Axver (axver) wrote,

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On history and History and Ax the historian

Lately, both in and out of the ivory tower, I have been prompted to think of how I practise History. I increasingly come to find myself avoiding theory of History. Sometimes I feel this is not in my best interests; certainly I did enough PolSci to appreciate the significance of theory, and I find it both useful and interesting in the right contexts. Policy-making is a good, albeit dry, example.

However, the use of theory is one of the reasons why I defected from PolSci. The more I progressed through PolSci, the more I became frustrated by theorists divorced from reality and divorced from history (you will note I talk about two H/histories: the big-H History that is the academic discipline and the little-h history that is the sum of the past). I noticed a pronounced tendency in my own essays to write political history rather than political theory, as I think it is far more informative, and a far more satisfactory way to understand political outcomes.

That's not to say I consider myself a political historian. It's a theme in a lot of my research interests, for sure, but I do not think necessarily the dominant theme. For instance, my thesis emphasises the role of decidedly non-political elements (infrastructure) in the creation of a polity. I could have just as easily written it as a purely economic history - fact of the matter is, I just have better access to the political role of infrastructure at this stage.

Recently, indeed, a couple of people have described my work as economic history Economic history has fallen spectacularly out of favour in recent decades. Few people are doing it, and I can understand why, given how dry a lot of economic history is. I do not consider myself an economic historian, nor do I take a particular interest in the economy for its own sake. It features in my work solely as a function of society and politics - which leads me to social or cultural history. I perform a lot of my research through newspapers; I think they are a spectacular insight into 19th century New Zealand, and a resource quite unsatisfactorily tapped. I am interested in the experiences of ordinary people, and as essentially the only mass media of their time, newspapers convey a lot of information about the society.

My interest is not in the history of "great men" or "great events". I may have strong political tones through my work, but my infrastructure work is far more concerned with how the general people were affected. I find it stunning that the majority of historical writing has focused on a stunning minority of historical actors - i.e. national leaders and the military, for the most part. Read any A History Of Country-of-choice and come back to me about what its contents are. Classic histories of New Zealand will dedicate multiple chapters to the Maori Wars, yet pass over the enfranchisement of women with a few brief words (see, for instance, Condliffe - three chapters on the Maori Wars, less than a paragraph on suffrage; Sinclair does better but not by much). Yet I doubt anybody would protest when I say the latter event was one of far wider reaching significance to the general population. I guess military heroes killing hordes of "enemies" in pointless bloody conflicts that tear families and communities asunder are somehow more glamorous than broad social campaigns for basic rights. Or something.

I am, accordingly, perhaps closest to social history ... but even if I fall under that umbrella, it's certainly in an atypical way, given my emphasis on politics and aspects of economics. I am not a cultural historian. My work makes that self-evident. I do accept some of the theory of cultural historians, especially the repudiation of objective histories. Nobody can write an objective history, a precise account of what actually happened. Each historical work is like a different window onto the same landscape, providing a different angle and perspective. That said, I do believe you can be wrong in History, and I think some conservative histories of Australia (looking at you, Keith Windschuttle) are terribly wrong - but that's because you can't see the historical landscape if you are looking at a painting on the wall of the landscape you'd like to see rather than looking through the window at what's out there.

At the end of the day, I repudiate all labels. I am not a political historian. I am not an economic historian. I am not a social historian. If I must self-identify in any way, it is as a 19th century New Zealand historian, and even that is up for qualification (my primary interest is the period from the 1852 Constitution Act to the 1893 enfranchisement of women/1908 completion of the North Island Main Trunk Railway). I am uncomfortable with theory of History, as I said back at the start of this entry. I do not believe in adopting a theoretical approach and viewing all history through the lens of that theory. I believe that often leads to bad History. The more you write to a theory, the more you are writing a narrow work that interprets the past as you wish to see it rather than as your sources indicate. Naturally, the historian's biases are always at play, and it is wise to be conscious of them, but there is a difference between self-awareness and actively reconstructing the past according to your biases. I am sure there are some that would consider me to be insufficiently critical or take some other sort of derisory attitude towards my stance; their problem, not mine, and I'll let my work speak for itself.

History, ultimately, is not something I wish to theorise. It is something I practise. It is something I do.
Tags: academia, history, new zealand

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