical laws; in addition, historical research has frequently to resort to general laws established in physics, chemistry, and biology. (47)

This set of assumptions leads to big trouble for historical explanation if we accept Hempel’s account, however, because it is hard to think of a real historical research question where there might be a set of social or individual regularities sufficient to deductively entail the outcome. Bluntly, the social and behavioral sciences have never produced theories of individual or collective behavior that issue in statements of general laws that could be the foundation for a covering law explanation. And given that social phenomena are formed by actors with a range of features of agency and decision-making, we have very good reason to think that this lack of regularities is inherent in the social world. The social world is simply not governed by a set of social or individual laws. Let’s look at that point at several levels.

Individuals. The social sciences provide a good basis for advancing theories of agency, which in turn support certain generalizations about action. For example: People act out of self interest. People act morally. People pay attention to the example of others. People care about their families and friends. People follow charismatic leaders. People follow the precepts of their religious beliefs. People are emotional and short-sighted. People make decisions based on specific heuristics and rules-of-thumb. Each of these statements takes the form of a generalization. And each is true — of some delimited groups of agents some of the time. But there is no generalization about agency that is true of all agents all the time. Rational choice theory attempts to provide a single theory of agency and decision making that replaces all of these variant grounds of action. But rational choice theory has proven notoriously unsuccessful as a foundation for explanation of a large and complex event — war, revolution, economic crisis. 

Groups. Here too we can identify some partial regularities: Groups tend to coalesce in action when they have prominent shared characteristics.  Groups are more prone to panic than individuals. Groups tend to fail to accomplish collective purposes. Groups are hyper-sensitive to racial and ethnic markers.  And so forth. It is evident that these are partial, tendential, exception-laden, and inexact; not at all like the generalizations that characterize metals, liquids, or proteins.

Organizations and institutions. What about mid-level social arrangements like labor unions, congregations, and terrorist cells? It’s not that there aren’t any generalizations to be had concerning items at this level; it is that there are too many, and they are highly contingent, conditioned, and contradictory. Certain types of organization are more prone to accidents than others. This is true; but we have more confidence in our analysis of the most important features of the high-safety organization than we have in the corresponding generalization.  So there isn’t a stockpile of laws that might be produced to apply to a social situation and then turn the crank and derive the deductive consequences. 

Finally, what about large-scale events and structures — wars, revolutions, civil conflict? Here too there are some generalizations that social scientists have asserted. For example: Democracies don’t go to war with each other. War is made more likely when two powers have conflicts of interest over important resources. Wars create propaganda.  Revolutions don’t happen when the general population is satisfied. But generalizations about these sorts of social entities too are bounded and unreliable. They are conditional, we recognize immediately that they have exceptions, and they don’t permit prediction.

So the strong, governing generalizations that would be needed for a covering law explanation do not exist. As I argued a number of years ago, social regularities are phenomenal, not governing (link); they reflect characteristics of the actors rather than governing the behavior of the ensembles.  Does this mean that historical explanation is impossible?  No.  But we need to turn our attention from regularities to causal mechanisms and powers in order to see what a good historical explanation looks like.  A good historical explanation identifies a number of independent mechanisms and processes that are at work in a particular circumstance, and then demonstrates how these mechanisms, and the actions of the actors involved, lead to the outcome.

Doug McAdam, Sidney Tarrow, and Chuck Tilly advanced a boldly different approach to analyzing and explaining complex historical phenomena, with special application to social contention.  They rejected the idea that there might be “laws” of revolution, civil unrest, or ethnic cleansing. They argued instead that there are a number of recurring “social mechanisms” of contention that can be identified in many instances of contention, and whose influences can be traced out to result in the observed outcomes.  Here is how McAdam, Tarrow and Tilly proceed in Dynamics of Contention.

We begin with a question: What led normally accepting accepting African-Americans both in Montgomery and throughout the South to risk their livelihoods and their lives in support of civil rights? Recall from Chapter I that in the “classical social movement agenda” the following factors come into play:

  • Social change processes initiate a process of change and trigger changes in the political, cultural, and economic environments.
  • Political opportunities and constraints confront a given challenger. Though challengers habitually face resource deficits and are excluded from routine decision making, the political environment at any time is not immutable; the political opportunities for a challenger to engage in successful collective action vary over time. These variations shape the ebb and flow of a movement’s activity.
  • Forms of organization (informal as well as formal) offer insurgents sites for initial mobilization at the time opportunities present themselves and condition their capacity to exploit their new resources. Despite some evidence to the contrary (Piven and Cloward 1977), a large body of evidence finds organizational strength correlated with challengers’ ability to gain access and win concessions (Gamson 1990).
  • Framing, a collective process of interpretation, attribution, and social construction, mediates between opportunity and action. At a minimum, people must both feel aggrieved at some aspect of their lives and optimistic that acting collectively can redress the problem (Snow, et al. 1986; Snow and Benford 1988). Movements frame specific grievances within general collective action frames which dignify claims, connect them to others, and help to produce a collective identity among claimants.
  • Repertoires of contention offer the means by which people engage in contentious collective action. These forms are not neutral, continuous, or universally accessible; they constitute a resource that actors can use on behalf of their claims (Traugott, et al. 1995). The use of transgressive forms offers the advantages of surprise, uncertainty, and novelty, but contained forms of contention have the advantage of being accepted, familiar, and relatively easy to employ by claimants without special resources or willingness to incur costs and take great risks.

That classical agenda made three enduring contributions to the study of social movements. First, it made strong claims regarding the close connection between routine and contentious politics, helping to reframe the study of social movements as the proper province of both sociology and political science. Second, calling attention to the role of “mobilizing structures,” it represented a powerful challenge to the stress on social disorganization and breakdown in the older collective behavior paradigm. Third, it produced a credible picture of mobilization into social movements that was supported by a good deal of empirical evidence correlating the factors outlined above with increases in mobilization.

There are low-level generalizations offered throughout this series of statements. But all those generalizations are soft and exception-laden.  What MTT are interested in doing when they attempt to explain what they call “episodes of contention” is rather to identify the occurrence and interaction of a number of common mechanisms of contention.  And in fact, they explicitly repudiate the covering law model:

Our emphasis on recurring mechanisms and processes does not mean that we intend to pour all forms of contention into the same great mold, subjecting them to universal laws of contention and flattening them into a single two-dimensional caricature. On the contrary, we examine partial parallels in order to find widely operating explanatory mechanisms that combine differently and therefore produce different outcomes in one setting or another. To discover that third parties influence both strikes and ethnic mobilization by no means amounts to showing that the origins, trajectories, and outcomes of strikes and ethnic mobilization are the same, any more than identifying similarities in memory processes of mice and men proves mice and men to be identical in all regards. To discover mechanisms of competition and radicalization in both the French Revolution and in the South African freedom movement is not to say that the Jacobins and the African National Congress are the same. We pursue partial parallels in search of mechanisms that drive contention in different directions. Only then, and in Part III, do we examine how mechanisms combine in robust political processes.

Sixty years after Hempel’s classic article, the covering law theory is now generally regarded as a fundamentally wrong-headed way of thinking about historical (and social) explanation.  Logical positivism is not a convenient lens through which to examine the social and historical sciences.  There is too much contingency in the social world. Rather than being the result of law-governed processes, social outcomes proceed from the contingent and historically variable features of the actors who make them.  So the attention of many people interested in specifying the nature of historical and social explanation has focused on social mechanisms constituted and driven by common features of agency.

(Renate Mayntz’s discussion of causal mechanisms represents one of the best current treatments of the subject; link.)