You are on page 1of 40


Historical Synthesis
From Statements to Histories

he historical method does not produce histories, only statements

that can be used in a history. The procedures do not even produce
a story or argument as such unless these are repeated directly from
a source. Every history is much more than a simple summary or compilation of factual statements. Each history in its very form as well as content
navigates the tension among the many grander and lesser goals historians
and others pursue in representing the past as history. In the end, then, any
history must be judged by what it is: an organized or synthesized totality.
Historians consider this complex production the literary or artistic side of
their practice.
Histories as Form and Content
Many schemes exist for classifying kinds of histories. Some stress forms of
presentation and the nature of the medium: monographs, reports, essays,
lectures, documentary films, museum exhibitions, historic sites, and
reenactments among others. Alternate schemes categorize by the intended
audience: general surveys and films destined for classrooms; television
programs, popular histories, and historical pageants for the lay public;
scholarly monographs and articles directed to the professional historian;
the preservation of historic sites and reconstruction of old buildings and
villages for antiquarians, preservationists, and historians. One can sort
histories by the sectors of life covered: political, legal, diplomatic, military, economic, social, intellectual, cultural, ecological, and so on. These
in turn are further divided. Social histories, for example, include urban,
educational, medical, working-class, womens, minority, and old age among


Fashioning History

other topics. Still newer kinds of histories focus on diasporas, tourism, the
human body, emotions, masculinity and gender, books and reading,
memory, childhood, and local everyday life or microhistory. Other classificatory schemes center on technique: biographical; statistical and quantitative; narrative; and analytical among others. Some stress spacelocal
or national in the age of the nation-state; regional, world, comparative, or
transnational in more global times. Some concentrate on time: from a few
days to centuries and eras, from stable times topically organized (synchronic) to dynamic times and change diachronically organized. Historians
often see various historical works as belonging to one or another school.
Thus they might distinguish among Marxist, bourgeois, French Annales,
or social science histories. Or, they might designate various schools of
what they call interpretations. The basic interpretation of United States
history, for example, is said to have moved through the so-called progressive or economic interpretation, consensus or counterprogressive, and the
New Left or neoprogressive schools during the twentieth century.1
All these are reasonable and standard ways of classifying types of histories, but they do not identify the general and common component parts
of histories as such, especially across mediums and schools. Professional historians and those who theorize about historical practice agree that
proper histories are more than mere assemblages of factual statements
but much less than grand speculations on the ultimate meaning of the
human past. Historians deprecate compilations or lists of facts as a chronicle or annals at the same time as they repudiate giving some overall pattern to the entire past as universal or speculative history. Beyond agreement
on these extremes, however, historians differ on the nature and purposes
of historical synthesis and therefore its component parts.
Nevertheless, such disagreements suggest starting places for a general
scheme of categorization. Long-continuing disagreements over whether a
history is an art or a science, an empirical study or a literary synthesis suggest one basis for a general categorization of components.2 Older disagreements over whether proper explanation in histories is best provided
by narration or (social) science-like reasoning points to the various modes
of connecting the facts of a history as another starting place.3 Social science historians as well as theorists of history also propose considering the
modes of explanation broadly conceived as theories and models.4 More
recently, rhetorical and narrative theorists add categories for understanding the modes of exposition chiefly as text and discourse.5 The enduring
conflict over the possibility of objectivity in historical practice and pervasiveness of bias in historical works indicates the role of evaluation and

Historical Synthesis


perspective as another basis for categorizing the general component parts

of a history.6
Regardless of the forms the many kinds of histories take or the topics
they cover, each one embodies in varying proportions description, argument, and/or narrative as forms of exposition; generalization, explanation, and/or interpretation as modes of connecting the facts and providing
perspective on them; and politics, morals, and/or other lessons and uses
as ways of evaluating past matters and giving them meaning. What distinguishes among different kinds of histories in this view is not their
length, specific subject matter, or medium as such but how the many synthetic components discussed above are combined in any given project. At
the risk of separating what is combined in text and practice, let me briefly
discuss each of these general components before looking at examples of
their combination in the next three chapters. From the standpoint of this
book, each component must also be considered in relation to re-presentation or construction in the uses of evidence.7
Narratives and Arguments
Forms of expression may vary by the kinds of histories and media, but
they all show the use of language or image to present a story and/or make
a case. For some scholars, narrative is the traditional and preferred mode
of historical synthesis, as the words story and history indicate by being
the same or allied terms in so many European languages. To convey this
idea in English, some scholars resort to parentheses: (hi)story. Other historians choose argumentative, topical, and analytical approaches to make
a case or prove a thesis. Usually both narrative and argument are combined in a proper history, even if the overall combination is categorized
under one or another name. In practice each kind presumes the other,
frequently explicitly but always implicitly, for both are modes of organization and of making connections. As modes of organization, all are
process as well as product in historical practice.8
A narrative is considered the genre of time par excellence, because it
answers the question what happened by tracing the development, changes,
and resolution of events over time. Agents, aims, actions, settings, and
outcomes are plotted to reveal the changes from beginnings to conclusion.
Stories are told as events are sequenced into a series as situations change,
lives are lived, and meaning is given to their modifications and transformations. Narratives are organized by the author who orders the events,
actors, and settings into coherent temporal structures of plot and subplot.


