Some Thoughts on the History Manifesto

Just over a week ago, Cambridge University Press launched their first Open Access book, The History Manifesto by David Armitage and Jo Guldi. This is clearly intended to provoke discussion, as the book’s webpage has a forum section with the tagline ‘Join the Debate’. It’s been the topic of some excited conversations with the new colleagues I’ve been meeting in Oxford this past week (and with some old friends, too).

The book has three main arguments, as I understood it, and most historians will probably welcome the first: that in a world of ‘short-termism’, where culture is increasingly instant and politicians rarely look past the next election, historians can offer a genuinely valuable perspective as experts in analysing and explaining longer periods. As Armitage and Guldi put it, by studying alternative pasts, multiple stories and multiple ways of understanding these stories, historians can inform society about the possibilities of alternative futures. To fulfill this role, though, they must be willing to step into the arena of public discussion. They conclude their book with a call to arms, ‘Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late.’ (125). The second and third propositions of the book may well prove more contentious. Historians can achieve this influence, the authors suggest, by providing more works in the mode of the longue durée, covering centuries or even millennia as they grapple with ‘Deep Time’, and by embracing modern technology and especially ‘Big Data’ analysis to provide and communicate new and broader interpretations. Guldi has offered historians a toolkit for this by developing the open source programme Paper Machines, discussed on pp. 90-3 of the Manifesto. The authors confidently assert that ‘big is back’ (86).

These arguments are delivered through four chapters, two ‘looking back’ to historical traditions and two considering approaches that historians might take today. The first recounts historians’ role, from antiquity to the twentieth century, as advisors to the powerful; and then discusses the scholarly movement of the mid-twentieth century, led above all by Fernand Braudel, which sought to understand (and coined the phrase) the longue durée. The next chapter looks at the swing in the opposite direction, the methodological ‘turns’ of the later twentieth century and the emergence of microhistory, as historians retreated towards what Armitage and Guldi call the ‘Short Past’, producing studies of narrower time-frames written for smaller, and mostly academic, audiences. The moment is ripe, the authors suggest, for a return to the Long Past. Chapters three and four discuss options available to the historians of the twenty-first century, focusing on the key themes of climate change, governance, and inequality, which they show to be deeply connected. Armitage and Guldi don’t want these important topics to be left solely to short-sighted economists (who come in for quite a lot of criticism), but for historians to contribute scope and depth. In the final chapter, in particular, the authors describe the promise of Big Data projects for helping historians to do this.

Despite their infectious enthusiasm and often persuasive critique, the authors did not carry me with them on all of these points. While long narratives are very important, they possess their own dangers: oversimplification, elision, obscuring other dimensions of any story. This is to some extent evident in the authors’ own historiographical narrative. Keeping things necessarily (and admirably) succinct, they unavoidably glide over numerous subtleties and nuances in their decision to present historical writing of the twentieth century as a more-or-less neat pendulum from long to short to long. A quick scan of the Manifesto‘s footnotes – and I confess that I have not yet had time to perform the metric analysis to confirm this – gives the impression that many of the historical works cited deal with the period after 1800. Perhaps the authors do not practice quite so longue a durée as they preach. Most glaring is the absence of any discussion of historical traditions beyond Europe, though the dominance of European historical practice has been sharply criticised, for example by Dipesh Chakrabarty in Provincialising Europe. If part of history’s appeal is to tell alternative stories, then alternative ways of storytelling are surely very important (and a topic about which I acknowledge I know too little). Armitage and Guldi’s definition of ‘microhistory’ is also more capacious than many historians – and certainly that field’s Italian creators – would recognise. At times, they seem to use the term to mean anything retreating from the longer perspective. As Carlo Ginzburg has described it, however, ‘micro’ refers to the microscope, the attention to significant detail, not necessarily the scale or range of that attention. In theory, then, microhistory over the longue durée is not impossible, though it might be very difficult.

