Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Why 'do' history?

I have neglected this blog for a shamefully long time - a result quite simply of teaching and family commitments.  Research has been squeezed in, but 'extras' have been squeezed out.  Anyway - thanks to the incredibly generous Leverhulme foundation, I  am now entering a period of two-years' research leave.  Leaving teaching behind temporarily is a bit bitter-sweet, as I find our students truly inspiring. But this is an incredibly liberating opportunity, and I'm very exciting about having the time to follow all kinds of threads and traces through the library and archives.

Glimpses of the past at Winchester Cathedral
I'll be doing my best to write the blog regularly again - and now seems a good moment to remind myself of why we do history.   I think that, in all honesty, my sense of what history is, and why I do it, is an ever-changing thing.  At the moment, I'm particularly struck by histories of concepts - nostalgia, enough-ness, ownership, balance (on which there's an extremely sophisticated new book by Joel Kaye).  Concepts like these, which aren't necessarily rooted in particular terms, can all too easily seem trans-historical and self-evident.  This is one reason why we need historians - to think through the implications, resonances and boundaries of such concepts over time - to acknowledge that 'enough-ness' for example is contingent on economic and social contexts. Exploring change over time in this way isn't necessarily to say that these concepts are entirely relative, but it is to challenge our own often very complacent assumptions.  

In 1979 (in the American Historical Review), William Bouwsma, described 'an anthropological vision ... that culture is a product of the creative adjustment of the human race to its varying historical circumstances rather than a function of universal and changeless nature, and the perception that culture accordingly differs from time to time and group to group'.  So here's something for me to aim for!

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