Biography as Social Science

On April 8, Jean Strouse will deliver CHESS’s annual lecture “History and Imagination: ‘Finding’ J. Pierpont Morgan.” Biography would seem an unlikely subject for a major CHESS event. Such stories are necessarily concerned with the particular, with the life of a single individual. The point of social science history, on the other hand, is to generalize about the past in an analytically, theoretically, and empirically rigorous way. Whether biography can help us do that is a fascinating but difficult question. I think that it can. The best biographies capture the stakes and consequences of paradigms and models that social scientists use.

One of the truly great biographies of the last fifty years is Robert Caro’s monumental account of the rise and fall of Robert Moses. To call The Power Broker magisterial would be doing a disservice to its ambition. Caro sought to capture not only one man’s relentless pursuit of power but to explain New York’s decline in the late 1960s and 70s. He condemned Moses for destroying a once great city, for flattening neighborhoods with vast expressways, for building inferior facilities for the city’s black residents, and for running roughshod over democratic institutions. But whether you loved or loathed Caro’s Moses, there could be no mistaking that he mattered. He used his power to transform what was then the largest city in the world.

And yet the social scientist wants to know why New York changed the way that it did and whether those changes resembled those of other cities. How different would New York have been without Robert Morris? 1950s Boston had its Central Artery, 1960s Los Angeles the half dozen freeways that slashed their way through Boyle Heights. Those communities didn’t need Moses to tear apart their urban fabric, and it’s not entirely clear how much his story alone can tell us about the larger processes of urban renewal, white flight, and ghettoization that transformed postwar cities from Minneapolis to Manchester. Indeed, the ways in which New York is different from most American cities reflect Moses’s failure to transform the metropolis. For all of his efforts to promote the automobile, New York remains one of the few places in America in which it is possible to live from cradle to grave without a driver’s license, a city in which women in furs ride the Long Island Railway to the opera house Moses built half a century ago.

And yet, there’s something enormously compelling about Moses’s story, an inescapable sense that New York would have been a far different city without him. As Caro observes, “the very shoreline of the metropolis was different before Robert Moses came to power.” Although social scientists are inclined to think in terms of broad categories like race, class, and gender and to be skeptical of accounts driven by individuals and personalities, biography challenges us to take seriously the causal implications of individual actions. There’s a certain irony that many professional historians are convinced that individuals today—Donald Trump or the Koch brothers—matter profoundly for politics and society, even as they remain critical of “great man” theories of history. That skepticism is healthy, but there clearly are people who have punched above their weight, who changed politics, or economics, or culture in significant ways. What biography can add to social science history is both a proximate cause and a personification of certain phenomena. Individuals like Robert Moses or J.P. Morgan exemplify different models of economics, politics, and governance. Learning their stories and their motivations can help us understand those models and their consequences better. In Moses’s case that was the post-war faith in government planning and development. In Morgan’s, it was the belief in economic stability and in the need for economic elites to manage the financial system. Whatever we think of those models, and however large their implications, biography can help us make sense of the models and processes that are the stuff of social science.

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