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Concepts and Methods
Cross-disciplinary (or
interdisciplinary) approaches
• A branch of learning, or scholarly instruction.
• Involves various skills and practices
appropriate to the field of study, and training
in those skills.
• A discipline is supported by, e.g., organizations
and associations, standards, journals.
historians have conventionally maintained that neither a specific
methodology nor a special intellectual equipment is required for the
study of history. What is usually called the “training” of the historian
consists for the most part of study in a few languages, journeyman
work in the archives, and the performance of a few set exercises to
acquaint him with standard reference works and journals in his field.
For the rest, a general experience of human affairs, reading in
peripheral fields, self-discipline, and Sitzfleisch [staying power] are all
that are necessary. Anyone can master the requirements fairly easily.
How can it be said then that the professional historian is peculiarly
qualified to define the questions which one may ask of the historical
record and is alone able to determine when adequate answers to the
questions thus posed have been given? It is no longer self-evidently
true for the intellectual community at large that the disinterested
study of the past—“for its own sake”, as the cliché has it—is either
ennobling or even illuminative of our humanity.
(Hayden White, ‘The Burden of History’, in White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in
Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 40.)
The crossing of traditional boundaries between
different academic disciplines; the use of
methods and concepts from two or more
Interdisciplinary reshaping of history
Some reasons why history increasingly adopted an
interdisciplinary approach:
• Enlargement of subject matter of history into areas
already covered by other disciplines (e.g. sociology).
• Requirement for new conceptual tools to study
enlarged subject matter.
• A holistic (cf. total history) understanding of the past.
The Warburg Institute, University of London
Aby Warburg (1866-1929)—art
historian who criticized the ‘frontier
police’ between scholarly disciplines
[history] must be wide open to the findings and
methods of other disciplines—geography,
economics, sociology, psychology—and at the
same time must resist the temptation... to
divide itself into a number of “specialisms”
(economic history, the history of ideas, etc.)
each going its own independent way.
(Geoffrey Barraclough, ‘History’, in Jacques Havet (ed.), Main
Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences, Pt 2:
Anthropological and Historical Sciences, Aesthetics and the
Sciences of Art (Paris, 1978), p. 264.)
• What we need are alert, inventive and ingenious brains
looking for alliances; men who, when they come across any
intellectual work, ask themselves... ‘What use can be made of
this though it was not made for me?’
(Lucien Febvre, ‘History and Psychology’ [1938], in Peter Burke (ed.), A New Kind
of History: From the Writings of Lucien Febvre (New York, 1973), pp. 10-11.)
• history [rests] on the close collaboration of all the human and
social sciences, to which the special contribution of the
historian is le sens du temps.
(David Thomson, ‘The writing of contemporary history’, The Journal of
Contemporary History, 2 (1967), p. 33.)
Key areas of interdisciplinary approaches in
• History and social theory (the social sciences;
• History and cultural theory (cultural
anthropology; literary studies)—the ‘cultural
Theory—dictionary definitions
• A system of ideas or statements explaining
something, esp. one based on general principles
independent of the things to be explained; a
hypothesis that has been confirmed or established
by observation or experiment and is accepted as
accounting for known facts. (Shorter OED, 3b)
• An unsubstantiated hypothesis; a speculative (esp.
fanciful) view. (Shorter OED, 5)
First, ‘theory’ implies a general account of something, which explains
more than one instance of it—case studies bear on theories, but the
latter are more general and abstract than the former.
Second, it implies that phenomena can be explained by reference to
it, with the result that these phenomena are better understood at
the end than at the beginning of any enquiry.
Third, it implies that new cases will be illuminated by it—in history
this is not the same as prediction, since history cannot be said to
predict the future. But a theory of revolution might be developed,
for example, in relation to the French and Russian revolutions, and
then be found to be extremely useful in relation to, say, the Mexican
Fourth, it implies the existence of a coherent perspective, embodied
in the theory, which is able to bring together and render meaningful
diverse phenomena. This is a corollary of its status as an abstract,
general framework.
(Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice, (London, 2000), p. 62)
Sociology and history
• Sociology—the study of human society,
involving generalizations about its structure
and development
• Social history—the study of past societies,
with an emphasis on the differences between
them and their changes over time
The general and the abstract vs. the individual
and the temporal
Problems with theory
and historical evidence
If one historian asks, ‘Do the sources provide evidence
of militant struggles among workers and slaves?’ the
sources will reply, ‘Certainly.’ And if another asks, ‘Do
the sources provide evidence of widespread
acquiescence in the established order among the
American population throughout the past two
centuries?’ the sources will reply, ‘Of course.’
