Voyeurs or Scholars? Biography's Role in Labour History

Article excerpt

Does biography have a utility beyond its mere existence? It is clear that within a number of disciplines, biography is more than just `a sort of sophisticated entertainment, [a] bedside companion after the daily torments in the labouratory or at the desk'. (1) Biography has the potential to extend the boundaries of various fields of scholarly endeavour. However, to fully explore this dimension, we need to see biography as a more integrated part of the historiographical process and less so as a separate standard account of someone's life. This article discusses the relationship between history and biography and surveys the role of biography in Australian labour historiography. It also examines biographical devices and methods employed by historians in other disciplines and concludes with some suggestions of how biographical method might be used in the writing of Australian labour history.

The Relationship between History and Biography

The writing of history and the writing of biography was for a long time seen as an identical activity. History was written about the lives and deeds of men whose historical significance was determined by men and whose subjects were the masters rather than the servants of men. This historiographical tradition climaxed with the Carlylean contention that `history is the biography of great men but subsequently foundered on nineteenth-century notions of collectivism and was almost totally estranged following the emergence of structuralist and Marxist approaches to the writing of history. By the late twentieth century, history writing had, in the words of the French historian Emmanuel Le Roy Laudrie, `condemned to death, the narrative history of events as well as individual biography'. (2)

Biographies continued to be written but remained locked out of mainstream historiography as the traditional historical narrative gave way to the structural and analytical methodology of the Annalist and Marxist schools. More recently, there has been a resurgence of interest in how biographical writing should be approached and what methodologies should be employed. (3) This, in turn, has led historians once again to contemplate the role of biography in historical writing.

In reviewing this relationship between history and biography, it is useful to ponder the question of what we consider a biography to be definitions abound: from the mischievously disparaging (W H Auden's `gossip writers and voyeurs calling themselves scholars' (4)) to the serious and scholarly (Paul Murray Kendall's `the simulation in words, of a person's life, from all that is known about that person' or that of John Garraty's `the history of human life' (5)). There is no consensus amongst biographers or historians on the question of what biography is or is not. Much depends on the era in which the biography was written and the method or technique employed.

The reluctance on the part of many historians to embrace biography as a fellow traveller, and their somewhat jaundiced view on the subject of whether or not biography is a branch of history, has its roots in the form of biography written in the distant (but sometimes not so distant) past. Pre-Renaissance biographers fell squarely into the realm of hagiographers; biographies were written either to commemorate, glorify or merely to justify a great man. The Renaissance heralded the biography of denigration, an example of which can be found in Sir Thomas More's biography of Richard the Third. Samuel Johnson and James Boswell ushered in yet another stage of biographical development with the latter's life of Johnson. Boswell, it was said, successfully managed to synthesise scientific, scholarly research with an artistic use of language. (6)

The development of biography was retarded during the nineteenth century. With the emerging middle class under the influence of the evangelical movement, biography became, in Gitting's words, `the art of concealment'. Two consequences of this process of retardation were that real life was for the most part untouched and unscrutinised and the backlash, when it emerged, was `both violent and ignorant'. (7) The most demonstrable manifestation of this backlash arose with the publication of Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians (1918). Strachey's irreverent exposition stood in stark contrast to the work of his nineteenth-century counterparts. It was, as Robert Skidelsky observed, `debunking biography' designed `to expose eminent characters as humbugs or prisoners of false values'. (8)

During the 1920s and 1930s, writers engaged in debate over whether biography was an art or a craft. Virginia Woolf concluded that a biographer was `a craftsman, not an artist; and his work is not a work of art but something betwixt and between'. (9) Lord David Cecil thought in similar terms, believing the aim of the biographer was not artistic but rather useful; a conveyor of information. (10) Yet the debate was not confined to biography. The relationship of history and biography was also being questioned by the frequently observed implication that art and pure history were irreconcilable. (11)

This view was turned around somewhat when historians entered the debate during the 1950s. The doyen of British conservative historians, Sir Lewis Namier, was quite clear that biography was a form of history and proclaimed that `true biography is a great and exacting art'. (12) Moreover, C V Wedgwood thought `history in any intelligible form is art' and that `the good historian whatever his theme must be an artist'. (13) So there was an attempt to create some form of nexus between art, history and biography. But while history and biography were both considered art, the relationship itself between history and biography was still far from settled.

Can the relationship be rendered any clearer by disaggregating the writing of biography and history into their various categorisations and comparing the result? Stephen Oates attempted to create a typology of biographical forms in the prologue to a collection of edited essays which sought to explain the current appeal of biography in the United States. (14) Oates argued that biography could be identified in three separate forms: pure, critical and scholarly. Pure biography, which Oates argued might be more meaningfully termed literary biography, permits the use of fictional techniques yet without resorting to fiction. (15)

Critical biography, Oates' second category, can be seen as a form analogous to the formal lecture. Here the author has the floor to him/herself, the biographical subject is analysed with `appropriate detachment and skepticism' and is compared with similar past lives. (16) Oates nominated the scholarly chronicle as his third category. Here the biographer employs a direct recitation of facts in a bland and indifferent narrative for the purpose of providing information rather than capturing the reader's imagination with a strong and compelling story. (17)

If we accept Oates' typology as a biographical model then any of his three categories can accommodate a form of historical writing. That is to say that Oates' model could also be as usefully employed to categorise types of historical writing where the individual, or individuals, occupy a central role in the historical narrative. If anything, this exercise seems to give credence to the argument that the activity of writing history and that of writing historical biography is difficult to separate and the two are therefore closely related.

