March 12, 2022


Structures of History

Few scholars have had the theoretical, methodological, and empirical influence of William Sewell. His work has persistently scrutinized and challenged disciplinary barriers, placing historical and social scientific methods in dialogue and thereby illuminating their strengths and shortcomings. This effort is most pronounced in his 2005 book, Logics of History, which assembles deep and profound reflections on scholarly understandings of time, contingency, and path dependence. It’s in this text that Sewell presents his much cited conception of structure as a multiplicity of “schemas and resources” which combine and intersect in unpredictable ways, and makes the case for an “eventful” temporality which appreciates radical and sudden historical transformations.

Sewell’s historical work has integrated this intricate theoretical framework. His first book, Work and Revolution in France: the Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848, traces the transformation of corporate artisan traditions through the French revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848. His subsequent book Structure and Mobility: The Men and Women of Marseille, 1820–1870, draws on marriage registers to paint a complex sociological portrait of Marseille throughout the nineteenth century. And his third major work, A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbé Sieyes and What Is the Third Estate? situates the influential pamphlet and the ideologies of its author within a broad economic, social, and political context.

William Sewell is Frank P. Hixon Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. In this interview, we discuss the course of his intellectual development, the state of contemporary historical and social scientific research, and his new book, Commercial Capitalism and Civic Equality in Eighteenth-Century France.

An interview with William Sewell

MAYA ADERETH: Let’s begin with your academic trajectory. What have been your main theoretical influences?

WILLIAM SEWELL: I should begin with the first influence—my father. He was a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin. He was one of those sociologists who wanted to transform the discipline into a genuine science. He used to talk to me about sociology quite a bit, especially when I was a teenager, so I actually grew up steeped in quantitative sociological thinking. I did my undergraduate work the University of Wisconsin and began as a Sociology major. But as I got some distance from my father and took some intriguing courses in history, my interests expanded beyond quantitative methods and outside of the US context. American Sociology in those days was mostly sociology of America in the present. History, and in particular the history of Europe, seemed much more interesting. Ultimately I majored in history, but preserved the sociological knowledge—theoretically in my thinking about how societies are structured, and methodologically through my background in mathematics and statistics. 

I wanted to do a kind of social history based on sociology. But as far as I knew, nobody was teaching that in history departments. So I opted for what seemed to be the closest thing: economic history, which I pursued at Berkeley, studying with David Landis, Henry Rosovsky, and Carlo Cipolla. Of course, I had to take quite a bit of economics and some statistics, so for a historian, I had a broad and deep background in quantitative methods.

In graduate school, I consciously pursued a form social history that was allied to economic history. While developing my dissertation project, I was particularly influenced by Charles Tilly’s The Vendée and E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I was impressed with the archival depth and historical methods they both used. My dissertation was on the history of the working class in nineteenth-century Marseille, particularly around the revolution of 1848. I focused especially on the experiences of workers who had immigrated to Marseille from the surrounding countryside and small towns, something I was able to track by using demographic records. Workers who were migrants turned out to be far more likely than native born workers to be active in revolutionary activities in 1848.

But where did my interest in revolution come from? Well, besides having great economic historians, Berkeley in the early 1960s was a very radical place. There was a kind of mini-revolution there in 1964, generally known as The Free Speech Movement, against the University’s policy of forbidding political activity on campus. The Free Speech Movement was extremely exciting—a student strike I was deeply involved in as a Teaching Assistant actually shut the university down and forced the administration to change its policy when the Faculty Senate weighed in on our side. In retrospect the Berkeley revolt seems a bit of a tempest in a tea pot, but the experience was very intense. I realized, on the basis of my own experience how one’s frame of reference could be transformed in a revolutionary situation. Things that I hadn’t thought imaginable would become possible in the space of a few intense days of struggles. It was through this movement that I recognized the volatility and unpredictability of revolutions, and the contingency of historical development that they epitomized. In one way or another, I’ve been studying revolutions ever since.

