Emory History Department Newsletter-May 2007

Reflections on Writing a Social History
William Beik

I have planned for a long time to write a social history of early modern France from 1400 to 1800. I wanted to produce, not a textbook survey, but an original synthesis that would use descriptive examples to bring the period to life and at the same time convey an understanding of how the system worked – how the parts fitted together – putting emphasis on its distinctive characteristics rather than tracing the roots of modernity.  A further goal would be to incorporate the insights produced by my generation of creative social historians, many of whose studies lie buried in library stacks. Their kind of social history is very much out of fashion. Between the sixties and the eighties closely-focused monographs on particular regions, classes, trades, social experiences, and cultural expressions proliferated, based on the unspoken assumption that a detailed study of the parts would gradually reveal a picture of the whole. But this implied that there was a knowable whole, a system into which the parts could fit. Structural theories, or some might call them meta-narratives, have been deeply criticized as teleological discourses that impose the historian’s assumptions on an unknowable past reality. Still, the very critics of social history ground their understanding on a knowledge base that assumes the findings of social historians. If a new generation loses touch with that base, we will be left with multiple discourses floating in thin air.

This year I was awarded a Senior Fellowship at Emory’s Center for Humanistic Discourse. Fellows get an office in the Center, where they work on their projects fulltime, undisturbed except for weekly lunches and special events. What an opportunity! I would finally have time to read the monographs and articles I had collected over many years and write the projected social history. I am eternally grateful to the CHI for providing this time. I have not finished the writing, but I have completed the bulk of it, and in the process I have learned some lessons about writing historical synthesis.

My first abandoned illusion was that I could read up on the field. I did read many important books, but the literature is so vast that it is impossible to cover even the most important studies in one lifetime. After all, social history encompasses all of lived reality. Strict choices had to be made. I soon realized that the key to success lay in the outline. It was necessary to develop a distinctive grouping of topics. When you abandon the obvious categories – rural life, urban life, court life, family, gender, etc. – interesting connections emerge. The hardest choice is what to leave out. Adding a section on literacy means squeezing out a section on criminality or childhood.  Nor is there room for discussing alternative interpretations. The author must speak with absolute authority and present a strong, unified point of view, but without denying alternative readings. A meaningful synthesis is possible and eminently desirable, but any synthesis will always be constructed out of conscious choices. There can always be alternative constructions. But any synthesis will necessarily require its author to assume some larger conception of the whole into which the parts can be fitted.

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