Fashioning History

The author emphasizes some matters and subordinates others to give

interpretation and meaning to (and to explain, in a sense) the changes
selected to be part of the story. Such selection in the historians hands cuts
the complexity, indeed chaos, of the past down to (narrative) size.9
Narrative in historical practice is always a stream of events unfolding
in time. The order of statements in a history need not follow the actual
chronological sequence of events as such for stylistic and/or explanatory
reasons. Historians may telescope time for dramatic reasons or use flashbacks and flashforwards to point out implications. Thus one can analyze
the relationship between the form of a historical narrative as textual or
discourse time in contrast to its content as calendar time in the telling of
a (hi)story. Regardless of any such separation of chronological and textual
time, a historical narrative is always presented as accurate to past persons
and eventsor at least the surviving evidence about themunlike fictional stories. Histories share the narrative as a literary form with many
other genres such as novels, certain paintings, operas, many songs, films,
comic books, and jokes. These other genres may even include actual persons, events, and settings as part of their stories, but only histories promise
nothing but the truth based upon past evidence. Historical narratives presume that their characters, the events, and the larger context into which
they fit characterize accurately the pasts of those persons, actions, and
Many histories are not explicitly narrative in form. Their content is
organized by argument, theme, analytical category, or topic.11 Argumentative
histories, as the name suggests, present one or more arguments rather
than stories as such about past persons, events, and times. Analytical and
topical histories organize their contents by argument and/or theme.
Synchronic histories stress an extended middle over beginnings and endings by showing the interrelationships among matters at a given cross section of time, be it a year, decade, century, or more. While each of these
histories eschew traditional narrative explicitly, they presume some larger
or overall (hi)story as context for their subject matter and their own
forms. Sometimes that historical context is no more than the standard
history that frames the times that the arguments, analyses, and topics are
about. The cross-section of time elaborated in a synchronic history, for
example, presumes standard history as the narrative that contextualizes
the times that lead into and away from the era it explores extensively for
the multiple interconnections among ideas, events, and institutions.12
Narrative and nonnarrative histories alike espouse explicitly or, more
frequently, implicitly one or more larger stories as a way of contextualizing

Historical Synthesis


their data, offering an interpretation, and providing perspective and

meaning. Variously called in the profession grand, master, dominant, or
governing narratives if explicit and metanarratives and metastories if
more implicit, all offer the larger context needed for organizing the subject matter and form of individual historical syntheses. The advance of
(Western) liberty and democracy, the struggle of the masses versus the
elites, and the imminence of ecological apocalypse are just some among
many such contextualizing master narratives. Their larger truth depends
not upon evidence so much as the outlook and values shared by historians with their audiences.
Many historians feel that narrative is more congenial than other discursive forms to historical synthesis because it stresses the actions of individuals as the causative agents in the unfolding of events. By
concentrating upon the actions of concrete individuals as opposed to
abstract forces to explain how (and why) what happened in the past, narrative histories allow for contingencies, choices, and other acts of human
agency in influencing peoples destinies. In such a case, actors intentions,
desires, judgments, and beliefs connect as they explain the sequence of
occurrences. The emphasis on concrete actors intentions and choices
allows narrative historians in their syntheses to lay blame or lavish praise
upon specific individuals in causing wars and peace or depressions and
prosperity; in leading social movements and cultural trends; in formulating political ideologies and scientific ideas among many matters. To
American intellectual historian Thomas Haskell, causal attribution,
including narratives, and ethics and moral responsibility are two sides of
the same coin. As he argues, To be an agent is to be causally efficacious,
a producer of intended consequences. To hold people responsible is to
presume that they are causally efficacious agents and therefore capable
(within limits) of which consequences to produce. Judgments of praise,
blame, responsibility, liability, courage, cowardice, originality, deliberateness, and spontaneity are just a few of the quintessentially ethical qualities
that ride piggyback on perceptions of cause and effect.13 For this reason,
historian of American women Nancy Isenberg posits individuals who
shape their destinies as the basic canon of historical behavior.14
Such a connection between human agency and narrative raises the
issue of the relationship between narrative as a literary form and the
actual course of past events and lives. Postmodernists argue that historians impose, that is, create, narrative structures in their efforts to organize
their factual and other statements into some sort of synthesis. Other historians argue that narrative is natural to human affairs, because individuals


