by James Rucker
Editor’s Note: Have you ever wondered why people continue to write new history books about very old topics, and why libraries need to buy them? Once something happens, it doesn’t change, right? So why can’t we just read old books about it and be done with it? In today’s post, James explains how historiography–or the study of historical writing–has changed over time, and how various approaches to history differ. –Brittney Reed-Saltz
Like any trained professionals, historians have a history, and there are two watershed moments where we could start telling it. The first is in ancient Greece, with Herodotus. Renouncing the authority of myth and legend, he embarked on a self-critical pursuit of knowledge. When interviewing witnesses to the events, he did what any good attorney does to a witness in a court of law: He cross-examined them. He called his book Inquiries. (The ancient Greek word was ‘istoriai, the root of our modern word “history.” Modern translations just call the book Histories.) For our purposes, it doesn’t matter whether Inquiries is entirely free of errors or assumptions; it quite obviously isn’t. What matters is it represents an undeniable and fundamental shift in the concept of historical truth: It is not something to be related, it is something to be discovered. This attitude has generally characterized historians ever since.
The history of history-writing (historiography) since the Inquiries has taken many forms.
Roman historians wrote differently from medieval ones, who in turn wrote differently from their Enlightenment successors. The differences are clearest where the historians locate agency – the capacity to act and thereby cause change in the world. In seeking to explain any event, a historian gives different factors different causal statuses. When evaluating the cause of World War I, we generally hold some factors to be more important than others. For example, we say Gavrilo Princip is who killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand; we do not blame the impact force of the bullet Gavrilo shot him with, nor do we blame the Archduke’s subsequent blood loss. We hold Gavrilo responsible for shooting the Archduke because he could have done otherwise, whereas the bullet could not help but fly through the air, and the blood could not help but spill. However, not many historians would attribute the blame for World War I to Gavrilo personally. After all, if someone lights up a cigarette in a house full of odorless natural gas, do we blame the person who chose to smoke or the person who accidentally left the gas on? Many historians instead look for the “gas” that the Archduke’s murder “ignited.” If not Gavrilo, we could attribute agency (and blame) to diplomats, militarists, imperialists, or nationalists.
This illustrates why agency is so important: agency and responsibility are concepts implicitly tangled with moral judgment, so the ascription of agency indicates the values of the historian. Historians of Rome might have venerated their generals and legions, but the true agent in Roman histories was the strength of Roman law. Christian historians of the Middle Ages instead saw agency in God, whose divine providence guided and prepared the world for the apocalypse. Enlightenment historians, having either participated in or witnessed the Scientific Revolution, found agency in reason itself; they believed humanity would make progress as long as human action was guided by reason and unclouded by dogma.
At this point, we reach the 19th Century and our second watershed moment: when history became a proper academic discipline. Most attribute this change to Leopold von Ranke, a German scholar of languages (philology). He was disappointed with existing history books because he felt they were speculations based on hearsay. In his words (translated, of course), historians should just describe the past “how it really was.” He went into the archives to see documents first-hand to report only facts that reading the documents could support. He attracted a large following (including many who were even more strict about facts than he), and the professional discipline of history was born.
However, this early archival history was severely limited by the evidence available in archives at the time. They mainly contained documents created by state bureaucracies: laws, court decisions, military orders, police records, etc. Diaries and letters were only easily available if their author had been wealthy or famous enough for their libraries to be kept intact after death. This evidence, and consequently the works based on it, carried the perspective of the state: of armies, bureaucracies, and constitutions. (I’ve heard it called A-B-C history.) This first wave of academic history is usually called “political history.”