Another of the more vexed questions for biographers and historians is that which asks whether there is in fact any difference in methodological approach between an historian and an historical biographer. The historian deals with facts, context, truth and objectivity and the relationship between individuals and the social environment in which they live. If we are to compare history and biography then we must ask to what degree these questions are relevant to the writing of biography and, if they are relevant, how the biographer deals with them.

It is clear that some historians are quite comfortable welcoming biography into their intellectual stable whilst others are less so. (18) Biographers follow a similar pattern. British biographer Sir Harold Nicholson (19) defers to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of biography as `the history of the lives of individual men, as a branch of literature' and claims that biography `must be "history"' in the sense that it `must be accurate and depict a person in relation to his times'. Nicholson also drew a distinction between pure biography -- `written with no purpose other than that of conveying to the reader an authentic portrait of the individual whose life is being narrated' -- and impure biography, that occurs `when some extraneous purpose intrudes to distort the accuracy of the presentation'.

So for Nicholson pure biography is synonymous with history. Or is it? After all, Nicholson embraces a dictionary definition that seems to suggest that biography is history in so far as it tells the life story of `individual men' but that it is also a `branch of literature'. And what is Nicholson trying to suggest to the reader by enclosing the word `history' in quotation marks? It would seem that what Nicholson is saying is that biography is neither quite a branch of history or of literature but falls somewhere between the two. Whilst Nicholson's conclusions may be arguable his definition of biography is far from satisfactory.

On the other hand, the biographer Paul Murray Kendall is adamant that biography is not a branch or form of history. Biography, he believes, falls somewhere between historical writing and belles-lettres. Whilst historians may no longer treat biography as the poor relation, there is still a belief within the profession that biography is trivial and fragmentary and poses an uncomfortable fit with a discipline which examines issues on a larger scale, encompassing generalisations about time and demographic groups and institutions within times. Biography, on the other hand, deals with the individual and that person's particularities. (20)

Both historians and biographers, then, are equally at odds over the question of whether biography can be history. Historians have from time to time displayed concern over the issues of troth, interpretation and perspective, or the apparent lack thereof, in much biographical writing, as examples of the difficulties in classifying biography as good history. Yet recent scholarship would seem to indicate that such concerns can be accommodated within biography without compromising the artistic creativity of the biographer. For example, the biographer N C Manganyi, who is no doubt that in almost all cases biographical writing and historical writing are one and the same, claims that for modern biography to flourish:

   a culturally institutionalised awareness and interest in the past, both
   individual and collective, is essential for the emergence and survival of
   biography ... The life of the individual cannot be adequately understood
   without references to the institutions within which his biography is
   enacted ... neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society
   can be understood without understanding both. (21)

To take another example, the Australian historian Richard Broome believes that most historical biographers now see their subject in his or her historical context. He draws on the work of the American historian Oscar Handlin who, Broome says, `saw each individual joining a social play in progress'. Handlin believed that it is just as important to have a history of individuals as it is to have the history of social forces and structures to understand the past. Broome reminds us that all historians deal in biography -- `we all populate our histories with individuals albeit in mere fragments, as we use people to support and colour our generalisations'. (22) One of the best examples of this latter point can be found in the work of the American historian, the late Barbara Tuchman. Tuchman admitted that when she had used biography in her writing `it has been less for the sake of the individual subject than as a vehicle for exhibiting an age'. Describing biography as a `prism of history', Tuchman argued that it attracted and retained the interest of the reader in the broader issues. Indeed, there is no better example of this than her use of the composer Richard Strauss as a vehicle to encapsulate imperial Germany on the eve of the first world war. (23)

Another great difficulty in the quest for compatibility between biography and history is the issue of troth. The biographer, Victoria Glendinning, in an aptly titled essay Lies and Silences, (24) identifies a central problem for biographers -- the problem of distortion. She feels that the biographer is forced to write bad history when addressing the modern figure and discerns an increasing void between the way historians and biographers write -- `historians grow more austere as the general biographer grows more intimate'. According to Glendinning, the sorts of lies concealed in the idealising biographies of past centuries are being repackaged in contemporary life writing as the concentration on the personal life produce trivialisation and loss of proportion. (25)

