Geoff Eley and the cultural turn in social history

As PhD students working in 2015, our research is shaped by two big developments that transformed the historical profession in the latter half of the twentieth century. The first was the social history wave that emerged during the 1960s, co-opting the social sciences and Marxist theory to explain historical change in terms of a set of materialisms, and aiming to examine society from deeper and more diverse perspectives. The second was the ‘cultural turn’ which began in the mid-1980s and which, drawing on developments in anthropology, philosophy, linguistics and literary theory, turned increasingly towards themes of gender, race and sexuality.

Earlier this week a group of PhD students from Queen Mary and Birkbeck met for a doctoral masterclass with Geoff Eley, Professor of Contemporary History at the University of Michigan, to discuss how these processes developed and what they mean for the practice of history today. Drawing on his 2005 work, ‘A Crooked Line’[i], Eley recounted the often bitter dispute between advocates of both approaches and the political, social and interdisciplinary contexts within which they took place. Whilst by the 1980s historians such as Joan Scott and Gareth Steadman Jones had begun to feel that they were running up against the limits of social history and that a new set of tools were needed to analyse social and intellectual change, there were many who lamented the abandonment of the radical traditions of social history and worried that a cultural approach would prove ill-equipped to understand developments across society.

Eley, however, had an optimistic take on where these developments have left us. Over the past decade a new generation of historians has emerged for whom the strife-filled debates of the 1980s and 1990s  are largely a thing of the past, and for whom cultural and social history do not necessarily stand in conflict to one another. Both the social history wave and the cultural turn have expanded what we think of as ‘political’ and have furnished us with a wider range of questions to ask and approaches to take in our work. The task for the next generation, he argued, is to take this pluralistic and eclectic legacy and find a way to write histories which are capable of analysing ‘society as a whole’, as Eric Hobsbawm urged social historians to do in 1971.[ii]

What does all this mean in practical terms for today’s PhD students? Eley suggests four key priorities for the next generation of historians. The first is the need to understand processes of class formation, not in a theoretically rigid or small-scale way but on a transnational and global scale. The second is to address the development of new mediascapes and the modern public sphere both within and beyond national borders. The third is to engage constructively with the current trend towards ‘Big History’ and ‘Deep History’. Whilst recent work on topics such as the Anthropocene illustrate the promise of these approaches, the efforts of writers such as Stephen Pinker and Jared Diamond risk glossing over the historical specificity and contextualisation which lie at the core of historians’ work. Finally, global environmental history needs to help deepen our understanding of the processes of environmental degradation and climate change which pose such as challenge to the twenty-first century world.

The discussion provided an illuminating opportunity for those of us involved to situate our own work in its historiographical context. How many of us, after all, can say that the questions we are considering in our current research would have been possible to choose as PhD topics twenty, thirty or forty years ago? Having not directly experienced the contemporary debates prompted by the cultural turn, it is perhaps difficult for us to appreciate the different environment we now work in. But amidst the usual doom-laden discussions of today’s academic climate and moribund jobs market, it made a refreshing change to reflect on the intellectual possibilities that are open to us and to consider the opportunities the next generation has to shape the practice of history in the twenty-first century.

[i] Geoff Eley, A Crooked Line: From Cultural Gistory to the History of Society  (Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 2005).

[ii] Eric Hobsbawm, ‘From Social History to the History of Society’, Daedalus, 100 (1971), 20-45.


David Bryan, May 2015

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