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BOOK REVIEWS

THE LIFE HISTORY:


HUB OF HISTORY, PSYCHOLOGY, AND SOCIOLOGY
T. L. BRINK
William McKinley Runyan. Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explorations in
Theory and Method. New York: Oxford University Press, 1982. xiii 288 pp. +
$19.95 (cloth)
Daniel Bertaux, ed. Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social
Sciences. Beverly Hills: Sage, 1981. 309 pp. $25.00 (cloth)
These books differ in audience and approach. They are accurate reflections of the
status of life-history-based research in psychohistory and sociology, respectively. The
methodology of the life history is a topic that is relevant to researchers in the fields of
sociology, anthropology, political science, and literature, as well as history and psy-
chology. Since all of these disciplines have a different perspective on the life study, each
has a unique contribution to make to the formulation of life history methodology.
Over forty years ago Edward Hulme remarked, “Historians can never get along
without psychology. They will need all the help they can get in finding the motives that lie
behind the deeds of men.”’ Certainly, if history is going to lay claim to the title of a social
science, then it must seek to explain events, and not merely chronicle them. The key
question with the use of psychological theory to explain historical events is, “Is psy-
chology sufficiently scientific for, and applicable to, this task?”
Most of the attempts at psychohistorical writing have been done either by clinicians
who knew little about the tests for historical evidence or by historians who knew little
about the process of applying psychological theory to specific cases. Therefore, most of
these studies “have ranged from the highly dubious to the downright preposterous.”’ The
writers were lacking in caution: the clinicians accepted too much hearsay and speculation
as verifiable fact, and the historians played fast and loose with the clinical terminology.
The numerous studies of Adolf Hitler,’ Richard Nixon, Jesus, and Joseph Smith‘ were
sometimes laughable, sometimes libelous, but too often ludicrous.
The prototypical, if not quintessential, example of this kind of psychohistorical
writing is Sigmund Freud’s study of Leonard0 da Vinci.s The specific errors and excesses
of this work were mercilessly assembled and analyzed by David Stannard.6 Certainly the
more psychoanalytically oriented psychobiographies have been deterministic and reduc-
tionistic, placing an undue emphasis on neurotic, sexual, and childhood features, ignor-
ing cultural and historical contexts, and assuming facts not in evidence regarding the sub-
ject’s behavior in the bedroom, bathroom, or nursery.’
Stannard concluded his exposition of the inexcusable exaggerations of psy-
choanalytic life studies by contending that historians should totally reject the use of inter-
nal dimensions of the mind as a hermeneutic, and return to the external, “common
sense” approach which ignores unobservable psychodynamics. Stannard’s book has
received some harsh reviews: ‘I... an overheated, biased, and largely ignorant attack
upon psychoanalysis . . . as reckless as a book can be.”8 These reviews are deserved
because Stannard assumes that the methodology is inherently blighted by the limitations
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of Freudian thought. Stannard does not realize that neither contemporary psychiatry nor
academic psychology is closely following Freud. Furthermore, Stannard is ignorant of
the fact that the psychoanalytic movement itself has made much progress in the forty-
odd years since the death of its founder and pioneer. Therefore, Stannard’s criticism of
psychohistory is comparable to rejecting modern chemistry because of some of the
limitations of medieval alchemy.
In the past quarter century, Erik Erikson’s studies of Martin Luther and Mohandas
Ghandi demonstrated sensitivity to historical fact and context as well as to developmen-
tal theory.@In the 1970s several writers on psychohistory emerged representing a
balanced, moderated, progressive tone which avoided both the excessive claims of the
early psychohistorians and the excessive critique of their detractors.’0 One of the younger
writers was William McKinley Runyan, a psychologist at the University of California
(Berkeley) School of Social Welfare.
Runyan captured the attention of serious students of psychohistory with his article
“Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?”’ Runyan proceeded from the accepted facts in
the case and constructed several plausible psychological explanations. He contended that
the psychohistorian must not rest a case merely because the facts can be explained by any
theoretical conjecture; rather, all of the explanations must be compared with all of the
available evidence and with alternative explanations before arriving at a judgment.
It is against this background that we can fully appreciate Runyan’s book. It is the
most informative, clear, objective, and comprehensive book written on this topic to date.
It is both the ideal text for a graduate course in psychohistory and the one essential book
in the field that every library should have. Runyan handles the tough issues in the psy-
chobiography debate, avoiding the excesses of both Freud and Stannard. He discusses
the problems of reductionism, inadequate evidence, and the overreliance on psy-
choanalytic theories (as opposed to Jungian, Adlerian, and behavioral approaches).
What is most impressive about this work is Runyan’s familiarity with so many ex-
amples: the alternative accounts of the life of Jesus, William Shakespeare, and Abraham
Lincoln; the role of social influences in explaining the lives of Daniel Ellsberg or Stephen
Biko; and the importance of theory in the case of Benjamin Franklin, Malcolm X, Emily
Dickinson, or Wilhelm Reich. Other examples are presented to show different styles or
structures for presenting the life history: George 111, Daniel Schreber, Little Hans, and a
heroin addict. It is these that make the Runyan work a virtual encyclopedia of previous
psychohistorical writing and a training manual for the novice writer in this field.
Nevertheless, psychohistory cannot rest upon Runyan’s accomplishment. As good
as the book is, it simply ignores many important topics. For example, Runyan does not
mention the Heston study of Hitler, which is significant not only because it is one of the
most objective studies of Hitler but also because its orientation represents contemporary
psychiatry’s foremost therapeutic and research approach: pharmacology.’*
Furthermore, Runyan does not adequately treat nonbiographical dimensions of psy-
chohistory. In addition to the life history of people, there is the life history of ideas (for
example, Joel Kovel’s work utilizing sociology, anthropology, history, and Jungian psy-
chology studying the history of the idea of white racism).”
While psychologists have touched base with history in the area of psychohistory, the
interrelation of history and sociology is older and broader. Every historian since
Herodotus has been a sociologist (amateur, but occasionally quite good).
Whereas psychohistory looks at the dead to get knowledge about the past, oral
history consults those yet living who participated in the past, an historian’s research
BOOK REVIEWS 189