The issue of troth may also be examined in relation to the treatment of facts by the historian and the biographer. E H Carr observed that, as historians write, both the interpretation and the selection and ordering of facts will sustain `subtle and perhaps partly unconscious changes through the reciprocal action of one or the other' and that history is in one respect `a continuous process of interaction between the historian and his facts, an unending dialogue between the past and the present'. (26) How does this position sit with the view of American biographer and academic, Ira Bruce Nadel who, in his 1985 work, Biography: Fact, Fiction and Form, not only asked the extent to which fact was necessary in a biography but to what extent did the biographer alter fact to fit theme and pattern? Nadel believed that the biographer has every right to change facts to make a psychological or artistic point. (27)

For the historian, this is not as alarming as it might sound. The employment of fictional techniques in biography need not lead to tensions between biography and history. The historian Simon Schama utilised a variety of techniques in his work, Dead Certainties. (28) Schama adopted an unconventional approach, not only in respect of his choice of biographical subjects (neither of who knew each other) but in his method. He used art, in this case paintings, to illuminate significant perspectives of a person's life by employing techniques of `fragmentation, echoes, variations of narrative perspectives, parodies and pastiches'. (29) Importantly for historians, Schama also provided an explanation of what part of his work was based on primary sources and what was purely imagined fiction. Thus, because it is possible to separate a factual account in this work from a fictionalised one, the problems of incompatibility can be overcome.

Many historians demonstrate a similar concern about the use of psychoanalytic techniques in historical writing. Psychobiography and psychohistory are generally deemed to have begun with Freud's study Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910). Yet historians have been less enthusiastic than literary biographers and political scientists about employing psychoanalytic theory. Reasons are varied and extend from outright prejudice, ranging from Roland Bainton's quip: `there are grave difficulties in psychoanalyzing the dead' (a response to attempts to furnish psychological explanations of Luther) to more considered critiques based on a number of works. (30)

Many of these biographical interpretations have been failures because, as Walter Phillips has argued, they are often `not real attempts at biography based on original research but rather attempts to force the psychological interpretation on to a subject using an existing more conventional biography'. (31) Phillips suggested that this may be the reason why historians shy away from writing psychobiographies: the historian is committed to evidence which he/she must interpret albeit imaginatively. But the historian must begin with a fact -- and not a theory that he/she seeks facts to justify. (32)

Clearly, then, the nature of biography and certain aspects of its methodological form have led to a somewhat cautious reception by historians to biography's application for permanent residence in the field of historiography. Some of the more common arguments for excluding biography have been the `great man in history' thesis, and the fact that biography is elitist, reductionist and merely too easily undertaken. Most of these arguments appear somewhat dated and few historians today would see biography as a return to an anachronistic approach to history writing.

As Walter Runyan asserts, no modern historian would deny that Hitler or Lenin or Mao Zedong influenced historical events or suggest that studies of them would not enlighten any historical explanation of the rise and fall of Nazi Germany, the Russian Revolution or China's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Moreover, the charge of elitism carries little weight in terms of contemporary biographical writing which encompasses a range of social strata, genders and ethnicities. The valid claim that history should never be reduced to the sum total of individual biographies can be countered by arguing that it is equally reductionist to claim that an understanding of individual actors adds nothing to an analysis of the history of groups, social movements, institutions and nations. While the superficial nature of some biographies cannot be denied, their presence should not be permitted to contaminate the craft as a whole. A serious biography is far from easily done. It requires the committed examination of a range of sources, an extensive knowledge of the subject's socio-historical world and a refined literary skill in presentation. (33)

Nevertheless, whilst the relationship between the writing of history and historical biography remains clouded and there is some tendency on the part of both biographers and historians to emphasise the differences rather than the similarities in their respective crafts, there are numerous examples of shared approaches and techniques. There has always been a close relationship between the two and recent advances in both suggest a greater synthesis is possible. (34)

Biography -- Uses and Method

It is fair to say that western post-war social history -- the `new' social history, of which labour history forms part -- has made some attempt to embrace methods by which biography might be more usefully integrated with historical writing. All historians deal in biography. Some of the `new' social historians, however, believed they could go further. They argued that, by gaining some knowledge of a particular society, the isolated social event or individual could be employed as a conduit to acquire a more profound understanding of that society. (35)

A good example of this methodology can be found in Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms, a study of Domenico Scandella, an obscure miller from north-eastern Italy. (36) Scandella was a casualty of the Spanish Inquisition in the sixteenth century and Ginzburg, by examining the comprehensive documentation dealing with the case, was able to construct much of his subject's belief system which in turn provided a valuable insight into other matters, particularly peasant religion. Ginzburg is adamant that the scope of his study is broader than biography and this is hardly contestable given the obscurity of his subject. Nevertheless, biography is obviously its frame and provides certainty and direction to the discussion of other matters. (37)

It is also clear that biography underpins much of the methodology of feminist history. Over the past two decades or so we have learned much of the hitherto neglected role of women in the history of labour, and biography has played a major part in the development of feminist historiography. But perhaps even more than that, biography is seen by some feminists as a useful tool in the cause of feminist politics. In acknowledging that the genre of biography is important for feminism at a time when feminist theory is progressing increasingly through the study of the work of social scientists, biographers and historians, the feminist historian Rachel Gutierrez argues that the interest in the lives of women `will fill a large vacuum left in historiography, introducing new significant protagonists in history'. (38) Whilst conceding that feminism is not just interested in exceptional women, Gutierrez claims that the role of the biography of the exceptional woman can be seen as the key to understanding the social injustices inflicted, historically, on women themselves. (39)

