Historians are, by profession, the experts on historical change. Through our research, we seek to shed light on the transformations that have altered how societies have functioned and interacted. Yet, there exists a wide range of views on the nature of historical change and how best to apprehend it.
This set of workshops will explore this issue by raising a wide range of questions:
- Should historians limit themselves to describing change or should they identify the causal factors that bring it about?
- Alternatively, should historians abandon the search for causes and seek ‘conditions of possibility’ instead, thereby opening up space for contingency and the ‘accidental’?
- What balance should be struck between structural forces and individual agency?
- What models of change work best and in what circumstances? What is the relative importance of social, political, religious, moral, economic, cultural, technological, medical, ecological and legal pressures; how short or long-term need these be; and how have historians changed the way they have thought about them?
- What might historians learn from cognate disciplines, such as sociology, anthropology and political science, about the causes, concept and experience of change?
Such questions are important not just because they help us think more clearly about one of the key objects of historical inquiry but also because understanding historical change has implications for some of the most urgent issues of our times, from the climate, ecology and political culture to multiple kinds of social and technological upheaval. How might past change inform change today, and how might those seeking change today influence how historians think about change in the past?
Often in historical writing, questions about the nature of change are either unaddressed or pushed into the background. Answers tend to be implicit, the result of ‘group think’ within various subfields of the profession, where methods of analysis become routinised without a great deal of scrutiny. Historians generally prefer to leave these ‘meta’ questions to historiographers and philosophers of history.
But it is worth engaging with the conceptual literature on historical change in order to think about the underlying assumptions and limitations of how we write history. What kind of theory of historical change do we ascribe to, consciously or unconsciously? What are the strengths and limitations of the ways we think about historical change? And what is the value of interpreting historical change in the ways we do?
We will begin exploring these questions with a reading group in Term 1 (Part I), during which participants will provide short summaries of key writings on historical change. In Term 2, participants will be invited to reflect on how historical change is treated today, either within certain subfields or by the profession more generally.
If you have a text in mind that deals with the problem of historical change and would like to summarise it in five minutes or so, please send your suggestion to Charles dot walton at warwick dot ac dot uk AND G dot van-Meersbergen at warwick dot ac dot uk. Staff, postdocs and postgraduates are all invited to participate.