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Contemporary History and History Writing

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  • kmlightseeker
    CURRENT TRENDS The range and readership of Western history is now global, with professional historians at work in almost every country. But the development of
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 2, 2005
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      The range and readership of Western history is now global, with
      professional historians at work in almost every country. But the
      development of so many different kinds of history during the 20th
      century raises the question of whether there is still a unified,
      coherent field. It is no longer possible to speak of a hierarchy of
      histories, with political narrative at the pinnacle, because the
      counter claims of other branches (particularly social history) are too
      strong. But until recently there did exist a broad consensus about the
      methods of historical enquiry and the status of historical
      explanation. Historians generally took the view that they employed an
      empirical method, in which the ultimate test of their findings was
      whether they were supported by validated evidence. It was accepted
      that historians quite often differed sharply over large-scale
      questions of interpretation, sometimes for reasons that were
      extraneous to the issue in hand, but the evidence placed a limit on
      how widely interpretations could diverge. Epistemological debate among
      historians was muted, with only an occasional flurry caused by books
      like E. H. Carr's What Is History? (1961) and Howard Zinn's The
      Politics of History (1970).

      The position is very different today. Postmodernism has undermined the
      truth claims of all humanities and social sciences. History has come
      in for particularly strong attack. This is partly because it is a
      textual subject, and Postmodernism rejects the notion of an
      authoritative or authentic reading. But Postmodernists also attack
      history because they maintain that the great trajectories that
      historiography has built around nation, class, and religion are
      fictions—"grand narratives" conferring an illusory sense of direction
      on people who think they "know" about the past. Both as a mode of
      enquiry and as a map of knowledge, history is in a more exposed
      position than at any time since the 17th century. A small minority of
      historians have embraced at least some Postmodernist arguments in the
      hope of writing history that is proof against attack. The majority
      regard Postmodernism as a misconceived critique and hope that
      intellectual fashions will change. At the turn of the 21st century
      there are signs that this is the case. The extreme relativism implicit
      in Postmodernism is now less often heard, while the popular appeal of
      well-crafted historical interpretations of topics of current concern
      shows no sign of diminishing. Most important of all, historians can
      point with confidence to the extraordinary variety of knowledge about
      the human condition that their disciplined enquiries have uncovered
      over the past 150 years.

      This article was reviewed, and substantial parts of the section "The
      19th Century", together with the sections "The Era of Two World Wars",
      "New Audiences, New Politics", and "Current Trends" were contributed
      by Professor John Tosh.

      © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved."

      (source: "History and Historiography", Encarta Encloypedia 2004
      (Standard Edition))

      And what was adhered to in the decades prior to postmodernity:

      "I New Audiences, New Politics

      One feature of the Annales approach that became very influential after
      1945 was the use of quantitative methods. This was the inevitable
      consequence of harnessing history to the social sciences, since
      quantitative method was at the heart of subjects like economics and
      sociology. A new field of quantitative history came into being, based
      on the collections of numerical data made by Western states since the
      18th century in order to calculate their tax revenues or their
      populations or their rates of mortality. French historians of the
      Annales School were pioneers in sophisticated demographic history and
      in the serious analysis of long sequences of economic data like prices
      and volumes of trade. But it was in the United States that
      quantitative history was taken up with the greatest commitment. At a
      time when the prestige of the natural sciences was unprecedented,
      quantitative methods lent a strongly scientific cast to historical
      research. The increasing use of computer analysis from the 1960s
      confirmed this impression. A high-profile branch of quantitative
      history, known as "Cliometrics", advanced the claim that statistics
      could not only yield more precise descriptive statements about the
      past, but could also solve major issues of historical explanation—at
      least in economic history: Robert W. Fogel's Railways and Economic
      Growth (1964) was a striking example. Economic historians relying on
      quantitative methods were among the most vociferous proponents of the
      view that history was—or ought to become—a science. But they were not
      the only ones. In Britain E. H. Carr in What Is History? (1961) firmly
      placed history in the scientific camp, not because of its methods
      (which he took much delight in demystifying) but because he regarded
      it as part of the scientific endeavour to increase mankind's
      understanding and mastery of the environment.