Joy Damousi also identified a political purpose in discovering and exposing the lives of women agitators and writers `whose organisations, endeavours and utopias have been rendered irrelevant by masculinist history'. (40) Whilst acknowledging the role that biographies of women activists have played in advancing feminism and feminist history, Damousi argued many have been restrictive by being trapped within a fixed empirical model. Mere descriptive biography, she claims, has the effect of marginalising women's voices and their experience. (41)

Damousi developed a model of feminist biography in which empirical study is accompanied by an examination of a feminine political subjectivity. She used the example of female activist and agitators within the Communist Party of Australia during the 1920s and examined how these women made sense of the world through communist discourse as well as describing the role they played within the party. She demonstrated how this method could expand our understanding of why they joined, why they stayed in such a masculinist party, and why they resisted other groups. On a broader level, Damousi saw this relationship between experience and political subjectivity as increasing our historical understanding of the ways in which women negotiate their world in particular time and places. (42)

Biography has also undergone a recent resurgence within the history of science. In the early part of the twentieth century, this specialism had been largely characterised by a biographical approach but following the professionalisation of history and philosophy in the academy after the 1940s, biography became sidelined from mainstream theoretical frameworks. Any interest in the process of discovery was shunned by the philosophers of science who firmly embraced positivism; what defined science for them was rigorous method. Thus science was now to be understood as a selection of institutionally based cognitive disciplines, a situation which was later confirmed through scholarly developments during the 1970s in social history and the sociology of scientific knowledge, particularly through the work of Thomas Kuhn and Michel Foucault. (43)

This renewed interest in scientific biography among historians over the last two decades or so seems to have led to a shared belief among recent biographers of science that biography, properly investigated and researched from primary source material in careful chronological detail, `can yield the integration of intellectual and institutional narrative, of cultural and economic life, that is now valued in social and historical studies of science'. This, and a recent interest in collective biography, seems to indicate a departure from an earlier position where biography was often viewed as a point of resistance to more common accounts of the nature of science. (44)

Robert Young, for instance, used historical biographical sources of Charles Darwin to explain how epochal causes acted through individuals. They do so, he concluded, through influences (the ideas of others), through social class, the location of the subject, and through historically specific factors which influence the individual's inner life. In Darwin's case, Young identified the ideas of Malthus, Paley and Lyell as influences and Darwin's interment in Wesminister Abbey as an indication of his secure location within the Victorian middle class. (45) Young concluded that `biography is neither finally personal nor historical but the crucible in which we can forge the best understanding of those forces'. (46)

Almost contemporaneously with the revival of interest in biography as a method in the history of science, the field of historical sociology has provided opportunities for biography to play a similar role. The catalyst for such opportunities has been the emergence of an interest in the employment of narrative form in historical sociological writing. There has been a movement away from `the grand theorizing and totalizing modes towards temporality and narrative analysis'. (47) Recent scholarship in the field has demonstrated a propensity to emphasise social structure, human agency and historical contingency. An example of this, which demonstrates its particular relevance for the writing of labour history, can be found in Howard Kimeldorf's research into the east coast and west coast longshoremen of North America. Kimeldorf attempted to explain why the two bodies eventually embraced divergent political orientations. The east coast embraced a conservative unionism whilst its counterpart formed a radical one. The question Kimeldorf wanted to answer was why there was some `socialism' in the west and why some radicals achieved prominent positions. His research strategy involved an examination of both structure and the agency of workers, combining sociological analysis and historical narrative. Kimeldorf concluded that both human agency and social structure were significant in the establishment of the radical union, the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. (48)

Moreover, Gotham and Fox have argued that in the field of urban sociology, there has been a move to extend the usual preoccupation with identifying the apparent causes of poverty (determining whether race, class or gender is the preeminent variable) to narrative explanations emphasising the `interconnectedness and mutually enforcing character of class, race and gender inequality' and their differing meanings over time. Thus what is being done now is, not only examining the structure of social inequalities through the prisms of race, class and gender, but also at the level of personal biography, group and community, and social institutions. (49)

In an example of more relevance to Australian labour history, British sociologist Bill Williamson wrote about the life of his grandfather, a Northumberland miner. (50) Although the focus is on one man and his family, the book's central purpose is an account of the changes which occurred in the society and community in which he lived. Williamson explained his work as being concerned with `several interlocking trajectories of change and two major historical transitions'. The trajectories involve the rise of the organised labour movement and the decline of British liberalism, movements in the character of trade unionism in mining, and structural changes in the mining industry itself. At a community level, the growth of local institutions, the co-operative store, the chapels and the working men's club are investigated and so too is the more abstruse changes in the meaning and significance of community for the people who live in the mining village. But for Williamson, the book's chief objective, apart from writing about the life of the subject, was to demonstrate that biography is a form of narrative and analysis `appropriate to the study of social change and representing a way of reconciling the work of historians and sociologists'. (51)