Similar questions can be raised about Big Data. Such large statistical analysis is, no doubt, an exciting tool which will open new and exciting vistas on the past. Yet there are manifestly things that it cannot do. This post by Mark Hailwood, published yesterday, skilfully shows how looking deeper into the evidence behind a big survey (in this case, one done in the 1970s) can be just as illuminating as large statistics, albeit in different ways. There are also potential dangers with too heavy a reliance on automated word-searches or similar techniques. Armitage and Guldi cite an example of geographers relying on limited search terms (105), but it’s entirely possible historians can make the same mistakes. What’s more, the possibilities of text manipulation, even in self-curated collections like those enabled by Guldi’s Paper Machines, rely on having digital text to manipulate in the first place. This, despite the growing number of digital collections, effectively rules out the vast majority of manuscript sources for which computerised character recognition is not yet (and may never be) possible. By coincidence, I read much of the Manifesto on the train to and from the All at Sea conference, where much of the conversation revolved around digitisation projects – Sailing Letters, Letters as Loot, and Brill’s new Prize Papers Online. These emphasized the impressive new work that can be done with digital collections, but also the time, effort, and money required to produce them. It could be a long time before Big Data methods become feasible for many aspects of pre-modern history.

These issues complicate the main argument with which I wholeheartedly agree – Armitage and Guldi’s call for historians to ‘go public’. There is relatively little discussion in the Manifesto about how historians, in practical terms, can get politicians or the public to listen to what they have to say, or the venues that exist for this (and the fact that these often favour already well-established public figures). There is also no mention of how this fits into the stages of a historian’s career – as an early career researcher I feel I have comments to offer to public debates, but not really that I can make pronouncements in terms of the longue durée. After much teaching and writing I might change my mind. Armitage and Guldi do suggest that, using Big Data, historians could create visualisations of the kind that go viral on social media, and this is an intriguing idea, though probably with its limits. I am not convinced, though, that big stories and Big Data are always the best way to communicate historical insights widely. Some of the academic books which have proved most popular beyond academia are microhistories, like Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, though this was presumably helped by the 1982 film. The success of Who Do You Think You Are? and genealogy more generally (discussed recently in this article) show that a personal dimension is vitally important to the appeal of the past, and this is something easily lost when we widen our perspectives. Big Data is probably most striking when combined with such a close personal focus, as in this post by Tim Hitchcock, another eloquent advocate of both digital and public history (I know I’ve linked to this before, but I don’t care, it’s brilliant).

These are problems which Armitage and Guldi recognise, and they are careful to temper their more strident statements with acknowledgements that we will still need shorter and closer studies, and traditional techniques. Most historians would find it difficult to write on the longue durée without relying on ‘Short Past’ work written by others – even Braudel was helped by his research students and colleagues. This commendable balance unfortunately sometimes renders the Manifesto less resounding than the authors might wish, essentially because it is not entirely clear what they want historians to actually do. Obviously, as the authors know, we can’t all be longue durée Big Data experts. I suspect this also arises because the book is not written just for historians; it seems to me to be as much aimed outwards, to convince others of what historians have to offer. I do hope that we as historians can live up to that promise.

This aim, I think, is one reason why (notwithstanding the issues I have raised here) I enjoyed reading the Manifesto and encourage you to read it too. It is, after all, a manifesto and not a handbook: I see it as pointing to some paths that historians might take, but leaving it to the rest of us to decide whether and how we do that. In this respect, the book meets one of its own demands, that historians must challenge the idea of an immobile status quo, the assumption that this is the way things are and must be. The future could take as many shapes as the past has, and this in my view is the book’s most important message. Historians have a role to play not just in understanding the past, but by doing so can help to outline possible futures, and we must be bold and vocal in this. If history consistently teaches us one thing, it is (ironically) that things change. Presumably – though not necessarily in all the ways predicted in the Manifesto – historians can change too.

