Thursday, 25 October 2012

Tina Loo on Unfinished History

Tina Loo has a thoughtful post over on Active History, thinking through some of the ways history teaching has changed over the last few decades. It is the death of Eric Hobsbawm that gets her thinking about how his once fresh and exciting ideas (as well as those of E P Thompson and Natalie Davis) have become a little bit 'humdrum'.

She's saying (but for different reasons) the same kind of thing that I wrote in an article called 'After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History.' There I was reflecting on how the once radical calls for change in the profession had, in Canadian history, now become mainstream common sense.

Loo worries that the danger with 'this manifestation of boredom [with once exciting radical approaches/subjects] is that it threatens to foreclose the analysis of power that social historians started.'

I partly share her concern. But I'm not entirely in agreement with the prescription. It seems to me that part of the problem of the 'history from the bottom up' paradigm was that it was all about agency and power, struggle and resistance. In practice it was used by those who too readily assumed that there is/was a simple version of what good historical changes were, about what kinds of power ought to operate, etc. It assumes (though this is only a purposeful, useful generalization) that there is someone in the past with whom we should now identify.

Thinking through my own research from the past summer, I just can't agree. I spent a lot of time reading Conservatives from the late 1940s and 1950s lamenting the changing world in which they were living. To them, Canada was radically changing: we were losing the British tradition, popular forms of culture like the TV were taking people away from reading, the state was increasingly taking on more and more power and was being corrupted in the process. Now, personally, I don't identify with much of this. But I could understand that what their letters were telling me (though not really me, of course, they were writing to others!): for them, the world as they understood it was changing radically.

Arthur Meighen, still alive in the 1950s but how
much at home in this 'conservative' decade?
Yet if we look to the history from the bottom up historians version of the 1950s this is nowhere. We might get some of this from the British World historians - the switch away from Britishness in Canadian identity. But historians who write about this period talk of it as conservative and regressive. Others disagree and find some currents for change bubbling away under the surface (feminists, labour organizers, human rights advocates, etc). Yet none of this really relates to what many Conservative Canadians were thinking in the period. It's the interests of later historians reinterpreting the period for themselves.

In other words, if we are moving on from bottom up social history, and if some of this has lost its lustre, it is not only a question of something being lost. There is also the chance for gain as well, to see what this approach didn't get. And the concerns of Conservative Canadians in the early 1950s are never going to be the stuff of exciting bottom up history. But to think of them as 'the powerful' is equally untrue. Their world really was changing, under conditions not of their choosing. It's what Marx said (men making history but not under conditions of their own choosing) but not what his later historian friends care too much about.


  1. Chris:

    This is a really good response. I'm fascinated by this picture of Meighen and the research you're doing. I think it speaks directly to something Tina mentioned in her Active History article. Building upon Viv Nelles's remarks at the recent Directions West Conference, she noted that "[i]f we still think it’s important to understand how power is exercised, then we need to be attentive to how the dynamics of structure and agency constrained and enabled social workers and Indian Agents as well as their “clients.”" It sounds like your work is addressing this concern, to some extent.

    On a similar point, I can think of a couple of books in Canadian social history that examined the dynamics and structures of power among middle and upper class Canadians. These include:

    McDonald, Robert A.J. Making Vancouver: Class, Status, and Social Boundaries, 1863-1913

    Holman, Andrew, A Sense of Their Duty: Middle-Class Formation in Victorian Ontario Towns

    Finally, I think the anxieties of Conservatives in Canada in the early 1950s as a research topic is very interesting stuff, but perhaps I'm just easily excited.

  2. Thanks for the comment Sean. I suppose what bothers me is more the idea that the structure/agency paradigm as you put it is the main thing we ought to be doing. Personally, I'm bored stiff with learning, yet again, that someone exercised agency (or didn't) and in what exact combination. I could write the argument for so many articles/books before I ever see them.

    And I'm not sure that just opening this up to more people is really the solution. Imagine a scenario where a Conservative party approach to economic history was all we had. We always talked about wealth creators and the great job they did, occasionally mentioning these hangers-on (folks like academics, welfare bums, all public servants and the like) and the way they constrained the economy. Then someone suggests that occasionally the hangers-on do in fact create wealth, that they too can play the role we want them to play. Well, jolly good, you might say. Now we really have an inclusive history.


    But maybe the paradigm itself is a teensy bit limited. Now personally I've more invested in the first paradigm. But all paradigms/theories/'ways of seeing' are essentially metaphors. The first time you hear them, if they are really good, they take your breath away. But after a while, dissertation after book after article, even the best metaphor becomes a cliche.

    But I'm glad you'd be interested in Conservatives in the 50s. I was going through the letters of Arthur Meighen and Eugene Forsey (and other letters to Meighen). Fun stuff. It wasn't really about Conservatives (I wanted to know what they were saying about Mackenzie King) but we do learn a lot in our research that isn't related to what we think we should be studying. In fact, as you likely find yourself, that's often where we get the best stuff.