Historiography and the dream of objectivity-

Discussion time again, if you would all be so kind.  There’s a lot of toys flying around the sandpit at the moment regarding ‘readings of history’ in ‘Broken Britain’ (gah!).  It was to be expected with a change of government (not much of a change, but there we are).  Historians are suddenly labelled right-wing or left-wing, some are even creating a ‘socialist reading’ of history.  I find all this tiresome, and I think it puts people off history itself.  It’s fine as a discussion for a university tutorial/tedious high-brow dinner party, but when coupled with the current discussions on history’s place in the National Curriculum, I wonder.  I really do.

Historiography (essentially the-study-of-the-study-of history) now leans more towards social history than political history.  I tend to avoid a political reading of history on the blog because I deal largely with individuals and their personal circumstances.  Part of my work is buildings, and they aren’t usually terribly political either.  I am as likely to regard some of William Pitt the Younger’s decisions as influenced by a port hangover than right-minded political thinking.  That doesn’t mean I’m not aware of the political readings of my part of history, and don’t find them useful because I do, as my library card will testify.  They are used to inform my own view.  I make no case for my readings of history being better than that of anyone else (or even as good as, quite frankly), but I try and keep it as human as possible.

In studying the history of London’s minority groups, I come across a great deal of fairly heavy agendas.  From those imposing modern ‘queer culture’ onto the homosexual individuals of 18thC London, to racial and gender issues, some readings are so alarming in their determination to ‘see’ history in a certain light, there is a danger of losing sight of the basic facts and the humanity of the subjects involved (it’s a sorry pass when people start being wholly-defined by being gay, Black, French, Muslim, Jewish and so on).  Earlier this week I was lucky enough to meet up with two of my favourite historians over a drink and we fell into the above discussion.  One summed it up beautifully, if rather simply: ‘All these historians talk about power-brokers and so on, as if these guys had some great master-plan, but mostly they didn’t. They’re just like everybody else – doing the best they can with what they’ve got’.

Of course, this debate is infinite, but also infinite in its potential for confusion.  For instance, does being a right-wing historian not only mean emphasis is placed upon the importance of right-wing thinkers and decision-makers, but perhaps also that something like the importance of the immigrant contribution to Britain might be under-played?  See?  Oy vey.

So lovelies, opinions please: should we strive for a particular reading of history, or for objectivity?  Or is our view of history as wholly individual as each of us, as subjective as our food or clothing preferences?  Is there a place in this modern world for heavily-slanted readings of history, or will they be more dangerous than ever as Britain’s diversity grows?  I should very much like to hear what you think.  After all, it’s our legacy, innit.

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20 thoughts on “Historiography and the dream of objectivity-

  1. adeteal

    I find this whole debate tedious in the extreme, mainly as it seems to be fuelled by a media keen to see various celebrity historians kicking lumps out of each other. Oddly enough, the historians themselves seem to slag each other off most when they have a book or TV series to plug. Purely coincidental, I’m sure. I am – as you know – a bit thick, and historiography doesn’t really float my boat, but one example of skewed thinking in recent years sums up everything that is wrong about trendy historians with trendy tubs to thump, I think. A distinguished black American academic (whose name eludes me) was interviewed about the remote possibility that Cleopatra had some black ancestry. Apparently, there is a small gap in her family tree, and no way to prove conclusively whether the unknown forebear was black, mediterranean, or what have you. She was discussing the interesting idea that Cleo had been black with her class, and very quickly the conversation shifted from being a debate about whether she was black to a totally blind, unquestioning acceptance that she must have been, and the implications of this for our interpretation of ancient and black history; not, in my view, a responsible way to approach history. Individual and idiosyncratic approaches to the past can be fascinating and thought-provoking, but unless they are based on cold, hard evidence, they can seem like posturing and agenda-pushing. Filling in the gaps in history – or the history of human actions and motives – with heavily-slanted opinion is dangerous.

