Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Thinking "Political History"

By Dustin McNichol

The standard narrative of political history's "decline" in the western world and Canada reads something like this: in the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of scholars, buoyed by major intellectual trends such in annales history, poststructural relativism, postcolonialism, and relativism, built the New Social History. Social historians explored new topics and used new methods to unearth histories across a dizzying array of topics, but especially around traditionally neglected themes of race, class, and gender. New Social History's explicit attempt to undermine the meta-narratives and macro-political answers to complex historical questions was, we are to believe, the beginning of the end of political history.

Even political historians lamented a decline of their discipline, and by the 1990s they launched a spirited attack on social history in Canada. Probably the most famous example of the "history wars" of the 1990s is J.L. Granatstein's Who Killed Canadian History? (which reads today as little more than an angry rant), or Michael Bliss's "Privatizing the Mind: The Sundering of Canadian History, the Sundering of Canada".[1] Political historians singled out social history as the prime culprit in the decline in public history and the appalling lack of historical of knowledge shown by many Canadians. Political history, traditionalists held, is critical in understanding the fundamental trajectory of Canadian history, or, more importantly, the character and values of the Canadian nation. Social historians, on the other hand, defended their approach as holding far more potential and promise for a truer, inclusive, and accurate history which spoke not only of politics, but of the everyday lives of people.[2]    

There is little question that Canadian historians were divided with regards to political and social history during the 1990s. However, the more general narrative of decline (and even disappearance) of political history, and the political vs. social history dichotomy, need to be revised. A closer look at the political historiography today, in Canada and elsewhere, shows that it has not disappeared. On the contrary, political history has seen a major resurgence since the late 1990s. Moreover, contemporary political history, in Canada and elsewhere, is seeing a major resurgence, albeit in a form that would be almost completely unrecognizable to earlier, traditional historians of politics. 

The narrative of political history's decline presupposes that political historians were unaware of the changes occurring around them, and that they stubbornly refused to accept them or adapt their methods. The claim does not stand up to scrutiny. By the 1970s, political historians knew they had a choice: defend their craft, or reform it. Most of them chose the latter. For example, with political history supposedly in free fall, British historian G.R. Elton argued that political historians should be more open to the multi-faceted manifestations of power. Power, Elton explained, is at the very foundation of political history.[3] Taking stock of power means understanding social history and how differing elements of society move, interact, and come into conflict with one another. Political historians, Elton believed, were well placed to do so since they already had knowledge of the administrative and constitutional mechanisms in societies; what they needed to do now was pay attention to changes happening on the social level as well.

The first major attempt to revive and reform political history came in the form of the "New Political History" in the United States during the 1970s. These historians borrowed heavily from new methods of behaviouralism and quantitative analysis prominent in political science, focusing specifically on electoral behaviour and cliometrics.[4] But the New Political History was mainly an abortive attempt, and did not stand up to criticisms that its models were overly theoretical, relied too heavily on quantitative analysis, and misrepresented history.

Yet this move towards interdisciplinary study, and the borrowing of methods from political science, anthropology, and sociology, is telling, and it is here that we may find the answer to where political history may have "disappeared" to. Despite the initial failure of New Political History, by the 1980s political historians were again trying new approaches and methods such as the New Institutionalism, pioneered by public policy analysts and sociologists.[5] New institutionalism rejected grand narratives centred on presidential mandates and favoured long-term analyses of state-building and institution-building processes, in addition to long-term economic/social structures which shaped the conditions of political action.[6]

In the same decade, political historians also began to take up ideas advanced by Eric Hobsbawm and Benedict Anderson, namely, that tradition is invented and nations are imagined.[7] Nations were no longer seen as immutable entities with stable, definable characteristics. Rather, the nation, in addition to its politics and identity, were constructed and continually reconstructed. Most important, however, was Anderson's assertion that nationalism is "...capable of being transplanted, with varying degrees of self-consciousness, to a great variety of social terrains, to merge and be merged with a correspondingly wide variety of political and ideological constellations".[8]

The ideas expounded upon by Hobsbawm and Anderson made major inroads in the American academy by the 1990s and would continue on through the early twenty-first century. American historians of Latin America, for example, borrowed widely from these two authors, in addition to Gramscian and Foucauldian theory, in order to explain the formation of Latin American states during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Greg Grandin's The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation[9] and Brooke Larsen's The Trials of Nation Making[10] are excellent examples of this trend. Both works offered wide-ranging analyses of political, economic, cultural, and social factors which explain the emergence and troubles of a number of Latin American states. Struggles over land, community, identity, and economic well-being were inherently political, and they informed and were informed by the political trajectories of their respective countries.

Canadian political histories in the 1990s also took up new subjects which were informed by advances in theory. For example, F. Murray Greenwood's Legacies of Fear[11] analysed the effects that the French Revolution and revolutionary thought had on the political actions of English elites in Lower Canada, but also on social relations between English and French Canadians throughout most of the nineteen century. Donald Avery's Reluctant Host[12] analysed the way in which a wide array of actors -- business, organized labour, politicians, and social groups -- influenced immigration and immigration policy in Canada. Cecilia Morgan's Public Men and Virtuous Women[13] showed how political insults and discourse created clear distinctions for the gendered public sphere. Morgan's study especially is an excellent example of how gender history can be informed by politics and vice versa.

