Entangled lives

Histoire croissée and entangled lives

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘Histoire croissée and entangled lives’ www.whiteswritingwhiteness.ed.ac.uk/overviews/histoire-croissee and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. The idea of ‘histoire croissée’ is associated with increasing recognition of the close associations and multiple exchanges of people, finance, goods, communications, that exists between ‘separate’ national entities. It has been used primarily to signal such exchanges and entanglements at national levels, and it is also useful in thinking about the existence of these over long periods of time, not just in the present. Histoire croissée draws on ensuing debates about comparative history and connected or shared history to reconsider the interactions between different societies or cultures, and the necessity for work across the social sciences and humanities to investigate these connections. It has a two-fold focus as a result. One concerns the empirical intercrossings involved, and the other the activities through which researchers cross scales, categories and viewpoints and make use of crossings between these. In some ways a histoire croissée approach can be seen part of the ‘cultural turn’, in emphasising the irreducible nature of the local in the differentiated character of societies and cultures, showing the fragmentations involved in underpinning depending structural level seeming regularities in these exchanges over time, and thereby pointing up their relative character, or rather that their reality and realism is necessarily a product of their equally characteristic complexity and localism.

2. Over the last approximately twenty years that histoire croissée thinking about entangled lives and societies has been a presence in the social and human sciences, it has been used in some different ways. It has been used in a very general sense to indicates recognition of crossings and entanglements, and thus as a metaphor it has been used more specifically regarding social, cultural, and political formations and exchanges between them, generally at an inter/national level. In addition and also usefully in the context of WWW research, it has been used in respect of the intellectual intercrossings that have informed conceptual, theoretical and methodological research practices. Following Werner and Zimmerman (2006), three aspects are particularly relevant.

3. First, histoire croissée has a relational approach to comparative analysis and investigations, focusing on crossings and exchanges, rather than removing the local specificities involved by treating structural formations as ‘the same’ in the difference national contexts being compared. There are historically constituted formations involved, and these ‘local’ histories have to be recognised and taken into account. In this sense, both shared histories, and also different local histories, are involved entangled. As a consequence and depending on what aspects of this are focused on, histoire croissée both brings a buried reality to attention and also gives rise to different viewpoints on this. Specifically, these histories are not ‘always already there’, but are constituted through the terminologies, conceptualisations and categories of researchers, with these being generative of meaning.

4. Second, histoire croissée brackets or transcends many existing debates about theory and methodology regarding comparative analysis. Its framework of analysis offers a way of thinking about scales of focus, categories of analysis, the wider significance or otherwise of particular kinds of exchanges and crossings, which is ‘impure’ in the sense that previous orthodoxies do not dominate the kind of analysis carried out. The ‘how to…’ question remains open, rather than being associated with would-be dominating styles of analysis, most often seen as a competition between ‘big theory’ versus statistical analysis.

5. Third, histoire croissée raises the question of its own historicity and reflexive engagement with the analyses carried out. The object or unit of analysis, the categories used in conceptualising and analysing this, and the relationships between researcher and knowledge-claims, are all seen in reflexive terms and in a way which recognises that research approaches necessarily combine past and present perspectives on such matters and represent a particular point of view.

6. So how do these ideas figure in relation to the Whites Writing Whiteness project? Also, how and in what ways do they connect with its ‘thinking with Elias’ broad theoretical framework?

7. Histoire croissée is agnostic regarding scales of analysis, while its emphasis on crossings and intercrossings recognises the entanglements of the supposedly binary character of macro and micro ‘levels’ such that these cannot be prised apart. This sits well with Elias’s thinking about societies and their interrelationships and his preference for drawing large-scale structural implications from small-scale quotidian activities. And although in general a histoire croissé approach has been concerned with inter-national crossings, implicitly at least there is a recognition that these will rest on intra-national crossings. That is, close associations and multiple exchanges of people, finance, goods, communications, exist within a society and link the people concerned in a range of ways. It is these entanglements that are the focus discussion here concerning the relevance of histoire croissée thinking to WWW research.