Australian Labour History and Biographical Method

Traditionally, Australian labour historiography has followed a fairly narrow path. Beginning with work mainly directed towards the formation and development of trade unions and the Labour parties, it broadened somewhat through Coghlan's Labour and Industry in Australia (1918) but essentially remained in this form until the 1960s. Prior to the 1960s, Australian labour history writing had been shaped by preoccupations with nationalism and national identity and the dominance of an Oxbridge bias. Its historiography had been ruled by an Old Left school for over forty years whose Marxism had been spawned from the experiences of the great depression and the popular front policy of the Communist Party in the 1930s. By the 1960s, this school found itself challenged by the critiques of the New Left. (52)

New Left ideology had developed from the experiences of the anti-war, Aboriginal rights and women's liberation movements. For the most part, the New Left critique was delivered in the form of accusations of failure to deal with definitions of class, ignoring race and gender issues, and neglecting to develop any alternative historical methodology. At the same time, the emerging feminist historians began to demand an end to the dominance of a stubborn concern with male dominated trade unions and progressive political parties that emphasised the male characteristic of mateship. (53) Since the 1970s we have seen the gradual emergence of a more confident Australian labour historiography, exhibiting a growing diversification of methodological approaches in which issues of class, gender, and race have achieved a lasting recognition. (54)

Labour biography in Australian has for the most part mirrored labour historiography. Early work was as much autobiographical as biographical. In 1934 Jack Lang published his Why I Fight and in 1939 E H Lane, left-leaning labour journalist, former Australian Workers' Union official and the brother of William Lane, published his memoirs in Dawn to Dusk: Reminiscences of a Rebel. But at around the same time, Lloyd Ross self-published his William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement (1935) and H V Evatt's biography of the former New South Wales premier William Holman emerged (1940). By the early 1960s, biographies of W M Hughes, Ben Chifley and the trade union leader Harry Holland were on the shelves.

Biographies proliferated during the 1970s. Amongst these, in order of appearance, were Vince Kelly's William McKell, John Robertson's Scullin, D J Murphy's T J Ryan, Helen Radi and Peter Spearritt's Jack Lang, Lloyd Ross' Curtin, Brian Kiernan's Calwell, L F Fitzhardinge's second volume on Hughes and Don Watson's Brian Fitzpatrick and Murphy's Ken Laidlaw: A White Collar Union Leader. The output of biographies hardly lessened during the last two decades of the twentieth century with those of Labour politicians dominating a field which in itself has helped to perpetuate a circumscribed historical tradition.

Most Australian labour biography falls into the province of political rather than industrial labour. There are few stand alone biographies of trade union leaders, although rank and file militants such as Paddy Troy have attracted some attention. Labour intellectuals, such as Lloyd Ross who was also a trade union leader, have not been entirely ignored. (55) The long-time Worker editor, labour activist and literary figure, Henry Boote, however, has been neglected apart from an Australian Dictionary of Biography entry, and women labour activists such as Edna Ryan have also yet to receive the biographical recognition they deserve. Moreover, if one adopts a holistic approach to labour history, there has been little attention paid to the role of employers although the field of arbitration has been somewhat better served with biographies of members of the industrial bench. (56)

Whilst there has not been any definitive assessment of Australian labour biography, it is canvassed in Kate White's assessment of Australian political biography. (57) White suggests that `Australian political biographies do not give us much insight into Australian political behaviour; they lack the immediacy of social history and the drama and intrigue of political history' . (58) White found no reasons for such an uncritical approach but suggested one may well be the difficult, exacting nature of the biographer's task. She argued that some of the deficiencies which can be identified within Australian political biography -- a clear lack of reflection, a prevalence of apologia and an avoidance of a multi-faceted approach drawing on sociological and psychological techniques -- may well be explained by the long tradition of the Whig interpretation of historical writing amongst the many historians who have written political biographies.

The Whig/anti-Whig historical debate which emerged during the 1960s and 1970s is still rekindled from time to time although it has now been somewhat overtaken by debates over post modernist historiographical approaches. Some historian/biographers have recently been prepared to employ some of the techniques envisaged by White -- for example Judith Brett's portrait of Sir Robert Menzies in Robert Menzies' Forgotten People and John Rickard's innovative approach to aspects of Alfred Deakin's life, A Family Romance: The Deakins at Home, which almost assumes the character of a novel. (59) Similar approaches have been neglected in the field of labour biography and it is arguable whether they would advance the role of biography in general labour historiography given the example of the poor psychological technique employed in Stan Anson's biography of former prime minister and labour leader Bob Hawke. (60)

Nevertheless, modern historical biographers have shown a readiness to abandon many of the characteristics of traditional biography and adopt a more scholarly and critical approach to the subject. Placing the subject in the context of their social, economic and political environment and using the biographical subject in concert with alternative sources and materials will not only allow an analysis of the role and influence of the subject within the organisation but can often illuminate the structure and role of the organisation. This approach could be applied equally to a trade union, political party, employer organisation or an individual workplace and it is within this synthesis of biographical method and structural historical analysis that the role of labour biography needs to be defined.

