Tuesday, May 18, 2010

History at Present: Three Major Debates

My last post was about the very beginning of the book by John Tosh, Historians on History (2nd ed., 2009). There I describe what he calls "the fourfold rationale for the study of history" (p. 9). In addition to those, Tosh also describes and provides examples of three major debates that have emerged within the ranks of historians over the last thirty years. These, as I see them, are as follows:

1. History About and/or By Subordinates.

As Tosh explains, "One of the most marked features of Western society since the 1960s has been the success of excluded social groups in securing access to the instruments of cultural power." One aspect of that shift has been that "'invisible' groups, like women and blacks and sexual minorities, have recognized that their own political prospects depend on contesting the national consensus and acquiring a dignified--or 'usable'--past of their own" (9). This change has generated mixed feelings among historians. Conservatives have mostly rejected this development, while other historians have been more welcoming.

2. History: Is It One of the Humanities, or Social Sciences?

As Tosh words the question, "Is history of value primarily as a source of cultural and personal enrichment, or does it hold the key to understanding society and planning social change?" The former option, which is the traditional one, would conclude that history is, therefore, among the humanities. The latter option, generated in large part by "the upsurge of student radicalism and the call for 'relevance'," would conclude that history should be placed alongside sociology and economics as one of the social sciences (11). One of the buzzwords associated with seeing history as a social science is the term "structure." Like sociologists, it is said, historians can and should identify patterns that can be used as interpretive models. Many historians have suspected, however, that following this path would permit the social sciences to impose their explanatory frameworks on virtually all historical research and that history would, in turn, lose its autonomy.

3. History Since the Rise of Postmodernism

Perhaps more than anything else, the work and influence of the French philosopher and historian Michel Foucault has led many academics to think of discourse as something that is controlling and repressive. The proper starting point is a place of suspicion. And we're right to mistrust and question traditional historicism. This application of postmodern thinking has led to at least two consequences in the field of history: (A) Historians feel free to apply the literary method called "deconstruction" which asserts that no text can have a single, fixed and coherent meaning. (B) Postmodern thinking has undermined the historian's confidence in the possibility of reconstructing human agency and the events from the past. This has led to "sometimes wholly novel readings" of history. It has also led to the assumption "that provisional interpretations of representations are all that can legitimately be attempted" (13). Not even oral history, the living voice, is exempt from the critique of Postmodernism. What is remembered, and how is it reported? What, on the other hand, is suppressed? These sorts of questions point up the imperfections of individual or even shared memories.

According to Tosh, these three are the big, live issues with which history is wrestling today.

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