8. It has been a white South African truism that every white person knows or knows about or is related to or otherwise connected with every other. This truism was to an interesting extent true in the earlier period when there were relatively few white people in southern Africa, and people were closely connected in a mutual help sense across divisions of language group, religion, occupation. It was considerably less so in the later period dominated by Afrikaner Nationalist when it was claimed preference was given to people from that language group and that other whites bore little responsibility for the policies and practices associated with segregation and apartheid. Perhaps a sense of whiteness transcending other differences came into existence again regarding the post-1994 period of majority rule, marked by mass migration, added to by the post-2014 sense that white privilege is now rapidly ending, marked by an apocalyptic revisioning of the future.

9. The sometimes closer and sometimes more distant entanglements of the various white communities and individuals and groups within them can be thought of as networks of connections existing at one point in time, as figurations based on mutual interests persisting over long periods of time, or more broadly as part of processes of sociogenesis and the slow general accumulation of the future from the present and the past. Times, places, activities and persons make the relevances in conceptual and analytical terms. It is most helpful to see these, not as mutually exclusive ways of thinking, but instead as different choices with greater relevance or not, depending. For instance, sometimes events propel the formation of short-run networks which are formed from out of the ordinary course of things that is sociogenesis; and within the ordinary course of things there are some formations of people linked by stronger bonds and which persist over a lengthy period in which different members of these formations come or go. They can co-exist at the same time; they can involve some of the same people. Three thumbnail sketches will help indicate some of the complexities here. The people referred to are all either letter-writers or the addressees of letters which are included within the WWW databases.

10. The Forbes letters taken as a whole indicate the existence of (i) a Transvaal-based family figuration characterised by very strong bonds existing over a long time period that joined people living on different continents, as well as revealing (ii) the range of different short-run networks – business, friendship, military and so on – that family members were involved in, and tacitly also show (iii) the connections with an Imperial British figuration on the part of at least some male family members. This may sound complex, but the reality was more so, for the faming activities involved initially were added to by the exponential growth of the scale at which these were conducted as businesses, and were also added to with minerals prospecting and mining and then by a mining company floated on the London Stock Exchange.

11. David Forbes senior was involved in figurational connections with his family in in Scotland and Australia as well South Africa. His network links with that of diarist and land surveyor John Lys around the expansionist activities of white migrants arriving in Pretoria and elsewhere in the Transvaal. As a prospector and mine-owner, Forbes had dealings with Rhodes and various of his underlings and found their business approach unacceptable. However, although committed Transvaalers, Forbes and his son Dave junior found Alfred Milner and his post-1902 inheritance of the Rhodes imperial mantle more acceptable and became involved on the periphery of a Milner figuration. Forbes’s wife Kate in the earlier years of the marriage might be seen as rather isolated because involved in family, childbirth and minor home-farm activities. However, in practice it was she who maintained the extended South African family links when people were away, and also ensured the continuing connections with Scottish and the Australian family members. And she was also central to the networks associated with the home farm and the Athole estate workers. Then later, after Forbes’s death, she became very decidedly the matriarch of both these figurations and also the farming and business networks focused on the Athole estate and its activities including with officialdom over a twenty year period.

12. The Pringle letters in fact join together three different elements, (i) the papers and letters of Dods Pringle, a senior member of the wider and very wealthy Pringle clan, a tightly connected family figuration whose members lived and farmed in the Baviaan’s River area of the Eastern Cape, (ii) the business papers and business letters of Harriet Townsend nee Hockly and her associates, who was widowed at a young age, and later became the second wife of the widower Dods Pringle, and (iii) the remaining papers and some letters of Harriet Townsend’s mother Elizabeth Hockly nee Moore, including concerning her business activities. There are figurational and network aspects of all three, and while at points these overlap they are largely not coterminous.

13. The extant letters concern in particular the approximately eight year period between Harriet Townsend being widowed and her second marriage. As well as LMS connections through her uncle by marriage and also one of her brothers-in-law, she was very active member of Wesleyan circles with strong figurational connections through her religious faith. Both through religion and through her business activities, she had connections with Dr John Philip, Director of the elements in South Africa, supplying him with goods and cashing bills of exchange, and also supporting local churches with money, and through attendance and other activities. She was also the pivot point of a business network of women, who employed by her as outworkers, acted as distribution managers, solicited new business, and were also customers for her high-end jewellery, millinery, dress-making and other goods. Her youngest daughter Jessie Pringle married into the equally elite family of James Rose Innes, and later became a close friend of Olive Schreiner. Her nephew Arthur Pringle was employed to purchase and transport sheep for the then-Rhodesia estate of Cecil Rhodes. Through her Pringle marriage, Harriet Townsend also had network connections with others of the Eastern Cape elite, including those of more retrograde views such as the Bowkers, Southeys, Stirks and the Robert Godlonton network-cum-figuration.