  2. rosamundi

    We should always strive for objectivity in our study of the past. Trying to shoe-horn our own prejudices and assumptions onto the lives of our predecessors does nobody any favours.

  3. opheliacat

    I agree that we should try to be objective rather than starting with a point we’re trying to prove — however, we can’t escape our own experiences and education when we look at the past. For instance, we tend to think that torture and capital punishment are unacceptable, but the people we are writing about may not have thought so. Marriage in the 18th century was different in many ways from modern marriage. The best we can do is to try to be aware of these differences and to acknowledge them…

  4. Emily Brand

    Have to say I agree with Ade that heavy-slanted opinion is dangerous if it goes unrecognised… modern historical interpretations should be able to recognise their own limitations & incline towards objectivity as much as possible. Having said that, I have derived great entertainment from the misdemeanours of various historians clearly on some rant or other. Just look at the bleeding Victorians, bless them. The general disdain for the bawdy & apparently overwhelmingly obscene Georgians probably tells us more about them than their predecessors. To my retrospective eye this representation wasn’t necessarily a bad thing (I imagine a few eighteenth-century renegades would have relished it), but it could be infinitely powerful in shaping their own values ie. national identity, codes of moral conduct &c. If an individual voice has the power to become a collective opinion, through ‘fashionable’ readings of history, it must have the potential to shape so much more than people at the time may realise. And I tell you what, if Starkey’s recent professions against historians of a certain gender are held by as many people as read/watch his interpretations, I think we could be in trouble! What a notion. I did enjoy the backlash though – perhaps an indication that the strongest opinions could never become standardised? Or perhaps that’s me being a little optimistic..?

  5. Londiniensis

    I am of an age when schooling was in dates, kings, battles, interesting stories, not much social history, definitely no feminism, gay issues, etc., and very anglocentric. However derided this approach is now, it gives a basic structure, a context, a “what happened before, after and elsewhere”. No doubt this was also taught with an implied Whig interpretation and a view of the benevolent centrality of the British Empire, but with the basic structure in place, these can be quite painlessly separated out, as can the Marxist, feminist, black etc interpretations which are current now. The modern problem is, as I see it, not historiographically slanted or issue driven books and essays – these have always been with us and always will – but the centrality given to them in primary and secondary education at the expense of giving a basic structural overview. Professional historians and undergraduates can fend from themselves – children should as far as possible be protected from tendentious (even if curently fashionable) political interpretations.

  6. BillyGottaJob

    To misquote Wilde, objectivity is never plain and rarely simple. An account of the past may be entirely “factual”, but that tells us nothing about which facts are presented and which suppressed. Still less about which facts are known and which not (starting to sound like Rumsfeld now!) It is inevitable that a historian will come to their subject with as many prejudices, assumptions and political loyalties as will any other person approaching any other discipline. Thus historians are not immune to difficulties such as those recently encountered by climate scientists, nor of course to allowing their professional jealousies and preferment to cloud their judgements. If there is any mitigation of all this it can only be openness and transparency about the perspective from which one approaches the task. And we, as consumers of history (and science) should be more willing to acknowledge that authentic insight may be contained even in the work of those with whom we have no political or other sympathy.There’s no such thing as objective history: there’s only greater or lesser honesty about what influences its subjectivity.

  7. fleming77

    Easy to describe historians as right or left wing in their lectures, teachings and books. I prefer to read and make my own judgement. Revision of the national curriculum vis proposals by Ferguson match my views of the purpose of teaching history. He is regarded as right wing. Hadn’t occurred to me to label him as such. Does this make the Time Team historians and archaeologists merely media stars?

