History

While the problem of historical theory and method is obviously of great interest to professional historians,this category is an interdisciplinary one in that the problem of "historicizing"one's subjects and objects of analysis is faced by virtually all fields andis certainly central to the interdisciplinary field of AS. With specific regard to AS, one of the most important contributing fields of professional history writing has been social history, and social history has itself been largely an interdisciplinary project drawing at points heavily from thesocial sciences as well as from the interpretive humanities.

I've includedhere work that combines empirical methods drawn from the social sciences with those favored by historians, as well as innovative work in historiographic theory that challenges the empiricist tradition. The "new social history"that emerges in the late 1960s and early 70s, work recovering/creating the history of American "minorities," women, gays, workers, and others marginalized historically and historiographically, carried with it an implicit and sometimes explicit critique of historical method as it claimed to work"from the bottom up" rather than downward from elite figures and groups. In addition to retheorizing what counts as history, this approach has been extremely inventive at the level of method, using quantitative and qualitative techniques drawn from sociology, anthropology and other human sciences.

Most US social historians have preferred to place their theoretical and methodological reflections within their texts rather than publishing them separately. Thus some theoretical reflections and observations on method in social history can be found in the major works of social history by practitioners like Eugene Genovese,and Herbert Gutman. Feminist historians like Carol Smith-Rosenberg and Joan Scott have been among the most reflective in regard to the uses and limits of traditional social history. I've also included here a few reflective pieces by major European social historians like E.P. Thompson and FernandBraudel. Similarly, important reflections on theory and method in the relatedfield of "new cultural history" can be found in the works of AlanTrachtenberg, Warren Susman, and T.J. Jackson Lears.

More recently, various strands of cultural history writing have brought theoretical tools from literary and cultural studies into historical practice. This includes what one might call the "textualist"school of historiography, those critics who reflect on the fact that whateverelse historical writing is it is a form of writing and as such subject tovarious generic conventions and other putatively "literary" determinationsthat shape what can be said about the past. Work combiningforms of textual analysis drawn from literary studies with traditional kindsof social history has produced some exciting results (cf. Cathy Davidson'swork cited in section IX). Figures like Hayden White and Dominick LaCapra began arguing for such changes in the 1980s, but even as the 21st century began, not much experimental work challenging certain traditional historiographic practices has appeared outside of literature. In the late 1990s, Robert Berkhofer attempted in Beyond the Great Story to summarize new developments in theory and bring them to bear on the practice of historians. But it remains to be seen how successful such efforts will be in expanding the scope of historical narrative within and beyond empiricist traditions.

Online resources:

  • History and Theory. For many years the preeminent journal on the philosophy of history.
  • Rethinking History: A Journal of Theory and Practice. A new jouranl (1997) that is offering interesting reflections on history as a discipline and historical writing as a practice.
  • American Historical Review. Periodically includes reflections on the theory and practice of historical writing.
  • The Untimely Past. "For those interested in the intersection of historiography with postmodernism, poststructuralism, and related varieties of theory/practice." Includes extensive annotated bibliography on historical theory.
  • Recent Trends in Feminist History. Bibliography from 1988 by Paul Halsall that is still useful "as a starting point."
  • "Deconstructing History." An article by Alan Munslow published online as part of series of "electronic seminars in history presentation."
  • Marxisms.
    Berkhofer, Robert. Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1995.
    Draws on literary, rhetorical, multiculturalist, and feminist theories, and addresses the essential practical concerns of contemporary historians confronting post-structuralism, the New Historicism, the New Anthropology, and the New Philosophy of History. Calls for more wide-raging modes of historical writing that both honor and question more traditional types of hi/story-telling. See also the American Quarterly 50.2 (1998): 340-375 for a lively forum on The Great Story.
    Ankersmit, F. R. History and Tropology: The Rise and Fall of Metaphor. Online version of this 1994 UC Press book examining the realist vs. constructionist debate in historiography.
    Brown, Jennifer S. H., and Elizabeth Vibert, eds. Reading Beyond Words: Native History. Peterborough, Ontario: Broadview Press, 1995.
    Interesting collection of essays that try to capture indigenous modes of passing on "history" that differ with and challenge Western modes of history writing.
    Perez, Emma. The Decolonial Imaginary. Bloomington, IN: U of Indiana P, 1999.
    Brilliant set of interlinked essays that "write Chicanas into History" in a way that challenges dominant colonial and sexist paradigms, and invents a new style of historical writing. Uses a range of theorists and strategies, including Third World feminists like Chela Sandoval, as well as Foucault, Lacan, Hayden White and Homi Bhaba, to reimagine the nature and function of historiography.
    Fulbrook, Mary. Historical Theory: Ways of Imagining the Past.. NY: Routledge, 2002.
    Seeks a middle path between naive empiricism and objectivism and what she sees as the excessively constructionist claims of some postmodern historical theorists.
    Munslow, Alun. The New History. NY: Longman, 2003.
    Advances the case that historical writing must be considered in light of inevitable impact of language itself on the formulation of historical evidence and argument.
    Breisach, Ernst. On the Future of History: The Postmodernist Challenge and Its Aftermath..
    Carefully examines the claims and counterclaims of various postmodern positions on historical truth, and then offers equal time to those who have challenged aspects of these positions.
    Clark, Jonathan. Our Shadowed Present: Modernism, Postmodernism, and History. Stanford, CA: Stanford U P, 2004.
    Offers a spirited defense of historical reasoning and writing by historicizing the modernists and postmodernists who have challenged traditional historical method and meaning.
    Clark, Elizabeth. History, Theory, Text: Historians and the Linguistic Turn. Cambridge, MA: Harvard U P, 2004.
    Provides a lucid and practical guide to historical writing by examining major theories of historigraphy from the 19th to the late 20th centuries, and showing how recent approaches can illuminate her own field, the pre-modern era.