Until reading Eley and the AHR Forum this week, I never really realized how much I take the present state of the field of history for granted. Although historians are still molding and adding to cultural, social, political, labor, etc. histories, there has not been a major shift or invention during my time as a historian. Before graduate school, I did not think about labeling myself as a cultural or political historian, but as an 18th century French historian. Yet, even that doesn’t fully describe what I want to do. It’s not general French history that interests me, but the processes of state building. While that sounds political, I do not want to be a political historian. Sociocultural appeals to me the most, so I would rather look at French state building from that perspective. I know I will have to touch on politics a little bit, but I want the main thrust of my history to be sociocultural.
But by social/cultural, I do not mean the same thing as the form in the 1960s. Eley says that Scott and Sewell in the 1980s “were declaring the new social history to be no longer enough” (122). So even by the 1980s, historians desired to fix flaws within the existing framework. Still today historians constantly debate the place or necessity of anthropology, sociology, philosophy, etc. in history. But to me, history naturally represents an interdisciplinary subject. I am not saying that historians should extensively study in these other fields, but if one seems particularly helpful then at least a basic knowledge will do. For me, the philosophical ideas of the Enlightenment could aid me in understanding why certain ideals of government appealed to the parlements over than the monarchical system. I guess the arguments about the influence of different fields on history seem about as unnecessary as whether history constitutes a “science” or not.
“As a field of meaning, history is always beset by these doubled understandings—on the one hand, of history as past time, as a distinct set of subject matters and all the ways historians seek to work on them; on the other hand, of history as a sign in and for the present, a container of contemporary meanings…enabling the constant and disorderly back-and-forth between a deceptively finished “then” and a patently active ‘now’” (160). This quote reminded me of the discussion about Foucault and how his history sought to explain the current state of prisons. I find this use of history very interesting. Usually I think of historians as studying an event or people from the past (but, alas, then what is considered the past?), but history does not have to be just that! I hope to one day—when I already have my historian credentials—to explore this side of history.