Biographical Method and Some Suggestions for Labour Historiography

Whilst examining current trends in the history of science and in historical sociology is useful in considering how biography as a methodological device might play a larger role in labour historiography, some steps in this direction have been taken already in labour history itself, particularly in the context of labour movement leadership.

Stephen McBride has used this method specifically to examine leadership roles in British trade unions. Surveying the theoretical literature on leadership, McBride identified several leadership roles towards which union leaders might be disposed. Then, utilising and adapting the functional typology of unions developed by Robert Hoxie in the 1920s -- business unionism, social reform unionism and radical or revolutionary unionism -- he illustrated how a leader's personal disposition provides one way by which leadership might be classified. (61)

Importantly, however, McBride recognised the need to go further by acknowledging the environmental (economic and political) context in which union leaders operate. So he drew upon micro-biographical studies of a number of British trade unionists, to demonstrate how the interaction between disposition and context can provide a framework for analysing trade union leadership. (62) Whilst conceding that any precise assessment of the dilemmas facing individual union leaders require an in depth examination of individual careers, McBride argued that the concepts of context and disposition does provide a useful framework for the comparison (his emphasis) of union leaders and their performance of the leadership function. McBride made the further point that, in principle, the framework has broader applicability in the field. (63)

Kevin Theakston's work seems more broadly applicable to institutional history than McBride's framework. (64) It set out to test the viability of a biographical approach in the study of public administration and the application of theories of leadership to senior British civil servants. Theakston argued that biography, particularly comparative biography, is `unduly' neglected as a political science but has immense potential for the study of administrative leadership. He suggested that by employing biographical case studies -- examining the personal qualities, careers and achievements of top mandarins -- it is possible to illuminate the exercise of leadership in Whitehall and the changing role and culture of the civil service as well as the history and the study of the contemporary practice of public administration. (65) Theakston undertook nine biographical case studies of British civil service mandarins. He chose them, firstly, on the basis of their contributions to public service and, secondly, because their individual work histories were related contextually to wider issues and themes in the development of the Whitehall system. (66)

Theakston's study sought to demonstrate that there are different ways in which leadership can be exercised within an institution and that it is possible to analyse the opportunities for and the constraints on leadership encouraged or imposed by the internal and external political environment of the organisation. It also provided a framework in which his qualitative evidence could be employed to assess change over time in the character and workings of the institution. (67)

Despite these other shortcomings, Theakston's methodology would be particularly useful if applied to the study of Australian labour institutions. There does not seem to have been any attempt to employ collective biography in the manner proposed to study trade union leaders in Australian labour historiography. Where biography exists in a form in this specialism it does so as individual biography. However, research undertaken in the field of administrative historiography in Britain has suggested that individual biography might well constitute an inadequate base from which to generate or explore general theories of administrative behaviour, administrative culture or administrative change. It seems reasonable to assume that similar difficulties would be encountered in employing this method in relation to labour historiography. (68)

Theakston's model would fit nicely in a comparative biographical case study analysis of leadership within say, the Australian Workers' Union. An historical focus is, of course, a necessary ingredient in the methodological mix when studying an individual trade union and the `critical juncture' factor employed by Theakston would also be important here. For example, Edward Grayndler's incumbency (1912-41) as general secretary could be usefully analysed at the time of the conscription crisis of 1916-17, the unsuccessful One Big Union campaign of 1919-23 in which the AWU was seen as the villain, and during the great depression 1931-4 where the union fought against Otto Niemeyer, Jack Lang, and a rank and file uprising. W G Spence, the union's first president and general secretary (1894-98), would provide a study of leadership during the fledgling union's struggle through the 1890s and its subsequent influence in the formation of federal Labour. A study of Tom Dougherty, who deposed Beecher Hay as general secretary in 1944 and occupied that position until his death in 1972, would permit the union leadership to be analysed at the critical junctures of the ALP splits of the 1950s, the 1955 shearers strike and the 1961 Mount Isa dispute. It would also provide insights into the battles between the leadership and Clyde Cameron's `membership control group' during the early 1960s.

