The Annales, Braudel, and Historical Sociology

Peter Burke. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

If they were asked to name a few great historical sociologists, I imagine that most people interested in the field would mention Karl Marx, Max Weber and Norbert Elias (a heretical Weberian who chose to combine the insights of the master with those of Sigmund Freud). The answer prompts an obvious question: what about France? Given the importance of the French in social theory from ‘mile Durkheim to Pierre Bourdieu,’ and also in innovative historical writing, from Lucien Febvre to Roger Chartier, one might reasonably expect a positive answer to this question. To explore possible answers is the purpose of this chapter. It will begin by discussing Durkheim and his followers, before focusing on the work of Fernand Braudel (1902-85).

Durkheim and his School

Durkheim himself was interested in history, though also concerned to legitimate his own sociological enterprise by distinguishing its approach from that of history, on one side, and philosophy, on the other. On the one hand, his lectures on the history of French education (published posthumously in 1938 under the title L’évolution pédagogique en France) bear witness to a serious interest in the past. On the other hand, in the preface to his journal, the Année Sociologique Durkheim (1896), criticized the historians of his day for being too much interested in ephemeral events, ‘superficial manifestations’ as he called them, and too little concerned with what mattered, with social structures and collective representations (cf Bellah, 1965 [1959]).

Durkheim’s interest in the past was shared by his major collaborators and followers. The famous Essay on the Gift (Essai sur le don) by Marcel Mauss, for instance, first published in the Année in 1923-4, is essentially a study in the comparative history of what Mauss called ‘archaic societies.’ The equally famous book by Maurice Halbwachs, The Social Framework of Memory (Les cadres sociaux de la mémoire, 1925) was followed by the author’s historical case-study of the legendary topography of the Holy Land, published in 1941.

Scholars in other disciplines also found the ideas of Durkheim good to think with in the course of their investigations of the past: the classicist Louis Gernet, for instance, and the sinologist Marcel Granet, whose Chinese Thought (La pensée chinoise, 1934) was a study of collective representations in the style of Durkheim. Most famous of all, the historian Marc Bloch made a constructive use of Durkheim in two masterpieces, The Royal Touch (Les rois thaumaturges, 1924) and Feudal Society, (La société féodale, 1939-40).

In the first of these studies, Bloch described medieval and early modern views of the kings of France and England in the Durkheimian manner as ‘collective representations.’ This approach, which may be and has been criticized for emphasizing the group at the expense of individual variations, was and remains valuable for its stress on what is taken for granted, on beliefs which people do not know they hold. Bloch’s approach has been followed and refined by one of the leading French medievalists of the Annales group, Jacques Le Goff.

In the second study, Bloch did not ignore conflict; indeed he explained the rise of feudalism as a response to the invasions of Western Europe by the Muslims, the Vikings and the Hungarians. All the same, he concentrated not on the tensions within feudal society, as did Marx, for example, but rather on the new forms of social solidarity characteristic of the high Middle Ages, notably the bond between the lord and his vassals.

Another sign of Bloch’s interest in historical sociology was his participation in the Nineteenth International Congress of Sociology, held in Bucharest in 1939. His contribution on that occasion was a paper on the relation between social structures and types of dwelling in rural France (Mastrogregori, 2001: 74).

Together with his friend and senior colleague Lucien Febvre, Marc Bloch was the founder, in 1929, of the journal Annales d’histoire ‘conomique et sociale,’ a journal which was intended to revolutionize the practice of history and to a considerable extent succeeded in so doing. Modelled on the Année Sociologique, the new journal was avowedly trans-disciplinary from the start and the editorial committee included a sociologist (Maurice Halbwachs, who was succeeded in this role by Georges Friedmann) as well as a geographer, an economist and a political scientist.

For one example of what the journal was doing in practice, one might note the article in the first volume in which Halbwachs (1929) drew the attention of readers to the work of Max Weber. However, the journal itself was only the tip of an iceberg. It was associated with what is sometimes called the ‘Annales school’ of history, characterized by a broad concern with economic, social and cultural history, rather than with politics in the narrow sense, and with structures and long-term trends rather than events.