Fashioning History

plan their lives and understand what they do and did in terms of narrative
sequences.15 The sociologist Margaret Somers throws light on this debate
by arguing for four different kinds or uses of narrative. Ontological narratives are those that the social actors use to make sense of their own lives
in order to act. They define who one is; they provide a notion of self and
an identity for the individual, though developed as the result of interactions over time with various social structures. Public, cultural, or institutional narratives are those used by publics to understand and explain
family, workplace, religious groups, government, nation, or society. (Is
this social or collective memory?) She designated narratives constructed
by social interpreters or researchers as conceptual, analytic, or sociological
narratives. Such narratives speak of social forces, market patterns, cultural
practices, or other constructed entities as the actors. The challenge from
her view is how to combine ontological and public narratives into the
analysts or historians own analysis or narrative. Metanarratives, her
fourth kind, depict the epic forces of modern times such as Capitalism
versus Communism, Individual versus Society, or the Rise of Nationalism
or Capitalism or Democracy as some teleological unfolding of events in a
cosmic drama.16
All histories offer description, argument, and narrative in various proportions, even though a specific work may claim to be mainly narrative or
argument. In practice if not in explicit exposition in any work, narrative
and argument presume each other, even if only between the lines or subtextually. Almost all narrative histories today contain sections devoted to
argument and analysis in addition to description and storytelling. All
analytical, argumentative, topical, and thematic histories presume an
implicit, if they do not contain an explicit, narrative. From the perspective of the last chapter, the big question is whether the narratives, arguments, reports, and descriptions in a historical work are re-presentations
accepted as true by the historian from the sources? Or, are these elements
constructed and integrated as going together from the inferences and creativity of the historian? And from whose point of view are they presented?
Explaining and Interpreting
Historians make connections among their facts in their syntheses by
offering explanations and interpretations, especially in proper histories.
Argumentative and analytical works provide explicit reasons and causes as
explanations and even, at times, use generalizations, models, and theories
of human behavior, institutions, and societies to make their cases. Narrative,

Historical Synthesis


topical, and synchronic works offer implicitly always and usually explicitly reasons, causes, explanations, and influences among diverse ways of
connecting their factual statements and patterning their generalizations.
If description answers the traditional reportorial questions of who,
what, when, and where, and maybe how, then explanation answers the
question why. Questions and answers are always dependent on the knowledge of asker and answerer as to what is to be explained (explanandum in
philosophers parlance) and what explains (explanans). For some askers,
learning who, what, when, or where answers their why questions. Even
these seemingly simple questions become complicated when asking, for
example, what makes a revolt a revolution, or a cultural awakening a
renaissance? For many other inquirers, learning how something came
about explains why it happened, and that is often the common mode of
historical explanation, especially in a narrative synthesis. Tracing the
course of eventsor recountingis basic to one form of narrative explanation. But explanation, in the sense of accounting for, asks why it was
who it was, where it was, when it was, what it was, or how it was. This is
the explicit goal of analytical and argumentative historiesand good narrative histories as well.17
What constitutes appropriate answers at this level of why question? At
a minimum, we should distinguish between the type or form of an explanation and the content of it. Types of explanation cluster around two
poles. Those theorists advocating understanding as interpretation believe
that human beings and their affairs are best explained by the webs of
meaning the actors construct to understand and interpret their world.
Making connections in this way presumes that the observer can understand the actors and their world(s) as they understood themselves and
their world(s). Interpretive explanations in this mode stress such matters
as intentions, desires, motives and rationales, beliefs, patterns of meaning,
cultural practices, values, and worldviews as the keys to explaining why
actors did what they did. Those theorists who support explanation as causation construct images or models of the actors behavior or circumstances that might be quite different than seen by the actors themselves.
Explanations of this kind may range from the statistical correlation of
variables to expositions of the material or ecological circumstances of peoples to the nature of bureaucracies and other complex social organizations. Whether a narrative explains depends on how and what one accepts
as proper explanation in all these cases. The content of an explanation is
not just what it includes explicitly about the connections it makes in
explaining its subject but also the philosophical premises and social models