technique in which living witnesses. rather than (or in addition to) written documents, are
seen as the source of historical data. One technique employed is that of the in-depth in-
terview. Oral history also probably dates to Herodotus, and this was the technique of
some nineteenth-century historians. Over the past two decades, a great interest in oral
history has emerged.“
The connection between oral history and sociology is threefold. First, oral historians
have looked to qualitative sociological (and anthropological) researchers for guidance on
how to conduct interviews. Second, the interviews are not just recounts of historical
events, but personal testimony reflecting the sociocultural context of the witness/partici-
pant. Therefore, a knowledge of this context is essential in order to assess the testimony
properly. Third, sociologists have recognized that this kind of oral history could provide
additional information about social classes and movements.
It is with regard to this third form of contact that Daniel Bertaux’s book is relevant.
It is an edited book of readings with no comprehensive index or bibliography. The seven-
teen contributors are largely European sociologists. It is not clear if some or even most of
the chapters are translations from previously published journal articles or conference
presentations, but some of them are deficient in recent references. The theoretical orien-
tations are symbolic interactionist, Marxist, and Sartrian.
The outstanding chapter is Bertaux’s brief introduction which, combined with his
lengthy footnotes, serves to give us a capsule history of the use of the life history in
sociology. Two other chapters are also quite good as overviews: Glen Elder’s and Jan
Szczepanski’s. The majority of the chapters are quite difficult reading, perhaps losing
something in the translation, perhaps because each chapter has a different author, with a
different style, and no reference to previous chapters. Some are quite stimulating: Franco
Ferrarotti’s contention that the infusion of theory into the life history helps the in-
vestigator from being misled by the idiosyncracies of the case; Bertaux’s emphasis on the
importance of philosophy and relevance in the writing of sociology; Nicole Gagnon’s
methodology of inner experience; Martin Kohli’s discussion of Verstehen; Elder’s and
Jane Synge’s descriptions of cohorts and the life cycle; Maurizio Catani’s contention that
oral history is a ritualized social exchange.
Other chapters discuss Polish peasants (Josef Chalasinski), Hungarian urbanization
and mobility (Zoltan Karpati), U.S. bootleggers (N. K. Denzin), French bakers (Bertaux
and Isabelle Bertaux-Wiame), Brazilian political elites (Aspasia de Camargo), internal
migration (Bertaux-Wiame),social change (Paul Thompson), and Nazi genocide (Elmer
Luchterhand and Norbert Wieland).
Several additional criticisms come to mind. First, some of the chapters are simply
too short to complete (what appears to be) their assigned mission successfully. As a
result, points are introduced but not developed. For example, Ferrarotti suggests a shift
in life history research from a focus on individual biography to the biography of the
primary group. How is this to be accomplished? How would it differ from participant-
observation studies used by anthropologists and sociologists? The only chapter with a
clear, “how-to” approach is Denzin’s, in which he explains the steps of how to write the
history of an organization.
A second problem concerns the distinction between qualitative and quantitative
research. Several of the chapters (for example, Camargo’s) assert the superiority of the
former without offering much in the way of a rationale, let alone objective proof.
Although Bertaux is quite critical of quantitative methodology in one chapter, his study
of bakers admits that it is only after we have seen many cases that we can be certain that
190 BOOK REVIEWS