I was hired as an instructor at the University of Chicago in 1969, when I was still doing my dissertation research in Marseille and before I had written a word of my thesis. I wrote my dissertation over a period of three years, while teaching full time. I dug into the quantitative evidence I had compiled, discovering many details about how people lived, what their social and family relationships were, and so on, but also (using arrest records) who had been active in insurrectionary activities. But during my Chicago years I also realized that quantitative history didn’t help me figure out what people were thinking or how they understood their experiences. I of course had archival and printed material that bore on details of workers’ social and political lives, but I had only limited access to how their understood their experiences and how they responded to revolutionary situations. While at Chicago, I grew interested in anthropology, which dealt with the thought-worlds and experiences of ordinary people and helped me to interpret the scraps of evidence I had. Teaching a joint course with Bernard Cohn, an Indianist who had a joint appointment in Anthropology and History, was very illuminating, as was doing joint teaching with Ronald Inden, another historian of India who was steeped in anthropological theory.

In 1975, I got a five-year pure research appointment at the Institute of Advanced Study, in Princeton, New Jersey, where my senior colleagues were Clifford Geertz and Albert Hirschman. Those were heady years. I soon put off my big book project on the workers of nineteenth-century Marseille. (In fact, that book never got written!) During my first year at the Institute Clifford Geertz had assembled a team of anthropologists who organized a seminar on symbolic anthropology, which I attended. One thing I had noticed in my research on Marseille’s workers is that they used vocabulary redolent of the corporate system of old regime France when referring their trade union organizations, which were very active in the revolution of 1848. Anyone who worked on the nineteenth-century French working class had seen this language all over the place, but no one seemed to have tried to make sense of it. In the context of the symbolic anthropology seminar, I decided to write a paper on that subject which turned into my first book.

The book explored the significance of the apparent anomaly that proto-socialist revolutionary workers were making their claims partly in pre-revolutionary old-regime language. I soon recognized that the solidarity understood by these early worker socialists was an extension to the entire working class of the corporate sense of solidarity to individual trades that they had inherited from the old regime. The book traced how this bit of conceptual and political magic happened, above all in the Revolutions of 1830 and 1848.

After my time at the IAS was up, I joined the History Department at the University of Arizona. The Arizona History Department had a handful of interesting colleagues, but I quickly learned that two floors up in the same building was a really excellent Sociology department, including several younger scholars who did various forms of historical sociology. Over my five years at Arizona I found that my intellectual life moved up from the first to the third floor. So after a twenty year absence, I re-entered the intellectual world of sociology—but now historical sociology with a strong dose of social theory.

This sociological turn was solidified in 1985, when I left Arizona for the University of Michigan where I had a joint appointment in sociology and history. There I also hooked up with anthropologists and wound up chairing an interdisciplinary outfit called the Committee for the Comparative Study of Social Transformations. It brought together historians, sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and eventually people from literature and philosophy departments, all of us struggling combine the linguistic turn with social science. It was a heady mix that greatly stimulated my interest in social and cultural theory.

My final academic move was back to the University of Chicago, in 1990, where I was recruited by the Political Science Department, but with a joint appointment in History. In the department I came to think of myself as the “refugee professor.” That is, I took under my wing many students who had come to study political science because they were interested in politics, but found that they instead were supposed to do political science, which is something quite different. But as refugees from conventional political science they could legitimately work with me and get political science degrees. It was an extremely diverse group, who worked on topics ranging from European urban forms, to political cartoons in Turkey, to the politics of art in postwar Germany, to South Korean democracy movements, to concepts of development in China, to nationalist music in Norway, to name a few. They were probably the most interesting students I ever taught, and I learned an enormous amount from them.

I can see that in some ways, my own intellectual biography mirrored the theoretical framework about eventful history that I was developing. My trajectory, from sociology, to history, to anthropology, back to sociology and eventually to political science, was shaped by a sequence of highly contingent encounters and events as I moved from one university to another. It made me a particularly interdisciplinary social scientist.

MA: What has been your relationship to traditional historical sociology?