Edit – if anybody wants to find more on the History Manifesto, besides the book’s own webpage, there is a list of reviews and links here (a specific page about the book on Armitage’s Harvard profile), and History Works have a transcript of a BBC interview with Armitage and further links here.

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16 thoughts on “Some Thoughts on the History Manifesto

  1. Interesting piece, thanks. I hadn’t seen the Manifesto, but will seek it out. I think you’re quite right, the ‘long view’ histories absolutely rely on a multiplicity of good ‘micro histories’ – I’ve written both, so know a little about this. One of the worst things I ever heard from one of the ‘longue duree’ types about writers of ‘micro history’ was when he described them as ‘specialist historians’ (maybe I just imagined the curl of the lip that went with it!). Mind you, I also think that there is a real need for people who specialise in certain areas of history (i.e. most historians, when you think of it), to get the public engaged and interested in their subjects, otherwise historical discussions can need up with academics talking to academics.

  2. This is a wonderful piece, and I enjoyed reading your thoughts very much. I will also look it up, and read it during the summer break! Do the authors consider inter-disciplinary methods?

  3. (Disclaimer: I haven’t read their manifesto.)

    I’m broadly in agreement that ‘public engagement’ is a Good Thing for historians to be doing, but I wonder if there are more dangers in attempting to communicate with policy-makers and journalists than is often implied in these sorts of proclamations. I’m an early career historian too, so I don’t have much experience with this, but I work at Birkbeck, a department that punches well above its weight in terms of ‘impact’, and many of my colleague have told me that this particular form of ‘impact’ is actually very difficult because policy-makers and journalists aren’t actually interested in long-term perspectives, much less nuance. Instead, they are mostly looking for partisan ammunition or click-bait, meaning it is quite possible to find your well-researched pronouncements being twisted to mean something quite different from your intended message. In other words, even with the best of intentions, historians can actually have a _negative_ ‘impact’ on policy and public perceptions, especially when they are trying to ‘popularise’ their findings for a non-academic audience.

    That’s not going to stop me from trying to reach out beyond the academy, but it is something to think about when proclaiming the value of ‘big history’.

  4. Thank you all for your comments.

    Ian, I agree with you that the disdain for ‘specialists’ can be quite antagonistic, and this is something I’ve often seen targeted against academics by those who write for a broader audience, as part of the rivalry or even hostility that sometimes occurs. I don’t think it will be possible to build up good and communicative relations until we acknowledge the worth of one another’s work! Perhaps if we do that then historians will feel more comfortable engaging with a bigger audience.

    Melanie, I don’t remember any explicit or sustained discussion of interdisciplinary approaches, although most ‘Big Data’ techniques draw on various other fields. Do you have any particular methods in mind?

    Brodie, I share your scepiticism about the willingness of politicians or journalists to listen to historians unless they will get something from it that suits them! This was expressed in many of the conversations I’ve had about the Manifesto, too. Unsurprisingly both politicians and journalists will pursue their own agenda. The more positive message I took from the book is more about public engagement, especially the kind of work that Birkbeck does. By contributing to a broader awareness of historical issues and perspectives, I hope that it is possible to challenge the strongly embedded assumption that ‘things have always been this way’, and are therefore impossible to change. This is especially important, as the authors argue, for matters where change is urgently needed, as with the climate or inequality. Of course, having established that things can change, I suspect historians will disagree as much as anyone else about what that change should be…

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  6. I got to this post via Economic History blogs (including one by pseudoerasmus, which takes the HM’s author’s much to task on citations that don’t say or even touch upon what HM’s authors say they do). It does seem to me that HM is calling for historians to finally do, what sociological historians and economic historians have been doing all along. I was an undergraduate student over 40 years ago, of Immanuel Wallerstein, who went on to lead a Fenand Braudel Center, so I remember what a difficult adjustment the (non-narrative) longue duree literature presented to reader just out of high school. And well after high school – heck, I think it took me 20 years to get through The Mediterranean the first time! I eventually did, get it, but as a result I’m not so sure that in any simple or encouraging way that writing history tuned to the longue duree will open “the possibilities of alternative futures” more than any other approach. The long-term teaches about constraints as well as possibilities. It’s sobering as well as exhilarating, because it looks not just at possibilities but, in Braudel’s phrase, at the limits of the possible.