Fashioning History

that ground those connections. What does the theory, model, or even
image presume about social reality that justifies the relevance of its use
even as it shapes the content of its application?
Historians frequently rely on so-called common sense versions of understanding and explaining human affairs. They often divide explanatory
causes into long and short range; primary and secondary; necessary and
sufficient; definitely or probably; sequential, cumulative, or interacting.
Often such attributions are done without explicit, rigorous comparison
or analysis to isolate the cause(s) or to provide an explicit patterning or
hierarchy of causes. Sometimes historians offer thought experiments on
what if so and so had not happened or something else had occurred, in
effect counterfactual arguments. Historians, for example, speculate in a
recent book on what if Charles I had avoided the English Civil War or
what if Soviet communism had not collapsed in 1989.18 Historians all too
often explain human goals, actions, and outcomes by armchair psychologizing about what any human would do in the same situation. (To what
extent does this approach presume a basic and universal human nature,
which was until recently usually a male rather than a female version?)
They often treat social classes, institutions, and whole societies through ad
hoc theorizing and impressionism, supposedly justified by their immersion
in the sources.
Many historians belittle the social and psychological sciences for their
pretension to theory, because the results seem all too often trivial, tautological, and, worse from a historians view, ahistorical. Rather historians
seek not generalizations about all human beings and institutions, as the
positivistic social sciences once did, but explanations for what they take to
be particular occasions and events occurring at specific times in specific
places among specific persons and groups in the past. As the Australian
scholar Inga Clendinnen writes, Large theories may generate good questions, but they produce poor answers. The historians task is to discover
what happened in some actual past situationnot to produce large
truths. The most enlightening historical generalizations tend to be those
that hover sufficiently close to the ground to illuminate the contours and
dynamics of intention and action in circumscribed circumstances.19
With such an impression of the professions goals, historians basic theories and models of human behavior, institutions, and societies are frequently
more implicit image than explicit structures but no less determinative of
their explanations.20
Once upon a time (in the 1960s and 1970s) social science history in
the United States sought to make historical research and exposition

Historical Synthesis


organized and orderly by making the theories and models explicit and
the operations systematic.21 The so-called new economic, political, and
social histories never achieved the revolutionary results promised in their
manifestos. Meanwhile the interests of the profession shifted to more pressing political and moral concerns. Consequently, much of what was once
the approach and content of these new histories has returned to the social
science departments from which they were borrowed in the first place. In
recent decades the ahistoricity of the social sciences has been mitigated by
a historic turn in all human science disciplines. The rapprochement between
the social sciences and history is marked in the United States both in
books and other productions and the many joint appointments between
history and other departments.22
The content of social explanation cuts across the forms of social explanation. Philosophers of social science range the basic content of social
explanation between two extremes they have christened methodological individualism and methodological holism.23 Individualism
asserts, as its name suggests, the primacy of the individual in determining
what happens in human affairs, while holism declares the dominance of
the social whole in explaining human affairs. Individualistic explanations
emphasize the conscious intentions and beliefs of individuals to account
for their actions. This view of the efficacy of human agency assumes
that social institutions are individuals acting in association. A society
as a whole is the aggregation of all acting individuals in it. This approach to
social explanation is known as methodological individualism, because it
views individuals as both the real creators and the real foundation of
(a) society. The voluntary actions of individuals can really change social
institutions and collective outcomes. Such a view of individualistic explanation is presumed to ground as it flows from a classic nineteenth-century liberal view of society.
Holism, or collective or social structural explanation, stresses the coercive effects of the social whole upon the beliefs, actions, and so on, of the
individuals in it. A social organization, system, or structure persists over
time and can be considered independently in some ways from a set of specific
individuals in it. Although not really separate from the individuals comprising it, it nevertheless constrains their behavior in certain ways and acts
apart from their individual volitions. A bureaucracy is a good example
of such a social structure with its rules, roles, and lines of authority, but so
too are economic organizations and systems (capitalism or land tenure
systems, for example), political systems and organizations (political party
systems or government bureaucracies), multinational or international


Fashioning History

relations (diplomatic customs and treaty systems), religious organizations

and doctrinal systems (church hierarchies and liturgies), and cultural systems (persisting values and languages). Historians like social scientists can
study why such structures arise, persist, or end in terms of the social context and other social factors. In this view, society is composed of (individuals operating as and through) classes, institutions, and other organized
entities. This position is termed methodological holism, because the existence of a society as a whole shapes, some might say determines, the reality of the various lives within it. This view of a society as the collective
causative foundation for understanding the totality of human interaction
in it derives from a version of Marxism or of French social theory following mile Durkheim.24 Scholars, of course, seek to reconcile or find a
middle way between these two methodological extremes, but let me use
the extreme views to highlight some of the implications of interpretive
and explanatory models for historical research and synthesis.
Even my brief summary of methodological individualism and methodological holism suggests some implications for the historical method and
the derivation of facts. Proponents of the two views read sources differently, because they see social reality and its explanation differently
Individualists are more prone to accept peoples expressions of intentions,
desires, and motives in sources at face value, because they accept the
autonomy of the individual in explaining social behavior. They therefore
prefer re-presentation and paraphrase to make their points. A holist
might see these same expressions as false consciousness because common sense beliefs all too often conceal the real conditions governing
individuals existence. Most persons would not understand their true
interests because of hegemonic manipulation of one sector of society by
another. Any system of common beliefs becomes an ideology justifying
the way the inequalities of the social whole are organized. At worse, power
so determines knowledge, desires, and hopes that explicit expression of
such in the sources must be taken with a very large methodological grain
of salt. Individualists might accept polling results, for example, as truly
indicative of peoples attitudes, while holists see just another demonstration of false consciousness. In this latter case the historian understands
the true interests of people as a result of their class or other societal location as opposed to what they themselves say (and presumably believe).
Historians of this persuasion resort to construction as their main mode of
deriving and expositing facts.
In line with their basic premises holists have trouble with the positivist
empirical bent of individualists, especially those who rely on statistical

