Collective Biography Research Paper

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Prosopography, or collective biography, has developed considerably since the 1960s, expanding in the fields of modern and contemporary history, after the tool was invented and applied primarily in ancient and medieval history. The method’s principle is simple: defining a population on the basis of one or several criteria and designing a relevant biographical questionnaire containing a range of variables or criteria which serve to describe it in terms of social, private, public and/or cultural, ideological or political dynamics, depending on the population under scrutiny and the questionnaire that is being used. In the words of Lawrence Stone: ‘Prosopography is the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives (Stone 1971, p. 46) Once the documentation has been compiled, which is the most time-consuming aspect of the work, the data can be evaluated with the help of a number of techniques, both quantitative and qualitative, including manual counting or computerized processing, statistical tables or factor analyses, depending on the scope and sophistication of the questionnaire and the sample.

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To appreciate the success of this method and demonstrate its extension to different branches of history, several historiographic references are cited in Sect. 1. To gain insight into its merits and limitations, it is necessary to analyze a few examples of its application, taken primarily from recent periods see Sect. 2 where other social history methods can be used, permitting us to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of both alternatives. An attempt is made to define the heretofore untapped potential of the method in the area of comparative studies in Sect. 3. This possibility has been the least explored to date.

1. Historiographic References

Ancient history scholars claim to be the fathers of prosopography (Chastagnol 1970, Nicolet 1970). The term was conspicuously used in the modern sense by T. Mommsen in the announcement of the Prosopographia Imperii Romani, published in 1897 (Groag and Stein 1897, Lalouette 1999). This serial was imitated for other periods of ancient history throughout the twentieth century, both in collective works and in individual monographs. Prime examples are The Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire by A. H. M. Jones and J. R. Martindale (1971–92), and Prosopographie chretienne du Bas-Empire, of which two volumes have appeared, edited by Andre Mandouze (1982) and Charles Pietri and Luce Pietri (1982). Countless monographs contain prosopographies of elites of antiquity. One of the earliest is Jean Kirchner’s Prosopographia attica (1901), followed by Paul Poralla’s 1913 work on the Lacedaemonians and the classics by Friedrich Munzer (1920), Ronald Syme (1939) and Claude Nicolet (1966), etc. The application of prosopography to medieval times started to develop between the world wars. Studies focus on administrative personnel and the entourage of the sovereigns of the principal Western European states. Since the 1960s, the body of literature has became quite copious, as various surveys (Bulst 1986, Griffiths 1986) reveal. The same goes for modern history, where the initiator was Sir Lewis Namier (1929, 1930), who studied English political elites. His works inaugurated an ongoing series of studies on the House of Commons from the Middle Ages to 1832 (Cruickshanks 1986). French and Italian investigation has concentrated on diverse selections of officials taken from public administration and the judiciary as well as on ecclesiastical, intellectual, financial and commercial elites (see Charle et al. 1980, Nagle 1986).

In the area of contemporary history, work began during the second half of the 1960s. Most of it was inspired by the perspective on elites introduced by sociologists, particularly American, influenced by the theses of Pareto and Mosca beginning in the 1950s. In France, one of the issues that stimulated research of this kind was the debate on the French Revolution opened by the theses of F. Furet and D. Richet (Richet 1969, discussed by Vovelle 1974), proposing an alternative to the Marxist interpretation then dominant in France, founded on prosopographic study of elites before and after the upheaval. This is the background of the investigation by L. Bergeron and G. Chaussinand-Nogaret on notables of the Napoleonic Era (1979). Similar works on prominent figures of the nineteenth century and the bourgeoisie since the 1960s have relied on the prosopographic method. This approach was inspired by Ernest Labrousse (Tudesq 1964) (for an overall survey, see Charle 1992). French sociology of education, influenced by the works of Pierre Bourdieu (Bourdieu and Passeron 1970, Bourdieu 1989), has also been the source of numerous intellectual and academic prosopographies (Karady 1972, 1973). In Britain, Germany, and the USA and more recently in Italy, Spain, and Switzerland, collective biographies of political, economic, religious, intellectual, artistic, and militant elites have proliferated. They are an outgrowth of great national historiographic debates on subjects such as the foundation of political rifts in the British parliament, the evolution and function of English nobility, the distinguishing characteristics of German, Swiss, and Italian bourgeoisies (Kocka and Frevert 1988, Tanner 1990, Augustine 1994, Malatesta 1995), the formation and reproduction of American elites (Baltzell 1958, Jeher 1973), and so on. In contemporary history, the method has also been applied to larger groups than elites, which are the sole focus of prosopography in the spheres of ancient, medieval and modern history because records on other segments of the population are not available. The history of women, the middle classes, lower classes and even marginals have also availed themselves of collective biography in recent decades thanks to abundant printed sources, oral history and new assessments of large biographic files which already existed (Dreyfus et al. 1996, Omnes 1997).