There was certainly a social group and an intellectual movement associated with Annales, and perhaps an ‘Annales paradigm’ as well, although it was a vaguer and more open one than, say, that associated with Karl Marx (Burke, 1990; Clark, 1985; Stoianovitch, 1976). The problem with the term ‘school’ is that it implies too great a degree of uniformity within the group. Despite their admiration for each other, Febvre, for example, was a strong voluntarist, while Braudel was close to geographical determinism. Indeed, it was a strength of the Annales movement that the followers felt free to diverge from their leaders in many respects, thus sustaining intellectual creativity over three or four generations. After the death of Marc Bloch in 1944 (fighting in the Resistance), and of his older colleague Lucien Febvre in 1956, the leadership of the Annales group or movement passed to Fernand Braudel.

Fernand Braudel and Social Theory

If we believe that sociology should be concerned with the past as well as the present, we have to consider a question rather like Plato’s about philosophers and kings: is it better for historians to become sociologists or for sociologists to turn historians? Sociologists who turn to history rarely go beyond the secondary sources and show too much respect for the professional historians. On the other hand, historians are not accustomed, or indeed trained, to make grand comparisons or even to work with general concepts, and they often view the whole past through the lens of the particular period in which they have specialized. Even Arnold Toynbee, who created his own conceptual framework, viewed the whole of human history with the eyes of the classicist he was originally trained to become.

What is needed, perhaps, is a scholar who is unsure of his or her identity. One of the greatest—though insufficiently known—historical sociologists of the twentieth century, the Brazilian Gilberto Freyre (1900-87), entitled one of his many books. Why I am and am not a Sociologist (1968). Braudel, who knew and admired the work of Freyre, might very well have done the same. There can be no doubt of his lifelong concern with what he called the ‘sciences sociales,’ or ‘sciences de homme.’ Like Durkheim and Lévi-Strauss (his colleague in São Paulo in the thirties), he was interested in structures rather than events, and tended to dismiss a focus on ‘event-centred history (histoire événementielle) as superficial. He found events interesting as evidence, signs of what lay beneath them, but considered them to be as ephemeral—to use a favourite metaphor of his—as the light of the fireflies of Bahia. He was an omnivorous reader of social science, in German and English as well as in French, but he constantly criticized social scientists’ preoccupation with the present, with the short term.

An academic man of action as well as a scholar, Braudel put a good deal of his impressive energy into organizing the social sciences in France, obtaining money from the Rockefeller Foundation which was used to set up the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and, later, the Maison des Sciences de l’Homme. Braudel was in charge of both. He has often been accused of imperialism, of assuming the intellectual hegemony of history, but he was genuinely interested in the social sciences.

On the other hand, he was rather less enthusiastic about sociology in the strict sense than he was about geography, economics and anthropology. His debt to historical geography in general and to the work of Friedrich Ratzel and Paul Vidal de la Blache in particular is obvious enough in the first part of his masterpiece on the Mediterranean (Braudel, 1972-3 [1949]). Indeed, he once described Vidal as ‘the author I have read most, who has most inspired me’ (Braudel, 1997: 135). In later works too, Braudel discussed the ideas of leading geographers such as his friend Pierre Gourou, a specialist on the Far East, and the German Walter Christaller, the founder of central place theory. In the first volume of his last, unfinished book, The Identity of France (1986), Braudel once again privileged the theme of space and the discipline of geography.

In his second major work, Civilization and Capitalism, Braudel privileged the ideas of the economists, among them John Maynard Keynes, Colin Clark (whose discussion of the tertiary sector of the economy especially impressed him), the Austrian Josef Schumpeter, the Pole Oskar Lange and the Americans Simon Kuznets and John Kenneth Galbraith, together with the economic anthropologists Bronislaw Malinowski and Karl Polanyi, who warned against abstracting economic life from society and culture, especially in traditional societies (cf. Block and Sommers, 1984). In the orchestra of the social sciences, as Braudel viewed it, sociology played not so much second fiddle as fourth, after history, geography and economics.

