International School History - Skills - Sourcework - The usefulness of historical sources

Memoirs, biographies and autobiographies
 
 
These sources offer a reflection of the past through the viewpoint of one individual. The recounting of the events of someone’s life either by themselves (memoirs, autobiography) or by a professional other (biography) is a long established route to finding out about the past.
 
 
Strengths   Limitations
Thomas Carlyle, the proponent of the Great Men theory of history famously argued that ‘the history of the world is but the biography of great men’. Where the decisions and actions of great men (and women) significantly affect the direction of events, then biography becomes an essential means of historical understanding. By understanding the personal background, cultural and intellectual context of historical agents we can hope to gain an insight into why things were done or not done.

Biographical approaches to history also help to personalise the past. It is often easier to understand events if they are presented at a personal, human scale. History is often presented in the abstract though major economic or social factors, what TS Eliot once described ‘as vast impersonal forces’. Biography with its concerns with the human and small scale acts as a useful antidote to this.
 
  All biographical accounts are subjective and in this respect suffer from the same problems as eyewitnesses. Events are always relayed from the perspective of one individual and this can skew the relative importance of this individual in the event.

Although not hagiographic (as in the life of a saint who does no wrong) there is a tendency for biographers to admire and sympathise with their subjects or less commonly the opposite. Writing a good biography takes a lot of time, why spend this time on a character you do not feel strongly about?

Biographies tend to be about influential people and can therefore result in history that is overly focused on ‘Great Men’ or history from ‘above’. In addition, it can tend to over-simplify complex events into tangible, personal accounts. EH Carr once complained that ‘we all learned this theory, so to speak, at our mother's knee; and today we should probably recognize that there is something childish, or at any rate childlike, about it.’
 
Example
 
 
How far would you agree with the assertion that the history of the 20th century can be told through the biographies of three men: Stalin, Hitler and Mao?  
   
 

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