2. Merits And Limitations

The proliferation of studies in contemporary history and historical sociology using the prosopographic method is due to intellectual trends and techniques developed since the 1970s. The concomitant decline of global statistical methods and of the intellectual impact of Marxism, which featured social classes with huge populations, and the desire, typical of societies focused more and more on the individual, to come to grips with individual experience and the diversity of social patterns have inclined historians of recent times to emphasize social microhistory, which gives priority to prosopography or collective biography. Finally, the widespread advance of computerization has facilitated complex processing of bigger and bigger databases (Stone 1971, Millet 1985). Whereas in former times the lack of mass documentation required patient gathering of data on the individual level before any collective generalizations could be made, in recent periods resorting to prosopography has been construed as a change of perspective from traditional social history based on serial documentation.

Thanks to this technique, since the 1970s historians have increasingly set their sights on gaining intimate knowledge of small problem-related constituencies. Thus, S. W. Serman’s study of officers of the Second Republic and the Second Empire traced the longlasting confrontation in nineteenth century France between the aristocratic ideal and the rising democratic tide (Serman 1978). Investigations of elites (high-ranking personalities of the July Monarchy (Tudesq 1964, Girard et al. 1976), the business leaders of the Second Empire (Plessis 1985, Barjot et al. 1991–1999), ruling circles of the Third Republic (Estebe 1982, Charle 1987), and deputies to the national assemblies in Paris and Frankfurt in 1848–49 (Best 1990)) were attempts to understand the evolution of models of reproduction dominant in one regime toward those prevailing in other systems, the disparity between myths justifying the social order and sociological mechanisms, the possible social impact of political revolutions, reasons for the unique French road to industrialization, the peculiar German path to an incomplete parliamentary system, and the relations between English entrepreneurs and previously dominant elites (Berghoff 1991). In short, these collective biographies allow us to revamp our answers to some major questions as well as to conduct an in-depth reassessment of cherished tenets of social history without confining ourselves to the preconceived structure of serial and quantifiable sources. In these new approaches, groups define themselves with reference to relational characteristics or their reciprocal images or even their capacity to impose an image of themselves on others and on the majority of their members. The notion of construction of the object thus becomes decisive in this microhistory based on collective biographies.

This is precisely the point which since 1971 has triggered premature criticism of prosopography, summed up by Lawrence Stone with reference to modern history studies inspired by Sir Lewis Namier: the biases of official sources on which the biographies rely lead to a partial view of reality, the delimitation of populations is largely arbitrary, and criteria applied for the biographies are often restrictive. All this contributes to an elitist, cynical and conformist perspective on the spheres of leadership and their relations with society at large (Stone 1971). These criticisms are not valid unless the historians confuse the method with its objective and forget that they can never consider more than a fraction of reality as determined by the sources which they select and the limitations of their biographical questionnaires. They are less likely to fall into these traps for recent periods, where the findings of collective biographies can be confronted with other sources, where partial prosopographies can be compared and merged, and where the diversity of groups readily available for investigation goes well beyond the scope of the elites to which earlier studies were confined.

The prosopographical historian navigates permanently between two reefs: the undefined biography of individuals (with the risk of losing sight of the collective dimension) and the opposite: the expansion of prolific samples to the scale of the entire society (with the risk of reducing the questionnaire to its lowest common denominator). To escape from this dilemma, collective investigation by means of large research teams, adopting common principles, has been applied with varying success in different countries. Examples include the ongoing study of the British House of Commons (Namier and Brooke 1964), the study of mayors in France (Agulhon et al. 1986), the investigation of members of parliament of the French Third Republic (Corbin and Mayeur 1995), the collective biographies of legislators by the Zentrum fur Historische Sozialforschung in Cologne (Schroder et al. 2000, Best and Cotta 2000). These surveys require a long-term institutional financial commitment, which has become more and more difficult to find since profitability criteria were introduced in academic research. They also assume long-term involvement of loyal research personnel, which is less and less compatible with normal levels of staff turnover. This is why the principle of coordinated monographs, being more flexible and decentralized, appears to be more realistic in the contemporary university environment. It also overcomes the need to sacrifice the originality of each individual’s work in the anonymity of a hierarchic endeavor. However, to avoid the risk of dissipation or non-comparability of partial results, it posits a minimum of harmonization and entails meetings to fine-tune the common questionnaires, coding systems and evaluations. In exploiting collective biography, one is not only forced to gauge the conditions of sample validity. One must also recognize the limits of the categories applied a priori to the data. Since the responses to the questions which are included involve social stakes, the process of interpretation of prosopographic data is characterized, more so than in other methods, by historians who consciously or unconsciously put their mark on the results at all stages of the study: sampling, data gathering, coding, and processing.