the patterns we observe are not due to chance personal characteristics. Only the chapter
by Synge demonstrates the constructive interplay of qualitative and quantitative ap-
proaches in research, contending that demographic analysis is useful in planning and in-
terpreting life history research.
Third, the contributors of this book, and oral historians in general, have ignored the
potential contributions that clinical psychology could make. One chapter, by Agnes
Hankiss, contends that people rearrange the telling of their lives in order to meet some
inner needs, but there are no references to psychological studies. How can oral historians
be so certain that the memory deficits of their aged witnesses will not distort the
testimony? What is the nature of the distortion produced by depression, hypochondriasis,
paranoia, or personality disorders? Unless we can account for this dimension of personal
idiosyncracy, the data remain flawed.
In sum, the study of the life history, via psychohistory or oral history, is an approach
that can provide qualitative data of use to history, sociology, and psychology. The
perfection of this methodology depends upon expertise that must be drawn from all three
disciplines.
NOTES
I . Edward M. Hulme, History and Its Neighbors (New York: Oxford University Press, 1942). p. 178.
2. David H. Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper &
ROW,1970), pp. 188-189.
3. T. L. Brink, “The Case of Hitler: An Adlerian Perspective on Psycho-History,” Journal of Individual
Ps~Ch0log.v2 I ( I 975): 23-3 I .
4. T. L. Brink, “Joseph Smith: The Verdict of Depth Psychology,” Journal of Mormon History 3 (1976):
73-84.
5. Sigmund Freud, Standard Edition of the Complete Psychologicol Works of Sigmund Freud, 23 vols., ed.
and trans. by James Strachey (London: Hogarth, 1953-1966). I I : 59-138.
6. David E. Stannard, Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psycho-History (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1980).
7. Fischer, Hbtorians’ Fallacies. pp. 188-189.
8. Joseph Adelson. review of Stannard’s Shrinking History: On Freud and the Failure of Psycho-History, in
American Spectator 14 (January 1981): 31-33.
9. Erik H. Erikson. Young Man Luther (New York: Norton, 1958) and Gandhi’s Truth (New York: Nor-
ton, 1967).
10. C. K. Hofling, “Current Problems in Psycho-History,” Comprehensive Psychiatry 17 (1976): 227-239,
and T. L. Brink, “History and Depth Psychology: Some Reconsiderations,” The Historian 41 (1979): 738-753.
11. William McKinley Runyan, “Why Did Van Gogh Cut Off His Ear?: The Problem of Alternative Ex-
planations in Psycho-Biography,’’ Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 40 (1981): 1070-1077.
12. L. L. Heston and Renee Heston. The Medico1 Casebook ofAdoljHitler(New York: Stein & Day, 1979).
13. Joel Kovel, White Racism: A Psycho-History (New York: Pantheon, 1970).
14. Ronald J. Grele, ed.. Envelopes of Sound (Chicago: Precedent, 1975); James Hoopes, Or01 History: An
Introduction for Students (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979); and Jan Vansina, Oral
Tradition (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1965).