That said, it remains true that Braudel’s sympathy for and knowledge of sociology contrasts with the neglect of (not to say contempt for) the discipline displayed by many leading historians in the fifties and sixties (with important exceptions such as Asa Briggs). The special appeal of sociology to Braudel was its holistic or ‘totalizing’ approach, the fact that it was what he called a ‘science globale,’ concerned with all human activities and the connections between them. In similar fashion, he described his own style of history as histoire totale or histoire globale, not because it included every detail or was concerned with every continent, but because it was an attempt to see history as a whole. No wonder then that he sometimes described sociology and history as inseparable and indistinguishable disciplines, ‘a single intellectual adventure’ (Braudel, 1980b [1958]).

Which sociologists did Braudel read? Within the French tradition, he cited Auguste Comte and ‘mile’ Durkheim (Braudel, 1997: 37-8), but he seems to have learned more from Mauss and Halbwachs. Mauss he met in 1937, and his Mediterranean made extensive use of Mauss’s lecture of 1930 on the elements and forms of civilizations (Mauss, 1968 [1931]). Braudel later quoted Mauss on technology (1981 [1979]: Vol. 1). In a lecture of 1955, Braudel underlined the importance of a study by Halbwachs (1938) on social morphology for his own book on the Mediterranean. He also made references to the work of Roger Bastide, whom he knew in Brazil in the thirties, and, among the sociologists of a younger generation, to Pierre Bourdieu (Braudel, 1981 [1979]: Vol. 2, 422). Philippe Steiner’s claim that ‘for Braudel, sociology means Durkheim’ (1988: 148n) is therefore an exaggeration. It would be closer to the mark to say that ‘for Braudel, sociology was, above all, French sociology.’

Outside the French tradition, Braudel was most familiar with German sociology. His discussions of capitalism make regular reference to Marx, Weber and also to Werner Sombart. He also refers to Weber when discussing China, the modern state, bureaucracy and the city (Braudel, 1981 [1979]: Vol. 2, 490; 1997: 427-8). Guenther Roth is therefore a little unfair when he claims that ‘Braudel’s sparse references to Weber in his writings suggest that he barely knows Weber’s work’ (1979: 186). How well Braudel understood Weber is another matter. Like many readers, he oversimplified Weber by interpreting him as offering an anti-Marxist explanation of the rise of capitalism in terms of ideas, of mentalities (Steiner, 1988). All the same, Weber was a major point of reference for Braudel’s studies of capitalism, as well as a stimulus to thought on a wider range of topics.

References to sociologists from other countries are more sparse: Vilfredo Pareto, for instance, on the importance of elites (Braudel, 1997: 217); Neil Smelser in the context of industrialization (1981 [1979]: Vol. 3, 515); C. Wright Mills on the ‘Power Elite’ (1981 [1979]: Vol. 2); or Norbert Elias on the ways in which ‘a society is forever marked and determined by its former phases, and no less by its earliest origins’ (Braudel, 1981 [1979]: Vol. 2, 490).

Braudel surely appreciated the interest of Elias in la longue durée, but he seems to have discovered him relatively late, and, in any case, Elias’s focus on attitudes rather than the harder facts of geography and economics would not have appealed to him—unlike Febvre, Braudel never took the history of mentalities seriously. Absent from his many publications is any reference to the work of Shmuel Eisenstadt (just as Braudel in his turn is conspicuously absent from Eisenstadt’s collection of readings on the decline of empires). More’s the pity, since Eisenstadt’s comparative approach in The Political Systems of Empires(1963) would certainly have appealed to Braudel, while Braudel’s theory of the alternation of periods when circumstances were favourable to great empires and periods when they were unfavourable to them deserves discussion in any sociology of imperialism.

Gurvitch, Freyre and Wallerstein

I have left to the end two of the most important names, from Braudel’s point of view. The first is that of Georges Gurvitch (1894-1965), with whom Braudel was in regular dialogue and debate, especially in the 1950s. The second is that of Immanuel Wallerstein, with whom Braudel virtually collaborated in the 1970s. To these a third name might be added, that of a sociologist to whom Braudel was apparently more reluctant to acknowledge his debt: Gilberto Freyre.