Historical Synthesis


analyses of census data. Opponents of this approach to social science history argued against assuming the aggregative behavior of individuals to be
the explanation of (a) society. As one American social historian pointed
out long ago, numerical analysis is based upon the fiction that the actions
of different individuals or cultural groups are, epistemologically speaking,
the samethat they are identical and discrete entities that can be compared with one another in a scientific manner.25 Opponents of this kind
of statistical history argued that its results like its premises are those of
political liberalism. Each side in this debate, like so many in social and
political understanding, accused the other of assuming what it needed to
prove and proving what it assumed.
The plainest implication of these differences over the nature of social
reality and its explanation is for the historical method. Individualist
acceptance of sources testimony at face value encourages the re-presentation of facts through quotation or paraphrase. Holist suspicion of ideology and false consciousness on the other hand encourages constructing
facts by inferring from the sources content or perhaps re-presenting the
views of those people considered to have the most informed, that is, correct, view from the analysts standpoint. Many historians interested in the
subordinated and the marginalized, for example, see persons in those
social positions as a better guide to the nature of what really went on in
society than those placed in high positions. As historian of science Donna
Haraway phrased this position, Subjugated standpoints are preferred
because they seem to promise more adequate, sustained, objective, transforming accounts of the world.26 To some poststructuralist theorists the
treatment of peoples on the margins of a society reveals best the central
values of that societyor at least of its elite sector. But Jesse Lemisch, the
first American historian to advocate in print viewing the United States
past from the bottom up, argued before poststructuralist theory was popular in the United States, sympathy for the powerless brings us closer to
objectivity.27 If nothing else, proponents of each position would judge
the reliability of a witness and maybe of a source itself by their views of
what an individual is and can do and the overall organized (structured)
nature of a society in general. In the end, a historians social theory influences how she determines whether, for example, a cluster of ideas in
a source should be denominated an ideology, false consciousness, and an
example of hegemony on one hand or reasons, values, and proof of a belief
system on the other hand. Thus the sorting out of what are actors views
and what historians views in a history often reveal the latters allegiances


Fashioning History

to specific social theories (as we shall see below in the fight over cultural
history and the proposed rehabilitation of social history).
Proponents of holism and individualism might see the factuality of
summative classificatory terms differently. Those leaning to holism might
be willing to accept the reality of social structures as terms because of
how they see societies working. Those tending to individualism, on the
other hand, deny the reality of social structures and thus their value even
for analysis since they believe such entities are mere social fictions. Although
both sides might accept such concrete organizations as labor unions, corporations, churches, governments, and armies as empirically real, they
might differ over according that status to the identity of classes and other
social structures and systems. In any case, individualists would always deny
causative agency to postulated structures and disaggregate empirically
real ones.
Do divergent premises lead to different methods? If the historian
accepts actors ideas and beliefs at face value, then does she use empathy,
interpretation, or imagination to reconstruct the actors so-called logic of
the situation or cultural framework? If the historian suspects such
hermeneutic methods, then does she employ causal analysis and explanation? We have already seen the argument over statistics. In any case, the
content of social explanation influences the choice of explanatory form.
That the two positions differ so much in what they take social reality
to be and how best to explain it has implications not only for deriving facts
from sources but also how to put them together in a synthesis. The differences show up in vocabulary, in the identification of historical actors,
and in the way the story is told. The most obvious differences are the
actors in each positions story. Concrete individuals, their decisions and
aims, and their groupings into associations are the actors in individualist
stories and explanations. Social actors, so to speak, take pride of place in
holist stories and explanations. Even to discuss the two positions means
(mis)using vocabulary favored by and based on one or the other side.28 If
differing vocabularies make hazardous any description of what the two
sides stand for, they make easier their identification in historical productions. What are ideas and belief systems for the individualist become ideologies for the holist; texts and language become discourses and hegemony;
rank and strata become classes; and perhaps sex and ethnicity become
gender and racial systems. What are competing choices for the individualist become conflicting interests as the result of contradictory social locations for the holist. Interest group demands for the individualist become
evidence of class struggle for the holist; social systems become social

