Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: The Meanings of History

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 2 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

The Meanings of History


Many think that history is passive and unalterable. It has been called an "exciting and vivid costume drama" or "a tedious catalogue of dates." This attitude towards history is largely a result of people being taught that history is a Static process, that it never changes. This is the predominant way it is taught in our schools and is usually considered BORING. History as taught in college, especially on the graduate student level, is shown to be more of a Dynamic process. The essential plot and the people are the same, but new interpretations are investigated. This last is what is known as revisionism. Unfortunately, revisionism has gained a negative connotation because of the excessive zeal with which some historians have attempted to rewrite history. Some of these radical historians (left, right and middle) have too often thrown the baby out with the bath water when reassessing historical events. They are guilty of anachronism or "presentism"--applying the morals and mores of the present to the past--and have produced historical re-interpretations that seem excessively critical and dismissive of previously honored historical actors. This has alienated many non-historians who have in turn shut out all attempts at historical reinterpretation and resigned themselves to the boring, static history they learned in school. Historical revisionism is good, but it must be done correctly and carefully.

Static and Dynamic Concepts of History

As mentioned, the Static form is the prevalent form and is basically a fixed story of the past. Alternatively, the Dynamic concept of history is a story of the past that is in constant dialogue with the present. Contrary to any impression which may have been given, not all historians embrace the dynamic concept. They would prefer that past interpretations be kept as they are. Some are simply disconcerted with the idea of shifting from a Static to a Dynamic concept, though this is probably not so much the case any more. It would seem that these historians have lapsed into a comfortable belief that some history has already been adequately researched and nothing new has come up. Perhaps they have confused Past Actuality with its Record?

The primary benefit of a dynamic concept of history is that it continually invites historians to reassess the past. If the scholarship is good, it will be embraced, if not, it will be rejected. This concept of a "changing past" offers intellectual reward and inspiration to keep researching. This does not mean that responsible historians are attempting to change the past, rather, they are always striving for a better explanation.


Revisionism is a central tenet of historical scholarship. It is the unending search for fresh material, sources and interpretations of the past. The debates which develop out of revised interpretations of the past are essential to the field of history. As has been said, the term "Revisionist" has gained a negative connotation, but it is not some new phenomena; it's a constant process that has gone on for centuries, though especially the last few. Why should we revise history?

As the pace of change quickens, from such forces as science and technology and the rapid dissemination of information, there arises a pressure to revise accounts of the past. Human's identities are wrapped up in the past. As our self-perceptions in the ever-changing present change, our view of past actuality also changes. New questions are asked about the past, especially as new, previously ignored groups (minorities and women, for example) emerge. Also, new historians may revisit "old" records or these records may gain new importance and are reinterpreted. The philosophies of the Eighteenth Century, dominated by the Enlightenment, inspired a desire to use revision of history in a campaign to exult reason.

Voltaire and Gibbon

Voltaire broke with long established tendencies of studying history and Edward Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire offered a new interpretation for why the Roman empire fell. Gibbon asserted that Christianity turned the minds of the Roman leaders from problems of this life to the afterlife and they also suffered from "immoderate greatness." Both Gibbon and Voltaire wrote reverentially of past governments and countries. Their works are regarded as classics and were manifestos to advance liberty and reason. They weren't supporters of their contemporary governments. This idealogy inspired them to reassess past interpretations of history as they looked for ways to buttress their own arguments against the status quo. They were searching for historical precedents.

Malthus, Marx and new forms of History

The Reverend Thomas Malthus, "the gloomy economist," was concerned with population growth. He viewed contemporary history as a history of higher classes and believed that a history of the general population was needed. He also believed that statistical analysis was key and called on others to do research in his Essay on the Principle of Population. Heeding his call, historians studied 200 years of statistics related to the poor and the general population. This led to the development of the social sciences, especially demographics, as a reaction to history of the wealthy. After the study, Malthus concluded that lower classes couldn't control their lust and he proposed to keep population in check by keeping wages at subsistence level. Essentially, he felt that government should simply leave the poor alone rather than make life better for them. Before continuing, it is important to provide some context.

Malthus' study occurred during the Industrial Revolution when massive demographic change and political unrest developed as people moved from farms to factories in or near the city. Malthus' concern with population growth didn't properly factor in the Industrial Revolution so his perception of the overpopulation problem was skewed. His conclusion that the best way to control overpopulation was to basically let the poor fend for themselves, or die trying, was a bad idea, to say the least. Yet, his investigation opened up an area of inquiry, the study of the common man, which proved beneficial. A fine example of the silver lining on a very dark cloud.

