Forum on “The Challenge of Biography” in the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute”

The Fall 2014 issue of the Bulletin of the German Historical Institute includes a forum on “The Challenge of Biography” edited by GHI Deputy Director Uwe Spiekermann and GHI Research Associate Atiba Pertilla. The forum was created as a follow-up to a panel at the 38th annual meeting of the Social Science History Association in Chicago, organized by Kelly McCullough and Clelia Caruso of the GHI. It includes six articles that offer a review of current and potential approaches to biography in the years since the rejuvenation of the genre in the late 1990s. In addition, the forum discusses the GHI’s Immigrant Entrepreneurship Project’s contribution to biographical research and to historical education. Two articles that frame the forum offer an examination of biography as a genre of historical scholarship. Volker Depkat (University of Regensburg) offers a nuanced assessment of the current state of biographical research in Germany and the United States in his article “The Challenges of Biography: European-American Refelctions.” Levke Harders (University of Bielefeld), in a piece titled “Legitimizing Biography: Critical Approaches to Biographical Research,” makes a strong and convincing argument for using biographies as a tool to examine “marginalized lives.” Two case studies describe how the techniques of biographical research can be used to examine not only a single life but rather to analyze broader trends. Clifton Hood (Hobart and William Smith Colleges) uses biographical information to examine both the coherence and the transformation of New York City’s metropolitan elite in the 1940s in his article “Counting Who Counts: Method and Findings of a Statistical Analysis of Economic Elites in the New York Region, 1947.” Susie Pak (St. John’s University) draws on her innovative book Gentlemen Bankers to explain the approaches she used to study the histories of the investment banking firms J.P. Morgan & Co. and Kuhn, Loeb & Co. in her piece “Writing Biography as a History of Networks: Why the Story of J.P. Morgan Needs Jacob H. Schiff.” Taking these different forms of biographical research into consideration, “Living the American Dream? The Challenge of Writing Biographies of German-American Immigrant Entrepreneurs” by Atiba Pertilla and Uwe Spiekermann (GHI), discusses the design and potential research contributions of the Immigrant Entrepreneurship Project. Finally, shifting perspective from the practice of biographical research to its use in the classroom, Isabelle Schmitz (University of Münster) assesses the benefits and challenges of using biographies in teaching history at the high school and college levels in an article titled “Biography in the History Classroom: Challenges and Applications.” All of the pieces may be downloaded from the Bulletin’s homepage.