Historical Synthesis


structures or formations; leaders or elites become ruling classes. The individualist describes society as associations of people banding together voluntarily as churches, corporations, governments, and other organizations,
and society itself is essentially conceived as a voluntary association of individuals. Society for the holist is conceived as a complex, organized set of
structures. Racism, for example, is a mainly a matter of psychology and
individuals prejudices under individualist premises and a system of
power and structured inequality under holist assumptions. Racism has a
psychological cause and solution for the former, and a social structural
cause and solution for the latter.29
Individualists in the end portray history as a series of events in which
actors views and actions determine to a large extent the social outcomes.
Change is explained by the actions of individuals. In traditional political,
military, diplomatic, and religious history the spotlight was on kings, generals, ambassadors, bishops, and other leaders. Many argue that the narrative form is particularly congenial to this approach to history. The
dilemma of individualistic explanation is to cope with supraindividual
formations and macroscopic change. Holists depict history in terms of
structures in which their contradictions cause conflict and change for the
individuals in them. Argumentative and analytical histories seem the
form best suited to this approach. The once new social history preferred
explicit theory, social categories, and even statistical analysis of causation
in opposition to the implicit model of human behavior and social theory
of traditional history. To its critics the weakness of too much social history (and all of social science) was explaining change through abstract
entities and external forces as opposed to concrete individuals and their
choices. The American colonial historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich indicted
this approach to social history, which in abandoning the individualistic
and institutional biases of conventional narratives sometimes substitutes
one form of exclusion for another, freezing people into a collective
anonymity that denies either agency or the capacity to change.30
As I pointed out earlier in this section, scholars in practice attempt to
avoid the dilemmas posed by individualism and holism by seeking some
middle way. It is easy to condemn the oversimplifications of individualism and holism but difficult to surmount their problems and premises.
That reconciliation or middle way must try to balance the agency of the
actors with the constraints imposed on them by social institutions and
their position(s) in them. Such a way must resolve the conflict between
the autonomy of individual action based upon free choices in spite of
social constraints versus the denial of any human agency in an oversocialized


Fashioning History

model of human behavior. At the same time the middle way must explain
why groups of individuals choose to create social rules, coercive collectivities, and inequitable distribution of social benefits and power. To steer
the delicate course between total societal determination of individual lives
and the complete societal laissez-faireism of individualism, these theorists
maintain that one must delineate how individuals initiate, maintain, or
transform a group or society. The continuing existence of any social whole
needs to be explained, not just assumedespecially those called a nation,
a society, or a culture. Ideas are not simply ideological reflections, and culture is not simply reducible to the political or social. The only choice
denied historians in this matter is no conscious choice: for some theory,
implicit if not explicit, on the nature of human behavior and the workings
of a society always grounds every history.31
The conflict between agency and structure in historical practice particularly came to focus in two schools that became increasingly popular in
the profession after the mid-1970s. Microhistory originated among
Italian scholars and alltagsgeschichte, or the history of everyday life, among
German scholars. At the risk of neglecting their differences, both schools
revolted against the impersonal structures and large-scale processes of
macrosocial analysis, whether exemplified in the long-term trends studied
by the Annales school or the impersonal aggregation of individuals, even
nonelite ones, by the social science school. Both groups of historians
explored the relationship between structure and agency through concentrating on the microcosm of specific individuals or small communities for
clues to the macrocosm of institutions and society. Both favored anthropology over sociology as inspiration, particularly the intense local ethnographic study and the thick description of Clifford Geertz. Both
concentrated on concrete life situations and the forms of daily experience
and perceptions of individuals as the basis of their generalizations. How
did ordinary individuals perceive, cope with, accommodate to, resist,
innovate in small ways, creatively modify, or support the larger forces
with which they lived and to which they contributed? How did such individuals alone or as a small group mediate between what they wanted and
what they were forced to do by custom, law, religious and government
agents, or material circumstances?
Both schools sought out and emphasized the ambiguities, fluidity, and
contradictions of thought and behavior of the small people they studied. Microhistorians produced noted works on rebels, heretics, criminals,
or other individuals whose confrontations with social customs and official institutions produced detailed records. Although microhistorians

Historical Synthesis


studied both premodern and modern times, their work mostly explored
early modern persons and situations. Carlo Ginzburgs intensive analysis
of sixteenth-century inquisitorial records to reconstruct the heretical cosmos of a northern Italian miller was a microhistory best seller of this
kind.32 Some historians of alltagsgeschichte studied peasants and folk culture in the early modern era, but most preferred studies of workers, popular culture, or support for Nazi ideals and institutions in the modern
period. The alltagsgeschichte exploration of ordinary peoples relationship
to Nazism in their mundane experience and behavior particularly showed
the nexus between lives at the micro level and societal macrotrends.33
The debate over social explanation goes on today in the discussions
about the nature and place of the social as opposed to the cultural in
human affairs. Those uneasy with the seeming arbitrariness of the cultural
seek to resuscitate a more sophisticated social history and particularly
class analysis in order to once again organize their histories through some
sort of structural explanation.34
As even this sections brief exposition of social explanation reveals,
social theory, whether explicit or implicit, presumes political and ethical
choices. These choices have implications for perspective, meaning, and
morality. The editors of a reader on the new social theory observe a normative turn by the 1990s in the field. As they conclude, we always theorize or do research from a socially situated point of view, that social
interests and values shape our ideas, that our social understandings are
also part of the shaping of social life.35 Historians are agents in regard to
histories about the past but also members located in their societies in the
present. To paraphrase Karl Marx, historians make their own histories but
not always under conditions of their own choosing. The historians own
social context derives from social traditions, collective memory, and professional socialization. Whether the historians multiple social locations
have little or no influence or mostly determine their social theory and
explanations depend upon who theorizes the situation and according to
what kinds of social explanation. And, of course, this choice affects whether
the explanations are re-presented or constructed from the evidence.
Perspectives and Meaning
History, once promoted as philosophy teaching by example, still has its
instructive side in the right hands. Politicians, generals, and social scientists are more prone than historians to draw lessons from the past, but some
historians do draw explicit lessons from their subject for policymakers


