Simon Yarrow, ‘The parable of ends and means, or the sub-optimality of big datasets’

Simon Yarrow

Simon Yarrow

I can only imagine the fulsome attention from historians this book has already attracted stems from the flattery it pays them and the condition it broadly diagnoses.  Surely it can’t be the prescription dispensed. The world is beset with problems of climate change, inequality and governance, and helpless to solve them because it cleaves to fatally myopic institutional configurations of planning and thinking.  The times are crying out for the vision only historians can bring and historians must answer the call, not only to save the world but also if they are to survive the deluge of short-termism that is sweeping through their own backyard. If that is the bold and bracing telos then what is the techne? Here it comes… We must all seduce policy makers with our big datasets. They call this longue durée history. I’ve seen longer. World history, perhaps the most significant historiographical growth area of the past fifty years, receives short shrift, necessarily so if the book’s tendentious argument is to get off the blocks. The new longue durée evoked here is opaque and ubiquitous (the phrase is used roughly 130 times in 125 pages of text). A sort of Jeeves on steroids, it is made to do a lot of carrying work as the ‘once and future method’, the ‘opposite of all those things we are against’ (short time-scales, diversions into identity politics), and the ‘great contender’ to the hegemony of economists.  There is nothing inherently wrong with big data, except that surely it can’t be the only or even the most compelling tool in the historian’s box? My strongest objection to this book is its mischievous muddling (or is it basic misunderstanding?) of intellectual lineages and what they have offered public understanding.  The chief victim is micro-history or rather, a raft of cultural history projects – engaged with race, sex, and gender – that the authors bracket as such. They dismiss micro-historians as victims of ‘unintended consequences’ who stumbled into identity politics after meddling in ‘theories of time and agency’, who ‘killed historical relevance… found themselves… bound up in activist cells… inwardly turned’, and finished up estranged from the University’s mission as ‘guide to public life and possible futures’.

The authors espouse the idea of history alone as addressing ‘a sense of destiny and free will, the counterfactual and utopias’. Curiously, although Braudel’s la longue durée opened new vistas, introduced new, layered temporal scales, and a version of history from below, for all the teeming and diverse populations inhabiting his Mediterranean, Braudel’s stratospheric perspective was too thin to sustain much ‘free will, counterfactual and utopia’. And micro-history was an attempt to improve on the structural deficiencies of the longue durée, not some inverted abandonment of it. Cultural historians have achieved remarkable things by exposing, explaining and repeatedly asserting the discursive work historically embedded in some of the most naturalized assumptions modern generations of the public have about sexuality, gender, class and race. To present the manipulation of big data-sets as the way forward seems incredibly old fashioned in comparison; an echo of and ironic reminder that the most celebrated micro-historian of the 1970s, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie was at his least prophetic when he commented that historians of the future will be computer programmers or nothing. The manifesto falters on this failure to acknowledge that micro-history and cliometrics are the stepchildren of la longue durée, one the offspring of its scientific, the other of its literary and philosophical predilections.

So how should we proceed? While I’m convinced historians need to engage more with different publics, I’m not sure we alone have the tools for the job, nor am I as sure as others that what we already do in the name of REF and AHRC collaboration, impact, and knowledge transfer are sufficient or the right sort of engagement. Is our public engagement as free of institutional disciplines, templates and metrics, the sets of incentives these engender, and career objectives they usher us along, as it might ideally be for the good of those engagements and ourselves?

At that point of disjuncture between what we say we’re going to do to meet outputs, metrics and deliverables, and what we actually use any funds to do, we might pause for thought. And in our engagements with different publics we might ask how the limitations of professional historians might be overcome through the cooperative process that is part of that engagement. By these means we might define success on our own terms, to borrow a distinction (of the intellectual long durée) made by Aristotle between telos (purpose or goal) and techne (method or technique) and parsed more recently by Alaisdair Macintryre as that difference between ‘goods internal to social practices’ and ‘external goods’ as measured, for example, in REF points.

Which is to suggest that History is nothing if not narrative, and all narrative is the staging of moral drama and only partly, if at all, a measuring exercise. Though it is often seen as a truism, I doubt we can ever know what was for the best in hindsight, and that is probably the truth we should take to heart above all others if we aspire to be activist historians.

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