In the Stream of Historiography
In my reflection of the writing of the historians we’ve covered in this class, from Herodotus through Alistair Thomson, I feel as though I have been influenced by several houses of history from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including Marx, Ranke, historical sociology, anthropological and ethno-history.
Marxist writers, focusing on history “from the bottom up” and how economics affected the poor changed the way history was studied. No longer was history just about the “great men” in society. Marx saw history as a class struggle in which, during each stage of human history, there was a dominant class and another class which would overthrow it. He placed economic systems at the core of his writings. This shift from “great man” history to the history of the masses instituted a new awareness and new house of history whereby the study of history in terms of class struggles, labor history, immigration and political organizing became possible.
Ranke, in his methodology which included seeking out original source documents from state archives and his belief that the task of the historian was simply to show how it really was, rather than moralizing is something which I’ve taken to heart. As a historian, I, too, believe that one should attempt to always “tell the truth” as far as one can (of course “truth” will always be subjective because of a historians’ bias based on ones experiences and upbringing.) Ranke’s views on politics, particularly how religion hindered the development of nations, individualism and economic development, and how the rise of the nation was due to divine providence in his view is interesting.
The study of change over time, especially dynamic change like that brought on by social movements, protests and revolutions is an area of interest to me. Historical sociology, like Theda Skocpol’s writing about revolution speaks to me. Social movements, change, revolution and her multi-causal approach are intriguing. Her methodology of looking at a social movement or revolution from multiple angles, her rejection of attributing a singular cause to an event, and comparing one revolution to another to discover the reasons for success or failure is a technique that I’ve used often in my writing.
I am deeply interested in how religion, particularly Christianity, has changed, influenced and impacted individuals and societies. Because of this interest in religion and religious movements, anthropology and ethno-history are also areas which are extremely exciting to me. In the introduction to chapter 7 in Houses of History, it states that “central to anthropological study was the concept of human culture” (Green & Troup, 172). Émile Durkheim believed that the behavior of human beings is shaped by the religious, cultural and moral environments of individuals. Just as with our study of these historians throughout the quarter, and as Carr reminds us, we need to know who a historian is to understand his or her place in historiography. I believe that these principles impact how an event in history is studied and analyzed. The culture, religious and moral upbringing of an individual or society impacts the events and thought processes.
American historian Natalie Zemon Davis suggests four ways that historians can learn from anthropological methods: observation of social interaction; interpretation of symbolic behavior; how parts of social systems fit together; and a focus on material from cultures different from those the historian is used to studying (Green & Troup, 177). These suggestions, to incorporate anthropological methodology into the work of the historian, I believe would make the field of history more accessible to those outside the field.
Ethnohistorians provide the inspiration for the study of immigrants and other cultures. Their study of history from the other point of view, like James Axtell’s work which seeks to understand how the Native Americans viewed the European invaders is fascinating to me (Green & Troup, 176). Looking at history from the non-dominant viewpoint originated with Marxist methodology.
For me, religion, class struggles, labor history, immigration, discrimination and politics are areas where I am interested, especially in the intersectionality of these areas. Without Marx and Marist historians, the study of those areas may never have become possible. Thanks to that movement, the study of history has continued to evolve and expand into the margins of society. Marxism has influenced the study of history in those areas, indeed made it possible to conduct historical analysis of those areas because of his focus on ordinary people.
Green, Anna and Troup, Kathleen. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. New York: New York University Press, 1999.