chapter  18
16 Pages

Ralph Davis mSTORY AND THE SOCIAL SCIENCES (Leicester, 1965)

Another reason why some historians are uninterested in theory lies in the nature of the things historians study. Many of them are concerned essentially with personal relations, with situations in which, it is thought, the personality of individuals has effects overriding material circumstances and habits of thought derived from the material environment. A good deal of political history, and especially much diplomatic history, has traditionally been

treated more or less in isolation from the social context. The social sciences can offer very little to this kind of history; even psychology, which should have something to say in the field of personal relationships, has been unconvincing in its few applications to long-dead men whose personalities have to be judged from their writings and speeches and from their contemporaries' comments on them. But if this kind of history is in a sense too narrow for the social sciences, much history is too broad for them as they now stand. And this is particularly true of the subject we label economic and social history. The economic historian, if he is not merely an economist manque, is constantly faced with the complexities of situations in the past, which he must try to see whole; situations in which the play of personality of outstanding individuals is not overwhelmingly important; situations which the social sciences should in principle be capable of analysing, but whose many-sidedness defeats the resources of any one of them. The economist or the sociologist is entitled to argue he is interested only in this or that aspect of a situation; the historian, though he may handle it in pieces, has sooner or later to explain it as a whole. Each of the social sciences is admirably equipped to deal with problems of certain types, and is naturally reluctant to venture outside the territories in which it is competent. Indeed, this is the sense in which they are sciences. Each has selected, abstracted if you like, a series of related problems for analysis. The rigour of this selection is the key to their progress. They are interested in recurring phenomena, offering predictable patterns of behaviour. The historian by contrast has continually to make the effort to comprehend a social situation as a whole and in its uniqueness.