Modern Europe Journal: Biography and Social History

Continuing our series of student reflections written in HIS354 Modern Europe, today we have History/Philosophy major Anders Larson (’13) writing on the importance (and challenges) of integrating biographies into the social history of European industrialization.

Biographies are very narrative in their make-up and by their very nature. They tell the story of someone’s life. They often times provide good insight into the mind of the person who is the subject of the work, as well as a close look at those who are near to and interact with that person. If one is looking at a social history of the Industrial Revolution, it is of the utmost importance that the many and varying voices be heard. Because the lower classes of “unimportant people” will obviously not be the kinds of stories that make it into the spotlight of remembrance, that is the first place that one should look. The worker of the Industrial Revolution and those that lived as ordinary people trying to get by and make a life are the ones whose voices need hearing. They are the only ones that can provide any idea of what life was truly like.

In addition to these stories of the lower, working classes, it is also important to include the stories of those who were in charge of these factories. The middle or upper classes must not be excluded. Even though they are usually the ones who are able to record their lives more completely—and are thus remembered—if we tip the scale too far toward the side of the lower classes, it may result in a near tyranny of the minority voice, even though it hasn’t been heard before.  Essentially, there needs to be as much of equilibrium as possible where as many stories are looked at as can be managed. This, in and of itself, will provide interesting views into the lives of people as they not only lived their own lives, but as they interacted with one another and those of differing classes.

Of course, these kinds of biographies are the exact stories that are the hardest to find. Things often times were not as well recorded when people’s lives consisted of working at the factory for countless hours everyday. There wasn’t much time to do anything else. This is why it is much more difficult than in the fields of political history or intellectual history. Those were the people who actually had time to write down their stories, or the impacts of their lives were so great politically that the effects are clearly seen in the political world. But when these smaller stories surface, they can really help to clarify the nitty gritty points of life and help us in the pursuit of understanding what the life of the ordinary person might really be like.

– Anders Larson

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