We can run, but we can't hide: The need for psychological explanation in social history

Dagut, Simon
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There have been many occasions in my experience when the explanatory techniques normally used by social historians have seemed inadequate to deal with some particular process or event. No doubt this happens to every historian, but I sometimes suspect that the social world of British colonialism in nineteenth century South Africa - my particular interest - provides these moments more often than some other areas. This feeling is, no doubt, largely the result of not knowing as much about the peculiarities of other places and times, but I do think it is at least arguable that colonial encounters created more extraordinarily odd situations than many other social environments. In past work, have taken two approaches to these kinds of explanatory challenges. In the case of really bizarre material, I have simply avoided discussing it in writing and have rationalised my omissions on the grounds that this sort of thing is too atypical to be helpful in building up a broad general picture of British settlers' attitudes and experiences. In the case of more frequently occurring oddities, I have attempted to argue that they were the result of the construction of settlers' attitudes by the prevalent discourses concerning class identity and colonialism, which combined to create so great a social distance between settlers and African people that what would otherwise have seemed socially impossible became everyday and natural. Although I do, in general, stand by this analysis, I have increasingly come to feel that it needs to be supplemented. Firstly, really peculiar circumstances deserve some time in the historical spotlight by way of an adjunct to those which an historian has decided were 'normal'. Extreme cases can be very useful in revealing the limits of the normal. Secondly, explaining even the 'normal' seems to me to require the use of psychological terms and techniques, however much historians may wish that this weren't the case.
African Studies Seminar series. Paper presented 17 April, 2000
South Africa. History, South Africa. Race relations