Braudel’s relationship with Gurvitch was both amicable and adversarial. He invited Gurvitch to contribute an article on history and sociology to Annales, but prefaced the article with a note expressing his disagreement. In his turn, Gurvitch invited Braudel to contribute to a collective treatise on sociology under his direction. Both men believed in the close relations between history and sociology, but they described these relations in different ways. According to Gurvitch, the two disciplines share totalizing ambitions but differ in methods, sociologists being concerned with the typical and historians with the individual. Both disciplines are concerned with time, but historians stress continuity while sociologists emphasize discontinuity.

Braudel could not accept these formulations, but he was happy to find a sociologist who was passionately concerned with what Gurvitch called ‘the multiplicity of social times’ (ecological time, institutional time, and so on). He also appreciated Gurvitch’s holistic approach, and noted with regret what he called the ‘fragmentation’ of sociology after Gurvitch died.

Braudel’s relations with Gilberto Freyre went back much further, to the years he spent in Brazil in the late 1930s. He wrote a long and enthusiastic review article for Annales on Freyre’s work, published in 1943, when Braudel was a prisoner of war, describing Freyre as ‘a sociologist, but also a historian much more of a historian than he thinks.’ The Mediterranean cites Freyre’s work on the ‘Big House,’ but the influence of Freyre is even more obvious in a later work, Material Civilization and Capitalism, especially the first volume, published in 1967. Material Civilization was a book commissioned by Lucien Febvre. At that point, 1952, the idea was for Braudel to produce a work of synthesis on the economic history of preindustrial Europe, while Febvre himself wrote a companion volume on intellectual history.

The volume which finally appeared in 1967 was rather less conventional. In the first place, Europe was located in a world context, with comparisons and contrasts, between the grain-eaters of Europe, for instance, the rice-eaters of East Asia and the maize-eaters of the Americas. In the second place, Braudel’s book turned into a history of everyday culture. In the preface, Braudel claimed to be ‘introducing everyday life, no more no less, into the domain of history.’ The claim was unjust not only to Norbert Elias, of whose work Braudel was probably unaware at the time, but also to that of Freyre, who had long been concerned with the history of food and clothes, housing and furniture.

Immanuel Wallerstein, on the other hand, like Gurvitch, received generous acknowledgements from Braudel. Wallerstein is an American Marxist sociologist who originally specialized in Africa and decided that he could not understand modern Africa without understanding capitalism. He turned to early modern history to discover the origins of capitalism and in the process discovered Braudel. It is now somewhat difficult to work out exactly what Braudel owed to Wallerstein and what Wallerstein owed to Braudel. Each clearly learned something from the other. Wallerstein published his first volume in 1974, five years before the second and third vols of the Braudel trilogy, which make regular reference to his work. But Wallerstein’s volume makes even more frequent reference to Braudel, and he is perhaps best known as the founder of the Braudel Center at Binghamton, New York, in 1976.

Wallerstein’s achievement was to link two Marxist debates in economic history, one concerned with the Americas and the other with Eastern Europe. The American debate, in which Paul Barán, Raúl Prebisch, André Gunder Frank and others participated, was about the ‘development of underdevelopment,’ especially in Latin America. The Eastern European debate, involving Polish scholars such as Stanislas Hoszowski and Hungarians such as Lászlo Makkai, was concerned with the increasing divergence between Eastern and Western Europe around 1500, the East’s increasing dependence on the Western market, the consequent decline of the towns and the concentration on the production of raw materials. Wallerstein linked the two debates by introducing the idea of three economic regions: a centre in Western Europe; a periphery (associated with slavery) in the Americas; and a ‘semi-periphery,’ associated with serfdom, in Eastern Europe—a worldwide division of labour which worked to the advantage of the West.

Wallerstein’s global view of economic change in the early modern period appealed to Braudel, as well as being partly inspired by him, and the concepts of a ‘world economy’ and of economic centres and peripheries are central in the organization of Volumes 2 and 3 of Civilization and Capitalism.