3. Toward Comparative Prosopography

In France and increasingly in most other developed countries, nearly all groups that lend themselves to collective biography have been adopted by a biographer: aristocracies, dignitaries, urban bourgeoisies, administrative elites, financial, commercial and entrepreneurial elites, intellectual and university elites, artists, middle-class professionals (physicians, jurists, journalists, professors), students, officeholders at all levels, labor leaders and militant feminists, even marginals, etc. Is a decline of the method of collective biography imminent? Will it be stopped in the name of the unyielding law of diminishing returns and as a result of the resurgence of historiographic topics which are less amenable to this approach (cultural history, history of memory, history of collective sensibilities)? Three considerations allow us to reject this premature diagnosis of a decline in the advantages of a method which has been so fruitful in the area of recent social history.

First, apart from elites, other social groups which are beginning to revise their social history thanks to insiders’ collective biographies (middle classes and, increasingly, lower classes, not only through the eyes of their militant elites, but also in the form of life stories of privileged witnesses) (Ozouf et al. 1992, Pudal 1991, Gribaudi 1987) are far from being thoroughly investigated. Application of the method to these new fields requires new reflection on the composition of samples (which can no longer be exhaustive) and on the relations between individual paths and morphology: the internal diversity of the configurations is directly proportional to the size of the target population. This again raises the issue of sample representativeness, which had disappeared when investigators employing prosopography of elites resorted to exhaustive polls. All these groups are transitory, while elites, by definition at the top of the heap, are target groups; hence characteristics of the individuals of which such groups are composed cannot be viewed in isolation, but must be understood as vectors of multiple strategies.

Second, European historiographers are acquainted with the adjustments required to enable them to merge complementary studies to arrive at a homogeneous scrutiny of comparable groups from different societies. Thus, the comparative research coordinated by Jurgen Kocka on European bourgeoisies has demonstrated that not all of the difficulties in analyzing this group at an international level are due to the unequal advancement of studies; above all they arise from the collateral persistence of divergent investigations— some inspired by classical methods of social history, particularly in Germanic and Anglo-Saxon countries, others, particularly in France, primarily involving research based on collective biographies, which result in different approaches to different problems, and at times to inappropriate comparisons (Kocka and Frevert 1988, Charle 1990).

Collective biography, therefore, still has a nearly unexploited field at its disposal: that of comparative prosopography. The principal, eternal objection to comparative historical study is the necessity, given the abundance of material, to conduct secondhand research, using monographs prepared by other scholars, with the compounded risks of hasty generalization of conclusions taken out of their unique context and of the permanent lack of correspondence in the compared data, particularly in social history, on account of the recurring coding problem. Despite these obstacles, German researchers have already forged ahead, and certain French historians and specialists in England have followed suit since the 1990s (Best 1990, Berghoff and Moller 1994, Charle 1994, Siegrist 1995, Cassis 1997, Ruggiu 1997). Collective biography is an extraordinarily demanding methodology in terms of research time and rigorous organization of data. Comparative prosopography multiplies the time it takes to assemble the data by at least two—for two countries—or more, if one wants to compare a greater number of cases. The problem is compounded by the extra time needed to design the research and evaluate the data. In order to test the initial hypothesis of feasibility and fruitfulness of a comparative project, it is convenient to start in a domain where one of the two countries involved already has a critical mass of usable data allowing researchers to define an analogous scope of investigation in the other selected country, which must possess a comparable, evident interest in the chosen elite. This explains the fact that comparative prosopographies deal primarily with the bestdocumented and most frequently studied elites (in big business, politics, higher education and high society), as in the cases mentioned previously. Collective biographies at a national level have permitted us to better understand the internal rifts in the various groups which have been studied as well as their social and generational dynamics. In certain favorable cases, it has been possible to relate these rifts to political, ideological or religious stances or apply them to better understand certain failures or successes. Comparative prosopography should allow us to go even further in this interpretive analysis by relativizing correlations which were taken for granted in a given national or social setting. They should account for common trends which transcend borders and the peculiarities of one moment in time, of one milieu or one nation. For instance, the generally accepted notion that the expansion of higher education translates into an opening of university teaching positions to a wider segment of society is disproved if one compares the collective biographies of the professors of the University of Berlin (Arts and Sciences) with their counterparts at the Sorbonne at the turn of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The major divergence accounts for the misunderstandings between the two academic communities even when they attempt to cooperate, and goes a long way toward explaining their widely varying relations with other elites during political crises (Charle 1994).

The goal of comparative prosopography, as with any kind of prosopography, is to employ collective biographies to portray the real social Behavior of the institutions or the milieus in which the individual subjects of the study interact (Genet and Lottes 1996). The main danger in applying comparative prosopography is therefore, as with many erudite ventures, that one will discover nothing but well-established or generally acknowledged truths in each country concerned. One usually arrives at this impasse or this disappointing result when one deals with samples that are too vast to lend themselves to controlled comparisons which would allow the study to qualify any dominant feature or put it into perspective. In light of this danger it is essential to make a particularly judicious choice of variables to be compared. We face a series of common methodological issues which transcend historical periods. Their resolution would allow us to launch a wider debate on the possible foundations of a comparative sociocultural history of European society.


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