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Introduction: where the hell are the people?

It is something of a truism that the pendulum of academic fashion swings between the macro and micro levels of investigation and interpretation. From the majestic sweep of Braudel's Mediterranean to the simple mill of Ginzburg's Menocchio or from the towering height of Shirer's rise and fall to Browning's mud-level investigation of ordinary men, historians continue to readjust the scope of their focus in an attempt to better understand the past. (1) As post-modernism challenged the dominance of Marxian and quantitative approaches to social history, inquiry often shifted from broad, societal-level questions to those which explored the intersections of mentalities and the social in individuals and small groups. An argument could be made that the pendulum is swinging towards a grander scale once again as universities increasingly respond to globalization by replacing western civilization classes with those focusing on world civilizations. The increased interest in the history of the Atlantic world, while not as structural as earlier world systems approaches, nonetheless privileges the macro over the micro. (2) Yet even within this recent historiography, as Richard Grassby's impressively researched exploration of the role of personal relationships in the English-dominated world of business has shown us, the history of family and kinship remains a vital strategy for making sense of large historical processes, in this case, that of emergent capitalism in the making of the Atlantic world. (3)

Conversely, for more than two decades now, Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities has served as a benchmark for historical scholarship seeking to understand the development of nationalism in the West. (4) This work, and all that it has inspired, investigated the cultural processes by which groups of strangers come to belong to a national community, albeit still as strangers to one another. While the significance and influence of this history are undoubted, the focus on national communities has rendered invisible the tangible contact between individuals who create their own communities through the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships. In contrast to the manner in which the imagined community of the nation is often the result of action being taken upon a specific people, the essays in this issue explore the active participation of individuals in the creation and maintenance of the social dynamics that comprise their varied communities without denying the social structures that systemically frame their actions, even those of national identity.

The articles of this special issue seek to interact with this debate by exploring the manner in which personal relationships and, in turn, the interpersonal nature of community and identity on a local level, have significantly influenced subjects which are frequently conceived of in much broader, impersonal terms, such as migration, urban poverty, nationality, imperialism, state institutions, and the Great War. The approaches herein utilize the interpersonal nature of social interaction specific to individuals to reflect on larger issues of historical concern. In other words, the focus here is on how individuals and groups have rendered their lives meaningful through relationships with others, whether it is within a family, friendship, ethnicity, interest-group, community or polity. Interpersonal relationships are the fundamental framework of the social world and structure the daily lives of those living within them. Importantly, these relations are not fixed, but are fluid and determined by human agency.

If we agree on the specificity of historical context and that change is the greatest continuity of all, then as those who study the human past, we must recognize how people shaped their own worlds. Social life is created and recreated through the activities of individuals as social actors while the impact of their actions is largely limited to their immediate social world: their friends, family, coworkers, and neighbors. Yet, of course, this takes place within particular contexts. It is the challenge of cultural history to place the individual within these larger social and political worlds. We as social and cultural historians have had a tendency to focus on masses. We lump individuals of the past into large social groups that would probably look unfamiliar to those under study. How much are people today concerned with membership in vast social groups of class or nation or race as much as they are consumed by the daily details of their workplace, their home, their neighborhood, their friends or rivals, spouses, children and family? And this is an era in which we are constantly reminded of such groupings due to the ready access of information and the harping of academics like ourselves. The social world is much more fragmented by individual life-experience than we often let on in our sweeping conclusions which tend to focus on large collectivities of class, region, nation, race, or gender.

The articles herein consider the primary relationships of the social realm and how they impact, or are impacted by, the secondary or tertiary ones such as class or nation--something the best biographies strive to accomplish. Certainly, the secondary relationships significantly impact individuals through institutions of the economy, government, social structure and so on. But on a daily basis over an individual's life-course, it is the direct immediacy of interpersonal contact of the first degree that most recognizably shapes his or her individual world. It is the primary relationships one directly maintains with friends, family and community that constitute the core of an individual's social network and occupies the bulk of lived experience.

As teachers, we often ask our students to explore the invisible structures that have shaped and limited our lives. We seek to reveal how the change and continuity of traditions, ideas, and mentalities impact us personally by creating boundaries, whether or not these are institutionalized or recognized as such. But at the same time, we emphasize that these structures do not determine our lives; that we, in fact, do have choice and agency. Most of us hope that the study of history has an empowering effect on our students to reveal to them not only how their worlds came about, but how they themselves are historical actors. The same should apply to our study of the past. This volume sets out to emphasize the creative nature of social life rather than the determination of social behavior by systems of social organization. The agency/structure divide is not really a dichotomy at all; nor is it two sides of the same coin. Rather, it is an ongoing process of negotiation. Instead of looking away, this Janus confronts itself in conversation, argument and dialogue. There is an exchange that takes place between the agency of the individual and the structure of society within the forum of cultural practice. This conversation is governed by conventions of behavior and ritual, yet the meaning and rules of this cultural practice are in perpetual flux.

