History and Historiography

Universalist theories in past, present and research. Or: How autopoietic was primitive communism?

We all have come across the names of Marx, Weber, Parsons, or Luhmann at one time or another during our University studies. Among the self-proclaimed turns of the late 20th century and the early 2000’s (cultural, performative, spatial, or otherwise), some of these names keep cropping up. The talk is of a re-evaluation of Weber, or of harnessing Luhmann’s Systems Theory for the modern historical sciences. At the same time, Historical Materialism seems almost unphased by the passage of time, and even nowadays – 150 years after its first publication – monographs and articles based on a Marxist interpretation of history continue unabashedly to vex the bourgeois historian. Clio weeps.

These theories I am talking about all have in common that they openly entertain a rather universalist approach to their subject matter, running counter to the general trend of ever more detailed case studies of geographically and chronologically limited scope. Their strengths lie in clear-cut theory and abstraction. While discussions on the theory underlying our work are, more often than not, instigated and kept alive by historians that seldom take a document into their own delicate hands, the common blue-collar historian has to fight theoretical battles of his own, especially (but not exclusively) if he/she is working in a non-European context.

No matter how critical we may be, our work will always reflect the scientific system we were trained in, and thereby introduce alien concepts to another cultural sphere – or time. The result may be distortive or fruitful, misrepresenting the object of research or opening insights that were not possible before. Sometimes the situation is further complicated by the fact that the country whose history we study has adopted a Westernized educational system along with the accompanying scientific concepts.[1] Western historical thought has by the grace of intellectual imperialism become a universal theory of its own.

This panel invites to a discussion of the chances and pitfalls of universalist historical theories, be it from a practitioner’s standpoint or as a criticist. To ensure a lively exchange, it will take the form of a roundtable discussion. Everyone present will be welcome to contribute.

To prepare for the discussion I recommend the following texts:

  1. Mary Fulbrook, “Historical Paradigms and Theoretical Traditions”, in: idem, Historical Theory, London/New York: Routledge, 2002, pp. 31-50.
  2. Hayden White, “The Westernization of World History”, in: Jörn Rüsen (ed.), Western Historical Thinking: An Intercultural Debate, New York/Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2002, pp. 111-118.
  3. Helmut Berding, “Leopold von Ranke”, in: Peter Koslowski (ed.), The Discovery of Historicity in German Idealism and Historism, Berlin/Heidelberg/New York: Springer, 2005, pp. 41-58.
  4. S. H. Rigby, “Marxist Historiography”, in: Michael Bentley (ed.), Companion to Historiography, London/New York: Routledge, 1997, pp. 868-906.
  5. Fritz Ringer, “Weber on Causal Analysis, Interpretation and Comparison”, in: History and Theory 41.2 (2002), pp. 163-178.
  6. Michael King and Chris Thornhill, “Luhmann’s Social Theory”, in: idem, Niklas Luhmann’s Theory of Politics and Law, Houndmills/New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003, pp. 1-34.
  7. Anne Friederike Müller, “Some Observations on Social Anthropology and Luhmann’s Concept of Society”, in: Michael King and Chris Thornhill (eds), Luhmann on Law and Politics: Critical Appraisals and Applications, Oxford/Portland: Hart Publishing, 2006, pp. 165-185.
  8. David H. Price, “Wittfogel’s Neglected Hydraulic/Hydroagricultural Distinction”, in: Journal of Anthropological Research 50.2 (1994), pp. 187-204.

[If you should have problems finding one or more of the proposed readings, please contact me under mark.schneider [at] uni-hamburg.de!]

The first two texts give a very readable introduction to the topic: Fulbrook proposes some useful distinctions with regard to historical paradigms, whereas White – somewhat more specifically – warns against Western cultural chauvinism. Berding, Rigby, and Ringer introduce us to three influential historical paradigms, namely (Rankean) historicism, Weberian (socio-)historical methodology and historical materialism, respectively. The latter is not presented in terms of theory, as I am confident that every one should be sufficiently familiar with its basic tenets. Rather, stress is laid on a depiction of the diverseness of Marxist historiography as concerns emphases and applications of its concepts. King and Thornhill do a good job explicating the rather complex and unfamiliar social theory of Niklas Luhmann, certainly the most radical proponent of systems theory. Müller, then, examines whether the theory is compatible with socio-anthropological research as practiced today, thereby raising questions which are of equal interest when approaching the problem from the standpoint of modern historiography. Last but not least, Price discusses Karl Wittfogel’s concept of hydraulic societies, which is a fascinating variant on the theme of oriental despotism.

Although touching on the problem of Asia in modern Western(alized) historiography, among others, the discussion is intended as a platform for exchange on the applicability of theories and methodologies, not politics. Therefore, polemicists of all colours, be they of the Postcolonialist, New Medievalist or Asianist factions, will be asked to leave the room. A security team will be in place.

[1] Speaking from my own experience, Marxist thought has had a major impact on modern Japanese historical research, and even ‘conservative’ European concepts such as the Free City have until recently been used rather unreflectedly.

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