Every piece of historical writing has a theoretical basis on which evidence is selected, filtered, and understood. This book explores the theoretical perspectives and debates that are generally acknowledged to have been the most influential within the university-led practice of history over the past century and a half. It advises readers to bear in mind the following four interlinked themes: context, temporal framework, causation or drivers of change, and subjectivities. The book outlines the principles of empiricism, the founding epistemology of the professional discipline, and explores the ways in which historians have challenged and modified this theory of knowledge over the past century and a half. It then focuses upon three important dimensions of historical materialism in the work of Marxist historians: the dialectical model at the basis of Marx's grand narrative of human history; the adaptations of Marxist theory in Latin America; and the enduring question of class consciousness. The use of psychoanalysis in history, the works of Annales historians and historical sociology is discussed next. The book also examines the influence of two specific approaches that were to be fertile ground for historians: everyday life and symbolic anthropology, and ethnohistory. The roles of narrative, gender history, radical feminism, poststructuralism and postcolonial history are also discussed. Finally, the book outlines the understandings about the nature of memory and remembering, and looks at key developments in the analysis and interpretation of oral histories and oral traditions.
Both past and present are always intertwined in historical practice. Historians seek to understand people whose lives and sensibilities were very different to their own. One criticism often made of the historical profession is that the theorization upon which historical accounts are constructed is rarely made explicit. In the absence of explicit theorization in a historical text, it can be difficult to identify the theory or concepts upon which it rests. This chapter provides a detailed account of four interlinked themes: context, temporal framework, causation or drivers of change, and subjectivities. These themes will also enable readers to interrogate the assumptions and perspectives, theories and concepts upon which historians draw to analyse and interpret the past. The chapter also presents an overview of the key concepts discussed in this book.
Empiricism is both a theory of knowledge, an epistemology, and a method of historical enquiry. The core tenets of empirical history remained deeply influential among the historical profession throughout the twentieth century. An exclusive emphasis upon the core principles of empirical epistemology may lead historians to reject understandings of the past based upon different types of historical sources, such as oral tradition or material culture. This chapter outlines the principles of empiricism, the founding epistemology of the professional discipline, and explores the ways in which historians have challenged and modified this theory of knowledge over the past century and a half. It presents an example of empiricist history, taken from one of Geoffrey Elton's most influential works, England Under the Tudors, first published in 1955. His corpus of work focuses primarily upon administrative history, and he also become one of the leading defenders of empiricism as a theory of knowledge.
This chapter outlines the materialist conception of history, commonly known as historical materialism, first developed by Karl Marx. It focuses upon three important dimensions of historical materialism in the work of Marxist historians: the dialectical model at the basis of Marx's grand narrative of human history; the adaptations of Marxist theory in Latin America; and the enduring question of class consciousness. The driving forces in Marx's conception of history are social classes, which arise from different economic roles in the productive process. In order to overthrow the dominant class, subordinate people must become aware of their oppression, and consequently the concept of human agency is critical to Marx's conceptual framework. Marx's theory, therefore, contains a kind of paradox: the dialectic of productive transformation (a consequence of the inner contradictions within the production process itself) is, nonetheless, dependent upon the consciousness and actions of men and women.
One of the most controversial areas of historiography has been the use of psychoanalysis for understanding historical personalities, groups, or trends. This chapter focuses on the use of psychoanalysis in history. Psychoanalytic theory was developed by Sigmund Freud in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Freud's theory has sometimes been seen as deterministic, in that he saw an adult as a product of a small group of people, the family, who interpreted the nature of society for her or him. Erik Erikson's theory of ego psychology, developed in the United States, suggested fruitful amalgamations of history and psychoanalysis. According to Peter Loewenberg, ego psychology and character analysis are particularly important and welcome to historians because they are based on the evidence of adult behaviour. Psychoanalytic approaches can explain more than the irrational in history. Many historians are committed to explanations based on individual or group self-interest.
The group of historians now known as the Annales 'school' has produced some of the most exciting innovations in twentieth-century history writing. This chapter discusses the development, changes, and specific criticisms of the works of Annales historians. The study of mentalités has been viewed as the Annales' means of addressing the objectivity-subjectivity dilemma that historians continually confront. The Annales historians' search for underlying structures, their attempt at total history and their use of the methods and subjects of the social sciences has led to a great expansion of the subjects of history. With their examination of mentalité, they have furnished the historical profession with a new mode of reconstructing the past. Their work encouraged the 'turns' to social history and from social history to cultural history, to micro-history, world history, and environmental history, as well as to the history of emotions.
Many theorists have agreed that a sociology that explains as well as describes must be a historical sociology. Historical sociology addresses directly the distinction between explanations based on structure and those based on agency. It has tended to focus on several major topics, in particular the growth of modernity in all its guises. This chapter focuses on Max Weber and his theories. Weber's model of social action was influential in the twentieth century. Michael Mann argued that societies and their histories were best described in terms of the interrelations of four sources of social power: ideological, economic, military, and political relationships. Theda Skocpol argued that social revolution was a conjuncture of three developments: the collapse or incapacitation of central administrative and military machineries; widespread peasant rebellions; and marginal elite political movements. The chapter shows some of the details of Skocpol's argument and examines the responses to her book.
The term 'quantitative history' covers a range of methodologies and theoretical bases, linked by their reliance on numerical data. Almost all historical writing involves quantification, however, whether implicit or explicit. Less methodologically controversial than the new economic history is the use of data to produce historical series, that is, serial history. The French Annales historians in particular used serial history to throw light on cultural as well as economic and demographic phenomena. This chapter discusses historical demography which gives access to a much greater proportion of historical societies than does the analysis of most historical documents. From a structuralist point of view, demography has been linked with social structures and political stability in primarily agrarian societies to consider medium term secular cycles. Simultaneously, historians are considering the theoretical and methodological impacts of the digital age on history research and writing.
In the second half of the nineteenth century there were many parallels between the disciplines of history and anthropology. Both employed an empiricist methodology. This chapter briefly outlines the main currents of thought in anthropology. It examines the influence of two specific approaches that were to be fertile ground for historians: everyday life and symbolic anthropology, and ethnohistory. In the context of these approaches to history research and writing, the chapter also examines the key concept of 'ethnicity'. Two schools of thought within anthropology emerged in Britain and the United States. These schools were characterized respectively as social anthropology and cultural anthropology. Ethnohistorians particularly seek to bring into view the experiences and perspectives of indigenous and minority peoples in colonial contexts. One of the significant achievements of ethnohistory has been to approach all those engaged in cultural encounter as active agents who jointly determined the outcome.
Narrative is central to the explanation of change over time, one of the most important dimensions of historical research and writing, and is also the principal means by which historians seek to achieve empirical 'coherence' or logical consistency. This chapter identifies the key questions posed by historians and philosophers of history concerning the narrativization of the past, with a particular focus upon a critical intervention made by Hayden White that continues to resonate in scholarly debates. There have been many criticisms of the narrative form as a means of representing the past. First of all narratives focus upon human action and conduct and may overplay human agency. Secondly, because events happen in sequence does not necessarily indicate cause and effect. The chapter presents an essay by Hayden White for readers to consider the extent to which he suggested that 'the discourse of the historian' and fictional writing share common features.