Posted by: aboutalbion | December 8, 2013

History and rhetorical realisms (3)

The second type of history that Jenkins and Munslow propose is ‘constructionism’.

In contrast to the first type (in which the historian’s work is weighted towards the sources), with the second type, the historian gives weight to both the sources and to current social theory.

“Constructionists claim that, in using concepts and theories such as race, class, gender, imperialism, nationalism, psychohistory, ethnography, etc, they encompass what are, in effect, non-narrative or narrative-free conceptual or topic organising categories.” (p11)

“For constructionists, conceptual interventionism does not generate false knowledge about the reality of the past because it is regarded as being of a provisional kind; that is, the theory or utility of the concept is being tested in the evidence.” (p11)

One of the precursors of ‘constructionism’ is the theory of knowledge developed by Comte (1798 – 1857) and known as ‘positivism’.  ‘Positivism’ suggests that it is possible “to explain human society in a fashion similar to that of science through the discovery of society’s mechanics and the laws of human behaviour”. (p9)

Jenkins and Munslow suggest that Patrick Gardiner (1922 – 1997) laid the theoretical foundations for constructionist history with his emphasis on the behaviour of people in groups.

“As Gardiner argued, ‘The historian is concerned with human activities, and he is principally interested in those activities in so far as they have been found related to one another in social groups’.  …  As we read Gardiner, what he was saying is that while events may be unique, they can be represented as belonging to categories of events that share certain basic similarities.” (p10)

In this way, inference from current social theory is the mechanism for discerning the (provisional) meaning of the sources in the past.

Constructionist historians maintain that their histories can still be ‘objective’ because they maintain the distinction between themselves and the past with the belief that access to “the past is still feasible in principle precisely because history is constructed through using the tools of sophisticated conceptualisation and social theory.” (p11)

‘Constructionism’ as a type of history can be critiqued on the grounds of its reliance on the assumption that there are laws of human behaviour (in groups) that are invariant over time.

[Jenkins, Keith and Munslow, Alun (eds) (2004) The Nature of History Reader.  London: Routledge.]

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