Writing history: theory and practice

I am examining historical theory again, in an effort to determine where my current research resides historiographically. It isn’t easy. But, since I have judged my own recently delivered paper to be somewhat amateurish in this regard, it is essential.

First, I have to keep in mind that theory is separate from method. Theoretical foundations seem to include the influences of philosophy, social science, economics, and politics. Each of these is its own field, each has many sub-disciplines, and theoretical approaches change over time. This lends to my endeavor a feeling of jumping on and off different sections of moving trains. Methodology can be influenced by theory. One may study a single document very closely, or exhaustively find every possible document on the subject, depending on what one is trying to do. I would describe my method as “traditional”, mostly reconstructionist in that I am trying to reconstruct the past in a way, and empirical in that I insist on “textual” evidence to support my contentions. I lean toward the scientifically rational rather than the creatively post-modern in both theory and method. This makes me, not to put too fine a point on it, old-fashioned.

Back when I was researching the English textile industry in the medieval and early modern periods, my work was clearly aligned with trends in economic history and, to a certain extent, the history of technology. Even if not directly related to my topic, Marxist theory held that different economic groups were in competition, and I showed that merchant and craft guilds were in conflict. But there was no theoretical construct, aside from historical geography, to underpin my argument about entrepreneurs moving the fulling process from town guild control into the hills due to technological advantage. That made my work automatically interdisciplinary. My methodology was traditional, at least in terms of economic history, but the theory was mixed. Nothing contained Marxist determinism, there was no Whiggish assumption of national progress, and I did not reject individual agency — rather I combined several different approaches.

I am in similar territory with my current work, straddling as it does Victorian Studies, the history of education, social history, political history, and biography. Since my last decade or so has been spent in educational theory and practice, particularly as regards online education, I need to update my knowledge before I continue writing.

Victorian Studies, as I discussed in a previous post, is of little help since it tends toward being anti-historical and more literary. Its connection to the history of culture seems to put it on a post-structuralist track that brings in more relativism than I’m comfortable with (see below). The history of education seems to be a discipline full of educationists/educators who do history, rather than historians who study education, although there are some exceptions to this. Political history seems a little more basic (apologies to political historians), since I think I am clear on the ways political behavior reflects the rest of the story I’m telling. To prepare for my application for a National Endowment of Humanities grant, I researched the current role of biography in historiographical thought, and joined the effort to reclaim biography as a valid lens for larger histories.

Rankean models

My guidebook for current historiography is Writing History: Theory and Practice (2nd ed, Bloomsbury 2010). Although a few years old, it’s organized in a meaningful way and declares its intention to focus on historiography only in its influence on historical writing. It’s also focused on British historians, which is helpful. Part I covers the “intellectual and institutional conditions in which professional history developed”. Given the dense and complex nature of the book (this is for students? really?), I was grateful we didn’t go back to contrasting Herodotus with Thucycides (though I’m happy to have my students do that using this article from The Atlantic). Instead, the professionalization of history begins in the 19th century, and Leopold von Ranke is a key figure. John Warren, author of the chapter, describes the tenets of Rankeanism as:

the (albeit partial) reality of objectivity, the possibility of meaningful interpretation of documentary evidence in an equally meaningful attempt to understand the past on its own terms, a rejection of the distortion of that evidence with personal and present needs in mind (p24).

             Leopold von Ranke, 1871

This is essentially (a word one uses carefully around theorists) the basic approach of traditional historical scholarship. Warren warns of the danger of paring this down to slogans like “let the past speak for itself” — other historians felt that Ranke’s theory could be relativist, although the rejection of distortion is designed to prevent that. Warren comes down hard on writers like Macaulay (for creating drama and caricatures) and Carlyle (for using history to fight his own battles — see my previous post on Carlyle) and Buckle (whose Comtean positivism made him deterministic). Lord Acton opposed Ranke, insisting that once the facts had been determined, the historian had a duty to impose morality (p30). This argument reminded me of American historian Howard Zinn, whose lectures told me that I had a duty in the classroom to share my point of view (“you can’t be neutral on a moving train”). The section on Louis Namier confused me. Warren accused Namier of using his own psychological issues to guide his methodology (he studied the letters of 18th century MPs to show that their positions were self-centered rather than principled, but ignored parliamentary debates). It seemed to me that Warren was doing the same thing in emphasizing Namier’s relationship with his father as an explanation for his method.