14. The result, as these two examples indicate, is that almost invariably letter-writers and addressees across the different networks and different figurations can and at some point or another do join up with each other. These connections do not so much need teasing out as mapping by reference to recording and analysing the names of letter-writers and letter-recipients, with this showing that people and their activities spill out of particular archive collections to reveal the wider interconnections that were involved.

15. The Voss letters can appear on the surface as an atypical case, one of disconnection or disassociation. That is, it has not been possible to connect the Voss, Du Toit or wider family letter-writers and addressees with those in other collections and figurations, unlike all the others. What these letters show is the existence of an exceptionally tight family figuration centred on the Vosses and the Du Toits, involving both male and female members of these families. What they do not in them off themselves show but have to be taken into account in making sense of their contents concerns the wider context in which the letters were written and the growth over much of the period in which they were written of Afrikaner nationalism, and the development of a distinct Afrikaner identity and of Afrikaans as a language.

16. The Vosses were very much part of this trend; over time, the mixtures of languages used in writing these letters changes and in the later period with Afrikaans predominating. However, the Vosses and Du Toits were also very much of the middling sort, including farm-owners, lawyers, surveyors, accountants. And post-1910 when archives depots were founded in the different provinces in South Africa, the collections policies in the old Boer Republics focused on the papers of the political and military elite, not those of the middling sort of people that compose many of the collections to be found elsewhere in South African archives. The result is that the Voss letters seem distinctive, because they have survived and been ‘collected’ due to the Nationalist politics of the youngest son of the family. However, their seeming exceptionalism is an artefact of circumstances. Undoubtedly there have been many other such collections of letters of ‘middling sort’ Afrikaner families, but with these either not surviving or not finding their way into archives because such families were concentrated within the old Republics. But nonetheless the result is that it is difficult to trace any network or other figurations beyond the tightly-knit family one.

17. These ideas are put to work in exploring the inter-connections between the letter-writers and addressees represented within, but also across, the collections that have been researched and with information about them recorded in WWW’s searchable databases. ‘Just life’ can give rise to networks can develop into figurations and vice versa; and anyway changes happen over time as people come and go, ideas change, and the basis of the connection between them grows or contracts or simply changes. The ideas associated with histoire croisée and entangled lives are interesting and most of all they are useful in conceptualising such matters. As noted earlier, the idea of histoire croissée supports focusing on the range of associations and multiple exchanges of finance, goods, communications, that exist between people during the ordinary course of everyday life, and exploring these over long periods of time in figurational terms, not just in the present in the network ones. The brief examples in the thumbnail sketches have shown some of the complexities that exist and indicated the benefits of bringing these under the spotlight informed by histoire croissée thinking.

Further Reading

Joly, M., 2012. Devenir Norbert Elias. Histoire croisée d’un processus de reconnaissance scientifique: la réception française. Fayard.

Kocka, J., 2003. Comparison and beyond. History and theory42(1), pp.39-44.

Kostantaras, D., 2013. Culture, structure and reciprocity: histoire croisée and its uses for the conceptualization of the rise and spread of national movements in Europe and the Atlantic World during the Age of Revolutions. European Review of History: Revue europeenne d’histoire20(3), pp.383-405.

Lindner, U., 2014. Contested concepts of ‘white’/‘native’and mixed marriages in German South-West Africa and the Cape Colony 1900-1914: A histoire croisée. Journal of Namibian Studies: History Politics Culture6, pp.57-79.

Pernau, M., 2012. Whither conceptual history? From national to entangled histories. Contributions to the History of Concepts7(1), pp.1-11.

Werner, M. and Zimmermann, B., 2006. Beyond comparison: Histoire croisée and the challenge of reflexivity. History and theory45(1), pp.30-50.

Last updated: 6 May 2021