Why do we want to study history? Is it to try to excavate every last fact about the past, like the antiquarian Mr Casaubon caricatured in George Eliot’s Middlemarch? Or is it to try and better understand the human condition, both past and present, so that we may work together towards a better future? In the opening pages to his memoir, the historian Geoff Eley reminds us that:
how exactly the past gets remembered (and forgotten), how it gets worked into arresting images and coherent stories, how it gets ordered into reliable explanations, how it gets pulled and pummelled into reasons for acting, how it gets celebrated and disavowed, suppressed and imagined – all have tremendous consequences for how the future might be shaped. All of the ways in which the past gets fashioned into histories, consciously and unconsciously, remain crucial for how the present can be grasped.1
George Orwell’s famous phrase took this understanding further, arguing that: ‘Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past’.2
Can historical narratives be this powerful? Are they, to use a concept drawn from Michel Foucault, a discourse of power? Some historians think they are. For example, it has been argued that the conceptualization of European history into medieval and modern both ‘disguises the truth about the past’ and justifies a particular political order in the present.3
We will take up this debate again a little later in the chapter, but these brief examples demonstrate that history is not just about the past, but the present and future too.
Both past and present are always intertwined in historical practice. Historians seek to understand people whose lives and sensibilities were very different to their own. We also try to make sense of the present by investigating the processes of change over time that contributed to shaping the world in which we live. Both these activities are conducted with historical hindsight, which consists of at least two interrelated
dimensions. Each new generation of historians brings different questions to the study of the past, drawing upon their own collective experiences and socio-economic contexts. In addition, new scholars critically engage with and respond to the perspectives of the earlier generation. The questions that emerge from this process generate new interpretations or analyses that make connections, or identify patterns of change, of which our historical actors were not always aware.
In the process of formulating new questions and interpretations, and identifying patterns of change in the past, historians draw upon concepts and theories from a wide range of disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, particularly literary criticism, linguistics, anthropology, sociology, psychology, geography, and philosophy. Each of those academic subjects is based upon an explicit body of concepts and theories that form a constantly evolving foundation for the discipline, taught at undergraduate level. In contrast, it could be argued that historians, working in a wide range of fields, geographical contexts, and time periods, draw upon a multidisciplinary set of approaches. The skills of source criticism (whether the sources are written documents, photographs, material objects, or oral history) are the unifying constant of university history training. While critical source analysis is essential, it does not necessarily facilitate the kind of broader disciplinary reflexivity that should also be at the heart of an education in history.4
The purpose of this book is to introduce students to the diversity of theoretical and conceptual approaches that have so enriched the study of the past.
But is it possible to construct an account of history and theory that reflects the diversity of approaches in many different global contexts? Peter Burke has proposed that historians now share a ‘global’ culture, which consists of a set of similar principles and questions. These, he argues, were shaped through long interaction and converged in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This convergence, he goes on to say, weakened, if not dissolved, Western hegemony over the academic discipline of history.5
Burke lists these practices in the form of ‘ten theses’ that include, for example: a linear view of the past; a concern with epistemology; the idea of objectivity; the preponderance of causal explanations; and literary forms. All of these ‘theses’ entail a theoretical dimension and are integral to the content of subsequent chapters in this book. Needless to say, Burke’s proposition has met with lively debate, and two responses in particular are important to bear in mind.
First of all, Aziz Al-Azmeh draws our attention to the diverse influences in late antiquity upon Burke’s ‘coherent historical tradition’: these emerged from the Mediterranean to Persia, cut across languages, and included
Christian, Jewish, and Islamic traditions. The early influences, therefore, were neither Western nor Eastern in an exclusivist sense.6
Turning to the contemporary world, however, historians were more inclined to see Burke’s model of historical principles as less a convergence and more of an imposition. Hayden White, for example, asks whether Burke’s ‘ten theses’ represent the ‘Westernization’ of other cultures in the context of the spread of global capitalism.7
In this context Dipesh Chakrabarty also draws our attention to the institutionalization of the historical profession and the development of the modern university. In India, for example, ‘traditions of history [were] considered amateur, and the university scholars waged a fight to become the highest custodians of the nation’s past’.8
This debate over the global homogeneity of professional historical practice alerts us to both the diverse roots of Burke’s paradigm of historical thinking, and the importance of contextualizing the spread and adaptation of historical approaches within global economic and political processes and the growth of national educational systems.