Fashioning History

and the public. Historians of military affairs, foreign policy, and education are particularly generous in offering lessons learned from the history
of their subjects. The historian of military affairs Michael Howard offers
his essays simply as The Lessons of History.36 The historian of American
foreign policy Ernest May has written two books whose very titles indicate his purposes: Lessons of the Past: The Use and Misuse of History in
American Foreign Policy 37 and Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for
Decision Makers with Richard Neustadt.38 Likewise, the title of the volume of essays edited by Diane Ravitch and Maris Vinovskis, Learning
from the Past: What History Teaches Us about School Reform,39 shows the same
for educational history. Many more historians make their lessons less
obvious in their titles than these examples but still offer such instruction
implicitly if not explicitly. Most environmental historians, for instance,
particularly point out the dire implications of their studies.40
Debunking time-honored heroes and heritage is also an ancient and
honorable tradition in the history profession. While some historians urge
the profession to reinforce tradition and patriotism, others seek to expose
the myths of classroom pieties and national heritage. In the latter vein,
one author titled his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your
American History Textbook Got Wrong.41 The authors in The Invention of
Tradition exposed how recent many a supposedly ancient tradition was,
including Welsh and Scottish national culture, British royal rituals, and
the celebration of May Day.42 If popular history is societys memory of
the past, then these historians hope to set the record straight.
Some historians seek to restore a submerged or subordinated group to
its (rightful?) place in the nations or the worlds history. The goal is
encapsulated in the very title of Hidden from History.43 Chief among
those hidden from traditional history was the half of the population who
were women. To the extent that standard history had focused on politics,
foreign policy, and wars, the nation-state as the arena, and the so-called
public sphere over the private or domestic, it emphasized male roles and
de-emphasized or concealed entirely female rolesexcept for such women
as Queen Elizabeth I of England or Catherine the Great of Russia.44
Likewise to divide prehistory from history was to hide, even deny, the
people without history their place in the past. 45 Aboriginal peoples may
have been first on the ground, but they were last to get a spot in the white
mans history. (Canadian scholars now call their native societies First
Nations as a remedy.) When historians write about subordinated or
oppositional groups, should they side with them? Does that mean not
only presenting but even adopting their views on matters?46

Historical Synthesis


The new National Museum of the American Indian on the Capitol

Mall in Washington, DC, exemplifies in architecture, grounds, and
exhibits the dilemmas of representing minority viewpoint in majority
institutional setting. After extensive consultation with diverse Native
American groups and individuals, the museum planners focused on three
main themes to organize the exhibits. Our Universes: Traditional
Knowledge Shapes Our World presents indigenous cosmologies as vital
today to native understanding and life as they were yesterday. Such an
approach reinforces native religious traditions as it educates others about
the overriding importance of the sacred in native lives past and present.
Our Peoples: Giving Voice to Our Histories seeks to correct through
tribal histories the narrow and inaccurate ways the dominant society has
portrayed the past of native peoples in its story of imperial conquest and
achievement for the past five hundred years. On one hand, native societies were victimized: In the struggle for survival, nearly every Native
community wrestled with the impact of deadly new diseases and weaponry,
the weakening of traditional spirituality and the seizure of homelands by
invading governments. On the other hand, it is not entirely a story of
destruction, for it is also about how Native people intentionally and
strategically kept their cultures alive.47 To emphasize this point, the last
exhibitions theme, Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities,
shows that native peoples, their cultures, and their identities not only survive but flourish in the twenty-first century even in the midst of economic
and other hardships and contrary to white perception. Through these
themes, the museums planners hope to refute the usual cultural imperialism long expounded and exemplified in dominant society media and
institutions. Through the shape of the building, the layout of its grounds,
the arrangement and purposes of interior spaces, as well as the nature and
message of the exhibits, the planners seek to adapt a dominant cultural
institution to traditional (and traditionalist?) native ends. Critics of the
museum believe that the efforts of its Native American staff to discover
and disseminate the values and outlooks of the many Native American
peoples go too far in creating a new kind of museum that crosses borders
supposedly separated in other museums: the secular and the sacred, history and heritage, scholarship and advocacy, and lay versus professional
In the end, the problems of perspective, morality, and political partiality exist beyond explicit political and other partisanship. That a historian
takes the side of a political party or government, a religious or ethnic group,
the working classes or the entrepreneurs, and so on, is clear enough to those


