The Challenges Of History From Below

As a student of history, as well as data and statistics, I find that the so-called “new” history is both fascinating on some levels and also rather disappointing on other levels. As I have commented earlier, history as a field (along with every other field) seeks to gain legitimacy as a science (rather than an art) by eschewing narrative and biography and other aspects which focus on people (which most people are far more interested in reading, as they are generally more interesting and relatable) in exchange for rigorous data analysis as a way of seeking to discern historical conclusions from data itself. As it would happen, one of the online courses I am taking for my own personal amusement (for free as well) is a class on Chinese Social History, and this class itself shows both the promise as well as the pitfalls of relying on data in exchange of biography for history.

We ought to know that most of history is considered, whether fairly or not, to be history from above. On the positive side, the history of “elite” figures can serve as a model for people given those who have done the most exemplary deeds and therefore are exemplars for those who are less well-known or less public. By looking at the lives of elites, we can see people behave well and also (far more often, it would seem) very badly. On the negative side, the lives of elites does not often reflect the “cake unturned” of the commoners whose life is far more harsh even when things may be going well for the elites (the minor prophets themselves, some of whom came from modest backgrounds, like Amos, is a testament to this phenomenon in biblical history). Likewise, it is much easier to write narrative history of those who participate in narratives, who write their own story or who appear often enough in the writings of other people to draw attention. Even if someone like myself may not feel like an elite, when it comes to expressiveness and education level, I have to admit that I am fairly elite and as a result my opinion and story are far more easy to know than that of most others who are more private or who are less inclined or able to speak out about their concerns and experiences.

As a practical matter, history from below depends on data. In order to gain an understanding of the lives of a large body of commonfolk in something more than broad brushstrokes and suppositions, there needs to be a fair amount of data. This data tends to come from bureaucratic affairs, which means that we can only write history from below with a modern state of a fairly large size, unless we have an extremely egalitarian state with a large amount of self-expression from those of modest economic status and minimal political or economic wealth. The first sort of society will get us a lot of data for which to make a “new history” and the second type of society will allow us a rich variety of biographies without providing the sort of data that is necessary in order to create a “new history.” We thus ought to recognize and admit at the outset that “history from below” or “new history” by definition presupposes a sort of socialist or statist society. Those who strongly oppose such a society based on their political worldviews will generally also disparage the sort of history that depends on that society being in existence in the first place.

It should also be noted, and admitted, that history from below, or “new history” has many of the same problems as the “old” history or “history from above,” but on a different scale. Biographical history depends on having a lot of information about the narrative and story of the life of someone, and it should be expected that in most societies there are fewer people about whom we have that level of information, especially after centuries. Few common people, after all, are prolific enough writers about their own lives as to leave the sort of rich information that is necessary in order to write a narrative story of a life, or even a part of a life. Even the lives of some famous people, like William Shakespeare or Jane Austen, depends largely on the works that they created along with shadows and fragments of letters that have survived the years and were not purged by close relatives. When it comes to data for “new history,” this data still needs to have survived. Times of great social turmoil, where we would have the greatest interest in having data to make conclusions about the state of a given society, are precisely those areas where that data is least likely to survive or least likely to be accurate given the fragility of a regime or the dishonesty or lack of ability to cope of its bureaucracy. This means, of course, that the data of new history must be used with some caution, and with an awareness that it is not going to be complete or entirely accurate.

For that reason, we should take full advantage of such historical information as we have. If we have a lot of data, we can use it, as long as we recognize that our analysis is only as good as our data. To have blind faith in data as a be-all and end-all, as infallible and entirely accurate, is no better than to have a blind faith in texts, which is something that “new historians” tend to scoff at as being entirely quaint and irrational. We need to be aware of the solidity or lack thereof of the foundation of our conclusions, and data is no more infallible than text, and no more robust, and gains in breath often what it sacrifices in depth, unless it becomes so unmanageable that it becomes entirely unwieldy apart from massive computational power. If we have textual data, we should also use it to the greatest extent possible if our interests are narrative rather than statistical (and if they are, there is no harm in that), being aware of course that texts (like data) are compiled by people, and that people can err either by incompetence or by actual deception. With that proviso, then, we can conduct whatever sort of historical examination as we wish, so long as we are aware of the limitations of any inquiry into the past as depending on that information which has survived, which may not be representative or complete.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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8 Responses to The Challenges Of History From Below

  1. tyler says:

    It sounds like history is bound by a Heizenberg uncertainty analogue.

    • Yes, I would agree with that :). That might make history “more scientific” but not more satisfying to those who want to find certainty there. I suppose, if one looked carefully enough, one would find similar analogues in any aspect of human investigation, a reminder of the limits of our capacities to understand the world around us.

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