Political histories often ascribed agency to certain men of supposedly extraordinary ability. As Thomas Carlyle once put it, “The History of the World […] was the Biography of Great Men.” Great Men could refer to politicians, of course, but also entrepreneurs (if writing about the economy), inventors (if writing about technology), et al. Political histories were written by men of privilege, for men of privilege. They almost invariably glorified authority figures of the past and, indirectly, authority figures in the present. By ascribing agency only to the men at the top, Great Man Theory condemns everyone below them to unimportance, to be forgotten. The patriarchal implications of Great Man Theory were strongly criticized by many subsequent historians, and political history fell out of favor among academic historians. However, it is still fairly popular with non-academic readers.
The second wave of professional historiography was called “social history.” It sought to explain the past in ways that didn’t give as much agency to individuals. The argument of a social historian might go like this: In society, people participate in systems of production and distribution, and these systems are organized by various structures, such as laws and economic practices. Some structures involve cooperation; some involve conflict. As one individual among many, you have a social status and a corresponding place in society. From there, you have certain options for how you can interact with these structures and systems while other options are closed to you. However, if you had a different social status, your options would likely be different as well. For example, if you have a high-school degree, then you have a different status from someone without one, and you therefore have different job opportunities. You cannot simply choose to have another social status; you must maneuver from one place in society to another either through playing by the rules or by playing with the rules (trying to dodge or exploit them).
Social historians used the theories and research methods that sociologists and economists had developed to understand and explain the structure of society. While pioneers of these methods had appeared by the early 1900s, it was in the ’60s and ’70s that social history hit its stride, when baby boomers were entering grad school. Those historians more inclined to or sympathetic toward social activism wrote a new kind of history called “history from below” to combat history of Great Men. While it certainly wasn’t the only kind of social history, it was probably the most influential. Many people were touched by stories about everyday people and their struggles to live. And when the participants in social movements learned about the common people’s resistance to domination by the elite, it helped them understand their own power and their own agency.
The third, and most recent, wave is “cultural history.” The cultural historian’s argument goes something like this: Humans, in order to be social creatures, rely on symbols to communicate. Some of these symbols are obvious, like flags, religious icons, or honorifics, but some symbols are subtler, such as body language, sarcasm, or innuendo. If you call a king “Your Majesty,” you are expressing how you think your social status relates to his. Alternatively, if you write a song about how greed can destroy those in power, you are instead communicating how he should use his social status. As an individual, you don’t get to choose what words mean all by yourself. Instead, your words depend on and are usually determined by the consensus (or habits) of your community.
Cultural historians used the methods and theories of French linguists and literary theorists. They had precursors and pioneers as well, including many former social historians, but cultural history did not gain dominance until Generation X entered academia. These theories emphasized the way the interpretations of a listener, rather than the intentions of speaker, contribute to a symbol’s meaning. According to some cultural historians, the meaning of a book is not dictated by its author; instead it is defined in large part by the many possible ways there are to read it. Similarly, they believed the meaning of authority is not dictated by the architects of society; instead power flows in all sorts of directions.
Unlike the research methods of social historians which opened up new possibilities of studying ordinary people, the methods of cultural historians opened up possibilities for studying social outcasts. Cultural historians tended to dive deep into particular sources to analyze their particular use of language, rather than synthesize a large number of sources to draw general trends. Interpretation of each source was so delicate that large events requiring correspondingly many sources were frequently avoided. No one person could do justice to that amount of source material by this model. Historians increasingly focused on narrower topics, writing what is called “microhistory.” Instead of a book about peasant life in medieval France, they might write about a specific peasant who stole another’s identity.
Over time, with so few “macrohistorians,” historical knowledge became more specific and specialized, and the historical community became fragmented as a result. (This fragmentation did exist for other reasons, but social-historical methods resisted this trend while cultural-historical ones accelerated it.) This fragmentation was coincident with changes in political culture. If we believe postmodern cultural theorists (many of whom were the source of the cultural historian’s methods), people had become disenchanted with “grand narratives,” stories that seem too big and too convenient to be true. This had eroded the strength of social movements, which often based themselves on optimistic visions of the world in which they would defeat injustice. The scale of such a world-view was too grand for cultural histories to support.
