Workshop: Perspectives on Actors in Social History (March 27-29, 2014)

By Simon Teuscher


Workshop: "Perspectives on Actors in Social History"

The workshop aimed at reinvigorating social history by taking up a challenge that has been too easily avoided or dismissed: the problem of how social historians and their critiques conceptualize actors – understood in the broadest sense of the word that includes the conceptions behind terms such as agents, the self, subjects, or players. Social history as it was developed during the 1960s and 1970s has repeatedly been criticized for operating with over-socialized subjects, for trivializing individuals as agents of class interests, or for reducing their practices to epiphenomena of social structures. The workshop was an attempt to have a systematic look at how different conceptions of actors work as epistemic objects and how they open up and restrict perspectives. We dealt both with explicit theory and conceptualizations of actors that remain implicit or embedded in the practices and the writing of history. Our intention was to reflect on how we can use recent criticism to enrich the toolbox of social history, rather than as a license to give up thorny questions about classes and groups, power and subordination, practices and relationships, production and the social foundations of markets.

Convening this workshop was also an effort to relate my own individual project to broader issues. Simon Teuscher’s Wiko project this year was concerned with how both conceptual and practical dimensions of kinship can be used as a new way of bringing the social into research that relies heavily on examining individual actors. By adding some of his own chair money to the Wiko grant, he was able to invite a comparatively large group of twelve historians. They are specialized in very diverse fields in pre-modern as well as modern, European as well as non-European history and develop their perspectives on actors in social history, starting from their work on topics as diverse as science and literary production, labor, the market, technology, or power, violence, and trauma. Many in this group are committed to a more enduring intellectual engagement with the epistemology of social history. A few Fellows of the Wissenschaftskolleg also participated in the discussions, but overall, I regret that we did not make a stronger effort to integrate Berlin resources into the workshop.

I chose a slightly uncommon format. On the one hand, we had papers by participants who reported about how they conceptualize actors in their own research and about the difficulties this entailed. We also read a couple of texts by participants, and toward the end of the workshop David Sabean conducted an interview with Beshara Doumani about the role of actors and agents in the book he is currently finishing about foundations of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in the Arab world. On the other hand, we wanted to reconsider and rediscover “classics” and after short introductions reserved a lot of time to discuss assigned readings. These included texts by Norbert Elias, Michel de Certeau, Michel Foucault, Mark Bevir, Georg Simmel, Steven Lukes, Pierre Bourdieu, and Bernard Lahire.

This is not the place to summarize the individual interventions. Instead, I would like to point to a few central and recurrent themes of our discussions. Quite generally, we found that it is time to bring Steven Luke’s 1970s criticism of individualism up to the current period and to include more recent phenomena, such as the cult of personality and the stress on agency in large parts of cultural history.

There was a strong interest in conceptualizations of actors that do not assume the individual as a discrete entity, but start from relationships. Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault both provide important models for such an approach, but ultimately operate with what many of us came to criticize as “empty” relationships that are almost entirely defined through constellations of stratification, power, or subordination. In our discussions, we found it more promising for a new social history to bring resources, wealth, and materiality back into the picture by looking at how they mediate relationships. Relationships are often tripartite: not only between someone and someone else, but also about something. While traditional social histories with their strong focus on class tended to discuss material things mainly as capital in its function for social stratification, the concept of mediation allows us to ask about the role of specific material things in the constitution of face-to-face relationships, kinship, family, village communities, etc., all of which participate in constituting actors. To give a few examples:  kinship can be organized through and attain visibility by property that is passed on from one generation to the next; patterns of interaction between patrons and clients depend in part on the resources that are being exchanged; and sociability can be about games or about gathering in particular places, etc. In the chapters of his Philosophy of Money that deal with pre-modern societies, Georg Simmel gives interesting examples of how relationships can be understood in terms of the material things that mediate them.

A number of participants tried to further flesh out the concept of mediation with examples from their own work, showing how both material and immaterial “things” can mediate. Thus, David Sabean recalled the first chapter of his book Power in the Blood. There he dealt with how the Eucharist operated in an early modern village in Germany in mediating relationships among villagers. In his current book project, Beshara Doumani uses the materiality of the property around which families in nineteenth-century Ottoman Syria were organized—and mediated—to explain differences in family organization between different nearby places. He can take this as a point of departure for criticizing essentialist ideas about differences between the Western and the Arab or the pre-modern and the modern family. Simon Teuscher has shown how administrative documents can operate as mediations of relationships of lordship and how they allow for conceptualizations of lordship that could not have been mediated through property and feuds. A particularly complex, but also particularly compelling example is Kath Weston’s discussion of debates about blood transfusion and the industrial production of synthetic blood. Here both the material and the symbolic properties of blood mattered to how it mediated relationships on different levels between family and nation.

We had heated debates about whether a social history approach necessarily had to start from relations. Is there not also considerable potential in departing from individual actors and situations? Some defended the position that concepts of mediation were necessary to conceptualize actors as characterized through practices in the sense of dispositions that last over time and that again stand in a complex relationship to different kinds of social determination. And there were warnings against ascribing too much determination to material things. The problem had been intensively discussed in history of science with regard to tools that do not entirely determine action either, since they can not only be used, but also abused and played with.

Conceptualizing actors through their relationships and relationships through their mediations has one particular advantage: this approach helps to get beyond assumptions about a fundamental difference between traditional and modern actors as is implied in several classic works of social theory. This is certainly also a point on which we would want to depart from the model of Simmel, who assumed that the mediation of things belongs primarily to the pre-modern world, while he introduced a problematic notion of how money liberates people from both things and relationships in the modern world. We agreed that the concept of mediations could work for the modern world, too, although the things that mediate may indeed seem more complex.

The general impression was that the workshop had helped us develop our sensibility for the epistemic problems inherent in “older” forms of social history. We had a very productive exchange about where social history should go. Discussing actors led us several times into the problem of markets, market models, and market participation, all of which are fields in which important innovations in social history are developing. I believe it is a good sign that the workshop will get a follow up in the fall of 2014, dedicated to social history approaches to the market. We are very grateful to the Martha und Otto Fischbeck-Stiftung for having made this possible and to Vera Kempa, who helped us organize with a perfect admixture of professionalism and personal dedication.