In terms of historiography, cultural history is seen by some as the most important and informative style of history available to us, as modern historians, due to its ability to describe ways of life and present opinions and thought patterns from deep within the past. Others, clearly, would disagree and suggest that it is far more practical and academic to use such theoretical styles of historiography as Empiricism, Marxism and Annales School history. These theories of historiography, however, could be implemented into the way cultural history is studied and written to give a more agreeable approach. It is thus that in this essay we shall look at and analyse the various ways in which cultural histories have been presented and the way they are brought together.
The first thing we must do, when looking at the methods of cultural historiography, is define what we mean by cultural history. Cultural history, as it is accepted by most modern historians, originally came into being during the later nineteenth century when the line between anthropological studies and historical studies was broken and methods from each began being used together. This was, perhaps, made more easily possible due to both disciplines using empirical approaches to their respective topics of study using the principle of a posteriori, basing conclusions on experience.
It seems that it was due to this merging of disciplines that the work of Edward Burnett Tylor, a groundbreaking anthropologist, was brought to light in the historical academic world. With this came his definition of culture, put forward in the late nineteenth century, which suggested that culture is a mixture of potential and customs acquired by being involved in a society based on such things as knowledge, beliefs and morals. Consequently, cultural history is the study into these aspects of society in an historical setting.
As with any academic theory or method of studying a topic, cultural history has gone through many changes and re-incarnations since it was first introduced. It seems that the history of cultural historiography can be simplified into four main time periods, each focusing on a new dimension of cultural history. These time periods, in terms of dates, came in the following order: Late nineteenth century – known as the ‘classic period’; early twentieth century – focusing on the social history of culture; the 1960s – focusing on the history of popular culture; and finally, since the 1970s, we have moved into a new period of cultural history which focuses on symbols and the meanings behind cultural change. Although we can use these dates as a guide we must remember, as Joan Pittock and Andrew Wear remind us, that history and the theories behind it are constantly evolving:
“Like the rest of human activity, the discipline of history is always changing and transforming itself. Cultural history has been written for centuries, but in recent years it has presented novel facets of itself to the world.” (J.H. Pittock & A. Wear, Interpretation & Cultural History, (New York, 1991) p.1)
The first accepted form of cultural history, in the eyes of academic thinkers, came in the late nineteenth century. However, we must not forget that cultural history, in some form or another, had been going on for hundreds, if not thousands of years. Perhaps it is more a post-modernist view, but surely we can see oral tradition and storytelling as an important part of cultural history. After all, it is due to oral traditions that we in Scotland, as well as in other parts of the world, are able to know so much about the lives of our ancestors. As Stuart McHardy, a modern Scottish cultural historian suggests:
“This storytelling tradition covers a long period. In Australian Dreaming, 40,000 years of Aboriginal History, Jennifer Isaacs has shown that oral tradition can carry stories that contain ascertainable facts over tens of thousands of years.” (S. McHardy, School of the Moon: The Highland Cattle-Raiding Tradition, (Edinburgh, 2004), p.11)
These stories may not be the same as modern historians making comments on cultural changes and history. However they were used to educate generation after generation about the history of their ancestors’ culture and this storytelling is therefore a form of study into the history of a society. In this way, they must surely be seen as following the same description of culture and cultural history that was presented by E.B. Tylor in the late nineteenth century.
The form of cultural history which we see in the classic period is, it seems, a very basic form of cultural study, focusing on science, philosophy, literature and art. Due to the empirical background of classic period cultural historiography, it is difficult to criticise one without criticising the other. However, it is clear that the studies from this period were heavily relying on readily available evidence such as classic artworks and literature due to the need to prove everything empirically. This can be seen as a downfall of this particular form of cultural history due to culture and the way people lived within a society not necessarily being written or painted in something that becomes available to the general public.
The early twentieth century saw methods of cultural historiography focus on the social history of culture. The idea behind this was to identify the principles behind the more visible forms of social behaviour. This, therefore means that the unwritten and, in some cases, such as society under dictatorships, we have access to important sources which can uncover heavily censored parts of history. This is incredibly important if we, as historians, are to get anywhere close to discovering historical ‘truth’. Although, perhaps correctly, most would argue that there is no such thing as historical facts or truth, it is essential that we recognise that we are much further from these ideals without cultural insights than we would be with them, which is clearly exemplified in the histories of countries that have been subjected to dictatorships in the way that history is often highly censored or even banned by those in power.
It was during this time that historians began connecting with anthropology when American historians were researching American Indian history in the 1950s. It was during the late 1940s and early 1950s that historians and anthropologists brought together the strong points of both disciplines to create a new discipline known as ‘Ethnohistory’, which made use of evidence from folklore and oral traditionsas well as from more conventional artefacts. This must surely be seen as a huge step in the way cultural history is written, as this opened up many more forms of sources, which were previously not accepted by historians, to be used as evidence.