The implications of the shift away from positivistic and purely institutional analyses towards cultural, ideological, and social factors is of major importance for two reasons. First, it means that political history did not disappear, but rather has been increasingly content to appropriate various tools and methods from a  number of disciplines, including social history. In my opinion, we can no longer really talk about exclusive or separate spheres of "political history" and "social history"; both borrow from one another, and both recognize, at least implicitly, the need and value of understanding the interrelation between politics (defined broadly) and society. Secondly, and in the same vein, this shift means that political history's narrow focus has moved from politics as an activity performed within the nation-state by a small minority of individuals ("high politics", as traditional political historians called it) towards the political[14]; namely, the complex interrelation between states, institutions, individuals and social groups.[15] Tony Judt's incredibly wide-ranging and in-depth history of Europe after 1945 is an excellent example of such a work.[16]

A quick look at the Canadian Historical Association's 2013 Clio Prizes also illustrates the point. The 2013 award winners are accounts of: the "politics of memory", the "regulation of drinking", criminal law and Aboriginal peoples, and the politics of schools in Quebec. Dan Malleck's Try to Control Yourself: The Regulation of Public Drinking in Post-Prohibition Ontario, 1927-44, for example, uses legislation, administrative documents, and social theory in order to approach its topic.

While one may object that none of these works falls under the strict definition of "political history", there is little doubt that all of them, in one way or another, draw extensively from "the political" in order to understand social questions. We should, therefore, start to define political history more broadly. It is no longer a narrow, parochial, and dated branch of history. Rather, it has taken major advances in social history and theory, showing how the political may be observed in the social, and vice-versa.    

In the same vein, it should be kept in mind that the political today is defined rather broadly, with the resulting methodological challenge of showing how it is separate from or connected to the social sphere. What makes something, or someone, political? Communication and action become political when they imply an impact on all or some parts of a given community, or when they refer to the obligatory rules of social life, power, and limits on action, or when they reference imagined or collective identities.[17] This is not to say that all that is social is political; there are cases where the two spheres may be relatively separate. Yet they also inform and influence each other in important ways.   

Understandings of the political can, and must, go beyond high politics and government (re)actions to social questions. The political is precisely where political historians now focus their work. When does something in government or society which was previously not a political question, become politicised, and why? How can we show change over time from a political point of view? Asking these questions should allow political historians to provide rich answers to more classic topics of political history. We still do not agree on, for example, what really caused the Manitoba Schools Question in 1890. Was it D'Alton McCarthy's speech at Portage La Prairie? Was the social context ripe for a wholesale overhauling of Catholic education rights in Manitoba? Or were Greenway's Liberals looking for a political distraction to their railway policy woes?   

Today, political history shares little with its traditional predecessor aside from the fact that both view power and politics as critical driving forces in societies. Now, political historians should continue to use new methods and perspectives forwarded by social history in order to inform their own topics. By taking stock of the political, we may also achieve a greater understanding of the social. Simply put, one cannot be understood without the other. 

[1] Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto, HarperCollins, 1998); the book was reprinted in 2007. For the Bliss article, see Journal of Canadian Studies 26, no. 4 (1991).
[2] See for example Joy Parr, "Gender History and Historical Practice", Canadian Historical Review (September 1995), 354-376. Parr argued that social history is not overly particularistic or solipsistic, but rather an inductive historical method which allows historians to extrapolate onto broader topics of historical, or even political, concern.
[3] G.R. Elton, Political History: Principles and Practice (London, Basic Books, 1970).
[4] See for example the collection of articles published in the Journal of Interdisciplinary History during the 1970s edited by Robert I. Rotberg, Politics and Political Change: A Journal of Interdisciplinary History Reader (Cambridge, Mass.,  MIT Press, 2001).
[5] Willibald Steinmetz, Ingrid Gilcher-Holtey, and Heinz-Gerhard Haupt (eds.), Writing Political History Today (Frankfurt/New York, Campus Verlag, 2013).
[6] Meg Jacobs, William J. Novak, and Julian E. Zelizer (eds.), The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History (Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2003).
[7] Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition; see also Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London, Verso, 1983).
[8] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 48.
[9] Durham, Duke University Press, 2000.
[10] Liberalism, Race, and Ethnicity in the Andes, 1810-1910 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004).
[11] Law and Politics in Quebec in the Era of the French Revolution (Toronto, University of Toronto Press and the Osgoode Society, 1993).
[12] Canada's Response to Immigrant Workers, 1896-1994 (Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, 1995).
[13] The Gendered Languages of Religion and Politics in Upper Canada, 1791-1850 (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1996).
[14] Steinmetz, Gilcher-Holtey, and Haupt, Writing Political History Today,
[15] Charles Maier's edited collection of essays on "the political" was one of the first works that pursued this avenue of research. See Changing Boundaries of the Political: Essays on the Evolving Balance Between State and Society, Public and Private in Europe (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1987).  
[16] Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (New York, Penguin, 2006).
[17] Writing Political History Today, 28.

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