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Week 2 (Charles Walton)

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? Does history writing contributes to our identity as individuals and citizens? How does theory relate to our 'lived experience' and political and social practice? How can theory help us to better understand the world we live right now? Is history writing simply about 'the past? Do we have an identity without refering to 'a past'?

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 and used. Considering the readings, do you think history has also to do with one's 'lived experiences' in the present? How is theory (produced by historians such as Hooks and Elay) shaped by their 'lived experience? If history writing is also about the 'lived experience of the historian, can it ever be objective? What do you think are the themes that history writing today is embracing and needs to embrace in the future?

Lecture PowerpointLink opens in a new window.
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 to explain the past?
  • What does bell hooks mean when she argues that theory should be seen as a form of 'liberatory practice'?
  • '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"' (Geoff Elay, A Crooked Line: From Cultural History to the History of Society, 2005). Discuss.
  • I certainly believed strongly that history needed to meet the highest standards possible in conventional scholary terms, based on the most creative and reliable empirical scholary terms, based on the most creative and reliable empirical investigations and the most exhaustive archival research. But history also had to be relevant'. Geoff Elay, A Crooked Line, 2005). Discuss.
  • 'Theory helps to see things differently, to look at the world differently. It is a way to intervene and challenge the status quo.' (bell hooks, Theory as liberatory Practice', 1994). Discuss.
  • 'History is about the understanding of the present -- not the past'. Discuss.
  • Is it possible to write history without a theoretical angle?
  • 'History writing is fiction'. Discuss.
  • Does all history writing need to be 'liberatory' as hooks suggests?
  • 'History writing is fundamental to the making of of individual and collective identity'. (Stefan Berger, History and Identity, 2022) Discuss.
Core Reading

Stefan Berger, History and Identity (2022): Introduction: History and Identity: Read Introduction (e-book library)

bell hooks, 'Theory as Liberatory Practice', in Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (Routledge, 1994) (e-book library)

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]. (e-book library)

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)