Historiography from Below July 18, 2008Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.
Tags: 20th-century, David Edgerton, historiography from below
One of the ways this blog really is propaganda is in my ongoing advocacy for the historiographical views of David Edgerton. There are a lot of historians whose work I admire, but it is shocking how few scholars are really interested in researching how our views of the past have been built through past historiography. It is a constant temptation to make our work look better by caricaturing how “we” have thought in the past, and then proceeding to knock down straw men, all the while rehearsing iconic individuals, works, and controversies that keep us tied to the same narrow track of thinking. I know I continue to struggle to eliminate this tactic in my own work, and to construct genuinely new views of the past. Edgerton has helped me tremendously in this struggle.
With the recent publication of Shock of the Old, Edgerton’s view has gained ground that the most historically important topics, the ones that make a difference to the most people, are too-often ignored because they are seen as mundane and old. Although the real test is to see if new histories of the mundane and old begin to appear and be noticed. However, his big historiographical statement is, in my view, Warfare State, which fewer people will likely read because the topic is a bit more niche. This would be a shame, because the book is notable for the way it assembles a new view of science and technology in Britain by counting people, events, and trends as significant that other histories pass over too quickly, if they take notice of them at all. The effect is jarring and the book can be difficult to read. I know I tend to page back and forth through it rather than read it straight through.
Getting to today’s topic, pop history has been an issue both here and at AHP (see my exchange with Matt Stanley on whether it is worthwhile to criticize popularly-oriented histories in professional journals, Parts one and two), but in Warfare State Edgerton discusses the value of what he calls “historiography from below”. Pop histories and, more importantly, enthusiast histories are rarely satisfying in terms of methodology, but, he points out, provide a valuable alternative perspective to the concerns of academic historians. Contrary to the narratives of Britain as a non-technological welfare state, Edgerton shows how Britain’s socialist projects were dwarfed by its investment in military-oriented R&D. Where is this history? Edgerton asks. If you look to the enthusiast literature, you’ll find generations of aircraft and other military equipment well-chronicled, if not well-analyzed.
Surely, we can argue, other histories are more interesting or have a stronger “symbolic register”. Certainly, Edgerton argues, but it is no excuse for systematically ignoring what is largely constitutive of science and technology in a time and place. He writes, “If the warfare state, and military technology, is written out of academic histories it is everywhere in ephemera, obituaries, TV documentaries, children’s books, encyclopaedias, museums and the lovingly detailed works of amateur historians.” (One should also add the internet). I’d be remiss if I didn’t include the next sentence: “While operational research [OR] was written about by academic participants, and then by academic historians, writings on guns, ships, aeroplanes and explosives are the work of non-academics.” Obviously, this has forced me to evaluate how I think about OR (there is actually a historiography from below here, as well; the link is just one example).
Even if we avoid Whiggish pitfalls, we are still not very good historians if we ignore for too long what is all around us. We will do better if we direct our criticism at the historiography rather than a “generic first-person plural” view as somehow representing “society’s” view. This will help prevent us from seeing popular accounts as a motivation to rehearse, once again, our most basic insights.