Historiography 28.10.11 – Cultural History

Cultural history is yet another complicated, and confusing, historiographical theme. I found this class to be rather challenging also because our lecturer asked not only rather vague but unclear questions. And since the class was discussion based, it was difficult to answer the questions when you didn’t know exactly what was being asked. Nevertheless, it was an interesting class. The interest in cultural history can be traced back to the Marxists. As I mentioned in the Marxist class summary, Marxist history and started an interest in ‘the common man’ in the idea of ‘history from the bottom up’. Speaking very broadly, this flowed into ‘social history’ which is a very structure list view of examining history in encompasses many more specific historiographical fields. ‘Cultural history’, on the other hand, is a poststructuralists response to social history. This shift occurred during the ‘60s and ‘70s.


There are essentially two approaches to cultural history. The first could be labelled the ‘history from below’ or ‘humanist’ approach. Historians in this school of thought are particularly interested in giving agency or ‘humanizing’ their research subjects. A good and well known example of this can be found in the book The Cheese and the Worms by Ginzburg, which is an approach that can be labelled as ‘micro history’. Ginzburg focuses on one man who’s tried during the inquisition. Essentially, this approach, rather than discussing society at the time or perhaps the inquisition broadly (i.e. a top-down approach), focuses on only one man and allows the reader to draw conclusions about the larger societal history.


The second approach to cultural history could be called either ‘discourse history’ or ‘literary studies’. Historians in this school thought are heavily influenced by Michael Foucault. The words ‘discourse’ and ‘literary’ art at the office to the heavily postmodern views of this approach. The premise of this school thought is that we are products of our language, our culture, and societal symbols. Historians, therefore, will focus on a symbol or events to get ‘layers of significance’ in an approach that is known as ‘thick description’. This approach is not interested in individuals, rather it is interested in discourses. This is certainly quite a contrast to the first approach which is interested in individuals.


This is an important historiographical theme to study because it is currently the dominant form of thinking for most historians. Personally, I probably prefer the first approach though I do think there is value in the second approach. In general, as with any historiographical approach, there are pros and cons and I think it is better to draw from multiple ideas and schools of thought rather than depending on one school of thought.


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!


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