    • Thanks for your comment, Tom – I imagine you mean this post on Pseudoerasmus? I wasn’t aware of it before but will take a look now! There have certainly been a lot of reviews taking a more critical stance than mine, if you read through those listed on the CUP site or Armitage’s own site; perhaps the most thorough that I have seen is a critique by Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler, which, similarly to Pseudoerasmus, picks up on factual errors (this time in the handling of statistics).

      It seems to me, from my own reading as well as from these reviews, that the longue durée aspect of the book’s argument is probably its least convincing, although the primacy of Big Data has problems too. Since the Manifesto came out, Harvard Magazine has celebrated ‘sweeping new interpretations of the human past’ being produced by Harvard scholars, and these projects do indeed sound brilliant, although the ‘sweeping’ is as much about global history as it is about the longue durée. On the other hand, it is worth remembering that Guldi and Armitage do acknowledge the importance of different historical approaches. This, I think, is one reason why the book is at times uncertain and unconvincing. Ultimately they don’t seem to want to replace other approaches with the one they advocate, just to have it accepted on equal grounds with more conventional methodologies. This clashes with the rather more belligerent way they occasionally present their ideas, which may be just the necessary rhetorical style for this type of book.

      As I said in the post, I disagree with some of what the book suggests – the longue durée and Big Data have their place, true, but they’re just two sets of tools amongst many others; and I share the apparently widespread scepticism about the value of ‘speaking to power’ when politicans may only hear what they want to hear. The criticisms about factual accuracy and scholarly rigour are unsettling, too. Nevertheless, I still think there is a good key point to take away from the Manifesto: that when historians have something to say, they should be prepared to say it in public. I’m not sure this is exactly what the authors were aiming for, but the book has certainly generated a lot of discussion, and I think that in itself is a worthwhile outcome.

      • First, thank you for responding to my comment. As a non-academic, I deeply appreciate that.

        Watching a long video in which Jo Guldi was speaking at Columbia, it became very clear to me that she feels extraordinary urgency on this subject (paraphrase: “Climate scientists are telling us we have only 10 years to save the planet”) and so may have higher priorities than getting all the facts right. I’ll grant her that priority, but it’s a big risk. In fact, one of the risks of the Big Data approach, is that a search will harvest far more references than you can actually check, with the result that one’s intended audience gets more taken up with checking the facts than in listening to the argument.

        I also think that she and Armitage need to tweak the “short-termism” rhetoric a bit, especially in light of the triad of agency/counterfactual thinking/utopia that constitutes their “new” long-term. It’s in the short-term, the “now” if you will, that the human agency they wish to empower really operates. The long-term, even if you can come up with plausible alternative long-terms, are always going to be partly about about consequences and constraints. Precisely what they want is for these long-term opportunities, alternatives, and consequences to inform near-term actions and decisions. [Of course, they don’t really address the reasons that decision-makers (and their publics) find short-term considerations and objectives so compelling.]

        I’m also working through the “economist envy” bit. Historians do have good (though not necessarily high-minded) reasons to envy economists: the latter find jobs in think, banks, and government as well as in the academy. Whether such placements heighten or depress the ability of economists to “speak the truth to power” is open to discussion. For every independent voice (such as, say, the head of the Congressional budge office in the US), you have a dozen hired hands. It’s notable, I think, that the book (Piketty’s) that broke the spell, if you will, that prohibited economists from treating “big questions” – that book, for all its author’s political engagement, came out of the academy. What if the truth that needs speaking also requires some distance and objectivity, not just urgency and engagement? TB

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