Monday, December 22, 2008

The writing of history

Note to readers: I began this post Sunday, then more or less finished it yesterday, but did not post because of other pressures. However, I am still bringing it up with yesterday's date. 

Neil had a rather good post on history and historiography, the study of the writing of history. I commend it to you. Because I took my Sunday Essay of line, I thought that I might respond to Neil's post with a few brief comments on the writing of history from my own perspective.

In my historical research, I try within limitations of time and skill to write as a professional historian. What do I mean? Simply this: I try to approach the task in a professional fashion.

Problems of perception and bias are inescapable in history, as they are in all human thought.

Problems start with the selection of the questions to be studied.

While the past is always with us in often unseen ways, that is part of the fascination of history, history itself exists only so long as we study or write about it. Entire areas of history vanish as fashions change. They simply cease to exist. The past continues, history vanishes.

Bias continues in the way we approach the questions we have selected for study. Our own mental mud maps - the way we see the world - influences not just the questions we select, but the way we approach the evidence itself.

A particular issue arises when we come to deal with the way people thought or interacted. It is relatively easy, I say relatively easy advisedly, to deal with events, to say that x did y. But why did x act in that way is a far harder question.

It is also relatively easy to deal with impacts, the results of decisions, although here too the same problem arises. We may be able to demonstrate that the Great Depression created unemployment, but how did the unemployed respond?

In managing these issues, we rely on our own feelings and imagination, the things that make us human and give us a link to others.

This is a very imperfect measure. If, as is often the case, we struggle to understand those around us, how can we understand those who lived in a different world?

I was struck by this at one stage when I looked in detail at the English Bloomsbury set, a group of then very fashionable English intellectuals. 

I first read Harrod's biography of John Maynard Keynes when I was at school. It appealed greatly.

At the time I was under the influence of the ideal of the Elizabethan man, the complete all-rounder. Keynes seemed to emplify this. He was the complete all-rounder in an intellectual sense.

As I read into the Bloomsbury set I actually found them quite repulsive. There was an intellectual narrowness, a bigotry, that I found hard to accept. I also found the description of of the family life that so many of them had experienced very strange indeed. This was not my world.

My point here is that I can write about their ideas, but struggle to really understand them as people. I cannot get inside their heads.

All this means that the writing of history must, in fact, fail. How, then, can I talk about approaching the task in a professional fashion?

There are several elements to what I see as the profession of history.

The first is to write in such a way that people can see how you formed your views. This allows them to check and present an alternative perspective.

The second is to be conscious of your own biases, to be aware of and prepared to accept evidence that conflicts with your views. Nobody can do this perfectly, but the intent is important.

This links to the third element, the need to find ways of standing outside your own world view, to seek to understand the sometimes subtle differences of the past.

Personally, I find this one of the most interesting elements of all in history, a key to the abiding fascination of the subject. My need to understand drives me. I may, as I suggested, be bound to fail, but the effort is always interesting and worthwhile.

The last element in the profession of history is the willingness to learn about and apply different techniques and fields of knowledge that can inform our understanding of the past.         

As a simple example drawing from my own experience, in writing about traditional Aboriginal life in Northern New South Wales in my BA honours thesis I consciously tried to apply and test concepts drawn from economics.

The thesis itself was subject to my own biases.

As I strong New England New State supporter, I consciously selected the new state boundaries my geographic territory. My decision to apply and test concepts drawn from economics actually reflected the academic history of my own family and especially our collective cross-interests in history, economics and anthropology. 

The immediate response to the thesis reflected the knowledge and biases of readers, itself another major problem area for the writing of history.

Application of concepts drawn from another discipline creates its own difficulties where your key readership does not have the mental constructs associated with the other discipline.

I have written quite extensively on the ways each profession creates its own mental world and on the difficulties this creates for true multi-disciplinary writing. This is as true of academic life as it is of professional practice.

The thesis was also interpreted - I would argue misinterpreted - within some of the commonly accepted perceptions of the time.

A particular problem was the continuing belief among some of those on what was called the old left that the Aborigines somehow represented primitive communism, an idealised pre-money world. This led to an instinctive reaction by some to reject my analysis as some-how a-historical.

This primitive savage view was an extension of a whole set of sometimes conflicting views  - noble savage, primitive savage, the romance of the traditional hunter-gatherer, the poverty of hunter-gatherer life, noble settlers, eveil settlers.

The common feature of these views lay in their eurocentricity, the way that varying popular ideas linked to often opposing schools of thought within the UK and Europe were imposed on the evidence and on the Aborigines as a people.

This continues today, and in turn has its own effect on the way indigenous people think of themselves. This combination of effect and counter effect has had profound influences on Aboriginal history and on the writing of that history.

It is now just over forty years since I did my thesis, somewhat later since part of it was incorporated in a book of essays edited by Isabel McBryde. It wasn't a long thesis, yet despite the passage of time the work continues to be cited.

Obviously parts of the thesis have dated.

There is, for example, far more information on levels of indigenous population than my first very amateurish attempts to develop population projections for Northern New South Wales at the time of European intrusion, attempts that were effectively parodied by Professor Butlin from Sydney University with a phrase something like mud maps of the worst kind.

Mind you, I would still defend myself on the grounds that this was the first attempt to measure population, that I showed that numbers were far higher than often recognised, while my broad geographic distribution was correct. Still, Professor Butlin's methodological criticisms were not without justice.

Beyond this, some of my first attempts at economic analysis and the constructs that I was using seem dated if only because the concepts that I was testing - population, trade, division of labour, capital formation, economic organisation of life - are now part of ordinary analysis. I claim no credit for this. It would have happened regardless and I do not think that my thesis as such had any measurable influence.

The areas that still seem to get most frequent citation are those where I tried to address relations between people and geography over time and especially space, focusing on the dynamic aspects of traditional Aboriginal life. Here the analysis does seem to have stood the test of time, if only as a first blush attempt to determine patterns.

Now one of the significant things here, and this bears upon this post's general theme, is that I wrote this material independent of pre-conceptions. I did not know, and wanted to find out.

My decision to write about the broader New England reflected my political views. This decision was to be central to my ability to look at broader geographic interactions, but can still be classified as bias.

My decision to try to apply economic concepts - my core thesis was that these were relevant - again reflected a personal bias. It also determined the evidence I looked for and the questions I asked of that evidence.

Beyond this, having defined geography and broad approach my core focus was simply on what was, why was it.

In his post, Neil referred to the TV documentary The World of the First Australians. To my mind, this is not history, just as a lot of my writing is not history and for the same reasons.

As with The World of the First Australians, I use history to inform and educate. I also try to tell a story. In writing, I do try to generate new ideas and to give sources. However, much of my writing lacks the intellectual rigour to be properly classified as history.

When the World of the First Australian began, I approached it as history. This led to initial disappointment. It also meant that I did not watch following episodes with the same interest.

In all this, I missed the point.

The program was not and should not have been regarded as history, but rather as an educational documentary designed to tell a particular story drawing from historical events. Further, in so doing, by far its most imaginative element was its attempt to get inside the mind on the other side of the frontier.   

Approached in this way, the program becomes an interesting and useful input to history. As with so much of what I write, it should be thought of as an input to historical thinking, an input subject to later test.

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