Report from the panel at the Chicago Meeting of the Social Science History Association

By Uwe Spiekermann

December 2, 2013

The Immigrant Entrepreneurship project’s use of biography as its method of analysis has inspired an interest in further theoretical and methodological reflection on the strengths and weaknesses of the genre. Following many internal discussions, the project invited scholars from Germany and the U.S. to discuss “The Challenges of Biography” at the 38thAnnual Meeting of the Social Science History Association in Chicago, November 21–24, 2013.

Planned by Clelia Caruso and Kelly McCullough, and organized and chaired by Atiba Pertilla, the panel consists of four presentations and a comment:

Volker Depkat (University of Regensburg), speaking on “The Challenges of Biography: European-American Reflections,” gave a nuanced and concise overview on the current standing of biographical research in each academic culture. For him, biography is back in good standing after a long period of being considered outdated. This has come about thanks to the broad options the biography offers as a perspective on the world, a method of historical research, a form of literature, and a popular culture phenomenon. During its original heyday,  under historicism, it was mostly under-theorized, set aside during the rise and dominance of social history in the 1960/70s, but now is benefitting from the complex and self-reflective questions resulting from the cultural turn in recent decades. Depkat noted the differences between the more reluctant stance of German academics towards biography and its more pluralistic acceptance by their U.S. counterparts. He finished with describing some core challenges of the biography. First, life has to be positioned in a triangle of the known facts of an individual life, its narrative interpretation by an observer, and the autobiographical subjectity of a person’s life. Second, the multiple functions and uses of biographies have to be kept in mind. Third, the genre of biography must be understood as a genre that social groups in both the past and present have used to “reach an understanding about who they are and who they want to be.”

Clifton Hood (Hobart and William Smith Colleges, New York) used biographical data to examine the coherence and transformation of New York City’s upper class. In his talk “Counting Who Counts: Method and Findings of a Statistical Analysis of Economic Elites in the New York Region, 1947” he focused on the results and the methodological challenges of SPSS-based analysis, which he used for his current book project Making and Unmaking New York: The Rise and Fall of the City’s Economic Elites 1754 to the Present. He used the Who’s Who in New York to identify 2,458 men and women and explored their lives with a 74-item survey form. They were a privileged group, predominantly college graduates, scattered across a number of residential areas. While the Upper East Side remained a principal place of residence, the elite also located in three different corners of the metropolitan area – in the north (Westchester County and Fairfield County), the west (New Jersey) and the east (Long Island). Even in these suburbs, the elites were still separated from other groups. Analyzing the large number of clubs, Hood showed that elites created a large number of localized social environments to forge smaller and more intimate communities. This suburbanization of elites started much earlier in New York than in other U.S. metropolitan areas. By examining the dispersal of this elite using the methodology of group biography, it is possible to trace how the emerging corporate elite created a social structure that “muddied the boundaries between it and the middle class,” paving the way for further transformation in the postwar era. 

Susie Pak (St. John’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, New York) reported on “Writing Biography as a History of Networks: J.P. Morgan and Jacob H. Schiff,” offering a component from her innovative 2013 book Gentlemen Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan. Analyzing the lives of both Pierpont Morgan and his son Jack as part of a larger network of people, places, and institutions, is a challenge to the traditional biography focusing only on one life. For Pak this approach results from private bankers’ unlimited financial liability, which made mutual trust and reputation core elements of their business model. The community monitored the activities of the leading houses and the character of their partners. This moral code enabled sustained business relations among firms in a world divided along ethno-religious lines. Examining the different residential patterns and the syndicates of the houses of Morgan (native-born American Protestants) and Kuhn, Loeb & Co. (German-Jewish immigrant entrepreneurs), Pak convincingly questioned the traditional idea that the worlds of bankers were both homogenous and collusive.

Finally, Levke Harders (University of Bielefeld) spoke on “Legitimizing Biography: Critical Approaches to Biographical Research.” Referring to her earlier research on the life of scholar Helene Hermann, she noted that many different biographical frameworks could be applied to a single life. Based on similar examples, feminist and post-modern research has concentrated more precisely on the genre of biography and the chances for a more pluralistic idea of the reconstructed past. The choice of subjects is crucial for decentering history, for including non-hegemonical groups, and for broadening our ideas of the past. New biographies not only offer alternatives to heroic stories and to the predominance of the political sphere, they also urge historians to call on different sources and to think more closely about who is considered worthy of inclusion or exclusion from the genre of biography. They raise core questions of legitimacy and enable – especially when presented not only in a purely textual form – deeper reflection on the unthinkable and the unsayable.

In his comment, the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project’s general editor Uwe Spiekermann (GHI) offered a different historiography of biographical research, emphasizing the social sciences and the detailed methodological research of the 1920s and 1930s. He underlined the core problem of subjectivity, which not only requires intense self-reflexivity by biographers but leads to more general questions on the re-construction work of historians. Focusing on the individual papers, Spiekermann pleaded for a reintegration of an earlier tradition of regional studies and business historiography into the historiography of biographical research and was skeptical of the idea of clear-cut differences in academic cultures in Germany and the U.S. (Depkat). He asked whether the high geographic mobility of the U.S. elite undercut the usefulness of statistical analysis and whether there was really a coherent ideology in these circles (Hood). Spiekermann also thought about different – and easier – explanations for the relationship between gentleman bankers (for instance their common interest in arts and Bildung) and noted the contrast with other parts of the U.S., such as the West Coast, where Protestant and German-Jewish milieus were closely intertwined (Pak). Finally, the commentator warned that an activist approach to give agency to “marginalized lives” should not be mixed with scholarship. He ended with questions on the limits of biographies and biographical research (Harders).

A publication of the contributions is planned that will include more systematic reflection on the biographical approach used by the Immigrant Entrepreneurship project, and ideas for using the biographer’s techniques in the teaching process.