Marxist historiography

I felt quite comfortable in the chapter on Marxist history (I loved reading Christopher Hill and Eric Hobsbawm in college, and visited the latter’s grave at Highgate). Social and economic forces are inextricably entwined, and it never seemed necessary to rely on the deterministic nature of Marxism (after all, the revolution Marx predicted in Germany did not come to pass). The importance of the Marxist interpretation was not in calling for a socialist world, but in opposing triumphalist, nationalist British history, and by implication anyone else’s triumphalist, nationalist history, including America’s. (Who couldn’t get behind that in the 1970s and 80s, when I was in school?) For example, E.P. Thompson’s 1963 The Making of the English Working Class

…advanced an eloquent counter-narrative to gradualist versions of British history as the triumphal march of parliamentary evolution, grounding the latter in violence, inequality and exploitation instead. (p74)

Power to the people! And I realized in this one quotation that this is a theme in my work: social inequality exacerbated by unequal access to higher education.

And, the Marxists were eloquent — that’s why I enjoyed reading them. (This isn’t true anymore — I’d rather read The Spectator than The New Statesman any day.)

Marxist history may not have held sway continually for the past fifty years, but it seems to me like a constant hum, an engine that continues to drive historical studies. I’ll get to the post-structuralists in a moment, but they wouldn’t exist without the Marxist emphasis on class struggle, the insistence that the voices of the downtrodden must be heard. It’s just that the downtrodden are seen in terms of different identities now, and the methodology has far less Rankean rigor.

Positivism and progress

In John Harvey’s chapter on “History and the social sciences”, post-modernism threatened the faith in empiricism and scientific objectivity that was apparently embedded in the social sciences. Claiming that they grew from Enlightenment roots, the social sciences were apparently dependent on the idea of progress. I keep saying “apparently” because I have never seen the social sciences this way, as rooted that deeply in science, but rather as rooted in social theory. Harvey claims they were reliant on ideas of human progress over time. Around the time of von Ranke, professional historians distanced themselves from social theory through the idea of “historicism”, which I would call the supremacy of context — the idea that any interpretation can only be understood within its historical conditions (pp82-83). The rigorous method, reliant on evidence, was scientific, like the positivism that became popular with Comte. But another approach, used by “amateur” historians, was to develop basic laws of analysis and social progress, and theories that used imagination rather than evidence. This conflict between professional and amateur can be understood through what Spencer did to Darwin’s theory of natural selection, applying it to human cultures and creating the underpinnings for prejudice and conquest. (I suspect that something similar happened in anthropology, and led to the social construction of “race”, but for that I’ll need to return another time to Miles Rosenberg’s chapter on “Race, ethnicity and history”.)

The main idea here seems to be that historians would eventually reject positivism, and indeed all theoretical constructs that saw human progress on a continual incline. In an attempt to make history predictive, social scientists created models that may have reflected ideals rather than empirical analysis. Max Weber is accused of this, in his analysis of capitalism as leading to a steady increase in social equality (I love him anyway). In contrast, American historians (“The New Historians”) helped challenge assumptions that national histories show an increase in moral good, for example when Charles Beard claimed that the Founders had created a liberal constitution with the purpose of enriching themselves (1913).

