New key in same old lock

June 28, 2002

Can fresh approaches to history stand the test of time, asks David Cannadine, who opens four pages on 'rewriting the past', the theme of the Anglo-American Conference of Historians.

In What is History? E. H. Carr defined and described a kind of history that became very fashionable on the new and expanding campuses of Britain, western Europe and North America in the 1960s and 1970s. It was time when economic and social history (aided by the cult of quantification) threatened to marginalise traditional political history, when the preoccupation with causes and with analysis superseded the conventional interest in narrative and chronicle, and when the belief that history could help us to master the present and even change the future seemed to give it a progressive public purpose that many self-styled traditionalist scholars detested and distrusted.

Yet much history during the 1960s and 1970s was still traditional political and constitutional scholarship, deeply grounded in the archives, and conservative and empiricist in its academic values. By the end of the 1970s there was something of a crisis in the much-vaunted "new" history of which What is History? had been, in some ways, the precursor: quantification did not seem to deliver as much as was hoped; sociology provided less of a help than had originally been believed; and the stress on the causal and the analytical no longer seemed so appealing.

The intellectual landscape was changed even more with the coming to power of Margaret Thatcher in the UK and Ronald Reagan in the US. That the 1980s also witnessed the rise of historical "revisionism" was no coincidence: in stressing the importance and autonomy of the political past, the revisionists were deliberately rejecting the economic and social determinism fashionable in the 1960s, in the same way that Thatcher and Reagan sought to do in the political present. But this did not mean that the 1980s and 1990s saw a "return to essentials", for these decades also witnessed a profound array of other developments that changed the nature of historical inquiry in ways that Carr did not foresee. Among them were the revolution in information technology, which transformed and democratised scholarship, and the expansion of higher education; the shift from sociology to anthropology as the most fruitful subject from which historians were borrowing; the influence of Michel Foucault, postmodernism and the "linguistic turn"; the rise of women's history, gender history and cultural history, and the reconfiguration of "imperial" history; and a broader shift away from the search for causation to the search for meaning.

As even its most ardent apologists admit, social history is no longer the all-encompassing subject it seemed to be during the 1960s and 1970s. Instead, it has settled down to a more modest, more realistic and thus more helpful agenda - not the history of society as a whole, but the history of aspects of society. By contrast, political history, which seemed so under threat in those decades, has re-established and revived itself, not by reasserting the Eltonian claims of separateness and superiority, but by broadening its scope and embracing many of the recent changes that have taken place in neighbouring disciplines.

In the same way, imperial history, which seemed so peripheral a subject in the history syllabuses of the 1960s, has now moved centre-stage, transformed and enhanced by the influence of postmodernism and post-colonial studies, and providing an essential bridge between national and global histories. In all these areas, the shift in interest from causes to meaning, from explanation to understanding, is well marked; and, as such, they are all to some degree following the alternative agenda that was sketched out for historians of political thought more than 30 years ago.

However, of all the historical sub-specialisms that were already in being when Carr wrote his book, it seems likely that religious history has been the most fundamentally transformed by developments since then - away from the history of theology and of the (male-dominated) institutions that proclaimed and supported it, and towards a broader concern with popular religiosity, as approached through ritual, culture and gender, which has opened up large swaths of hitherto ignored territory. Indeed, just as social history seemed poised to sweep all before it in the 1960s, cultural history now seems to be in the ascendant: partly because it has been the most receptive to the insights of anthropology; partly because it makes large claims about the terrain of the past that it encompasses; and partly because it has benefited most from the shift in interest from explanation to understanding. Yet for many people today, both within academe and outside, the most significant development during recent decades has been the rise of women's history and gender history: the recovery of the lives and experiences of one half of the world's population, based on the recognition that gender was not just a useful but arguably an essential category of historical analysis and comprehension.

History as practised during the first decade of the 21st century is going through an exceptionally vigorous, lively and innovative period. More people are writing more history than ever before, in an unprecedented range of sub-disciplinary specialisms and expositional modes. So much so, indeed, that a great deal of the history that scholars are producing now was completely unthinkable or literally unimaginable when Carr set out to describe and define the subject 40 years ago. But this is not the only way that history has expanded and developed since then, for it has extended in scope and appeal at least as much outside the academy as it has within. The widespread pursuit of family history, the growing concern with defining and preserving the "national heritage" and the unprecedented allure of history on television: all this betokens a burgeoning popular interest in the past as energetic and enthusiastic as that to be found within the walls of academe. History is now acclaimed as the "new gardening" or the "new rock 'n' roll", and there can be no doubt that its massive potential for entertainment and recreation has not yet been fully exploited. But it is also a serious subject with a powerful public purpose.

As that caveat suggests, some words of caution are also called for. However fertile and vigorous the present historical scene, there are also criticisms and challenges. So much history is now being written that few scholars can keep up with more than a fraction of what is being published: all of us know more and more about less and less. The rise of so many sub-specialisms threatens to produce a sort of sub-disciplinary chauvinism, where some practitioners insistently assert the primacy of their approach to the past and show little sympathy with, or knowledge of, other approaches. And far too much history today is written in dismal prose or impenetrable jargon that can be understood only by a few aficionados and that fails to reach a broader public audience. Nor is history outside universities without its problems: family history is often excessively antiquarian, devoid of any sense of the broader picture; the cult of "national heritage" is frequently blinded by nostalgia and distorted by snobbery; and television history, while undeniably popular and at its best excellent, would greatly benefit from a more searching and sustained dialogue between people in the media and historians who ply their trade. There is, then, cause for celebration and discomfort. And perhaps for a sort of humble scepticism, too.

Today, most historians are no longer impressed by the efforts of their professional forebears back in the 1960s and 1970s to enumerate the causes of historical change and to offer convincing explanations as to how, why and when things happened. Yet during those two decades, this way of approaching the past seemed simultaneously innovative, exciting, plausible and relevant. Today, many of our foremost scholars claim that in moving from explanation to meaning, from causes to understanding, we have become much more sophisticated in our comprehension of the past. Perhaps this is right. But then again, perhaps it is not wholly right, for historians, as Carr insisted time and again, are themselves agents and victims of the historical process. In every generation, scholars have arisen proclaiming that they have found a new key that unlocks the essence of the past in a way that no previous historical approach has ever done. Our own generation is no exception to this rule - and it will probably be no exception to this fate. For these claims have never yet stood the test of time.

Next week at the Anglo-American Conference of Historians, academics will meet to discuss the dynamic inherent in this scholarly process and to discuss the way the past is being rewritten. Twenty years from now, scholars will probably be concerned with something very different, and they will look back with bemused amazement that our generation could believe so confidently that unravelling the "meaning" of the past was the historian's crucial and essential task.

David Cannadine is director of the Institute of Historical Research. This article is based on his contribution to What is History Now?, to be launched by Palgrave Macmillan at the conference.

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