With the boom in popular culture that came in the 1960s, came more interest in the study of cultural history. It was during this time that, amongst others, E.P. Thompson and Antonio Gramsci were putting forward ideas and developing the way cultural history was created. Due to the political background of the 1960s, cultural history became studied in comparison to economic history and, in such books as Thompson’s ‘Making of the English Working Class’, culture was seen to be based on economy and the economic welfare of society. Although this obviously gives us a very good representation of culture from one particular viewpoint, it is important to address other issues which affect cultural change outside of the economic structure of society.
Most recently, cultural history has gone from strength to strength. We now have available to us more diverse histories from a cultural perspective than ever before. This isn’t necessarily because sources and documents have appeared that weren’t available before, but because, since the 1960s, we have become far more open minded to cultural histories which may have been ridiculed or disregarded by historians in the past. This is due, largely, to the arrival of postmodernism and the controversial idea that any form of historical analysis is as relevant as any other.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Cultural historiography gained a lot of interest due to the cultural awareness and curiosity that had been formed in the 1960s. This was also possibly due to dissatisfaction amongst historians with Marxist history. It was during this period that Clifford Geertz came into prominence as a cultural historian, along with other modern cultural historians, such as Simon Schama, Peter Burke and Natalie Zimon Davies, each of whom have received admiration in their own rights as being skilled in the field of cultural historiography.
It was Geertz that produced some of the most influential ideas in modern cultural historiography. One of these is the idea of ‘thick description’, by which the historian aims to ‘get’ a culture by understanding all of the ingredients from which it has been formed. This means that one must understand the symbols and meanings of actions or dialogue that refer to a deeper cultural or historic meaning. If the idea of ‘thick description’ is used it will also help us in reading against the grain, whereby the historian uses the information he knows about a time period to draw conclusions of what is meant in sources written or created by individuals that lived during the period being studied. This can be seen as a very positive move in the method of making cultural history and is an incredibly important one if we are to try to understand cultures that, in comparison to our own, are very different and perhaps, at first, difficult to comprehend.
One excellent example of this comes from Robert Darnton’s analysis of the source ‘The Great Cat Massacre’ written by a printers apprentice named Nicolas Contat in Paris in the mid 1700s, shortly before the beginning of the French Revolution. In his work, Darnton goes into great detail about the meaning of the worker’s actions in the story, told by Contat, about the massacre of cats, including the master’s wife’s pet cat ‘la grise’. This does, however, bring about one of the most major criticism of this style of history. Instead of making sensible amounts of interpretations on the information given in Contat’s piece, Darnton goes into huge detail about what he thinks the workers were thinking and what they meant by their actions. His ideas, some would say, go into far too much depth and even, perhaps, make the workers out to be far more intelligent than they actually were.
This is clearly one of the great dangers of ‘thick description’, as, when presented as fact, an historians idea of what may have been happening can be blown completely out of proportion in comparison to what we know was happening from other sources of information. Some would even go as far to say that, in Darnton’s case, it is not even clear whether the story he was writing about even happened in reality.
Since the 1980s, cultural history has continued to gain popularity and new historians are constantly publishing articles full of new ideas and directions to take the ever-changing cultural historiography. Today, we see intrigue into such things as everyday practices like the use of swear words in society and how it has changed and the impact of their use has also changed in our society. Another area of great interest today is the impact of immigration on societies and how different cultures can become merged and what affects this has on them. One of the great problems that every cultural historian faces, and will constantly face, is the difference between cultural constructs and material reality. We, as historians must always be aware that what is presented to us in the media and in documents is not always what is happening in reality.
In conclusion, we can see that cultural history is an ever changing and developing notion and the criticisms that could be applied to older styles of cultural historiography may not apply today. On the other hand, with every change comes a new set of criticisms which must be addressed. Having said this, due to the advances made in the 1970s and 1980s, we are now at a stage when cultural history is stronger than it has ever been in the past, with more routes of thought and discovery open to the modern historian.
In terms of this blog and of Highland history, the mix of pure historical research and anthropological research and awareness is vital. To view the traditions of Highland culture in a pure historical form is embarrassingly simplistic and would overlook the entire meaning and understanding of the practices of our forebears. This is a mistake made by many historians and avoided by few. We will never know everything; but we don’t necessarily need to. The aim of this blog is to use an ever-developing style of cultural history to convey an element of a society so driven by oral and cultural traditions that it may never be fully understood.
Andrew Grant McKenzie MA (Hons) FSA Scot
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