      These debates were conducted within academia, with little resonance
      outside. They were soon overtaken by changes in the scope and tone of
      history writing that reflected a transformation in the relationship
      between university and society. The historiographical developments in
      the first half of the 20th century had been achieved in an academic
      environment that would still have been recognizable to the founders of
      the discipline two generations earlier. Universities were small and
      often somewhat removed from the society around them; their students
      came from comparatively privileged backgrounds and went on to fill
      influential positions in politics, administration, and education.
      Historians were respected luminaries in an intellectual elite. By the
      1970s the picture had completely changed. The era of mass higher
      education had arrived; between 1960 and 1980 a threefold increase in
      university students was the least that European countries experienced.
      The composition of the new student body was also markedly different.
      With the growing inclusion of women students, working-class students,
      and students from ethnic minorities, it was far less homogeneous and
      potentially much more radical. Meanwhile teachers in universities,
      including historians, grew in number and declined in status.

      Many—perhaps most—academic historians confronted these changes with a
      determination to maintain the traditions of the discipline, either
      from motives of self-preservation, or because they genuinely believed
      that the new students should not be palmed off with an "inferior"
      product. But the running was increasingly made by younger historians
      who responded to the fertile atmosphere of political dissent which
      marked the Western world during the 1960s and 1970s: the peace
      movement, black power, the women's movement, the beginning of green
      politics. Dissent—even defiance—became the hallmark of campus life,
      and the study of history was deeply affected. Historians in increasing
      numbers turned their attention to groups previously absent from the
      historical record—especially women, blacks, and sexual minorities. The
      exclusion of these groups from scholarly work had been based on a
      belief that they had contributed little or nothing to history, and
      that primary documentation was lacking. The radical historians of the
      1960s and 1970s constructed new historical narratives that enlarged
      the range of historical actors. They also uncovered many sources of
      relevance to the new agenda, and for recent history they made
      systematic use of interviewed informants, a practice that quickly came
      to be known as "oral history".

      One major beneficiary of the radical climate was Marxism. Karl Marx
      had elaborated his theory of history between the 1840s and the 1860s,
      but for a long time it was much better known among revolutionary
      socialists than among historians. After 1917 it became the official
      view of history in the Soviet Union, and it was taken up between the
      wars by a small group of Western historians, mainly as an intellectual
      resource against Fascism. Only in the new atmosphere of the 1960s did
      Marxism become a major influence on historians, which is why it makes
      sense to consider it as a contribution to 20th-century historiography.
      Marxism was an effective means of advertising an identification with
      the workers or the underdog more generally, and it immediately
      suggested that history was politically relevant. But Marxism was more
      than a radical talisman. Its influence on the writing of history
      proved to be enduring because of the purchase it offered on some of
      the most intractable problems of historical explanation.

      Perhaps the most difficult of these problems is how to conceive of
      historical societies as wholes, particularly in view of the
      fissiparous tendencies of specialist research. Marxist historians
      start from the materialist premise that the character of all societies
      is determined by the way in which people fulfil their material needs
      (hence the term "historical materialism"): a society based on the
      factory will be very different from one based on the plough. The
      outcome in each case will be a distinctive pattern of economic
      relationships or "mode of production". This is the economic base, upon
      which is constructed the institutions of law and the state, with their
      supporting ideology. Hence the labelling of particular societies as
      "feudal" or "industrial capitalist". Without assuming a total
      coherence in every particular, Marx nevertheless provided a powerful
      organising model. The extent of its influence can be measured by the
      fact that today it is habitual to begin a historical survey work with
      an account of the economy, on the assumption that this sets
      significant limits to what we can expect to find in the sphere of
      politics or culture.

      But Marx himself was centrally preoccupied with historical change—with
      understanding it in the past, and with predicting its trajectory in
      the future. His theory of social structure was, in a sense, merely the
      preliminary to uncovering the dynamics of human development. This Marx
      did by identifying the contradictions that make any social structure
      to a greater or lesser degree unstable. Given human creativity,
      technological advance and its appropriate relations of production have
      a tendency to run ahead of the political system, which is likely to
      reinforce the existing outmoded economic structure rather than
      facilitate the emergence of the new one. These are the preconditions
      for acute class conflict between the protagonists of the old order and
      the new—between the feudal class and the bourgeoisie in the transition
      to mercantile capitalism, and between the bourgeoisie and the
      proletariat in the transition to socialism. Ultimately therefore,
      social change comes about as a result of the growth of human
      productive power: Marx's theory of social change is no less
      materialist than his view of social structure.

