Old versus “New” Historiography

Below is a piece I wrote for a class I took in World History for my BA in which I had to analyze the differences between Rankean history and the influence of the Annales school and what has come after.   If I remember right, I got an A on this assignment even though the professor thought I was a little too disparaging of the postmodernists.   I am disparaging of postmodernism in general, that is probably one reason I have chosen not to pursue a career in Academia as I had once aspired to do.

The main difference in the debate, if it is a debate, between old and new historiography seems to be politics and its place in academic or scholarly work as well as the usefulness of other disciplines to historical scholarship.   The Rankean or scientific historians of the old historiography would like to see historians as group distance themselves from politics contemporary or otherwise and focus on trying to make their histories be as fact based as possible while only presenting opinions in their interpretation of events.   The new historiography, represented by the historians of the Annales School or sometimes claimed by the postmodernists and deconstructionists of the Foucault or Derrida schools seems to want to insert politics into history at every opportunity.   Indeed, the postmodernists take is almost that politics is inescapable and if that is so then why not wallow in it and abandon any hope of objectivity or neutrality?  The Annales School however is more rigorous in its application of logical thought to history and instead seeks to develop a synthesis of history and other disciplines and does not focus as much on politics as the postmodernists do.

The core of scientific history is the idea that that a critical reading and evaluation of sources can lead to an accurate reconstruction of past events.   The prophet of this kind of history was the German historian Leopold von Ranke who coined the famous phrase that history should be presented “wie es eigentlich gewiesen” or how it really happened.[1] The basic idea of scientific history is that historians should be unbiased and essentially tell the story of history without embellishment and as close to the truth of events as they can get.   The old historiography aims at a history divorced from politics.

The new historiography, of the Annales, Braudel, Foucault, Derrida, postmodernism and deconstructionism takes politics for granted as a part of the human psyche or condition and embraces it in historical work.   It does this in several ways but namely embracing political thought in the selection of research topics and allowing politics to influence the way in which historical events are interpreted.   There is often a dichotomy of one group against another in the interpretations of the new historiography as demonstrated by Foucault’s idea of the “great confinement” he presents in the History of Madness his “archaeology” of mental illness in which the mentally ill were confined by the sane or also the way in which many women’s studies scholars structure their works as an account of the struggle of women against male oppression throughout history.[2]

These two approaches both have their advantages and downfalls and a combination of the two would probably produce a richer history that would enhance historical understanding better than either approach alone.   There is probably something to the postmodern view that bias can never be completely eliminated, it is innate and built into us by our upbringing and the societies in which people are raised.   Equally truly, it is clear that attempting to eliminate bias as the old historiography would have historians do is also a worthy goal because it would go far to bringing historical narrative closer to what actually occurred than peering at events through the tinted lens of bias and prejudice.

One of the hallmarks of Rankean or scientific history is its insistence on a critical evaluation and ranking of sources.   Ranke’s method demands that sources be separated into primary and secondary categories with sources written contemporary to the events they describe and by participants being privileged over those that are available only at second hand.   Scientific history posits that only by using the most accurate and reliable of sources can the historian get at the real truth of past events and write a narrative that is as close to the truth as possible.   This privileging and critical evaluation of sources is at the heart of scientific history.   Through it the old historiography tried to develop rules and general principles that would apply across the entire historical spectrum; rules or laws similar to those employed in the physical sciences.

The new historiographers have not jettisoned the scientific approach developed by the old but rather seek a more nuanced and holistic approach to history writing that goes beyond a mere narrative of events and presents a narrative and interpretation of why certain things happened the way they did.   They are correct in their assumption that critical evaluation of sources make history richer but also in that pure narrative is no more than a story and does not really explain anything.   The new historiography of the Annales School seeks to get beyond the narrative by drawing material not only from historical sources but also from other disciplines and sciences to make history richer and enhance historical understanding.   It achieves through synthesis, which is demonstrated perhaps the best in Fernand Braudel’s monumental history of the Mediterranean basin written in a POW camp during World War II.

The postmodernists and deconstructionists have gone beyond synthesis in to the realm of pure fantasy.   They invent reality as they go along and therefore in this author’s view do not merit the title of historian.   The postmodern and deconstruction movement is not a historical trend so much as metaphysics and it is hard to see how a history that changes based on perception is really history at all.

In summation, both old and new historiographies have their place depending on the intended audience and the purpose of the history being written.   It is easy to see how old historiography would suffice for a campaign or battle account or even for a history of a political campaign.   But old historiography does not suffice to analyze cultures or broad based historical trends; in these cases the synthetic methods developed by the new historiographers is more appropriate because it can more readily get at the “why” of history than a strictly narrative, fact-based account can.   The Annales methods do indeed represent a new or third historiography beyond that of both the ancient Greeks and that developed in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth century by Ranke and Heinemann.[3] The historiographical method a historian chooses to use should not reflect an ideological approach so much as an assessment of what is the most effective way to present the type of history being written.   It is a not a zero-sum game where there is one right or wrong answer, it depends on what information or conclusion the historian is attempting to convey.

[1] Green, Anna & Kathleen Troup, ed.   The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. (New York: New York University Press, 1999). p. 2

[2] Foucault, Michel. History of Madness. (New York: Routledge, 2006)

[3] Harsgor, Michael. Total History: The Annales School. (Sage Publications Ltd.: Journal of Contemporary History), Vol 13, No. 1, January 1978 pp.1-13