8 March 2013
In January 2008, I wrote on this blog that the approach I intended to adopt for my PhD research was to ‘Follow the People’. This, I believed, would be the best way of understanding what the British aimed to achieve in occupied Germany after the war, and why, at a time when official policy was unclear or seemed inappropriate for the conditions they found on the ground.
In September 2009 I wrote another post, on History and Biography, in which I outlined some of the advantages of a biographical approach, after reading the excellent collection of articles edited by Volker Berghahn and Simone Lässig, Biography between Structure and Agency.
I’ve now read an interesting article by Krista Cowman, on Collective Biography as a research method for historians, which provides further support for anyone considering this type of approach to their research. Collective biography, she wrote, has a long tradition, from classical and medieval collections of ‘lives’, to more recent social historians researching those ‘marginal to the historical mainstream.’ Despite still being seen by some historians as a ‘lightweight’ method, suitable for studies of politicians and pop stars but not for serious academic history, many historians were now, she added, ‘rediscovering an interest in individuals and their subjective experiences’. Collective biography was, she concluded, an ‘invaluable way of attempting to recover past experiences as well as of suggesting ways in which this was shaped by the broader structures in which it was situated.’
The distinguished historian and Professor at University College London, Mary Fulbrook, has also used a biographical approach, which she called ‘history from within’, in her latest book Dissonant Lives. In what appeared to me to be an excellent description of a biographical approach to writing history, she described her book as ‘concerned with the ways in which Germans of different ages and life stages variously lived through and across the major historical ruptures [of the twentieth] century … It attempts to combine an exploration of the subjective perceptions and lived experiences of succeeding generations with an analysis of changing historical structures and developments.’
In my case, studying the British in Occupied Germany between 1945 and 1948, I originally decided to adopt a biographical approach for practical reasons, as this seemed the only way I could make sense of a mass of data in the archives. I thought I could ‘follow the people’ in the same way as Theseus used Ariadne’s ball of thread to trace a path and escape from the labyrinth after killing the Minotaur. This has worked well as I tracked the twelve people I research through the archives, learning about what each of them did in Germany and why, and relating their actions to their family background and previous experience. Sometimes I was able to discover previously unknown connections between them and what they thought of each other.
I found a biographical approach helped me to understand some of the apparent contradictions in British policy. As well as explaining diversity, it also revealed what I considered to be the fundamental aims of the occupation. Once the differences between individuals were stripped away, it was possible to identify the key principles they all agreed on.
There are, of course, disadvantages as well as advantages to a biographical approach. It is good at explaining motivation, aims and intentions, and how these changed within a short period of time, but less able to explain how policies were played out in practice. As my supervisor said about one of my draft chapters, on Harold Ingrams and British attempts to reform local government in Germany, ‘Well, it is not really about local government, it is about what the British person in charge thought he was doing at the time, sometimes with hindsight.’ That was a fair comment. A focus on personal lives can make it difficult to examine any one theme or subject comprehensively over an extended period of time.
Because much of the source material was subjective, and some created with hindsight, evidence I obtained from the archives, and from reading personal papers, memoirs and autobiographies, had to be carefully validated, cross referenced, checked for consistency with other sources, and placed within its historical context. Nevertheless I would still claim that a biographical approach can offer distinct advantages for studying a relatively short period when policies and attitudes changed rapidly. It can be preferable to a structural, thematic or chronological approach, when dealing with a subject, like the British Military Government of Germany, that was essentially temporary in nature, with no consistent organisation or structure, even over the short three years of my study.
On a few occasions I could claim that specific outcomes were due to the deliberate decisions of individuals. For example, the decision by one young British officer, John Chaloner, to create the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, probably had more influence on the future of the West German media than anything else the British did during the occupation.
More generally, a biographical approach does not necessarily imply a belief in human agency, as opposed to a more deterministic view of history governed by long term social, economic or cultural structures and processes. Studying the subjective experiences of individuals often reveals the limitations and constraints which prevented them from achieving what they intended. A collective biography can be a good method for examining the aims, intentions and actions of individuals, but it can also help us understand the outcomes of their actions, and the deeper structures which characterised the society in which they lived.
Krista Cowman, ‘Collective Biography’, in Simon Gunn and Lucy Faire (eds), Research Methods for History (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2012), pp83-100
Mary Fulbrook, Dissonant Lives: Generations and violence through the German dictatorships (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011)
Volker R. Berghahn and Simone Lässig (eds), Biography between Structure and Agency: Central European Lives in International Historiography (New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2008)