The Limits of Social Biography: A Case Study

By Laila Parsons
Submitted to Session P4405 (The Individual as the Subject of Historical Inquiry: Four Cases from Egypt and Palestine, 2016 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The limits of social biography: a case study

Having recently completed a social biography of the Arab military officer Fawzi al-Qawuqji (1894-1976), I have been forced to grapple with the fact that an individual’s life-story can illuminate the past but also obscure it. Taking my narrative of Qawuqji’s experience of the 1948 War in Palestine as a case study, the paper will describe how adopting the vantage point of an individual Arab military commander produces new historical narratives about 1948, including nuanced accounts of: the difficult choices that individual Arab politicians and military officers made in the run-up to the war; the way that, in the middle of battle, old lines of loyalty between officers trumped new hierarchies of modern army structure; and the role of non-human elements, like weather, money, and wireless codes. These new narratives are woven into Qawuqji’s particular lived experience of the 1948 War. At the same time, adopting his vantage point leaves other important narratives in the shadows, for example, the lived experiences of foot soldiers (as opposed to officers), of women, and of the Palestinian leadership. In addition, the paper will focus on Qawuqji and 1948 to discuss the messy causal relations between the biographer’s craft and the sources, which include post-facto texts such as memoirs and archival jottings, in addition to contemporaneous documents such as letters, telegrams, memoranda and reports. Historians interested in writing biographies inevitably face many challenges when using multiple sources as a basis on which to craft a new narrative of the subject’s life and context. We have to make choices about which sources to use and which to leave out. Our sources present themselves in a variety of languages, moments, and genres, but we flatten these differences in order to make our new narrative coherent and compelling. Reflecting on this from the vantage point of a recently completed project, the paper will suggest some ways that the biographer can allude to the contingency of these choices concerning sources, without interrupting the flow of the historical story opened up by the biographical method.