      During the 1960s and 1970s Marxism was taken up enthusiastically by
      many historians. Part of its appeal lay in its promise of "total
      history". The call for a history that transcends the conventional
      demarcations of sub-disciplines had been made by the Annales school as
      early as the 1930s, but the Annales historians had failed to develop a
      practicable model. On the other hand, Marx's materialist premise and
      his theorization of the mode of production lent themselves well to a
      history that encompasses elites and masses, and considers politics and
      culture in relation to production. The potential of this approach can
      be gauged from the distinguished works of E. J. Hobsbawm, ranging from
      The Age of Revolution (1962) covering the period of the French
      Revolution and the Industrial Revolution, to The Age of Extremes
      (1994), which surveys the "short" 20th century from 1914 to 1991.

      Marxism also appealed as an effective means of writing emancipatory
      history, or history from the perspective of marginalized groups. It
      emphasized trajectories of progressive change in history, it located
      the forward march of history with subordinate classes instead of the
      controlling elites, and it articulated the structural significance of
      these classes. Eugene Genovese's work on the 19th-century slave
      plantations of the American south and E. P. Thompson's on the emerging
      working class of the Industrial Revolution in Britain were two of the
      more remarkable achievements in this genre. That both of these were
      essentially social historians highlights the fact that by the 1970s
      Marxism was the most dynamic strand of social history. While political
      history continued to account for a majority of academic historians,
      social history was by this time the principal site of innovation.

      By the 1980s an increasingly significant innovation was the
      application of gender to historical work. The women's liberation
      movement had demanded a shift of perspective in history, as in all
      other disciplines. Initially this had produced studies of notable
      women in the past and of women's historical experience that had no
      obvious bearing on mainstream history and could easily be ignored by
      the majority of male historians. But women's historians who worked in
      academia aimed to transform the discipline of history as well as
      furnish their sisters with a usable past. The most effective means of
      doing so proved to be gender history. The concept of gender is
      premised on the notion that sexual difference is historically
      constructed rather than a biological given, and that it permeates much
      more than the immediate relations between men and women. Beginning in
      the United States, and spreading quickly to Western Europe, feminist
      historians demonstrated that gender is a structuring principle
      historically that is as significant as class, and one that has marked
      the lives of men as well as women. This perspective has been
      fruitfully applied to fields as diverse as the history of the family,
      of political movements, and of poverty. A broad survey such as Olwen
      Hufton's The Prospect Before Her: a History of Western Women,
      1500-1800 (1995) is not just a women's history but a contribution to
      our knowledge of early modern Europe.

      Meanwhile the Annales school, the principal locus of new ideas between
      the wars, continued to contribute important new perspectives. The
      members of the school carried light ideological baggage: most were
      avowedly non-Marxist, and few acknowledged the influence of feminism.
      But the fundamental commitment of the Annalistes to inter-disciplinary
      work continued to pay rich dividends. In dialogue with the social
      sciences, Fernand Braudel in the 1950s elaborated an influential
      concept of historical time as divided into three planes: the history
      of events, the history of conjunctures (e.g. economic cycles), and the
      almost motionless history of the landscape and of deep mental
      structures (la longue durée). Another group within the Annales school,
      led by the medievalist Jacques Le Goff, drew on the findings of
      anthropology to develop the study of collective mentality in past
      societies, focusing on the instinctual and emotional aspects of
      everyday life, rather than the intellectual achievements of the elite.
      This blend of anthropology and history has now become characteristic
      of the large and popular field of cultural history, which studies
      representation and discourse, rather than events and developments per
      se. Cultural historians have produced an exciting body of work, but
      its aim of reconstructing the mental world of the past still keeps it
      firmly attached to the original programme of historicism in the 19th

      © 1993-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved."



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