Historians' Books

The History Manifesto

David Armitage and Jo Guldi |

If there’s one skill that distinguishes historians, it’s understanding multiple causality. Most other social scientists value parsimony: historians prefer profligacy. The historian’s first answer to most questions from fellow academics is, notoriously, ‘It’s all very complicated.’ We juggle different conceptions of agency and structure, competing conceptions of time, different levels of causation and then try to squeeze our feats of conjuring into narrative form. Yet our comparative advantage has not always been competitive. As readers of History & Policy are well aware, getting the historian’s perspective back into policy debate can be a challenge. The History Manifesto is one more attempt to jump-start that broken dialogue.

It might take other historians to disentangle all the causes, near and far, conscious and unconscious, that led us to write this short book about the long term. Most immediately, we both found ourselves chafing against traditional reluctance in our respective fields of intellectual history and social history to go long as we each embarked on projects covering unconventionally broad time-scales. That is, David’s work-in-progress on ideas of civil war runs from ancient Rome to the present; and Jo’s ongoing study of the global history of land reform spans the period from the 1860s to the present.

More generally, we had both noticed that many historians were returning to the longue durée across a wide array of subfields: we wanted to chart that shift but also to encourage it. And as we worked our findings up into an article, we discovered we had much more to say about the critical uses of history in a world beset by short-termism but where economists, climate scientists and others had begun turning to history to offer their own diagnoses, warnings and remedies.

We each brought our own concerns to the book, Jo as a digital historian beginning her disciplinary career as an assistant professor at Brown University, David in his capacity as chair of the History Department at Harvard University.

Jo has been engaged in building as well as using digital tools for her research, notably as the co-designer of Paper Machines, a kind of Swiss army-knife among digital tools for the semantic, visual and topical analysis of large-scale textual corpora. Paper Machines was designed as a tool for forming a portrait of the workings of bureaucracies, giving an immediate context to documents from the archive. The user of this tool can afford to pay attention to the field agents, branch heads, and directors-general of UN offices by analysing in bulk the so-called ‘grey’ literature issued from their offices, once the documents have been scanned and their images converted to text. The tool allows us to instantly take the measure of each of these organs, identifying the ways in which they diverge and converge. The applications of Paper Machines are not confined the historians: indeed, by 2013, it had been adopted by a military intelligence firm in Denmark, advising Danish national intelligence about the nature of official reports from other world intelligence forces.

David was meanwhile immersed in the challenges of declining undergraduate enrolments in the humanities and rethinking the place of university history departments more generally in the ecology of the modern university. The expanding possibilities offered by digital materials and tools on the one hand, and the pressures on traditional humanities subjects on the other, gave rise to many fruitful conversations about where the humanities might go from here. As we argue in the book, combining the analytical skills of historians with the reams of big data available in fields such as climate science and the tracking of economic inequality could school a generation of students in humanistic understandings of complex causality, the interaction of time-scales and the relationship between individual agency and collective structures. Alliances between traditional humanities subjects like history, on the one hand, and studies in the social sciences and natural sciences, on the other, offer one way to reassure students of the relevance of their training to contemporary problems as well as a vital means to bring greater subtlety back into the formation of materials for policy action.

Those intramural discussions about university research and teaching naturally led to further reflection on the place of historical thinking in public life more generally. Although there was never a lost golden age when historian-kings ruled the world, the thirty years or so after 1975 did seem - in long-range perspective e- to be a moment when increasing specialisation had led to a retreat among historians from relevance to public policy and debate. This could be seen in the shorter and shorter time-scales adopted by historians in their articles and books: down to somewhere between five and fifty years in most cases.

From the 1980s onwards, leading historians began to lament, in David Cannadine’s words, that he ‘cult of professionalism’ meant ‘more and more academic historians were writing more and more academic history that fewer and fewer people were actually reading’. Historians wrote more for other historians than for wider audiences. As debates became more specialised and inward-looking, their relevance to public policy became harder and harder to discern. There were no longer figures like the great Fabian historians, Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb, called upon to help plan the future of London because of their expertise in the history of English local government over centuries, or R H Tawney, sent to China in 1931 to report on land reform there due to his expertise in the history of enclosures in sixteenth-century England. If academics were found in policy circles at all, they tended to be economists or PPE graduates, not historians.

The founding of History & Policy in 2002 was surely one response to the retreat of historians from policy relevance, a pivotal effort to restore the interrupted connections between academic historians and policy makers. It is therefore a special pleasure to be introducing The History Manifesto to readers of the History & Policy website. We look forward to many fruitful exchanges about our common concerns with members of the History & Policy network.


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