Meanwhile, during the Industrial Revolution (which Malthus missed), militant groups of workers evolved out of social unrest as they vowed to fight for better wages and working conditions. How could this be accomplished? Karl Marx studied the roots of social unrest and thought that he had an answer in his Communist Manifesto of 1848. This was not a work of scholarship, but rather a call to arms. Marx believed that human history was the history of class struggle, which proved to be one of the most sweeping statements ever made in the history of History. Marx believed each epoch related to economic interests and challenged people to think about the causes of social unrest.

Slowly at first, historians began to embrace his concepts, some more wholeheartedly than others. The Marxist school was dominant through the 20th Century, though it took a serious fall with that of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Historians didn't necessarily embrace Marxism, though there were a quite a few who did, but used it as a new way of thought and a new focus for research. Marxism helped to reveal that "the people" could be studied and that history was more than the study of leaders of nations. It was a juxtaposition of old form with new methods. Today, many Marxists still cling to the more utopian ideas of the theory and continue to champion neo-Marxist philosophies. Time will tell if Marxism will regain its status as a major school of historical thought or if its valuable aspects have already been accepted and its time for the rest of it to wither away.

People's History

The rapid transformations of the 18th Century, along with the influences of Malthus and Marx, also created a new movement towards what became known as 'Peoples History.' In 1874, Reverend John Richard Green wrote A Short History of English Peoplein which he passed over the traditional historical highlights and the elite and instead focused on the average people. It was released at a time when populist and nationalist movements and "phobias" (such as anglophobia) were prevalent. It was a very popular work and was translated into many languages. Who were "the people" Green wrote about? He didn't include women or minorities. He also spoke of the "English people", thereby implying an acceptance of the nation as the primary social unit that is to be studied. As a result, Green's work accelerated revisionism as a younger generation embraced the core of his idea and took it further. They began to recognize that other social units, besides "the nation," were legitimate. This eventually led to studies in minority history and women's history.

W.E.B. Dubois was an African-American scholar who was impressed by Marx. He wrote of "Negro History" and founded the Journal of Negro History. His quote, "Historical invisibility is a virtually universal corrollary to powerlessness" provided he and others with inspiration to delve into the history of those who had been "forgotten." For his part, he rescued black history from obscurity and the biases of white historians. All of the books that he wrote went un-reviewed, denying him acknowlegement as a scholar by his peers, but he brought about the expansion of black history and opened the door for others. A new body of scholarship was created that increased the overall understanding of history and increased the racial pride of blacks and glorified their goals. Dubois' work showed that a good study could educate the majority and foster an attitude of equality and opportunity. Other minorities, such as Hispanics and Native Americans, became interested in studying history. Women also became increasingly engaged in historical research that dealt specifically with women's history. Many like to point to June Sochen's Herstory as the pivotal work in Women's History. The title evoked the necessity of a story told by a woman other than that told by male historians.

What of the future of People's History in all of its varieties? As can be inferred, it has been often used as a tool by various "movements" as a path to legitimization. The desire for group recognition is understandable and admirable, but it also lends itself to bias and a tendency to gloss over the bad and highlight the good of a particular overlooked group. At the same time, it does exactly the opposite with the perceived "oppressors" (usually, rich, elite, white men).

Initially, particularly in minority history, the elite of these groups, such as Malcolm X or George W. Carver, were highlighted. As the genre matured and developed, more studies of average people were done. The methods used in People's history are often the same as those used in sociology and there are many instances of cross-fertilization. This points to a danger of losing the actual craft of history as a viable discipline within the genre of People's history, but most historians still do rely on a narrative form of exposition. What is required for People's historians is to maintain or rediscover good methodology, ignore the temptation to propogandize and to properly tell history. Regardless, their work conjures up debate, which is always beneficial.

The Annales School and Cliometrics

In 1929, a new kind of historical scholarship, called the Annales School, arose. Its practitioners aimed to capture the totality of the human experience and relied heavily on social sciences to achieve this goal. They emphasized the enduring patterns of culture that changed little over time. Central to their approach was a rejection of event oriented history as such events were just "ripples on a lake." A concern with events was replaced with a search for societal patterns. The concept of mentalites was put forth, the idea that a particular way of life and values persisted over time, despite upheavals. Marc Bloch and Fernand Braudel were the key founders of the Annales school and it was Braudel who coined the term longue duree, the vast sweep of time during which little real change occurred. He did this in his The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, written in 1949, which emphasized the area around the Mediterranean basin rather than a particular nation. No doubt, he was influenced by his times (Nationalism, Communism, World War II) in attempting to write history in this manner. As a result, the Annales school, in its purest form, began to throw out any sense of history as story and became a conceptual melting pot of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology and geology.