The suggested model also permits the study of different types of leaders. Although he never held the presidency or general secretaryship, Worker editor Henry Boote was every bit a leader in the sense of the influence he wielded amongst the AWU hierarchy and the rank and file, and in the important contribution he made to the development of the AWU in an association that lasted almost fifty years. This would seem to be consistent with Theakston's view. One of his leadership selections was Derek Rayner who, though never a permanent head of a Civil Service department as were the rest of Theakston's choices, qualified for inclusion on the basis of his influence within the bureaucracy as an `adviser' to Prime Minister Thatcher. (69)

The strength of using comparative biography as a method lies in the fact that it goes beyond the normal biographical format of the description of the life of a particular person. Comparative biography permits the use of biographies as case studies, which then facilitates attempts to link theory with practice, to generalise, and to test and evaluate theories about issues such as leadership in organisations such as trade unions and provide additional insights into how trade unions developed. By the use of multiple and comparative, as opposed to individual, case studies, it is possible to overcome the objections of those who argue that because all case studies deal with the exceptional, they inevitably reduce or qualify the scope for generalisation. As recent studies of leadership in public bureaucracies has demonstrated, there is much to be gained by employing a biographical case study methodology which allows leadership to be studied and analysed from a historical perspective. (70)


The writing of history and of biography have traditionally been companionable pursuits. Whilst historians and biographers over time have often taken different directions in performing their respective tasks, the relationship between history and biography has always been a close one.

The last twenty years or so have witnessed a renewed interest in biography and its employment as a methodological device in researching in the social sciences. More particularly, there is a growing trend in administrative and organisational studies to use qualitative methods, specifically the biographical case study, to extend the boundaries of these disciplines. This process, rather than marginalising the individual, creates greater opportunities to demonstrate the role of human agency in historical context as the most useful model in studying the history and contemporary practice of activities and analysing organisations and institutions.

Obviously, biography's claim that people do matter must be supported with an analysis that can assess the extent to which they matter and to identify under what conditions or what circumstances they do make a difference. As Theakston rightly points out in biographical research it is critical that we be alert to the links between an individual story and that person's institutional location. There must also be an analysis of the historical context, the system, the prevailing traditions, and the general circumstances of the period. (71)

The analytical tools utilised in recent work of this nature in the area of public administration seem adaptable enough to permit similar research in respect of the institutions of labour, particularly trade unions. This may well provide the means for biography to play a more active role in labour historiography and the study of contemporary industrial relations. Biography used in this manner is as important a methodological tool in explaining the way the way institutions or organisations function as is the creation of hypothetical models or large-scale statistical studies.


(1) Thomas Soderqvist, `Existential projects and existential choice in science: Science biography as an edifying genre' in Michael Shortland and Richard Yeo (eds), Telling Lives In Science. Essays in Scientific Biography, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1996, p 46.

(2) Quoted in William McKinley Runyan (ed), Psychology and Historical Interpretation, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988, pp 34-5.

(3) Particularly the journal Biography published by the University of Hawaii; E Homberger and J Charmley (eds), The Troubled Face of Biography, Macmillan, London, 1988; Anthony Friedson, New Directions in Biography, The University Press of Hawaii, 1981 and S B Oates (ed), Biography as High Adventure, University of Massachusetts Press, Massachusetts, 1986.

(4) Quoted in R Skidelsky, `Only connect: Biography and truth', in E Homberger and J Charmley (eds), The Troubled Face of Biography, Macmillan Press, London, 1988, p 1.

(5) ibid.

(6) R Gittings, The Nature of Biography, Heinemann, London, 1978, pp 19-22.

(7) ibid., pp 34-7.

(8) R Skidelsky, op. cit., p 6.

(9) Virginia Woolf in L James Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art. Selected Criticism 1560-1960, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1962, p 133.

(10) Lord David Cecil, in Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art, p 151.

(11) Clifford, `Introduction' in Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art, p xvii.

(12) Sir Lewis Namier, in Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art, pp 188-189.

(13) C V Wedgewood, in Clifford (ed), Biography as an Art, p 217.

(14) S B Oates, `Prologue' in Biography as High Adventure, pp ix-xiii.

(15) ibid., p xi.

(16) ibid., p x.

(17) ibid.

(18) Particularly Marxists, Annalists, some social historians and quantifers who argue that historical interpretation is underpinned by structures and processes and who view historical biography as reductionist. See Richard Broome, `Introduction' in R Broome (ed), Tracing Past Lives. The Writing of Historical Biography, The History Institute, Victoria, 1995, p viii.

(19) Sir Harold Nicholson in Clifford (ed), Biography as Art, p 197.

(20) Paul Murray Kendall, `Walking the Boundaries' in Oates, op. cit., pp 32-3.

(21) N C Manganyi, `Biography: The black South African connection' in Friedson, op. cit., pp 52-3; 60.

(22) Richard Broome, `Introduction', op. cit., p ix.

(23) Barbara W Tuchman, `Biography as a Prism of History', in Oates, op. cit., pp 93-4; Barbara W Tuchman, The Proud Tower, Bantam Books, New York, 1985, ch. 6.

(24) Victoria Glendinning, `Lies and silences' in Homberger and Charmley, op. cit., pp 49-62.

(25) ibid., p 56.

(26) E H Carr, What is History?, Penguin Books, Harmonsworth, 1985, pp 29-30.

(27) Victoria Glendinning, `Lies and silences' in Homberger and Charmley, op. cit., p 56.

(28) Simon Schama, Dead Certainities, Knopf, New York, 1991.