The discussion of individual agency versus society’s forces comes into play here. Structuralists privileged social forces over individual action, while functionalists saw social organizations as “the cumulative result of the efforts of individual agents to meet their own interests” (p 97). Modernization theory was led by American historians, who saw modernity as the creation of  rationally-minded societies, with the end being a harmonious world. Historical actors who prevent such progress are the bad guys. It’s this sort of meta-narrative that would be critiqued by…


I confess that at this point I was having trouble discerning the details from the overall movements that affected historical writing, so instead of going through the other chapters on anthropology and the Annales school (about which I know something) and psychoanalysis (about which I know little), I tried to get closer to an understanding of how history is done today. That was the chapter on “Poststructuralism and history”, by one of the book’s editors, Kevin Passmore.

Here we start with the divergence of history from literature, yet another 19th century phenomenon. Eventually, some historians go on to challenge the whole traditional, Rankean idea of knowing the past through evidence. In modern times, this takes the form of postmodernism, because modernist history used historical techniques and research that were considered “professional” rather than amateur. Post-modernism questions whether there is deep meaning at all. Instead there are simply forms of representation. Post-structuralism works with the representation of language particularly, where words are only signifiers dependent on other signifiers. There is no concrete truth. Rather language constructs perception, and here’s where it gets tricky.

Michel Foucault, who appears in many graduate student papers

Apparently this perception is constructed through binary opposites. You cannot know what dark is without light. During the 1960s, scholars like Hayden White went further, arguing that history is basically a series of literary tropes (tragedy, comedy) that use historical events as characters. Michel Foucault questioned the modern narrative of progress and reason as framing the story of the west. At the same time, he continued to use the evidential method. But Jacques Derrida went further. If structuralists reduced everything to binary opposites, post-structuralists see that even this meaning fluctuates (pp 127-128). Derrida thus “deconstructed” history, preventing its construction from having any meaning at all. “Class” for example, is constructed and changes in meaning, so it cannot be used as an “essential” category within which to analyze historical events. Thus post-structuralists went gunning for the Marxist historians, especially E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class.

Thompson was a social historian, which makes me suspect that “social historian” and “Marxist historian” may be seen as the same thing. Post-structuralists attacked him. White said that he used narrative tropes, Robert Berkhofer claimed that history is about interpretations and therefore no interpretation can reconstruct the past. I would argue that you cannot “reconstruct” the past through historical analysis, anymore than you can “accurately” represent the present. People may witness the same event and see different things. The “objective” or “real” past that these philosophers are fighting over never did exist, just as there is no “objective” or “real” present if you consider all the different interpretations of many different people. All anyone can do is consider as many perspectives as make sense, and judge them according to whatever construct they have.

That’s what bothers me about the trends today – the construct being used by angry people, angry at injustice and moral violations, is not even trying to create a “real” past. The effort to do so is at the heart of traditional historical method. Without the effort to be objective, there’s no point gathering the evidence. I also cannot accept the moral relativism implied in the idea that “nothing can be known, so every interpretation has the same value”. I also find such history “romantic” rather than rational or scientific, since it presents the goal of history as being some sort of goodness. Society should be fair and just and right. People should be free and compassionate and collective. When all of this doesn’t happen, contemporary historians go all to pieces and start cherry-picking evidence.

My work

How does all of this inform my work? It clearly makes me, as I suspected before, a traditional, empirical, evidential historian. I admit to a meta-narrative of unfairness being a Bad Thing, but I also think it’s important to understand the sincerity of those who justified unfairness at the time (context!). That probably makes me a classic Marxist social historian. The question is whether it’s possible to write history today without carrying the Marxist social history tradition thread all the way through post-structuralism.

I will not pretend to a deep understanding of any of this through reading a few pertinent chapters, and I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book. There are important points in the chapters on economic history (where more recent historians are developing broader views of “the economy” in a way that incorporates the moral issues and social interactions of the time), gender history (which could be seen as just a type of social history), and intellectual history (which seems to have a more creative streak than I previously understood). But in each chapter I note the influence of postmodern and post-structuralist ideas, and I am trying to understand that their benefit is in opening up history to be more inclusive. But I confess I get stuck when what we’re including are emotions which may cloud judgement, creativity that may endanger objectivity, and suppositions that may not be based in evidence. I still can’t hold with that, and will instead move on to the historiography of the History of Education.

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