Another method, Cliometrics, also came to the fore during this time. Cliometricians attempt to use quantification to reveal historical meaning and rely on statistics, computers and scientific models to achieve their goal. Their work was very valuable, especially in the particular area of Economic history, but there is a tendency for cliometricians to reject source material that can't be quantified. They term such material as "soft" or "impressionistic" and use them reluctantly or only to support their "hard" evidence. As a result, Cliometrics is a self-limiting field in that its practitioners can only study such topics as have suitable amounts of statistical data. Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman's Time on the Cross provides an example of Cliometrics being taken too far. The authors set out to disprove the accepted view of slavery and ended up seeming to attempt to make the institution of slavery look beneficial based on their statistical evidence. Their study opened the entire school of Cliometrics to attack. Included among its attackers was Jacques Barzun, whose now-classic Clio and the Doctors poked holes in the growing scientification of history and also was an eloquent plea for keeping history in the domain of narratives.

Psychology and History

Psychohistory attempts to apply the Freudian or other psychoanalytic methods to historical study. The inherent problem within the field is that there are roughtly 15 generally recognized methodologies of clinical analysis and the question of which-to-apply-when is a genuinely critical question. Nonetheless, psychohistory is a good tool for dealing with motive as it seeks to determine the real, often unstated, reason of the actions of historical entities. Erik Erikson's book Young Man Luther was probably the first example of this approach. Lewis Namier used a psychohistorical approach in his work on the British House of Commons and Fawn Brodie's psychobiography of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History, also is a notable work in the field. Brodie's work showed that man's inner life affects all and that to illuminate it takes technique as well as empathy and nuance.

Psychohisotry is a bold discipline that believes in the science of clinical evidence. It also lends itself to narrative and has helped revive the historical biography. Social psychology (integration of the South in the 1950's) and abnormal psychology (Hitler) also add dimensions to the field. The primary problem of psychohistory is that its practitioners often must resort to post- mortem psychoanalysis of their subject, something that neither Freud nor those of other psychological schools had in mind when developing and expanding upon their theories of psychoanalysis.

Changing Roads to the Past

As has been seen, history is an organic, dynamic, and not anachronistic, process. Despite fads and trends, it is still usually expressed in a narrative form, though those approaches are also evolving. A definitive history is non-existant and scholars refrain from using the term anymore as it implies a static body of knowledge and lends support to those who criticize the validity of historical scholarship. Additionally, the teaching of Historiography, the study of the practice of history influenced by ideas of continuity, must continue. Related to the maintenance of an awareness of historiography is a mastery of sound methodology and a willingness to embrace new techniques with the ability to discriminate between valid theories and fads while being critical of the latter. As has been seen, many of the new theories of historical research have been valid, if not overestimated, in their comprehensive ability to explain history. There is no one magic method that stands above the others and the historians task is to consider these approaches, in addition to their own preferred method, as they strive to create the historical record.

Up Next: The History of Historical Method


Marc said...

Nathanael at Rhine River expands upon my brief capsule on the Annales School:

"[The post] has got me thinking about the problems of understanding the context with which the Annales emerged. The long durée is its most lasting influence, but it was also part of a trend in academia towards interdisciplinary studies. Geography, in particular, was adaopted by historians of various fields. Lucien Febvre was not the first historian to use geography, but he inspired Braudel to overlook national boundaries for the broader picture. Why is the school not remembered for this aspect of its work? Why do we not remember a 'geographic turn'?"

Anonymous said...

The concept of "geophilosophy" is what you may be looking for - This term, coined by Deleuse, (1991 what is philosophy)can be considered as a geographical turn. Deleuse credits Nietzsche with its founding... and Baudel states that Nietzsche gave him the idea.
There is some work being done on this topic... Dr. Gary Shaprio at the University of Richmond is one who has written on the topic.

Anonymous said...

Small error: began to trhow out any sense of history as story and became a conceptual melting pot of disciplines, including sociology, anthropology and geology.

Anonymous said...

Another small error: Historiography, the study of the the practice of history

Marc said...

Thanks for the edits!