(Aileen Kraditor, quoted in John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 5th
edition, p. 218)
Cultural anthropology
• The study of human culture, usually through ethnography
• ‘[Culture] denotes an historically transmitted pattern of
meanings embodied in symbolic forms by means of which men
communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about
and attitudes to life’—Clifford Geertz, ‘Religion as a cultural
system’ in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), p. 89
• ‘[Culture is] a system of shared meanings, attitudes and values,
and the symbolic forms (performances, artefacts) in which they
are expressed or embodied’—Peter Burke, Popular Culture in
Early Modern Europe (1987), p. 270
• Fields of inquiry include kinship relations, social organization,
ritual, material culture, systems of money or exchange, leisure,
beliefs (such as religion and magic)…
• Prominent cultural anthropologists include: J.G. Frazer, Alfred
Radcliffe Browne, Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz
Boas, Clifford Geertz
Clifford Geertz (1926-2006)
• Described his cultural anthropological work as
‘thick description’; see ‘Thick description:
towards an interpretative theory of culture’ in
his Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 3-30
• A famous example of his approach is ‘Deep
play: notes on the Balinese cockfight’ in
Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 412-53
Parliamentary debate in the House of Commons
State opening of Parliament
Three witches, by Hans Baldung, 1514
Some sceptical notes
Is interdisciplinary history really feasible?
Is it always desirable?
Do we lose something by such an approach?
Do we lose the sense of history being a coherent subject?
Does it instead become some sort of scholarly ‘pick and mix’, with the
result that historians will increasingly find themselves speaking different
languages from one another?
• In gaining greater breadth in our understanding of the past, do we lose the
sort of depth that traditional historians would claim for their more focused
training and approach?
• Do we risk getting caught up in endless, often convoluted theory, that may
be of little relevance to a past about which we often have only scanty
• We might think theoretical models, and such things as anthropological and
sociological approaches, are fine when applied to the contemporary world
where we have a fairly full access to information—but are they
appropriate when applied to, say, the 12th century?
Disciplinary boundaries
I have little concern with history. It is a platitude that a thinker
can be understood only against his historical background; but
that, like all platitudes, is at best a half-truth, and I do not
believe that a detailed knowledge of Greek history greatly
enhances our comprehension of Greek philosophy. Philosophy
lives a supracelestial life, beyond the confines of space and time;
and if philosophers are, perforce, small spatio-temporal
creatures, a minute attention to their small spatio-temporal
concerns will more often obfuscate than illumine their
philosophies. History, however, is intrinsically entertaining. A few
external facts and figures may serve to relieve the reader from a
purely abstract narrative: I hope that my occasional historical
paragraphs may be of use to that end, and may do something to
placate the historically minded reader.
Jonathan Barnes, preface to the first edition of The Presocratic Philosophers
(London, 1979)
Other cross-disciplinary areas, 1:
• Psychohistory—the use of psychoanalytic theories by historians (e.g.
Freudian, Lacanian)
• Typically based on Freudian notions of the importance of the unconscious
in understanding human behaviour and motivations; and the role of
experience, particularly early childhood experience, in understanding the
development of the adult
• See Freud’s studies of historical individuals, such as Leonardo, and his
influential work Civilization and Its Discontents
• A notable early work in the field of psychohistory was Erik Erikson’s Young
Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958)
• A good introduction is Peter Gay, Freud for Historians (1985)
• Scholarly journals: Journal of Psychohistory; Psychohistory Review
• Criticisms: reductionist; applies particularly modern concepts to an
understanding of the past; can the dead be psychoanalyzed?
Other cross-disciplinary areas, 2:
Environmental history
• The study of human interaction with the natural environment—the way
the environment shapes humans and humans shape the environment
• Combines history with the natural sciences, and includes consideration of
the ecosystem, climate, atmosphere, as well as natural events (e.g.
earthquakes); how we impact on the environment; and how we think
about the environment
• Influenced by the approach of the Annales historians, particularly Fernand
• See the article on ‘Environmental History’ by Richard H. Grove in Peter
Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (2001), pp. 261-82
• An example of an interdisciplinary approach which has not yet become
part of the mainstream of historical studies; you might consider why this is
the case—are there crucial differences between the humanities and the
natural sciences that make interdisciplinarity difficult in an area such as