History from Below Rises Again

Some fifty years ago, EP Thompson published ‘The Making of the English Working Class’, which is regarded as the foundation document of the concept of ‘history from below’, though there were other historians ploughing similar fields of research at the time. In the wake of the many post-modernist ‘turns’, the idea of developing an empirically-based view of the past from the angle of the marginalised, the dispossessed and the lower orders of society, fell somewhat out of fashion in favour of concentrating on (mainly middle-class) culture.

Thankfully, post-modernism as a self-referencing, exclusivist mindset has apparently run its course, and, equally thankfully, the many valuable insights that characterised post-modern thought at its best have been more or less seamlessly reintegrated with empirically based historical research and writing. There have always been continuities, since Raphael Samuel’s History Workshop Movement and its successor, Hilda Kean’s Public History courses and conferences based on Ruskin College, quickly absorbed the new ways of seeing things, and feminist historians (especially those with a socialist leaning) also kept the flame alive while maintaining their own critical stance.

In the past decade, a new wave of young academic historians has been exploring the insights to be gained from ‘history from below’ and its way of reading the past against the grain, though many would not wish to be labelled under this movement as they have equally absorbed the critical reference points from post-modernism. Nevertheless, several scores of them have begun to organise again around debating the continued value of the concept of ‘history from below’ and taking it on in new ways.

Check out the website ‘The Many Headed Monster’ . Here you will find a range of contributions taken from the two symposia that the network has organised and get an idea of the range of thinking that is going on.

It is to be hoped that this new wave of thinking does not confine itself to a small network of academics, but that they manage to break out of the institutional closet into the wider society. Here they will be able to meet up with and work alongside those of us operating in radical history groups, family history societies and local history societies of one sort or another. It was perhaps a fault of the earlier movement that, despite the best efforts of people like Thompson through the WEA and University Extra-Mural departments, it remained a largely institutionally based academic activity.

‘History from below’ needs also to be ‘history for below’ and ‘history by below’.

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3 thoughts on “History from Below Rises Again

  1. Great summary. I have often struggled with the concept of post modernism in history as it seemed to encompass, on the one hand, abstract, obscurantist ideas with, on the other, insights into lesser known aspects of history and their interconnections. But good history should always have been attentive to the latter aspects and perhaps ‘grand narrative’ writing did exclude them, particularly when they were aspects of working class life and culture outside the dominant party/trade union structures. I think the way genealogy has drawn people into history has re-invigorated ‘history from below’ and an approach which tries to integrate all aspects of people’s lives. This is what, I think, will ensure that it isn’t confined to academia. More people are taking interest in their own history, if it may sometimes be in a desultory, dilettante way – but it’s up to us to help them systemise it and provide a radical perspective.

  2. Couldn’t agree more. I struggled with the way that some postmodernists seemed to believe that all previous ways of doing history were totally invalid and, in one or two cases, that any form of doing history was invalid! Fortunately my own tutors taught me to read postmodernism against the grain in order to get the good stuff out of it, despite the seeming desire to twist language into Gordian knots incapable of unravelling. I, too, think that family history has the potential to provide access to history in ways rendered difficult for the non-specialist. I keep hoping that we can break down the barriers between academics and the rest of us, barriers that seem built into the universities and colleges and growing daily – not only the expense of doing courses, but also the way in which demands on the academics themselves inside the system make it difficult for them to break out. There are some great people out there who are doing just that, though, and we should encourage them.

  3. Thanks again for the link, Martin. I completely agree that today ‘history from below’ is still in rude health, even if it often happens under different names and in different guises.

    Thanks too for bringing up the importance of family history and local history. As I said in my piece in the symposium, I believe both are essential to the future of hisory from below.

    By the way, your site looks fascinating. I’m looking forward to taking a better look around here once my next looming deadline is passed.

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