(29) Carole Lambert, `Postmodern biography: Lively hypotheses and dead certainities', Biography, vol 18, no 4, 1995, p 308.

(30) Runyan, op. cit., pp 12-19 and generally for a discussion of the history of psychohistory.

(31) Walter Phillips, `Historians, biography and history' in Broome, op. cit., p 7.

(32) ibid., p 6.

(33) Runyan, op. cit., pp 35-9.

(34) See, for example, S Baron and C Pletsch (eds), Introspection in Biography, Hillsdale, NJ, 1985.

(35) Jim Sharpe, `History from below' in P Burke (ed), New Perspectives on Historical Writing, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1991, pp 34-5. Sharpe notes that this methodological device, known as `thick description', is used by anthopologists.

(36) Carlo Ginsburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller, Dorset Press, New York, 1980.

(37) Mark Phillips, `The revival of narrative: Thoughts on a current historiographical debate, The University of Toronto Quarterly, no 53, February 1984, p 159.

(38) Rachel Gutierrez, `What is Feminist Biography?', in Teresa Iles (ed), All Sides of the Subject. Women and Biography, Teachers College Press, New York, 1992, pp 49-50.

(39) ibid., p 54.

(40) Joy Damousi, `Feminist Biography' in Broome, op. cit., p 34.

(41) ibid., p 35.

(42) ibid., pp 40-1.

(43) Shortland and Yeo, op. cit., pp 4-5.

(44) ibid., p 6.

(45) ibid., pp 214-17.

(46) ibid., pp 218-19.

(47) Kevin Fox Gotham and William G Staples, `Narrative analysis and the new historical sociology', Sociological Quarterly, vol 37, no 3, Summer 1996, p 483.

(48) Howard Kimeldorf, Reds or Rackets? The Making of Radical and Conservative Unions on the Waterfront, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1988. Kimeldorf's book is one of a number included in a review essay by Fatma Gocek, `Wither historical sociology?', Historical Methods, vol 28, no 2, Spring 1995, p 107-16. See also Bill Williamson, Class, Culture and Community. A Biographical Study of Social Change in Mining, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1982.

(49) ibid., p 491.

(50) Williamson, op. cit.

(51) ibid.,p 1.

(52) John Merritt, `Labour History' in G Osborne and W F Mandle (eds), The New History. Studying Australia Today, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1982, pp 113-19.

(53) G Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Chesire, Sydney, 1991, pp 9-11, 191; Ann Curthoys, `Historiography and women's liberation', Arena, no 22, 1970.

(54) Patmore, op. cit., pp 13-14.

(55) Smart Macintyre, Militant. The Life and Times of Paddy Troy, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984; Stephen Holt, A Veritable Dynamo. Lloyd Ross and Australian Labour 1901-1987, University of Queensland Press, Brisbane, 1996.

(56) Christopher Cuneen, Sir William John McKell Boilermaker, Premier, Governor General, University of New South Wales Press, Sydney, 2000; Braham Dabscheck, Arbitrator at Work. Sir William Raymond Kelly and the Regulation of Australian Industrial Relations, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1983; Constance Lamour, Labour Judge: The Life and Times of Judge Alfred William Foster, Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1985; John Rickard, H B Higgins. The Rebel as a Judge, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1984. Edna Ryan's daughter, Lyndall, is currently writing a biography of her mother.

(57) Kate White, `Towards an assessment of Australian poliitical biography', Politics, vol 16, no 1, May 1981, pp 130-4.

(58) ibid., p 130.

(59) Judith Brett, Robert Menzies' Forgotten People, Macmillan Australia, Sydney, 1992; John Rickard, A Family Romance. The Deakins at Home, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1996.

(60) Stan Anson, Hawke: An Emotional Life, McPhee Gribble, 1991.

(61) Stephen McBride, `Trade union leadership in capitalist society: Between context and disposition', Studies in History and Politics (Canada), vol 5, 1986, pp 1-7.

(62) ibid.

(63) ibid.

(64) Kevin Theakston, `Comparative biography and leadership in Whitehall', Public Administration, no 75, Winter 1997, pp 651-67.

(65) ibid., p 651.

(66) ibid., p 654.

(67) ibid. See also Kevin Theakston, Leadership in Whitehall, Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 1999 and Kevin Theakston, Bureaucrats and Leadership, Macmillan Press Ltd, London, 2000.

(68) J Harris, `William Beveridge in Whitehall: Maverick or mandarin?' in R MacLeod (ed), Government and Expertise, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1988, p 224 cited in Theakston, `Comparative biography and leadership in Whitehall', op. cit., p 653.

(69) ibid.

(70) Theakston, `Compartive Biography and Leadership in Whitehall' op. cit., p 653.

(71) ibid., p 665.

Harry Knowles is a labour historian who teaches in Work and Organisational Studies in the School of Business at the University of Sydney. He is co-author, with Mark Hearn, of One Big Union. A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994 (Cambridge University Press). Harry is a former postgraduate student of Duncan Waterson and credits Duncan with fostering his interest in biography and its role in the writing of history.