Current trajectories of history?

’Unofficial histories’ is a sign of the times. The yearly conferences with this title in the UK from 2012 on have been gatherings of academics, students and of various people engaged with the past. These fully booked events have, in the words of one participant, ’looked at history as it is being presented today’. She participated in the 2013 conference in Manchester, a meeting that ’stepped out of the straight jacket of academia and actually took history to the public’.[1]

’History is not the prerogative of the historian’ is how Raphael Samuel begins his famous dictum from 1994. It is, ’rather, a social form of knowledge; the work of a thousand different hands’. If it was ’thought of as an activity rather than a profession then the number of its practitioners would be legion’. As a result, the point of address in any discussion of historiography should be ’the ensemble of activities and practices in which ideas of history are embedded or a dialectic of past-present relations is rehearsed’.[2]

The outset of the 21st century is also characterised by Hayden White’s recent works on what he calls ’practical past’. This concept covers the uses of the past that ’people outside the historical profession rely on as ’”a space of experience” for all kinds of judgements and decisions in daily life’. Significant is that in 1994 Samuel had regarded White’s ideas in the hugely influential Metahistory with its ’close reading of a limited number of well-thumbed books’ as the antithesis of his own ’unofficial knowledge’.[3]

White has not given up his search for the metahistorical element for all histories but his point of view is today another. What has not changed is the object of his criticism: the self-understanding of scholarly historians. Forty years ago his starting point was their concern with ’the extent to which history may be regarded as a kind of science’ at the cost of its ’artistic components’. In the 21st century he concentrates on the failure of academics to deal with the practical past on it own terms. ’Memories, illusions, bits of vagrant information’ etc ’are seldom amenable to professional historians’ techniques of investigation.[4]

The issue White highlights is not so much ’what are the facts’ as, rather, ’what will be permitted to pass for a specifically ”historical” as against a merely ”natural” (or for that matter, a ”supernatural”) event’.[5] Samuel’s message, in turn, refers to another aspect of history that the profession has ignored. The crucial question bypassed is the way in which histories emerge, by whom and in what kind of contexts they are constructed.

My forecast is that these two issues, on one hand the fundamental character and on the other, the origins of history will be lively discussed by historians in the near future. This anticipation was the incentive to travel from Finland in late April this year to the conference ’History after Hobsbawm’, organised in London by Birkbeck College, Institute for Historical Research and Past & Present. However, my expectations were not met.

The organisers advertised the event as ’A Conference on the Current Trajectories of History’. The aim was to bring together ’socially-committed historians’ for a discussion about ’where we are headed, and what it means to be an historian in the twenty-first century’. Having myself recently written a book on the historian’s relation to the society  where he/she works (Making History; Palgrave Macmillan 2012) general remarks on ’ways in which history matters beyond academe’ didn’t offer much.[6]

On the other hand, fairness calls for emphasising that the present piece doesn’t offer an overview of the conference. In a gathering with so many interesting themes and parallel sessions as this one it is impossible to follow all of them. What I missed especially was sections titled ’world histories’ (plural!) and ’environmental history’ (singular!). My point of view was dominated by the current trajectories and in this perspective Alison Light was the only one, strictly speaking, who addressed this theme.

Light’s paper was interesting to the degree that I can hardly wait till next October, when her Common People: the History of an English Family comes out of press. For the same reason my notes on what she said are rather fragmentary. In any case, her message hit the nail on the head: family history doesn’t just satisfy the curiosity of its constructor about the forefathers but may also lead to several valuable insights. It may refine one’s identity and belonging, question or unsettle taken for granted-interpretations, demythodologise deeply rooted beliefs etc.