WS: I’ve tended to be critical of comparative historical sociologists at the same time as I’ve been very engaged with them. My critique of historical sociology is that it often doesn’t take the history part as seriously as it should. Unfortunately, sociology is a field that’s dominated by methodology, and historical sociologists try mightily to formalize the historical, particularly through things like comparative methods or process tracing. The work and thinking that is done along those lines is of course valuable, but I think it also cuts off a sense of the radical contingency of the world, which is what drew me to the study of history in general and revolutions in particular. Of course, even in revolutions there are elements of continuity and of strategy, but people also act in ways that they never thought they would be capable of acting before. People’s very conceptions of what is possible are transformed by historical experience. Unpredictability is a key feature of social life. So while we certainly need theoretical rigor, we also need to be able to account for radical transformations. Ultimately, over-formalizing history seems to me a bit of a fool’s errand.

My most cited article is on the theory of structure—I argued that while structures are real, they are also transformable. And they are transformable particularly because they are made by humans, both through practical activity and through reconceptualizations that such activity imposes over time. I try to be especially sensitive to the conceptual turning points that happen in social life. Life is full of events, some of which change institutions and therefore the world.

MA: My feeling is that today there’s a tendency either to abandon all aspirations towards causal research and focus exclusively on descriptive accounts, or to focus too much on causal narratives so that questions on revolutions, historical change, and so on are not viable. Where is the right place to be in the search for causality?

WS: I certainly think that there are very important causes working in the world. My most recent book talks about how capitalist development shaped people’s experience of the world in eighteenth-century France. From the perspective of world history, the emergence of capitalism is a hugely contingent event. But from the perspective of eighteenth-century France, capitalism was a continuing feature in the background of social life. Despite shaping many aspects of people’s lives, the effects of capitalism are not consciously conceptualized until the emergence of political economy in the eighteenth century.  Political economy, at least implicitly, breaks with the traditional framework of the nobility, fixed social hierarchy, monarchy, and so on. But throughout much of the eighteenth century, while capitalism it is actively structuring the lives of people, especially in cities, they don’t consciously conceptualize it.

If we take something like the emergence and increasing dominance of commerce in the eighteenth century, that was a roughly steadily increasing force. It has fluctuations, but the arrow is headed upwards. And it turns out to be a very important background that makes possible the reforms of the French Revolution, many of them based on ideas in political economy. But because the advance of capitalism was a slow-moving background force, historians have tended to ignore it in thinking about the origins of the Revolution. In this case, I’m making a sociological critique of conventual history—historians do have a habit of following the surface of events. So I guess I find myself moving between the typical sociologists’ emphasis on social structures and historians’ emphasis on more self-conscious purposeful action.

neil warner: That’s a good place to pick up on your latest book. One thing I really liked is your argument on Habermas—you argue that his idea of the public sphere has been misinterpreted in its application. Can you talk a bit about that argument?

WS: I think it’s been especially misused by historians. They’ve taken this notion of the public sphere, and used it to look at the press, spectacular events, people’s ideas, and so on. But the early Habermas was a Marxist, and what historians don’t pick up on is his very strong sense that the very possibility of a pubic sphere is based on the early development of capitalism. So the public sphere itself—cafés, newspapers, books, theater—is structured by capitalism in a very direct way. These are all commercial developments, and the commercial aspect, Habermas argues, is crucial to the emergence and the structures of the public sphere.

nw: Another theme I was interested in is the role of the professions in shaping the historical developments. What are your thoughts on that?

WS: There were not many genuine professions in France in the eighteenth century—lawyers and doctors constituted about the only organized professions. However, in writing the book I became really interested in the role of the royal bureaucracy. They were something like a profession in the sense that they had some kind of high secondary education, but this occupation was open only to nobles. In particular, they were people whose families bought their way into the nobility in the seventeenth or eighteenth century. My interest was in how these bureaucrats turned to political economy as a means of overcoming the impossible situation they were in. As royal bureaucrats, they had to come up with enough money to keep the war machine going, but they couldn’t tax the nobility and were aware that further taxes on the peasantry would have counter-productive economic effects. I was surprised by the progressiveness of these royal officials in navigating this task.

