the sinew project
...featured content
...from the
Powered by Squarespace

Add to Technorati Favorites


Objectivity and Revisionist Historiography

I think, Mike, that you are misreading my points on one level, and on another, this goes back to a debate we’ve been having off and on for most of the decade. Objectivity is indeed something we should strive for, but I think it’s a fallacy to believe that we are objective in our approaches, that we are free of bias and so on.

You misread my argument when you suggest that the debate about whether history is an humanity or a social science is about perspective “as much [as it is] a function of whether one believes scholarly output should be readable literature with some sort of narrative backbone, rather than esoteric code generated for a select few initiates.” You are asserting that history as humanity is therefore this obscurantist second option and I think that this is a rather strange contention.

I’ll give you the example of a very contentious historiographic tradition, that of Ireland. The “value-free” school of history there was created in the 1930s there by British-trained historians as a means of professionalising the field. It was also created around the birth of the Irish Republic, barely a decade after the creation of the Irish Free State, giving Ireland its independence from Britain. Thus, a new version of Irish history emerged, one that re-examined the role of the British in Ireland. But the goal was also to normalise the Irish nation in Western Europe, as a modern, industrialised nation (even if it was not, at least at that time).

Allow me to use another Irish example, from our own era. Roy Foster is the dean of Irish History these days, and the leading revisionist of our age. Foster likes to keep the story out of the Irish story, he thinks that the historian is merely an observer and a recorder. But, yet, he offers his own insight into why he is both an Irish historian and a revisionist in his excellent book The Irish Story: Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland. In the Introduction, Foster speaks to his training as an historian in the late 60s, just as the Troubles were exploding in Northern Ireland. The idea is that Foster’s revisionist stance as an historian is clearly grounded in the trauma of the late 60s, the civil rights movement in the USA, and the explosion of the Troubles in Derry and the rest of the North of Ireland. Thus, in order to normalise the history of Ireland, Foster and his ilk are less interested in these extraordinary moments in the history of the nation than in looking at a narrative that establishes Ireland as a Western European nation in the mainstream - one that experienced modernisation, industrialisation, and all of the other movements that England, France, Germany, the United States, and so on, experienced. A similar thing has occurred in the historiography of Québec, where a revisionist school of thought has created this normalised version of Québec history that allows it to step into place with all of the other modern nations (Québec as a nation “ comme les autres”).

As the American historian Peter Novick notes, the idea of objectivity in history is about progress, moving towards some objective truth about the past. But this is not possible to find, there are always multiple stories of any one event. Facts do not speak for themselves, they require interpretation, and the interpretation we give to facts depends on our take on them. Hence the role of deconstruction, as we look at the stories we tell and why we tell those stories to ourselves. Why do we perpetuate myths as a culture? And so on.

History is classified as a social science in many parts of the world, including where you and I, Mike, have done our training, in Québec. But given these sorts of questions, I hesitate to so easily classify history in the social scientific strain.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.
Member Account Required
You must have a member account on this website in order to post comments. Log in to your account to enable posting.