Subject to Change…

“But however rarefied the atmosphere that historians breathe, they are, like everyone else, affected by the assumptions and values of their own society. It is more illuminating to see historical interpretation as moulded by social rather than individual experience. And because social values change, it follows that historical interpretation is subject to constant revision” (Tosh, 189).

The readings for this week emphasized the importance of analyzing social history in order to gain a greater understanding of how things came to be. Wielded properly, social history can be a tool by which a more complete, multifaceted narrative of the context and causations of the past and how each has contributed to the future we now live in. Taken even further, the argument for the importance of social history opens the door to arguments for the intermingling of many disciplines. In opening up the discipline of history to the tools and suggestions offered by other disciplines, couldn’t we expect to gain a better understanding of history—not just the stories of the actors and events but the socioeconomic, political, and environmental factors that contributed to or conceived the narratives that we wish to reconstruct and tell?

Geoff Eley, deeply influenced by Karl Marx and his introduction of social history to the historical profession, speaks to this connection between history and the larger public and academic world outside of its boundaries. He states: “The boundaries between history’s professional precincts and the wider realms of the public are far more porous than most academic historians might allow. Once we admit that porousness, we relativize our understanding of the professional historian’s influence” (Eley, 6). This perspective was no doubt partially formed by his Marxist persuasion. In reference to the Marxist appeal, Eley stated, “For anyone seeking to fashion a general understanding of how societies hold together or change, it offered a powerful combination of standpoints—a theory of societal development permitting the periodizing of history, a model of social determinations proceeding upward from material life, and a theory of social change based on class struggles and their effects” (Eley, 16).

E.P. Thompson, who claimed to write in “Marxist Tradition”, took the idea of social history one step (or a series of steps) further (Thompson, xi). Considered the innovator of “history from below”, Thompson introduced the aspect of “agency” to historic discourse in his The Making of the English Working Class. This piece of scholarship traces the rise of the working class in England during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. In doing so, Thompson effectively traced the socioeconomic and political context within which the working class arose, wielded power, and attempted revolution. The work serves as case study in discussing how events and groups and relationships in history came to be through a multidimensional, multidisciplinary lens.

The readings for the week provided a convincing argument in favor of the benefits of utilizing social theory, analyzing social history, and a multidisciplinary lens. Additionally, they inadvertently resulted in my ceased heel-dragging, and perhaps a (hesitant) step forward. In recent classes we have discussed the discipline of history entering the Digital Age and the potential benefits and detriments associated with that transition. Having reflected on this week’s readings, I can see an added benefit of this transition—greater access to a multitude of other disciplines and perspectives, each of which might have a role in how the past has occurred and a new lens through which we as historians might view it. As Tosh suggested, historians, too, are affected by the conditions of their own society. Currently, the conditions of our society include a move toward the digital realm, and who am I to ignore it?

One thought on “Subject to Change…”

  1. Subject to change…..without notice? Not what you meant, right? I love how ambiguous, provocative and pointed your title is — all at the same time. E.P. Thompson was all about subjectivity — a consummate historian intent on restoring agency and identity to the anonymous masses who made and were made by the industrial revolution. They were subjects WHO changed / made one of the most profound historical transformation of the western world.
    Also, I’m eager to hear more about the implications of understanding “how things came to be.”

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