  8. mercpol

    “Should we strive for a particular reading of history, or for objectivity?”My own view is that perfect objectivity is impossible: partly because our own prejudices are so hard to shake off; partly because we understand the world through context-specific languages and other symbolic vocabularies; and partly because we can never have complete access to every relevant source, and even those we do have access to are never unmediated. However, that’s not to say we can’t approximate to some degree or other a kind of objectivity. Historians can mitigate the risk of subjectivity with all of the issues above. There is being aware of one’s prejudices, and the review of your work by peers to further eliminate them. It is possible to become deeply immersed and thus sympathetic and well-attuned to contemporary languages and symbols, if never 100% fluent. It is possible to gather as many sources as one can, and strip away layers of interpretation or distortion. If a historian does all this, the end result is not something that could be called epistemologically true, but it is for practical purposes true. And I think that is good enough, and what we should strive for. But I think the issue of striving for a particular reading of history is a different question. Obviously we should not seek consciously to distort or contradict the facts. But nevertheless there are huge areas of history which would not be legitimate topics of scholarly inquiry without “particular readings of history”. The history of working people – the vast majority of everyone who has ever lived – would not have begun to be written without a Marxist/Marxian reading of history. The history of women – 50% of everyone who has ever lived – would not have been written without a feminist reading of history. The history of gay people… well, you get my point. There is a difference between imposing one’s methodology or worldview on the past even when the facts don’t fit that view, and seeking to look at a particular context of the past. The past has many contexts, after all – to isolate one in particular is not to distort it, merely to examine it in detail. So two cheers for particular readings of history: without them, we would all still be studying kings and queens. And I think this a distinction to further draw out from your post. The reason that there has been such a rumpus in recent days after Ferguson’s comments at Hay is because we understand the past through narratives – as a story. How you tell that story depends on what facts you put in it and which you leave out. (I disagree with Londiniensis that you can strip away interpretation from the basic structure of facts: ideological superstructure is hugely determined by choice of the facts which make up its base). I don’t think you would come across many historians who play fast and loose with their work in the archives by inventing facts: where you do get legitimate disagreement is in how you fit those facts together, or in what context/contexts you seek to situate them. Stories are crucial to defining a common culture, and I think it is perhaps because we no longer have a common culture (instead a set of overlapping and sometimes competing cultures) that this issue is so controversial.”Historiography… now leans more towards social history than political history”. I’m not so sure about this. Perhaps it depends on one’s field, but certainly the historiography of seventeenth-century England is, slowly but surely, attempting to do both. Historians working from a high political tradition and those working from a social or economic tradition have both converged on the conclusion that a great chunk of the English population was politically literate, politically engaged, and politically influential. In 1990, the Tudor historian Patrick COllinson called for “a social history with the politics put back in, or an account of political processes which is also social”. Gradually, I think, the historiography for my period of choice is starting to do that. However this new trend is not just a squaring of “left-wing” and “right-wing” to produce a historiographical third way. I suppose it is still a firmly ideological interpretation that is ultimately influenced by ideas about power relations in history. For many historians interpreting the period in this way, “politics” refers very broadly to anything involving a clash in power relations between a more powerful group and a less powerful group. On this view, a peasant grumbling behind closed doors about their master is politics; a wife being beaten by her husband is politics; a crowd baying for blood is politics. And if it’s not too cheeky, a building could certainly be political, given that buildings are built by and inhabited by humans, and where there are humans there tend to be inequal distributions of power: where a building is built, the style in which it is built, the buildings it is next door to, even the choice of paint on the walls can in certain contexts be political. That is a long way from politics as the history of political elites, and I suspect it is something not all other commenters will agree with. Still, for me it contains a respect for the agency (or at least the capacity for agency) of people in the past which is missing from previous historiographical interpretations, and which makes it a step forward. But then I am a wishy-washy leftie who dutifully read his Foucault at university, so perhaps that gives you an idea of why I find it attractive… 😀

