- Family, Culture and Society in the Diary of Constantijn Huygens Jr., Secretary to Stadholder-King William of Orange by Rudolf Dekker, and: Theoretical Discussions of Biography: Approaches from History, Microhistory, and Life Writing ed. by Hans Renders and Binne de Haan
The past two decades have seen radical changes in historians’ ideas about egodocuments (life writing), or first-person source material. In a sense the historians’ approach may be said to have been transformed through growing interest in the significance of the subjective element in historical sources.
In simple terms, we may say that there are two main trends in the development of history from the early twentieth century until the present day: firstly, emphasis on conventional history, based largely on accounts of events, institutions, and “important” people. Secondly, the social scientists’ influence on social history, which characterized innovative history in the latter half of the twentieth century. Social historians were of the view that there was some reality, or truth, beyond the events—on which conventional history generally focused—and that it was important to approach that reality. They saw the social system itself, shaped by a determined and systematic development of society, as providing the key to understanding the process of historical progress. For these reasons, social historians turned their attention to facts which recurred in a systematic way. At the same time they looked increasingly to the discipline of social science, which offered the methodological tools and methods to address the tangible and recurrent. In a sense, material reality in all its diversity was the subject of these disciplines in the early days, while cultural and social historians soon turned their attention to other, more subjective themes. Common to the various subjects of study was that they were researched on the terms of quantitative methods: social historians generally focused on groups and larger units.
Knowledge of personal relationships within the family in olden times; what were women’s actual responsibilities; how husbands exerted their power as head of the household; how children were subjected to parental authority and what hopes and desires they cherished for the future: these are all questions that cannot be answered through statistical analysis and hardly through any other use of public records. It is possible, in other words, to explore a certain evolution of “the family” through statistical analysis over a long period, but that offers no chance of understanding personal reasons behind individual decisions in each family. For that, new sources must be sought. [End Page 249]
During the 1980s (or even earlier) social scientists turned their attention to the “life history approach” once again. Their research was squarely based on the foundations laid by the Chicago School earlier in the century. Broadly speaking, the method may be summed up as an attempt to acquire reliable information about the past through carrying out many interviews with people of the same social class or profession, or other groups of that nature. The crucial point is that many social scientists saw a need to respond to the criticism which had been aimed at statistical analysis, as discussed above. That trend had, in due course, an impact on the work of social historians. Many started to look around in search of subjective testimony from people of various backgrounds, and their findings would have a great influence upon developments within the discipline.
European countries and the USA witnessed in the modern period the development of a rich and active ego-document writing tradition. Large numbers of ordinary working men and women of different classes set down records of their lives, using for this purpose different forms of communication. Diaries and autobiographies, to name just two, raise insistent questions among scholars about the general experience and modes of behavior of poor people in general. These sources are often strongly colored by popular ideas...