Sources, Empathy and Politics in History from Below

Our opening post in The Voices of the People symposium (full programme here) comes from Tim Hitchcock, Professor of Digital History at the University of Sussex. Tim addresses the recent high profile debates about the role academic history writing has to play in our society, arguing that ‘history from below’ has a particularly important contribution to make – and outlines an agenda for how it can do so.

Tim Hitchcock

The purpose and form of history writing has been much debated in recent months; with micro-history, and by extension history from below, being roundly condemned by historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage as the self-serving product of a self-obsessed profession. For Guldi and Armitage the route to power lies in the writing of grand narrative, designed to inform the debates of modern-day policy makers – big history from above.   Their call to arms – The History Manifestohas met with a mixed reception. Their use of evidence has been demonstrated to fall short of the highest academic standards, and their attempts to revise that evidence sotto voce has been castigated for its lack of transparency.[1]

Regardless of the errors made along the way, of more concern to practitioners of ‘history from below’ is Guldi and Armitage’s assumption that in order to influence contemporary debate and policy formation we should abandon beautifully crafted small stories in favour of large narratives that draw the reader through centuries of clashing forces to some ineluctable conclusion about the present. I have no real argument with the kind of history they advocate – and the success of recent works such as Thomas Piketty’s Capital, suggest that it can both do justice to the evidence, and contribute to modern policy debate. And I am sure with a couple of decades’ hard work (there were 19 years between the publication of the Communist Manifesto, and Das Kapital), Guldi and Armitage will produce a book that lives up to the hype.

But, they fundamentally misrepresent the politics of history writing, and of micro-historical analysis in particular. And what they seem to miss is a simple appreciation of the shock of the old. The lessons of history are very seldom about ‘how we got here’ with all its teleological assumptions, but more frequently about how we can think clearly about the present, when we cannot escape from it.

Understanding classical Greek attitudes to sexuality; Tokugawa Japan’s system of governance, or the use of concentration camps in the Boer War is not about grand narrative, but the interrogation of difference. What the past has given us is an ‘infinite archive’, reflecting a real – if not fully knowable – world. By interrogating that archive, we are freed to test our assumptions about the present. In a scientific mode, we might literally test a theory against the evidence; but just as valid, in a humanist mode we can interrogate a word, a phrase and emotion for its meaning. In either case, history rapidly becomes a tool to think with – testing and probing the past because it allows us to think about the present more carefully.

For this purpose, for the purpose of thinking with history, the precise topic of historical analysis is secondary, and ‘grand narrative’ is counterproductive. In part, grand narrative doesn’t work for this purpose because it is inherently teleological, and brings with it ill-digested assumptions about how human society functions. One need look no further than the facile accounts of empire found in the work of historians like Niall Ferguson to see the pitfalls; or the risible nationalist diatribes of the ‘Historians for Britain’ collective.[2] If you start with a ‘dog in the fight’ – a defence of American ‘empire’; or an anti-EU agenda – your ability to see clearly is at least compromised.

‘History from below’, by contrast appeals to a very different kind of politics; and it is in essence, a politics of empathy and voice explored through a conversation with the dead. In the British Marxist tradition, it was founded in the creation of a humanist account of the ‘radical tradition’ that gave to every stockinger and handloom weaver an identity and personality. The politics of this tradition was found in the demand that the reader empathise with individual men and women caught in a whirl of larger historical changes, and it was, and is, a politics of emotion. The methodologies of ‘history from below’ use detail and empathy to demand of readers a personal engagement with a specific time and place; just as micro-histories use the contrast between the everyday and the remarkable, to force the readers’ engagement.

And as a political project, both ‘history from below’ and micro-histories have been remarkably successful. The public politics of the west in the last fifty years have been dominated by forms of ‘identity’ politics.   These new politics have helped to push aside the twentieth century’s disastrous obsession with nationalisms (the focus of both older grand narratives, and the crutch leant on by historians such as Ferguson and ‘Historians for Britain’).

We now have detailed and beautiful histories of the experience of the enslaved, of people excluded by race, gender and sexuality; by dis/ability and poverty. Each of these ‘histories from below’ have evolved in dialogue with contemporary politics, both feeding the activism of modern campaigns, and perhaps more importantly, ensuring that no-one can be dismissed as less feeling, less human, less important, than anyone else. By changing the focus of historical writing and research, ‘history from below’ has effectively eroded the inherently racist notion of the ‘volk’ in favour of ‘leuten’; has eroded nationalisms in favour of individual experience.

In other words, history from below has been a remarkably successful form of cultural politics (and Politics), that owes its basic success to the creation of an imaginative and empathetic connection between the individuals, past and present. But to achieve this end, history from below has made a further contribution to both historical scholarship and methodology that places it at the centre of a wider set of developments.

