Andrew Jones, ‘The limits of synthesis’

Andrew Jones

Andrew Jones

The History Manifesto calls for historians to stride out confidently into the arena of public discussion and policy formulation, backed up by longue-durée accounts of historical change and cutting edge big data analysis. For the authors, this rediscovery of the virtues of the longue-durée is essential in reversing a perceived ‘inward turn’ of historians, away from public debate towards ‘an ever greater specialisation of knowledge’.

Guldi and Armitage should be commended for stoking a renewed debate about how history can help tackle such intractable societal issues as climate change and inequality. However, the Manifesto itself is very limited in how it suggests historians should respond to these challenges. The depiction of a mythical golden age of longue-durée history is evasive and obscures how necessary a number of changes have been within the discipline, to permit new and alternative perspectives, viewpoints and identities. The implicit call within the Manifesto for all professional history to feed into big synthesised concepts is therefore deeply troubling, and somewhat elitist. While drives to overcome historiographical fragmentation are obviously important and worthwhile, we must also acknowledge the intrinsic value of variation to historical practice.

Guldi and Armitage’s call for historians to boost their public influence through engagement with policymakers and ‘big data’ is also problematic. This is a myopic view of the historical profession, which fails to account for how history and historical consciousness is increasingly being produced outside of the Academy. If historians truly wish to be relevant and have ‘impact’, they will need to take more seriously the myriad of forms through which our society represents the past to itself. This includes historical novels, films, television dramas, and websites. To do so returns us to long-standing debates concerning culture, and the mechanisms by which professional history intersects with broader cultural practices. Revealingly, this discussion is almost entirely absent from the History Manifesto. Thus, while we should thank Guldi and Armitage for their intervention, theirs is not a coherent manual for action. Rather, it is an early salvo in a larger and more complex debate about the relevance and role of history in the twenty-first century.

 

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