Light’s presentation points towards a two-stage rethinking of history. The question is, in the first phase, of adopting a broader concept the style of Samuel and White presented above: an analysis of the ways in which people in general think about and use the past. One example is taking seriously accounts of the past constructed by non-professional people and acknowledging that they too belong to the category ‘history’. Or , giving up (in the words of Linda Colley) the idea that non-scholarly accounts of the past are ’amateur at best; at worst, dross, propaganda, fairy-tales’.[7]   

The second stage of rethinking refers to consequences implanted in this wider view of history, uncovering the role the past plays in people’s life. This would mean, among other things, adding a new criterion to the yardsticks against which a history will be assessed. The new criterion would be the significance of the history being assessed for the readers. In more general terms, this criterion provides the historian with an underestimated perspective for designing the research ahead.[8]

As far as scholarly historians are concerned, the first of the two phases of rethinking has been on its way for some time; the idea that theirs was the blueprint of ’real history’ was commonly abandoned within the profession during the last third of the 20th century. To be sure, the process has gained ground only slowly which is explained by other simultaneous changes in historical research. Orientations like oral history, gender history, history of mentalities, history of cooking and so on were assigned a legitimate status within the discipline by then end of last century. By letting these one-time ‘new histories’ to enter the mainstream of scholarly history meant that historians gave up their traditional notions about the actors, themes and approaches of historical research by themselves.

At the same time that scholarly historians created an upheaval within their discipline they were confronted by consequences of the linguistic turn, a revision that transformed all research on society and culture. At the core of the change was the mode of conveying information: language is not a neutral medium. Historians too had to accept that the comprehension of reality is conditioned by the language used to express one’s beliefs and this meant that the familiar tenets of historical research, reality, objectivity and truth had to be reassessed.[9]

The two late 20th century phenomena, the revision caused by scholarly historians themselves and the linguistic turn brought about a paradigmatic change within the discipline of history.[10] The parameters for the study of the past were transformed but, in fact, unknowingly as far as most of the scholarly historians are concerned. The reason for bypassing the revision is that secondary reflection on the research being done is not customary for historians in any country.[11] The attitude of their majority is illuminated in a banal form by a Finnish colleague of mine, a university professor of history too:  ’I don’t waste time in thinking how to do research, I just write history!’

In any case, the two-stage rethinking I suggested with Alison Light’s paper as the starting point is a current, 21st century matter. Whether it is just an expansion of the paradigmatic change that took place at the end of the previous century or a harbinger of a new period in the development of historical theory is too early to say. What is certain is that it embodies the current trajectories.

Professor of contemporary history (emeritus), University of Turku.


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  1. About the conferences on Unofficial Histories, conceived and organised by Fiona Cosson and Ian Gwinn, PhD-students from respectively Manchester and Liverpooi, see Google. The quotations are from Janet Sullivan’s comment in History Today, see [Takaisin]
  2. About Samuel, see the chapter Unofficiel Knowledge in his Theatres of Memory. Volume 1: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, Verso: London and New York 1994. Quotations from pp. 8, 17 and 8. [Takaisin]
  3. For White, see e.g. his Practical Past in Historein, vol. 10 (2010); quotation 17. Samuel 1994, 8. [Takaisin]
  4. The first quotation from Hayden White: Metahistory. The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe, Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore & London 1973, xi. The second quotation from White 2010, 16. [Takaisin]
  5. White 2010, 16. [Takaisin]
  6. The first two quotations from the conference-advertisement and the third from John H. Arnold’s comment [Takaisin]
  7.   [Takaisin]
  8. The quotation is from Linda Colley on David Lowenthal’s The Heritage Crusade and the Spoils of History, Times Literary Supplement, 25 November 2005. [Takaisin]
  9. I’ll deal more comprehensively with this perspective in a paper to be delivered 11 December 2014 at The Oulu Centre for Theoretical and Philosophical Studies of History. [Takaisin]
  10. More about this see my ‘The linguistic turn in retrospect’ in K.Rentola and T.Saarela (eds.): Kulkijapoika on nähnyt sen: Kirjoituksia nykyhistoriasta, Työväen historian ja perinteen seura 2014. [Takaisin]
  11. The paradigmatic change is the theme of the first chapter  (’Second thoughts on history’) in Jorma Kalela: Making History. The Historian and Use of the Past, Palgrave Macmillan 2012. [Takaisin]


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