Despite the (over) reliance of historians such as Edward Thompson on government spy reports, and many social historians’ addiction to parliamentary ‘blue books’; history from below demands that we seek alternative pathways to knowing about individuals – that we seek out readings that work self-consciously against the grain and documents that, however fleetingly, record the experience from below. And herein lies the problem and the opportunity. Our sources create a fundamental tension between the bureaucratic character of most inherited documentation reflecting experience from below (endless lists and accounts), and the political work of history from below as a project – to create empathy across time and space. The conundrum becomes, how do we turn a name, perhaps a number, if you are lucky, a single line – in to a human being.

In part, the answer to this quandary has been found in family and community reconstruction; in the creation of relational databases that pull together fragments of information from as wide a body of sources as can be managed. When, for instance, small fragments of narrative sieved from pauper letters and examinations, are combined with details of pensions lists and the raw biology available through the International Genealogical Index, we come close to being able to create compelling simulacra of the dead. A shared experience of childbirth, or hunger; of disability or simple poverty, can be enough to bring to the readers’ minds’ eye a fully formed human being – all the details filled in via the readers’ imagination.

But even these limited details are unavailable for many. So we also use strategies of detailed contextualisation. In part, these strategies mimic the forms of fiction – where small details are used to compress a scene to it tightest compass. In history from below, we might use location and the built environment as ways of giving authority to an event that would otherwise be dull and off-putting – one of a million settlement examinations; one of five hundred shared beds in a workhouse. All of which simply gets us to the point where the form and genre of writing history from below comes in to direct conflict with the sources we normally use, creating a tension which in turn explains why ‘history from below’ has been both remarkably productive in the creation of new methodologies; and why, more importantly, it creates a need to rethink and remake the genre of history writing more broadly.

In other words, in the face of challenges from advocates of ‘big history from above’ it seems to me that we are confronted with a series of opportunities, created by the very practise of writing history from below; that in turn provide the basis for a fuller political agenda. We have an answer to the siren calls of ‘big history’. And the answer demands just a few things.

First, we need to be much more sophisticated in how we theorise the process of writing and presentation. There is currently no-one seriously unpacking the literary practise of historical writing from below in a way that would allow us to examine it as an object of study in its own right. And yet, by being more self-conscious in how we construct emotion and engagement through textual practise, we can raise our game substantially – allowing us to recognise (and teach) the different techniques we use; and to categorise varieties of history writing in new ways. And while no one would want to see too much self-obsessed naval gazing, there is a real opportunity for substantial criticism that would in turn allow us to present ‘history from below’ as a more fully described set of generic conventions. Not perhaps a ‘science’, but a clear methodological choice.

Second, we need to embrace innovation more fully, and to identify the digital tools that allow us to construct lives and experience from the distributed leavings of the dead. The world of early modern and nineteenth century Britain, in particular, are newly available to new forms of connection. Nominal record linkage, building on a generation of work undertaken by family historians, should allow us to tie up and re-conceptualise the stuff of the dead, as lives available to write about. Or we can revolutionise close reading of text through a radical contextualisation of words. By allowing every single word or phrase to be mapped against everything written in the year or decade – we could create a form of close reading that makes for powerful history writing. Or, we could think about contextualisation more imaginatively, by adding a few more dimensions to the context in which we place our objects of study. Where is the 3D courtroom and church pulpit; where the soundscape and sound model; where the comprehensive weather data that would allow us to write a life, an event, a moment in new and different detail?

And finally, my belief is that we need to be more explicit about the political work that we think ‘history from below’ is doing. If we think the work contributes to a modern political conversation, I think we need to say so – not to simply advocate for our own beliefs, but to use the past to think more carefully about the present. From my perspective, it does not matter over much if the thinking is about gender, poverty, race or disability; but about ensuring that a conversation with the dead forms a part of our conversation about the present.

When the likes of Jo Guldi and David Armitage, and the ‘Historians for Britain’ group advocate for big history and the longue durée, they are making specific claims about how they can intervene in a modern politics; and effectively denigrating other people’s politics along the way. It is only by countering these claims, and replacing them with our own more subtle analysis that we can do full justice to the aspirations and labours of our colleagues. There is a coherent intellectual project in ‘history from below’, that perhaps needs more critical inspection, that perhaps needs more technical innovation, but which nevertheless provides the best opportunity we have to create an inclusive, progressive, empathetic history – a way of thinking clearly with the past.


[1] For these critiques and a response see here.

[2] For the debate sparked by the ‘Historians for Britain’ collective, see here.

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16 thoughts on “Sources, Empathy and Politics in History from Below

  1. A brilliant post and an exciting start to the symposium. I have all sorts of questions and comments, but I’ll focus on one for the moment:

    If we are already practicing ‘a politics of empathy and voice’ in the way we do history, do we really ‘need to be more explicit about the political work that we think ‘history from below’ is doing’? That is to say, can’t we just ‘show, don’t tell’ our politics through in our work? I’d think that our politics would be most effective when creating a conversation with the dead, when finding their voices, when offering a sense of their individual personalities, when enabling our readers to empathise with ‘the people’ in the past, and all the other critical historiographical practices that you advocate here.