Editor’s Note: Although Professor Runyan chose not to respond to the review, he did
wish to express “an appreciative thank-you” to the reviewer.
Professor Bertaux Responds:
Dr. Brink’s competence is clearly rooted in psychology, and Biography and Society
has been written by sociologists for sociologists. Given the unfortunate specialization of
knowledge about this endangered species, the human race, Dr. Brink has, however,
succeeded in keeping his review within a reasonable level of misunderstanding.
BOOK REVIEWS 191

This is not a volume for beginners; it is a research book. Its focus is on new ideas,
not so much on bibliographical references. Original ideas are rare birds nowadays; but
each of the papers contains at least one. To be sure, they are not presented in predigested,
textbook form. But the perceptive reader will be able to spot them one by one, as Dr.
Brink has done for Ferrarotti’s paper.
The “life history movement” which is developing in sociology has two main arms,
both taking issue with the survey research approach to behavior. One trend argues that
by multiplying life stories within a single social milieu, one can reach the point of satura-
tion whereby generalization becomes possible without relying on the technique of the
representative sample. The second is developing the narrative interview and
hermeneutics to get at the meanings people construct of their acts and their lives.
Historians who work with testimonies of old people to get at past cultures (rather than
events) and past world views are interested in both levels, the symbolic and the
sociostructural.
Dr. Brink is right in pointing to the role of memory as a mediation between the past
and the present. Memory, however, is not like playing a prerecorded tape. It is an act of
interpretation, of reconstructing the past from the present point of view. But so is history,
after all. May I say that I find Dr.Brink’s credo on the scientificity of history (or the
social sciences) a bit naive. We all are interpreters, whether historians, psychoanalysts,
or behavioral or social scientists, just as much as the people we interview. Maybe if we
were more aware of it, we from the various disciplines would be of more help to one
another.

Ernest Gellner, ed. Soviet & Western Anrhropology. New York: Columbia University
Press, 1980. xvii + 285 pp. $37.50 (Reviewed by ALEXANDER VUCINICH)
In the summer of 1976 a group of Western and Soviet cultural anthropologists-or
ethnographers-met at Burg Wartenstein to discuss recent developments in the theory
and methodology of their discipline. This book presents nineteen of the papers delivered
and discussed at the conference. The papers offered by Western scholars-none from the
United States-concentrate on themes of personal choice and only in isolated cases
represent distinct schools of anthropological thought. Those by Soviet scholars are, by
contrast, more unified. They concentrate on the guiding ideas of contemporary theory
and on the interaction of ethnography and such neighboring disciplines as sociology,
linguistics, psychology, and demography. In its total effect, the book throws as much
light on the similarities between Soviet and Western theories of culture as it does on
differences. It also shows that the Soviet contributors do not present a monolithic
theoretical front: their essays display clear differences in attitudes toward various aspects
of Western thought and strategies of interdisciplinary research.
In the 1950s, Werner Heisenberg, a pioneer of modern microphysics, noted that the
main difference in the quantum-mechanical formulations in the Soviet Union and
Western countries was in terminology rather than in theoretical subtlety and elaboration.
In describing the differences between Western and Soviet anthropology in his introduc-
tion to this volume, Meyer Fortes, an eminent British Africanist, expresses a more