They had to find a way of providing greater income to the masses. In order to do that, they had to increase the productivity of the economy (they didn’t use the term “the economy,” they referred to it as “commerce”). They figured that by getting rid of restrictive regulations and letting commerce flourish, via manufacturing and trade, incomes would rise. And once incomes rose, they could raise taxes and keep the state afloat. This sounds very cynical: grow the economy so you can fund the military and stay in power. But I don’t actually think they had cynical motivations. They thought economic growth would both make common people more prosperous and strengthen the state. They really thought that liberalizing rules and making it easier for people to engage in trade would increase people’s wealth, happiness, and numbers.

nw: Jumping forward a few hundred years, one thing that runs through a lot of your work is the desire to break the dichotomy between cultural and material explanations. Could you comment on that with respect to contemporary debates on, say, the rise of populism?

WS: There’s no doubt that there’s something about the nature of the contemporary economy that has broken working class and agricultural communities. Growing up in Wisconsin, I remember driving by all of these lovely idyllic farms with their red barns back in the 1950s and 1960s. When I drive around in Wisconsin today, those same barns are falling apart. There has been a huge economic change, and many sectors which used to offer a fairly good life to people have been crushed. But this economic change is also a cultural change—small farmers in Wisconsin used to share equipment or help one another with the harvest. There was a lot of common work and exchange of that sort, and towns reflected these relationships and a sense of common purpose. When we go into many small towns today, they don’t have the small stores that facilitated social life; they are devastated. There are far fewer local level interactions; people are more likely to do their shopping at big box stores in the nearest city. This sounds like a sentimental picture of rural Wisconsin, but there was something there that is now gone. And the cultural aspect is that people are deprived of community at various levels. You can say the same thing about the former industrial towns in the Rust Belt.

This is a very Thompsonian perspective in a way: there were real communities that have been shattered by neoliberal development. And this process has gone unrecognized by the political discourse we’ve heard from Washington DC and London. People have a sense that those in power don’t give a damn about them. We see this reflected in our cultural life—going back to Wisconsin, the University of Wisconsin had a huge agricultural school, where they taught animal husbandry, dairy science, etc. One ideological and material function of the University was to provide knowledge to farmers; there was a strong relationship between the University and the people in the countryside. Those sorts of ties are also completely gone. The big ag companies lease most of the farmland and dictate the farming methods. So there’s an overwhelming sense of abandonment and disconnect, which breeds resentment. Rural people now tend to think the University is full of stuck-up people who despise them. We can see similar things across Europe—the yellow vests in France are an expression of it, with uprisings and violence directed at sources of capital. The embrace of Trump in the US comes from a similar impulse.

MA: If we’re to think then, of some sort of history of the present, I think these moments in the 1960s, then the 80s and 90s that you’ve spoken about are all recognizable turning points. There’s a feeling now like we’re at another turning point. What other structural features should we be paying attention to when we analyze the present moment?

WS: One thing we should be paying far more attention to in the study of society is climate change. We’re nowhere near limiting it, let alone eliminating it, and it’s bound to have dire consequences for social life. For example, it will become increasingly difficult for people to live in warmer parts of the world: Sub-Saharan Africa, India, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, Central America, South China. There will be huge waves of migration, or attempts at migration, from the Global South, and at the moment, it’s not clear that any state is prepared to handle that. We see beginnings of this situation already with Libya and the EU. The EU is collaborating with Libyan authorities and militias to keep migrants from coming from Africa. But this is just the beginning.  And likewise, at the southern border of the United States, people are fleeing from repressive states in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, but this is compounded by pressure from climate change. People can no longer live off of their farms.

That’s not a very hopeful outlook, but on the other hand, there is a growing climate movement. And I think it’s clear that some sort of reversal or transformation of neoliberalism, and capitalism itself, is absolutely necessary. Capitalism as we know it, from the sixteenth and seventeenth century up to the present, has relied on continuous global expansion, both territorially and in terms of resources. Particularly since the early nineteenth century, it has relied on tremendous amounts of fossil fuels. This increasing commodification of the world has to be stopped in some way; it’s beyond what the Earth can stand. So it’s not just about climate, it’s also about finding dignity for ordinary people.

We can predict climate change with a high degree of certainty, because it’s not just a matter of human institutions. There are there are physical forces involved which are inexorable. But the human side of it, that is unpredictable. And so long as it’s unpredictable, there is hope.

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