Braudel’s Historical Sociology

We have seen that Braudel took the work of some sociologists very seriously. Is it appropriate to describe his own approach to history as a sociological one? Yes, for two reasons. At a general, rather imprecise level, because Braudel liked to think on a grand scale and take a broad or ‘global’ view of human affairs. He possessed and he communicated a vivid sense of the importance of space in human affairs, of particular micro-spaces or micro-environments such as islands or mountains as well as the macro-spaces of the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and the Pacific. At a more specific level, Braudel offered his readers three important contributions to social analysis which might be described as a sociology of time, a sociology of capitalism and a sociology of the informal economy or material culture.

The introduction to Braudel’s Mediterranean, in which he suggests that time moves at different speeds, is one of the classic discussions of what sociologists call ‘social time.’ Elaborating the common-sense contrast between the long and the short term, he distinguishes the high-profile time of events from the time of institutions and from the still slower and almost imperceptible time of environmental change (Braudel 1972-3 [1949]). In the 1950s, in a well-known polemical essay, Braudel accused the social scientists not so much of ignoring time, or change, as of restricting it unduly to the short run, thus ignoring what he called la longue durée (Braudel, 1958). If this accusation looks somewhat odd today, when, for instance, Johan Goudsblom and Andre Gunder Frank have concerned themselves with thousands rather than mere hundreds of years, we should remember that the shift in the social sciences owes something to Braudel’s example.

In the case of capitalism, one of his life-long preoccupations, Braudel was studying a subject which had interested sociologists since the origins of their discipline, which they had studied in a comparative manner, and which they had linked to the rise of modernity and the West. To identify what is distinctive in Braudel’s sociology of capitalism is not a simple task. It is easier to say what it is not than what it is.

Braudel’s approach was not a Marxist one, though he admired Marx as a master of la longue durée and found his models good to think with—or against. Nor was it a Weberian one, since—as might have been expected from the author of the Mediterranean Braudel placed considerably less emphasis on the role of Protestant merchants and bankers than Weber had done, and discussed the economic hegemony of the Venetians and the Geonese before considering the role of the Dutch and the English. Braudel also thought it necessary to offer multiple or many-sided explanations of the rise of capitalism (political cultural and social as well as economic), and—rightly or wrongly—he perceived the approaches of both Marx and Weber as unilateral ones.

Perhaps the best way to approach Braudel’s sociology of capitalism is to link it to what is more obviously distinctive in his work, his analysis of the slowly changing structures of everyday life and material culture. His emphasis on the coexistence of the market economy with the older subsistence economy throughout the early modern period is very different from the views of Marx, Weber or Polanyi, but it is both well-documented and plausible. The idea that everyday life is an important object of study was not Braudel’s alone—contributions have been made, for instance, by Weber (notably the idea ofVeralltäglichung), by Elias, by Freyre, by Henri Lefebvre and by Michel de Certeau—but he both practised and preached this approach to good effect.

Again, Braudel was neither the first nor the only historian of his day to take material culture seriously, but the rise of studies of this topic by economists, anthropologists and sociologists (for example, Appadurai, 1986), and even by specialists in literature, as well as by historians, owes not a little to Braudel’s example, as well as to that of theorists such as Thorsten Veblen.

Conclusion: Braudel’s Legacy

To what extent sociologists take Braudel seriously today it is difficult to say. In the 1960s, I remember being struck by the lack of reference to his views in the social sciences in general and in particular in Barrington Moore’s wide-ranging analysis of Democracy and Dictatorship. In the 1970s, Perry Anderson avoided intellectual engagement with Braudel’s studies, although his Lineages of the Absolutist Stateincluded chapters on Spain, Italy and the Ottoman Empire (in the 1980s, he devoted a long review to Braudel’s last book, The Identity of France). The situation was somewhat different in anthropology, where the rise of a distinctive ‘Mediterranean anthropology’ in the 1950s and 1960s was in part a conscious reaction to the stimulus provided by Braudel’s book.

By the 1990s, it was not uncommon to find Braudel cited in books written by economists, geographers and even archaeologists, as well as by sociologists. Some historical sociologists, notably Charles Tilly, have of course been familiar with Braudel’s work for a long time. Others, such as John Hall and Michael Mann, have drawn on his work in order to construct their own interpretations of change over the long term. All the same, it is my impression that Braudel has not been utilized as much as he might have been and that the challenges he issued to social scientists still await an adequate response.