This might have been one of my favourite lectures thus far in the Historiography module, if for no other reason than the lecturer. He was particularly energetic and engaging [1. For my JBU friends, he reminded me of Dr. Robert Moore a bit], even though he deviated from previous classes and lectured for most of the time rather than having student discussion.
He started class talking about history, and the question ‘what makes history distinct from other disciplines’? Which is an excellent question. Historians are fantastically skilled at borrowing ideas from other disciplines, and many other disciplines have to study some history, at least of their field. His answer? Words. Which, indeed, he may have a point. Historians do love their words. A great example, which he gave, is ‘identity’. It is nearly impossible to read any historical book or article these days, particularly studying Irish history, that does not mention ‘identity’. It is a good word, but definitely perhaps overused. Another word we talked about was ‘nationalism’. Interestingly enough, this word only recently came into academic language in the late 18th century and early 19th century. In fact, it was an even commonly used word at all. So, the question then becomes can you have the phenomenon of nationalism without the word? Particularly since the concept of nationalism is heavily tied to that other word we talked about, identity, some would argue that it is therefore difficult to apply that concept to people who wouldn’t have even applied it to themselves. Definitely a good point to think about. Another important point is that while history has become post-nationalist it is very much still structured around the idea of nations.
Essentially the debate around nationalism centres on a few key issues. First, whether or not nation states have always been with us, that is to say have they always existed in the forms we know them or not. For example, Germany which at one time consisted of many different people groups: were they all ‘Germanic’ or were they different identities? Second, if nations have not always been with us, are they results of maternity? Third, is a nation defined by blood and culture or by its political, legal, and civic structures? As you can imagine, there’s plenty of debate surrounding these issues. The example of Ireland is one that significantly complicates the issue of nationalism. What is ‘Ireland’? Catholics and protestants would have different views of that, those in the Republic of Ireland would have a different view from those in Northern Ireland, some might define irish-ness based on cultural heritage while others might define it based on physical boundaries, still even others might define it by being a part or not being a part of Great Britain. While one could say that we define nations based on political boundaries, this becomes very difficult as political boundaries shift and change with time.
I enjoyed this class because, even though it is an overused word, I suppose I fit in well into my field when I say that I really enjoy studying identity. I think the process by which people form identities, whether that is personal, familial, or corporate, I think it is one of the most interesting aspects of studying history. While we must be careful not to overly define people by cultural identity, I think it is very interesting to study how people come to identify themselves with a group or a nation.
This is a part of my History at Queens series. I am writing on what I’m learning in my modules and as a part of my own research. Hope you enjoy!