  9. SmallCasserole

    I believe we should strive for objectivity in history even if, inevitably, this high-minded ideal is not always achieved. I suspect political (lumping in gender, religion, race) readings of the past are really be a bit of a minority sport. If I look around the people I know most of them will give some sort of political preference, but very few are ruled by their politics. I rather like the social history side, as Londonesis points out the rote-learning of names and dates provides a handy framework around which to hang other things but to be honest for me the framework only becomes relevant when I start getting interested in the pragmatic. “At this point in history everyone would have had a George III mug”;-)If I look at what I know of science, the actually sciency bit remains fairly immune from politics (the equations are the same). What you chose to study may be politically determined – somebody funded the development of the Bomb, put money into cancer research, perhaps spent less on diseases of the “undeserving” but the outcomes perceived from a safe distance are unchanging. The communists may have had a crack at influencing outcomes (Lysenkoism), phrenology and eugenics are perhaps other examples of politically motivated science but ultimately these are sideshows – the real science is eternal – the politics ephemeral. The history of science may be political – for example I’m still not sure how important British contribution is to the “world of science”, watch Genius of Britain and you get the impression it’s Britain all the way. I’m interested to know how other Europeans are taught science, I’m fairly sure the equations are the same but the cod-historical seasoning could well be different.I could write long on climate science, the short form would be that when you look at what is actually happening, and what could well happen in future – the science is fairly straightforward (and the uncertainty of different aspects fairly well described). A lot of noise is thrown into apparent discussions of science by political motivations, and the general population not being able to discriminate between a scientist you should probably pay attention to, a scientist who you should maybe not give too much credence to and someone pretending to be a scientist when they’re not (Monckton I’m looking at you).

  10. TheZazou

    I agree with much of what Mercpol wrote. Personally, I enjoy the multiplicity of readings history can summon and I think they’re necessary. No ‘seminal’ work on a period, however hard it tries, manages to capture every aspect of it, and fairly rapidly (with a few exceptions) they become outdated and lead to a new seminal work and so on and so forth. It’s an impossible task, and so I like the image in my head of feminist, racial, social, theatrical etc slants of the same period all puzzling together to create a more complete image.As many people have commented, the dangers can be in ‘imposing’ a reading & squeezing facts into the wished for narrative. I work with images from the French Revolution and I feel quite strongly that they should dictate the dance, if they contradict my reading, then it’s my reading that should change. That’s one of the many exciting things about history: being proved wrong and being endlessly surprised at how misbehaving the material is. I’ve lost track of the received ideas I’ve had to let go of concerning my period. At the same time, no, it’s not possible to be entirely objective but I think that as long as the speculations/interpretations are informed and clearly reasoned then it’s a forgiveable fault.

  11. TheZazou

    Also, I should add that I think some of the more ‘extreme’ readings exist because they’re the ones that will attract funding for doing something ‘new’ and ‘relevant to today’. I find this quite tiresome, history is exciting enough in itself without having to draw parallels between, say, a 1790 festival to the 2012 Olympics, as if readers were imbeciles only capable of relating to material by comparison. [/rant over]

  12. Charles Bazalgette

    This is my first comment so the less I say, the less chance of being thought shallow! My view is that as long as the reader knows the political views of the historians, reading several books on a period should give a reasonably balanced view. You have to decide what to ignore. For example, knowing the political views of Arthur Bryant allows one to skim over the pages of stuff eulogising the British nobility of character, because the narrative parts, such as descriptions of battles etc., as so brilliantly written.

  13. Lucy Inglis

    Not shallow at all! Reading around any subject is crucial. I was reading up the slave trade recently and ended up reading about the Irish salt beef trade in a socialist history journal. (I prefer not to think of it as lacking focus, but rather interested in acquiring a broad knowledge *ahem*) As you said, there were things I took from it, such as knowledge I didn’t have before, and also things I chose not to take away.

