A little local difficulty

The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies. First Edition - The Pursuit of History. Third Edition - The Past and its Presenters
February 25, 2000

All three of these works reflect the current state of historiographical surveys: each is Eurocentric and devotes considerable space to postmodernism. This is unfortunate.

Postmodernist perspectives, as generally applied and understood, are of scant value to those for whom these studies are intended. When not labouring hard to state (or obfuscate) the obvious, works that pride themselves on their postmodernism can be faddish, opaque and self-regarding; a blunt verdict but one reached as a result of many efforts to use such material in teaching. Specifically, they do not help students with the tasks of how best to understand and employ evidence, and to integrate the specific with the general and change with continuity.

Eurocentricism is also limiting, although less so than postmodernism. It provides the opportunity to sketch out a grand schema of historical development, but one that has only a limited meaning to the historical traditions of most of the world's populations. John Tosh has refreshing insights on Africa as a result of his work on its history, but China, India, Japan and the Islamic world are unknowns here, as indeed is South America. To give a telling example, John Warren has the instructive idea of including interviews with practising historians, but both his choices, Michael Mullett and Colin Richmond, work in English universities, although they are refreshingly wide-ranging in topic and approach. Those seeking a readily accessible guide to wider pastures can turn to the journal Storia della Storiografia . Many of the articles are in English, and the journal makes a positive attempt to engage with historiography around the world.

Of the three books under review, that by Tosh offers the most, and he is to be congratulated on fulfilling the difficult task of keeping alive and relevant a text first published in 1984. Tosh is instructive on the diversity, indeed lack of coherence, in the subject and on the distinction between historical awareness and popular historical knowledge, and pushes hard towards topicality and engaging with current issues.

Alan Munslow's companion is organised alphabetically like an encyclopaedia, and is "written from a particular perspective - the result of my experience and understanding of the post-empiricist challenge to history".

In practice, this proves somewhat limiting and at times arid. For Warren the central problem is how best to respond to postmodernism. He is less favourable than Munslow and essentially provides a chronological historiography to compete with Munslow's alphabetical version and Tosh's more thoughtful thematic account. Warren's book would work best at the sixth-form level. He is open about his own preferences: critical of narrative and keener on Marxist history than its Annales counterpart.

None of the books offers a serious discussion of the role of publishers and the nature of the pressures affecting publication. Furthermore, with the welcome exception of the interviews with historians in Warren's book, much of the discussion of historiography is overly theoretical and insufficiently ready to consider evidence and processes. Many academics complain that courses on historical methods do not appeal to many students. There are various reasons, but the available literature does not help. Can we please have more effort to consider the rest of the world, and also when looking at our own tradition to accept that diversity undermines any approach based on a grand schema, whether chronological, organisational or a matter of discourse?

Jeremy Black is professor of history, University of Exeter.

The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies. First Edition

Author - Alun Munslow
ISBN - 0 415 18494 0 and 18495 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £45.00 and £14.99
Pages - 256

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