The Houses of History
will explore the theoretical perspectives and debates that are generally acknowledged to have been the most influential within the university-led practice of history over the past century and a half. The chapters are organized very broadly into a chronological framework: that is, based upon the period in which each theory generated the most substantial body of historical writing. But the structure of this book should not be taken to cover all possible theoretical or conceptual approaches to the past, or reflect uniform national trajectories. For example, Chinese historiography has converged and diverged from the path of Western historiography and theory at different times over the course of the twentieth century.9
What do we mean by theory? The historian Arif Dirlik has proposed the following definition:
I think that most of us working in these fields [of social, political and cultural theory] understand theory to mean the formulation of abstract relationships that seek to make sense of diverse historical phenomena…. The grand theories or metanarratives associated with the names of K. Marx and M. Weber or, more recently, of world-system analysis, are of this type. For historians, however, theory may simply mean the use of abstract concepts such as class and gender in organizing and/or explaining historical data. Theory mediates the relationship between the particular and the general; it suggests patterns to the relationship …10
Theories, therefore, may range from the identification of patterns in the historical evidence that explain historical change over long periods of time
to smaller abstract concepts to define particular phenomena. Concepts are also the building blocks of grand theory, as in the concept of ‘class’ for the Marxist theory of historical materialism. The development of theoretical models or concepts, as Dirlik later points out, does not foreclose on historical truth: other theories may posit alternative understandings based on emphasizing different aspects of, or evidence from, the past. He concludes that ‘theorization – the activity of producing theories – therefore is an interpretive act in its choice of concepts, and their relationships, to represent reality’.11
This book is based on the understanding that every piece of historical writing has a theoretical basis on which evidence is selected, filtered and understood.
One criticism often made of the historical profession is that the theorization upon which historical accounts are constructed is rarely made explicit, in contrast to the cognate disciplines referred to earlier. There is a perception that ‘substantial numbers of practising historians remain relentlessly uninterested in fundamental questions concerning the status of the knowledge they produce.’12
Critics attribute this disciplinary omission to the institutional forces that influence what is produced, from peer expectations to the needs of commercial publishers.13
In the absence of explicit theorization in a historical text, it can be difficult to identify the theory or concepts upon which it rests. When reading the following chapters, therefore, we suggest that you bear in mind the following four interlinked themes: context, temporal framework, causation or drivers of change,
These themes will help you elicit and understand the theories underlying a work of history.
The approach of historians to these themes will also reflect their fundamental epistemological
stance. By epistemology we mean the theory of knowledge, or justification for what constitutes historical knowledge. During the late twentieth century, orthodox empirical historians were riven by disagreement over the ideas and implications of poststructuralism. Empiricism and poststructuralism are, in pure form, conflicting epistemologies. The first is based upon the belief that it is possible to reconstruct the past from surviving evidence, that historians are able to gain access to aspects of a real past. In contrast, poststructuralists argue that our understanding of the past, and our sources, are framed through structures of language and discourse, and that there is no access to an unmediated past. These two perspectives are encapsulated in the terminology of reconstruction (empiricist) and representation (poststructuralist). We suggest that you might wish to read the chapters on empiricism and poststructuralism first, for the remaining chapters on different theories and concepts
contain references to the work of historians from both epistemological perspectives.
Returning to the four themes, the first concerns the context in which theoretical perspectives, including key concepts, acquire purchase among historians. Of course, in practice, theoretical perspectives overlap, continue to have ongoing adherents, are modified and revised over time, and can re-emerge with new force at a later date. It is also important to note that some influential theoretical works, including those of Maurice Halbwachs (the chapter on public history) and Ferdinand de Saussure (the chapter on poststructuralism) were published decades before historians internationally engaged extensively with their ideas. This can be due to delay in translation, leading to a more restricted earlier impact within the original linguistic context. But the use of specific theories in historical analysis may also be the consequence of changing socio-economic and political contexts. One question we would like you to consider is why the theories covered in this book acquire traction among historians at particular moments in time.
This is not an easy question to answer, as Ludmilla Jordanova acknowledged: ‘Scholars turn to an idea or approach when it seems apt for that time’, but ‘it is extremely difficult to explain how trends get started, take hold, and die away’.14
The philosopher of history, Frank Ankersmit, has suggested that ‘there is an indissoluble link between history and the miseries and the horrors of the past’.15
Ankersmit extends the conce...