  14. Crafthole

    I believe that ideally it should be beholden on any historian to attempt to be objective in their writing. This ideal is, however almost impossible to achieve as historians are all human and therefore given, whether deliberately or not in their own view, to bias grounded in their own experiences, nationality, politics, social mores and background; it has ever been thus and I think that it will ever be so. I also believe that a study of history trains us to realise that what we read is usually less than objective and in extreme instances blatant tub thumping of the worst sort. The study of history is, therefore, a useful tool in developing critical thinking and as several of the commentators above have already indicated it is perhaps more important to read history objectively than it is to write it objectively. It is, therefore, important that educational establishments give their students the critical faculties to be able to be objective about what they are reading. It is I believe negligent should educational establishments fail to teach an ability to read history objectively and should be criminal should they deliberately seek to blinker objective thought or even worse manipulate it to their own ends.

  15. Lucy Inglis

    You are all amazing for taking such time and care to write these responses. This is a discussion that will run and run, but I think it’s really important and your comments here show how vital it is to be aware of the difference between the study of history and the study of opinion. Thank’ee &c., x

  16. stephensumption

    This is my first post so I will probably make an ass of myself. I have always thought that the applications of “Left-wing” and “Right-wing” or similar lables actually tell us a lot more about the person applying the lable and they usually mean “I disagree with you and I think your views are unconscionable” and all too frquently the debate stops there. The biggest danger with this approach to history is where there is an attempt to write the history to prove the theory rather than testing the theory in the light of the histoical research. Perhps the best example of this was in Allan Clark’s book on the First World War “The Donkeys” which attributed the quote “Lions led by Donkeys” to the German General Staff. He later had to admit that he made the quotation up but it still colours many people’s views of the British Army of that Period.

  17. Lucy Inglis

    Ah, Alan Clark….and for why, Mr Stephen, would you be making an ass of yourself? Excellent comment, be pleased to feel free to make more. x

  18. Katrina Gulliver

    The notion of classifying historians by their (perceived) political position is hardly new. The culture wars of the last 30 years (probably since the start of the Cold War) have been driven by precisely these disagreements. Try “The Killing of History” by Keith Windschuttle for one perspective. Of course, I strive for objectivity in my own work (at least, not to introduce deliberate bias or adjustment of the material I find in archival research), but I find more odd that people don’t acknowledge their own connexion with the subject. Much women’s, gay, “ethnic” history is written by people who self-identify as members of the subject groups, and who do not attempt to hide their subjectivity. Which is fair. It is the claimed “objectivity” of works which are often hatchet jobs on people or groups in the past which bother me. Yes, I feel more affinity with some historical actors than others. I relate more closely to those who speak the same language I do, who emerged from a similar social background, whose own writing “speaks” to me in a way that the works of others do not. This is inescapable, and I believe the idea of the academic historian as objective (and omniscient) narrator is a myth. We all choose what to research, what to include, based on our own vision of the past.

  19. Anonymous

    Have to agree with Mercpol as well. Peter Novick makes a pretty convincing argument in That Noble Dream that precisely those historians who have striven for the most complete objectivity are those who have unwittingly subordinated their art to political causes.My favorite definition of history comes from former AHA President Jean-Jules Jusserand: “History is not simply an art, nor simply a science; it participates in the nature of both.” I take this to mean the following: history is scientific in some ways. There are no things we can truly prove, but there are things we can disprove, and things to which we can adduce evidence that makes them more plausible than other things. But ultimately, history is a form of evidence-based interpretation, where we look for useful explanatory models rather than hard-and-fast rules.

  20. lynneconnolly

    Everybody has an opinion, whether they know it or not. Everyone is ‘coming from’ somewhere. Their upbringing, their environment and even where they live dictates it, even if they’re not aware of it. So I’m with the latter commentators in this thread, who said it far more eloquently than I can.Therefore I appreciate a historian stating that, so I know about the bias before I read. Having been brought up on JH Plumb and M Dorothy George, I had a certain way of viewing the Georgian era, then other historians came along and gave me a different view, your good self included. When I went to uni, the professors were all caught up in the Marxist historian movement, very different to the A level reading, which was all Liberal historian, but they were both valid and they added to what I know and appreciate about the period. Reading widely and well is the only way to remain informed and try to get as rounded a picture as possible. And reading lots and lots of primary data, too.

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