We as historians have the challenge of accounting for the manner in which individuals acted within the constraints and possibilities of their broader social world to fashion their own sense of place and community through interpersonal relationships. Cultural practice is the medium through which individuals interact. Though cultural practices are inherited and learned functions, they are not static, but undergo change that corresponds to the idiosyncrasies of individuals and the groups they comprise. And this is most evident in the ways people interact with the individuals and institutions that are most immediate in their lives. This too is related to the dynamic of agency and structure via the interaction of the idiosyncratic to the hegemonic and the micro to the macro.

Individual efforts to construct and maintain personal relationships comprise the bulk of our social lives--at work, at home, in the community. As lovers, spouses, neighbors, schoolmates, friends, rivals, coworkers, colleagues, patrons, clients, schoolmates, parents, siblings, children, it is through the cultural practice of these relations that we attribute, create, and find meaning in our own lives. There is a symbolic dimension to interpersonal relationships in which we represent to others and back to ourselves who we would like to think we are; thus the constructions of family, friends, rivals and community are fundamentally a question of personal identification. This implies a need for us as historians to consider not only the sociological framework of group-formation, but to account for the anthropological one of meaning and behavior as well. These essays are designed to consider the cultural practices that maintained personal relationships in the modern British metropole from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries.

In speaking about the role of the family in the modern West, John Gillis argued that "we not only live with families but depend on them to do the symbolic work that was once assigned to religious and communal institutions: representing ourselves to ourselves as we would like to think we are." (5) Gillis suggests that inevitably we all have two families: the families we live with and the families we live by. The first are those other individuals with whom we interact as family while the second is the inspired familial model within which those interactions take place. Both, of course, change according to time and place. Yet this is true of other significant relationships as well: there are the persons we live with, our social world, and the people we live by, our cultural world.

To be sure, we are not inventing the wheel of social or cultural history here by looking at the texture of daily life, alltagsgeschichte or micro-history or the like. In fact, this special issue is meant to emphasize a genealogy of historical work that certainly extends back not least of all to E.P. Thompson and The Making of English Working Class. (6) Although frequently taken for granted today, Thompson's great contribution to social history was to assert that human beings had numerous significant relationships in addition to that with the means of production. He believed that it was industrial capitalism, not Karl Marx, who had reduced man to simply an economic actor defined by his social position. (7) In this spirit, we want to reemphasize an historical approach that is too often muted in larger, macro-histories which may be about people, but too rarely bring to light their most basic and defining relationships.

The papers in this issue were originally conceived for a conference hosted by Rutgers University in February 2004 entitled: "Kith and Kin: Personal Relationships and Cultural Practices, 1830-1980." The conference was organized as a celebration of John Gillis and his remarkable career that has entered a new phase since his retirement in 2004. The incredible breadth of Gillis's body of work made picking an organizing theme more difficult than would have been the case had he not possessed such a catholic and insatiable curiosity for the world humans have made. After soliciting initial proposals from friends, colleagues and former students, we were struck by the fact that what connected this collection of essays by people who had been inspired by Gillis was not a subject matter or a methodology per se, but rather the overwhelmingly humanistic nature of the essays. Individuals and their personal relationships to others are at the heart of these investigations which expand outward to encompass topics normally conceived of in much more impersonal terms, whether it be nationalism, espionage or emigration.

The work of John Gillis is emblematic of the approaches offered here. In his career as a historian, he has explored the relationship of the institutional to the personal, of the public to the private, of the sociological to the anthropological. From bureaucracies and life-courses, to marriage and demography, to families and mythologies, Gillis has made these histories meaningful to his readers by demonstrating his own enthused engagement and revealing the relevance of the subjects under study to his own life and world and, by extension, ours. (8) The moving preface to his magisterial cultural history of the family or his most recent work on the human imagination and the Atlantic world are emblematic of a career spent placing actual people at the center of wider histories. (9) John's work reminds us that the centrality of the individual in his/her own social world is, perhaps, the most tangibly real and consistent feature of history across time and space. Those of us who have studied with him have heard him exhort many times a consistent criticism: "Where the hell are the people?"

The essays of Laura Tabili, Benjamin Lammers and Nicolleta Gullace speak directly to this issue, teasing out the manner in which interactions between people with a generally uncomplicated claim to Britishness and those whose alien status marked them as different help historians to better understand the ways in which native Britons and immigrants alike conceived of their personal relationship to the nation-state. Tabili mines applications for naturalization in late nineteenth and early twentieth century Britain and finds that the process itself drew fundamentally upon the established relationships between applicants and local Britons. Similarly, Lammers investigates the interactions and relationships between Jewish and non-Jewish neighbors in the East End as a way to interrogate one of the most enduring national myths of Britain, the loss of the "traditional" East End and working class communalism. Meanwhile, Gullace examines the anti-German riots in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania to reveal the intimate and local engagement with world events and, notably, how interpersonal relationships were also based on practices of rivalry, conflict, and hostility.