A Distinction, and the Ascription of Agency
I want to take a moment and stress three facts: Political history is not the same as history of politics, social history is not the same as history of society, and cultural history is not the same as history of culture. The labels refer to where the histories locate agency, not to what the histories are about. You can have a social history of culture as easily as a social history of politics or of society. Often, the front lines of historiographical debates are about whether one of the three types of factors controls the other two.
The ascription of historical agency carries ethical consequences. To illustrate this more fully, I’ll return to our original example, the cause of World War I. Even before it began, each country construed events such that they were not responsible for the conflict underway, and upon its conclusion, the victors were eager to establish that “war guilt” belonged to their opponents so they could justify more punishing treaties. Many historians blame Germany, not without reason; they point to the willingness of German statesmen to risk war and their overconfidence in their ability to win such a war quickly. These accounts are individualistic, however. They neither asked why these men were in a position to act so recklessly nor why they were inclined to.
Some accounts are less individualistic accounts blaming problematic ideas or patterns of behavior. Some political historians, for example, blame militarism or failed diplomacy. Many believed that peace in Europe would reign if all sides held a balance of power. If a country was too strong, it might get recklessly disrespectful of others, and if a country was too weak, it might act belligerent to prove its strength. Treaties were written between weaker and stronger powers in order to achieve balance. Meanwhile, military or industrial advances in one country were hastily replicated or countered by their potential opponents. The hope was that no one would risk war in a world of mutually assured destruction; but when the Archduke was assassinated, these treaties had entangled all the major powers of Europe, legally binding them all to declare war. No one backed down, fearing that they would look weak or unreliable. Ironically, the measures taken to prevent war turned a minor conflict in the Balkans into a catastrophe.
Alternatively, some social historians (especially Marxists) blame imperialism. In an effort to expand their economies, the industrializing countries of Europe built empires by dominating weaker regions both surrounding them and across the sea. These empires ended up being the major powers of the war. Imperialism fostered competition over these regions and generated instability in them. For example, the regions in the Balkan Mountains were formerly controlled by the Ottoman Empire to the East and were subsequently under pressure from the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian) Empire to the West. The Balkans experienced wars in both 1912 and 1913 due to this instability. The war began as a conflict between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, one of these Balkan states. The conflict might instead have been remembered as the “Third Balkan War” if the network of treaties had not compelled the rest of Europe to fight.
Lastly, some cultural historians blame nationalism. Nationalism did exist in imperialist countries, often consisting in pride for their empire, but imperialized regions increasingly understood themselves in contrast to their oppressors. They began to claim that what others merely saw as regional dialects were actually distinct languages. (For instance, Ukrainian used to be considered a folksy version of Russian.) Nationalists wrote dictionaries, collected folk tales, and published literary fiction to bolster their language’s claims of legitimacy. These nation-building efforts cultivated pride for ethnic identity, but they also implied certain political and economic beliefs. At its core, nationalist ideology demanded that political borders and ethno-linguistic boundaries coincide: that a people’s distinctiveness gives them the right to self-governance and to control of their nation’s natural resources. These ideas were powerful enough that many were willing to die for them and many more were willing to kill for them. Gavrilo Princip was a Serbian Nationalist, and Archduke Franz Ferdinand was the heir to the Habsburg Empire. Gavrilo intended his deed, the assassination, to be propaganda for the Serbian nationalist cause.
It is easy to see that these different kinds of explanations aren’t totally opposed, but tend simply to put emphasis in different places, to blame different parts for the whole. What is most important to see is that ascription of agency is frequently a choice, and that choice reveals the ethical attitude of the historian.
I’ll close with a book recommendation. Shortly before the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the war, Max Hastings wrote Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War.
In it, he discusses the beginning of World War I. He is an excellent stylist; his prose is both understandable and enjoyable. I won’t say much, only that if you read it you should ask yourself what kind of historian he is.