Chris Moores, ‘Embracing the mess’

Chris Moores

Chris Moores

At times, the History Manifesto feels like the call-to-arms it claims to be: a passionate and enthusiastic case for the relevance of the past. It is refreshing to read a work which takes on big, important, political questions and makes the case that the interventions of historians matter. The notion that anyone thinking seriously about climate change, inequality, and neoliberal governance better call a historian is rather nice to hear.

At other times, however, the manifesto feels much more like a kick in the teeth. It seems historiographically unsound (and pretty mean-spirited) to argue that between 1968 and 2000 researchers were ‘relieved of the obligation of original thinking about the past and its significance for the future’ (p. 51) or that the training of historians has ‘discouraged thinking about the big picture in favour of the assiduous concentration on sources from particular archives approached with particular procedures of critical reading’ (p. 120)? The sweeping nature of such statements are reminders of the big risks we take in working with big data; namely that such approaches have the capacity to flatten and ‘thin-out’ the past, to favour reduction over nuance, to obscure as well as reveal.

As Matthew Francis points out above, such approaches might be more appropriate in dealing with certain political issues, but much less useful for others. One does not need to get too far into the feminist historical cannon to realise that both history and micro-historical approaches played important roles in its associated political movement and the – admittedly limited and uneven – diffusion of this politics into wider social and cultural spaces.

However, for all of Guldi and Armstrong’s bombast, and the barely recognizable straw-men of micro-history that are constructed in the earlier sections of the work, their conclusions and the positions they ultimately advocate feel strangely descriptive of the current status quo against which they are supposedly rallying. There is a notable dynamism within the fields of transnational history, environmental history, the history of humanitarianism as well as the new global history, which suggests that the long durée needs no particular defence at this moment in time. History and Policy has been connecting historians to decision makers in the UK for years. Impact and diffusion are now central to our funding applications and research ideas, as is the co-creation of research agendas. Admittedly, all these things are a challenge, but they seem to be generating all sorts of creative, interactive, engaging and historically important outcomes. The concluding argument of the Manifesto, that macro and micro must be used together, seems strikingly banal given the work’s starting point and the swipes it takes at the field throughout.

While the manifesto offers much in the way of prescriptive advice to historians, we need to reflect much more on the sites and processes through which knowledge of the past is produced and consumed, and the complicated nature of such mediations. Will ‘big data’ provide a better way of communicating the importance of knowledge of the past to the multiple publics with whom we might want to engage than, say, historical works of art, fiction, music, life-stories or emotional histories? Do the conditions exist where PhD students have the time and resources to extend their chronologies and expand their source bases in the manner suggested?

In terms of the potential impact on policy, no matter how much ‘big data’ is produced, this will only ever be a part of the process through which strands of the state, politicians and governments think (as micro-historians would point out, the varying interpretive subjectivities brought to the table by those representing such interests are pretty crucial to how information is interpreted). What happens when one set of ‘big data’ offers no clear-cut conclusion to problems or questions raised, what happens when one set of ‘big data’ competes with another set of ‘big data’? Do we all get our ‘big data’ out on the table and see whose is the biggest?  Guldi and Armstrong’s methodology and the questions they raise are important and have motivated them productively, informed their research. The methods they use have already brought crucial insights in their inquiries about the past. However, the ways in which history diffuses out from historians are multiple and complex; our practice should be as much about embracing and engaging with this mess, as finding ways to order it.

 

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