    In contrast, I worry that if we attempt to make our political work more explicit we end up coming across like the Marxist historians at their worst and most polemical (e.g. Thompson’s ‘The Poverty of Theory’), or even like Ferguson, ‘Historians for Britain’ and other right-wing propagandists. We might be better served by getting on with the task of doing ‘history from below’, knowing that this approach already has an inherent political edge.

    • This is a really good point, but if we agree with Mark’s previous post that decades of ‘history from below’ hasn’t translated into publicly engaged history, much less history that informs policy, then ‘showing, not telling’ seems not to be working. Perhaps we do need some of us (like Tim) to start banging heads together, even if most of us would find being expressly political uncomfortable?

      And if we do want to engage in political conversations, it isn’t enough to make our history expressly political; it seems you (unfortunately) have to come up with briefing papers, soundbites and gimmicks to suit short political attention spans — Piketty’s success with a 700-page book doesn’t necessarily mean anybody has actually *read* the thing. That’s where we might run into trouble: it’s difficult to counter a bold claim with ‘subtle analysis’, but if it’s going to be done it will have to be planned and deliberate.

    • It’s a tricky issue, isn’t it? I’m sure that our politics influence our questions and inform the way we approach and read ‘the people’. But should we make a political declaration when we write? I’m not sure I’d be able to define my politics in my writing any more clearly than in ‘real’ life. Similar to Brody, I’m uncomfortable with the idea that we might end up (ab)using ‘the people’ for a political agenda – the left-winger’s ‘people’ is, after all, identical to the right winger’s ‘Volk’. I’m also aware that I’d like to make it more difficult for critics to dismiss my work out of hand as ideologically biased.
      On the other hand, my conviction that ‘the little people’ (to translate the iffy German phrase often used in this context) have a mind of their own that is as fascinating and important as the perspectives of the powerful pops up everywhere in my work. Pointing out that ‘deviance’ is a coercive construct is a political statement that could be (but doesn’t have to be) explicitly linked to the present. I also find it impossible not to be infuriated by the baffling similarities between early modern discourses about ‘idlers’ or ‘sturdy beggars’ and the demonization of ‘benefit scroungers’ that our society is culpable of. Maybe we can sensitise students, readers and colleagues to the outrageous treatment of our poor or our ‘deviants’ by telling compelling and empathetic stories about the past. But can we link the past to the present in this manner without patronising and maybe abusing ‘the people’ whose stories we tell?

      • A colleague made a comment to me recently that I thought quite important on this issue: that writing history is not my only way to express my politics. I don’t have to stand in the foreground of my account to tell readers what to think. I would add that I don’t think it works. More than a few studies have found readers seek out writing they agree with. If we aren’t going to change minds with political statements, perhaps we can change them with compelling stories and overwhelming evidence?

      • William, I think you’re right and the potential for alienation is significant, especially as the Left tends to hold that the Right doesn’t have a heart and the Right doesn’t think the Left has a brain. I’m also thinking about reformation historiography and the problems posed by historians writing with a personal confessional agenda; it’ll be interesting to see what 2017 brings. Brad Gregory now cautions us about the implications of a new ‘confessional’ bias when non-believers write about the history of religion. In any case, the need to check one’s own prejudice in writing history remains paramount and I tend to keep my beliefs to myself in an academic setting unless people (students, mostly) inquire about them.

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  3. While I love the concept of thinking of history for the bottom up, I do have some apprehension about how one would…”Construct emotion and engagement through textual practice.” It seem to me that this definition…”we could create a form of close reading that makes for powerful history writing.” seems a lot like fictional writing based on “a single line.” Maybe this is shooting way over my head, but I know who I am and to think someone would know so much about me based on a single line of writing doesn’t seem plausible. Now I’m not saying that it can’t be done, but could the historian misrepresent the text and give readers the wrong engagement based on the incorrect emotion? This is just me playing devils advocate, Great Post!

  4. Excellent piece – punchy and cogently argued. I particularly like the description of the ‘infinite archive’ as a ‘real – if not fully knowable – world’. I am interested in seeing how far this approach can be applied to other histories – in particular ancient history. My own work is on epistemic tension in Pliny The Elder, and close reading of ‘a word, a phrase and emotion’ in the text is indeed proving fruitful. Despite the fact that the words and phrases are those of a member of the imperial elite it is possible, using a variety of methodologies, to begin to understand the concerns of the mushroom-pickers and herb-growers of first-century Italy. Their world becomes more real as their voices begin to be heard – too faintly for us to claim to know them, it is true, but real nonetheless. Despite the potential, History from Below has, to the best of my knowledge, gained little traction in ancient history, which ought to be prime territory for the methodological and political approaches outlined in this blog.

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