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historiography

Historiography is the study how history is studied. Despite widespread assumptions to the contrary, historical sources are not necessarily reliable and none are free from problems. The literate, mostly male, élite who left written records represent poorly the wider population. Surviving material is dominated by clerical or legal administration; the background circumstances to the brief entries have long-since disappeared. Historiographers have long recognised that 'The past is largely a construct of the questions asked by the historian'.

By the very nature of its subject matter, historiography has heavily theorised diachronic developments (without ignoring the theory of synchronic ones).

However this does not mean that all historians (as opposed to historiographers) are necessarily theory-aware. In his 1970 book The Nature of History Arthur Marwick complained that British historians are distinguished from their Continental and New World colleagues by their lack of interest in historiography. Over twenty-five years later Beverley Southgate wrote the 'assumption of the possibility of sharply differentiating between a supposedly pristine, "objective" historical account from any philosophical or ideological accretions, still lives on.' He notes 'Any philosophical standpoint revealed in the writing of history is frequently taken as a sort of veneer... something to be assessed, praised or condemned, independently of the underlying historical research itself.' (Southgate 1996: 2).

Despite Marwick and Southgate's books being eminently readable and passionately argued, the self-awareness of historiography and post-modernist writing has only rarely found its place in British history, although the American journals Critical Inquiry and the American Historical Review thrive on the debates between competing historical ideologies. Die-hard postmodernists argue that a 'linear' view of history is merely an example of imposing a master narrative and that is is better to speak of a post-historical approach to the past.

If this sounds far-fetched then consider how many people under 30 have been exposed only to 'dumbed down' versions of history (whether through education, TV or the heritage industry) and effectively live in a 'permanent present' with only an impressionistic and nostalgic awareness of the past. At the same time, in the modern world almost everything is experienced as a reproduction or 'simulation' of already experienced reality – the 'permanent present' is made of our 'reprocessed past'.

Nevertheless, starting in the 1960s, a new breed of British social historians made the questioning of underlying ideologies into a key part of their studies. Commencing with E.P. Thompson's masterful rethinking of English radicalism in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Making of the English Working Class (Thompson 1963), other historians, such as Gareth Stedman Jones (1983) and James Epstein (1994) have reconstructed the specific political contexts in which key forms of collective identity – the nation, femininity and masculinity, class, etc – were expressed. The 'underlying ideology' of Thompson and Stedman Jones is Marxist. Thompson sought to overcome perceived weaknesses in Marxist approaches; interestingly he has specifically identified such weaknesses in the context of the study of folklore, anthropology and social history (Thompson 1979: 18–19; 1993). Their views on the way the working classes attempted to subvert the intentions of their capitalist 'lords and masters' contrast significantly with the 'school text book' versions of this period. For instance, Thompson sees the selective destruction of machinery by the Luddites as an early form of 'trade union' activities, not as antipathy to mechanisation, because only workers producing inferior goods or undercutting prices suffered from smashed appliances. While approaching his material as an historian rather than a folklorist, James Epstein specifically looks at how rituals and symbols – such as banners and ceremonial 'liberty caps' – formed part of the 'folk customs' within radical groups of this period (Epstein 1994).

Despite their emphasis on major political developments, these social historians are especially relevant to the study of culture and 'folklore'. Firstly, ther work provides a 'context' for the changes to specific cultural customs during this period. Secondly, they show how much history changes when the underlying ideology and approach of writers differs from 'established' viewpoints.

See also 'popular' and 'elite' culture.

bibliographical references:

EPSTEIN, James, 1994, Radical Expression: Political language, ritual, and symbol in England, 1790-1850, Oxford UP.
JONES, Gareth Stedman, 1983, Languages of Class: Studies in English working-class history 1832-1982, Cambridge UP.
SOUTHGATE, Beverley, 1996, History: What and Why? Ancient, modern and postmodern perspectives, Routledge.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1963, The Making of the English Working Class, Gollancz.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1979, Folklore, Anthropology and Social History, Noyce.
THOMPSON, Edward P., 1993, Customs in Common: Studies in traditional popular culture, New Press.

 

copyright © Bob Trubshaw 2003

 

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