Landscape of a Good Discipline

“Steedman is better described as a historian who understands the theoretical and philosophical implications of doing historical work. She pushes edgily on the boundaries of what historians think they do, but she manages to combine social and cultural history without turning the results into some risk-free and reassuring middle way…She makes the ‘cultural turn’ without waving goodbye to ‘the social’” (Eley, 180-81).

I genuinely enjoyed the readings for this week, which was particularly heartening after struggling a bit with Foucault last week. I read Landscape for a Good Woman before reading Eley, however, I think Steedman’s book did well to make its point in its own right, and the chapters from Eley described the context, or “landscape”, within which Steedman’s work came to exist. Carolyn Steedman is significant for a number of reasons, but I believe the most predominant of these reasons is that she exemplifies an ideal model of the combination of cultural and social history. Landscape, in a sense, represents the fruit that can be harvested from the crossroads of the two (typically competing) sub-disciplines.

By recounting and reconstruction her childhood and her mother’s childhood, Steedman simultaneously attempted to make sense of her own youth and challenged the conventional understanding of working-class life. Steedman’s mother and her household existed outside of legality and outside of the traditional “working class”, and Landscape reveals how her family and others like it have been marginalized. These challenges confronted the typical patriarchal head-of-household, as Steedman’s mother determined their class position (Steedman, 56). Additionally, her mother was not just an object of exchange, as women have typically been written off as over time, but rather the object and subject—her mother utilized her exchange value in an attempt to secure the life and future she believed were so wrongly kept from her (Steedman, 60). Her mother’s story also goes against the presumptions that all mothers want their children, and instead suggests that children can be both wanted and resented, as Steedman came to understand about herself as a child.

In each of the ways Steedman challenges or deconstructs the conventional ideas held about the working-class, children, and women, she seems to “ememplify the arguments…about the changes in the discipline between the 1960s and now” (Eley, 172). The subjects of her focus represent part of feminist history, which Eley suggests was, “unavoidably at the forefront of the cultural turn” (Eley, 171). Additionally, she uses personal voice, offers a history substantially different than the accounts previously “known”, and reintroduces the possibility of using biography in historical study. However, Steedman makes her arguments without turning her back on social history, rather, she suggests that individual narratives can reveal themes of a broader social world.

Steedman’s ability to utilize the merits of both social history and cultural history is promising. As we have discussed in several classes up to this point, we must confront the newest “turns” in the study of history as they come (and they will come), but in doing so we do not have to abandon the value of each previous phase of the discipline’s evolution. In the same way Landscape does not rob Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class of its entire significance, we do not have to assume that new phases rob the last of its significance. Rather, we can build upon our understanding by utilizing the advantages of each and being willing to meet each new phase with open, but analytical minds. Certainly, this ideal middle ground is not easy to find, and once it has been found, it is no doubt difficult to maintain footing through the ebb and flow of evolution and transition. However, it can be done and Carolyn Steedman provides an ideal to strive towards.

4 thoughts on “Landscape of a Good Discipline”

  1. Carmen,

    I think you did a great job summing up Landscape for a Good Woman, particularly in the context of Geoff Eley’s discussion of social and cultural history. I agree that though different from Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, Steedman does not lessen the significance of his revolutionary work. Instead, Steedman brings her own argument and analysis to the table and I again agree with you that this is beneficial to the discipline in general and that while it does have its own significance in its own right, it does not rob previous works of their significance as well. In fact, I believe exploring multiple facets of any argument can be beneficial to scholars and historians alike and I am grateful that we have had the opportunity to explore both Thompson’s and Steedman’s work in this class.

  2. Carmen,

    I, too, thought you did a great job summing up our readings this week! I learn much from your forthright questioning of all the new things we are learning. Our first few weeks remind me of strapping myself into a roller coaster car and hanging on for the ride. I too enjoyed the readings from Eley as he chronicled the changes in perspectives and methodology of history. Who knew historians got testy with each other over methodologies?

  3. Hi Carmen,

    Thank you for the great summary of this week’s readings and the connections you have made. Is the “ideal middle ground” you are talking about a reference to the ideal of objectivity that, while not actually existing, we should strive for, anyway?


  4. It was nice to have this review of our readings, Carmen! I agree with you that we should learn about diverse methodology in order to inform our own work, and that different methodologies aren’t mutually exclusive. Perhaps that’s one of the things, though, that I found confusing about Steedman’s work–it was difficult to place, because it wasn’t one specific thing!

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