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Theory

Week 2 (Dr Laura Schwartz)

This lecture and seminar is designed to introduce students to a module that is heavily theory focused and (to put it bluntly) involves reading a lot of very challenging historiographical and theoretical works. It asks the question what is theory and why should historians care about it? How does theory relate to lived experience and political practice? How can theory help us to better understand the world we live in both as history's writers and subjects?
Students are asked to think about the classroom, the University and academia in general as spaces in which theory and (in our case) historical knowledge are produced. How are these spaces, their practices and their values shaped by the political, social and economic structures that shape the wider world? How is this reflected in the knowledge that we produce and the history that we write?

Lecture PowerPoint

Seminar Questions
  • Have you encountered or used theory in your history writing or studies in the past? If so which theoretical approaches have you found most useful?
  • What does bell hooks mean when she argues that theory should be seen as a form of 'liberatory practice'?
  • What does Geoff Eley mean when he writes that 'History is nothing if not sutured to pedagogy, to a political ethics into a belief in the future. Otherwise… to be perfectly honest, "I don't give a damn"'?
  • Is it possible to write history without theory?
Core Reading

bell hooks, 'Theory as Liberatory Practice', in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994)
Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society (University of Michigan Press, 2005). [Read the Preface, Chapter 1 and Chapter 5].

Further Reading

Sue Morgan, 'Writing Feminist History: Theoretical Debates and Critical Practices', in Sue Morgan (ed.), The Feminist History Reader (Routledge, 2006), 1-48.

William Sewell, Logics of History: Social Theory and Social Transformation (University of Chicago Press, 2005)

EP Thompson, The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays (Merlin Press, 1978)

Raphael Samuel, 'History and Theory', in Raphael Samuel (ed.), People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), xl-lvi

Stuart Hall, 'In Defence of Theory', in Raphael Samuel (ed.), People's History and Socialist Theory (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981), 378-385 [n.b. it is worth reading the whole section on debates around The Poverty of Theory of which this is part].

Terry Eagleton, The Significance of Theory (Basil Blackwell, 1994)

Terry Eagleton, After Theory (Alan Lane, 2003)

Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, 2000)

Arjun Appadurai, The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective (Cambridge, 1988)

David Bloor, Knowledge and Social Imagery (Chicago, 1976)

Geoff Eley, "Historicizing the Global, Politicizing Capital: Giving the Present a Name," History Workshop Journal 63 (2007)

and '(En)Gendering Checkpoints: Checkpoint Watch and the Repercussions of Intervention', Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 32:4 (2007)

For some examples of writers interweaving theory into life writing (good comparisons with bell hooks' above text):

Carolyn Steedman, Landscape for a Good Woman (Virago, 1986)

Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts (various publishers, 2015)

For recent reflections on the discipline of History in the UK:
Hannah Atkinson, Suzanne Bardgett, Adam Budd, Margot Finn, Christopher Kissane, Sadiah Qureshi, Jonathan Saha, John Siblon and Sujit Sivasundaram, 'Race, Ethnicity and Equality in UK History' (Royal Historical Society, 2018)

Nicola Miller, Kenneth Fincham, Margot Finn, Sarah Holland,, Christopher Kissane, Mary Vincent, 'Promoting Gender Equality in UK History' (Royal Historical Society, 2018)