Who Should We Write History For?

The blog entry below is a response to a question, ‘Who should historians write history for?’, that was posed by an event of the same name held in the history department at King’s College London on the 14th of January 2015. We had a series of responses from members of the history department, including that below, which will hopefully form part of a series over the coming months. These responses are intended to respond to the debate initiated recently by Jo Guldi and David Armitage’s History Manifesto about the public role of history.

In the oft-quoted preface to his 1963 The Making of the English Working Class E. P Thompson described his ambition to ‘rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity.” As an undergraduate I was, as others surely were, deeply inspired by this eloquent exposition on the value of social history. In the History Manifesto Jo Guldi and David Armitage cite Thompson approvingly as an example of a politically engaged historian, somebody who ‘spoke to power’.

I am not sure the feeling of approval would be completely mutual. Guldi and Armitage see the future of history in the long-term and the wide scope. For them digital history and big data offer the techniques by which historians can shape histories for public and especially policy consumption. Yet Thompson, despite his public political engagement, had a rather different idea of how to practice history. He was reacting against a structural Marxism in which individuals were subsumed into an inhuman statistical morass. Instead he sought to reassert the agency of the individual, the working classes made their history rather than being victims of it. Thompson teased out the richness of the working class lives he examined.

This richness is also characteristic of the work of other scholars, such as Natalie Zemon Davis, whom Armitage and Guldi dismiss as ‘micro-historians’. For Guldi and Armitage cultural historians such as Davis have simply asked the wrong questions and over the wrong time scales. They have apparently not engaged with big enough issues, Guldi and Armitage’s favourite seems to be climate change, and they did not do so over the ‘long dureé’, which for Guldi and Armitage seems to be as long as the proverbial piece of string.

Yet a whole host of other social and cultural historians have engaged with political questions. Questions about gender and patriarchy, class and social status, race and racism, the holy trinity of social and cultural history, have given voice to those excluded, both in past and present, from power. These accounts are usually from closely observed readings, from fragments and details. It is this detail that offers us compelling perspectives on the complexity of the past.

My fear is that Guldi and Armitage’s dismissal of such histories and their calls for focus on ever-larger datasets obscures the complexities, the detail, and the individual from history. It is not only Guldi and Armitage’s methods but the way in which they suggest our findings should be communicated that bothers me. Their focus on the production of ‘one screen visualizations’ that sum up research for public and policy consumption seems to pander to an age in which so much of our politics and policy is captured in sound bites and images with little substance or explanation. It seems to suggest an ability to obscure as much it reveals.

The richness of the lives that Thompson, Davis and a range of social and cultural historians since have examined, also has a place in the way history, as a discipline, engages with the public. Often as not, it is the tangled tissue of individual lives and stories that some publics (a plurality largely ignored by The History Manifesto) find compelling. The BBC’s ‘Who do you think you are?’ is a testament to this interest. It is the publics of television, radio, museums, classrooms, readers of books and blogs that are often interested in these stories, publics that Guldi and Armitage’s book largely ignore.

Who should we write history for? I think in a sense the question is about emphasis. That we should write history that engages with a wide range of publics is not a controversial statement. The history manifesto’s issue seems to be a focus on a policy making public above all else. But, in addition to this, I would also suggest that we partly write history for the dead. This may seem slightly idealistic or clichéd. It’s also convenient because the dead can’t answer back. This is not the audience of entrepreneurs, CEOs and politicians that Guldi and Armitage have suggested as historians’ targets. Yet thinking in this way forces the historian to do justice to the complexity and richness of past experience, a complexity and richness that comes from combining the micro, macro and everything in-between. The historian has a responsibility to the dead, more particularly to those whose voices and lives emerge only from a great deal of close and careful engagement with our sources. It is the social and cultural historians that Guldi and Armitage criticize that have done so much to excavate these voices from the archive. The History Manifesto argues that historians should ‘speak truth to power’, but historians’ greatest achievements have often come from speaking to the powerless, or at least making their voices and stories heard.

Finally, a slightly more cynical point. Historians write, and publish, at least partly to earn a living. Putting to one side the fact that individuals other than academic historians write history (a point that Guldi and Armitage problematically ignore), it seems pertinent to note that academia, not just academic history, suffers from its own crisis of short termism. In a world in which the pressure is to publish early, where rising numbers of early career researchers are on ever-shorter contracts that pay for teaching but not for research, and where academics have to work within the timescale of research assessment cycles, the grand projects which Guldi and Armitage suggest seem harder to grasp. Fernand Braudel is the history manifesto’s hero. Yet the research for his mammoth work on the Mediterranean began in 1927 and he didn’t commence writing until 1939. Even with digital techniques this suggests that the future of history will also be partly determined by the institutional culture in which historians exist, which itself is undergoing fundamental, not always positive, change.

William Tullett is a PhD researcher in the History department at King’s College London working on the social and cultural history of smells and smelling in eighteenth-century England.

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