The essays of Anna Clark and Tammy Proctor both deal with how the British state conceptualized and utilized notions of family and gender and, importantly, how those in the state's charge or service responded or enacted their own ideas on the matter. Clark looks at the refractory girls of a South Dublin workhouse and how they sought to use the system to greatest personal benefit by participating willingly or challenging it when necessary, as suited their advantage. Proctor analyzes how women became agents of British intelligence in the era of the First World War and how their service relied heavily upon both their perceived and realized networks of kinship. For both Clark and Proctor, the family becomes a medium or site through which strategies are employed to define and express the relationship between the individual and the state.

These relationships are not circumscribed to location either. Across vast distances, individuals maintain an ongoing process of interpersonal interaction and self-definition. David Gerber and Malia Formes show how individuals' desire for self-identification influences the way they imagine and represent themselves to others. Gerber skillfully examines the practice of letter-writing by nineteenth-century British immigrants to America to explore the strategies of interpersonal relations through epistolary communication. Formes analyzes her interviews with a pair of sisters to reveal how their personal sense of self lies within the British empire conceived generally, rather than any one place specifically. Likewise, both historians are careful to consider the cultural practices inherent to their biographical source materials circulating within this British diaspora.

Leonore Davidoff and Theodore Koditschek study the households and kinship networks of the nineteenth-century political and intellectual elite. David-off interrogates the significance of power in quasi-horizontal sibling relationships through the study of William Gladstone, the eventual Prime Minister, and his younger sister, Helen. Koditschek is curious to discover how the "geniuses" of the nineteenth century were dependent upon their larger household for their intellectual productivity and, in turn, how this reliance on the domestic may or may not have affected their theorizations.

Each of these essays is multi-valent in its approach and touches on a number of other historical themes. Those interested in issues of religion and personal identity should look at Lammers, Clark, and Davidoff. Gender is central to the concerns of Koditschek, Davidoff, Proctor, and Clark. Migration and population shifts are scrutinized in Gerber, Formes, Tabili, Proctor, Lammers and Gullace. Finally, nationality is a primary concern of Formes, Gullace, Clark, Proctor and Tabili.

By focusing on the human endeavor involved in the establishment and maintenance of interpersonal relationships, these essays avoid the broad quantitative nature of demographic social histories, but are also not divorced from social realities and material relationships as in more theoretically inclined cultural histories. Instead, these articles examine the lived experiences of cultural practice whereby individuals actively associated or disassociated themselves with others in the pursuit of identity and community. We hope that these essays, like the work of John Gillis, will inspire others to consider the place of the person in his or her own world. Where the hell are the people? They're all over the damn place.

Department of History

Forest Grove, OR 97116

Department of History

Buffalo, NY 14260


We would like to thank Paul Clemens, Ziva Gallili, Donald Kelley, Tom Laqueur and Bonnie G. Smith for all their help and support with the project.

1. Ferdinand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (New York, 1972); Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (Baltimore, 1992); William L. Shire, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (New York, 1960); Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992).

2. David Armitage and Michael J. Braddick, eds., The British Atlantic World 1500-1800 (New York, 2002).

3. Richard Grassby, Kinship and Capitalism: Marriage, Family, and Business in the English-Speaking World, 1580-1740 (New York, 2001).

4. Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York, 1983). Other classic texts in this vein include, Rogers Brubaker, Citizenship and Nationhood in France and Germany (Harvard, 1992); Ernest Gellner. Nations and Nationalism (Oxford, 1983); Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism Since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (New York, 1990), Eugen Weber, Peasants into Frenchmen: The Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914 (Stanford, 1976).

5. John Gillis, A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values (New York, 1996): xv.

6. E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York, 1963). This seminal tome was repeatedly referred to by John Gillis as simply "the Good Book."

7. Dorothy Thompson, "Introduction" in E.P. Thompson, The Essential E.P. Thompson (New York, 2001): vii.

8. John Gillis, The Prussian Bureaucracy in Crisis, 1840-1860: Origins of an Administrative Ethos (Stanford, CA, 1971); Gillis, Youth and History: Tradition and Change in European Age Relations, 1770-Present (New York, 1974); Gillis, For Better, For Worse: British Marriages, 1600 to the Present (New York, 1985).

9. John Gillis, Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (New York, 2004).

By Richard Ivan Jobs

Pacific University

Patrick McDevitt

University at Buffalo (SUNY)
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Title Annotation:history of family and kinship
Author:McDevitt, Patrick
Publication:Journal of Social History
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Dec 22, 2005
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