Fashioning History

not convinced of those arguments already. So too are the judgments rendered on the evils of the past. All professional historians these days are
against slavery, racism, and genocide and for justice, democracy, and
equality in general. But what do such commitments involve in the end?
Aside from praise for abolitionists and Allies and condemnation of slaveholders and Nazis, for example, what does such a commitment entail?
Ought the historian also use the past to expose the inner workings of
todays society that still perpetuates social and racial inequality, hegemonic and oppositional ideologies, and globalism and imperialism?
Should all history be critical history that seeks to challenge, even subvert, the status quo as some historians advocate? Such critical history can
point out past options not taken by a society, provide alternative frames
of reference to its members, defamiliarize the long accepted in the society,
and demystify the institutional facades hiding the people actually running the social machinery.49 In the end should historians in the West, for
example, praise or condemn, uphold or oppose the gap between the ideals
of liberal society and how they were practiced at home and particularly
abroad? These questions about politics suggest how perspective and meaning penetrate to the very core of the historical project. The only unacceptable answer is no answer to such questions as any brief examination
of the role of perspective and meaning in historical synthesis shows.
Both historians and their audiences use history and therefore histories
for their own purposes. The study of history is justified for many reasons:
to entertain and edify, advance cultural literacy, instill patriotism, challenge
the status quo, show Gods works, encourage toleration, teach lessons,
expose social evils, promote social identity, empower minorities, portray
everyday past lives and institutions, foster or condemn nationalism or
religion, study the past for its own sake, and prove the usefulness or
inutility of history among the many professed uses. The audiences and
those interested are many: the state through educational curriculums,
financing, and certification; social and political movements through propaganda and organizational recruitment; religious groups through identity and boundary maintenance; museum exhibitors and documentary
filmmakers for information, audience appeal, and funding; historical sites
and pageants for commemoration, identity, and support; publishers and
entertainment moguls for service, amusement, and remuneration; ethnic
groups for preservation of memory and identity; and not least the profession itself for almost all these reasons. These interests, audiences, and
indeed historians themselves disagree on how best to attain their goals. All
agree that histories should provide perspective on the past, offer lessons

Historical Synthesis


(especially including the denial of any), and give meaning to their subject
matter, but they differ over what History conceived as an overall approach
to the past proves and therefore how a normal history achieves their ends.
The differences result fromas they showthe complexities of modern
societies and the multiple social locations of their citizen/subjects.50
Professional historians agree that proper histories offer perspective on
the past and give meaning through their syntheses, but the means to these
ends not only vary but are also in dispute. Perspective implies distance
from past peoples and events, and that distance supposedly lends objectivity to the historian in her understanding of those past persons and their
actions. What distance in space lends to perspective in painting, distance
in time supposedly lends to perspective in history.51 The greatest perspective undoubtedly arises from the historian knowing the future of the past:
the outcomes of past aims and actions. At its extreme such retroactive prediction underlies titles that contain such words as The Invention, the
Individual, or the Event followed by a phrase like That Changed the
World. A best-selling recent example of the genre is How the Irish Saved
Civilization: The Untold Story of Irelands Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome
to the Rise of Medieval Europe by Thomas Cahill.52
Some argue history(ies) should show how todays peoples, their societies, material objects, and ideas evolved from those of yesteryears. Such
mottoes as the present grows from past or the past is prologue to the present embody this somewhat teleological approach.53 Others propose history(ies) should show how the past was quite different from the present.
This anthropology of time, so to speak, issues forth in a maxim like the
past is a foreign country or speaks of the otherness of the past.54 In
either case, the job of the historian is to recontextualize the past so as to
make it mean something to the present-day audience. At the least, the
historian must adopt a context understandable to a modern audience. At
best, the historian renders a new perspective, exhibits a new context that
makes the past memorable or useful or interesting to people in the present.
Given this necessity of connecting to an audience, the traditional caveat
about avoiding present-mindedness oversimplifies and distorts what historians do and must do in lecture, book, exhibition, report, or film.
Part of the perplexity about political and moral judgments and perspective and meaning stems from the incompatibility of the dual tasks of
Clio, the ancient muse of history: to exhort her listeners to great deeds on
one hand and to record their feats on the other hand. Exhortation entails
advocacy at the least and justifies propaganda at the most. Reporting
demands accurate representation and even fair-mindedness about past


Fashioning History

persons, events, and institutions. To what extent then should historians

allow purpose to shape their projects and perhaps even control their findings? How open and explicit should political, social, and moral commitments therefore be? Should historians confess them in preface, prologue,
or other place? It seems easy enough to confess the explicit commitments,
but what about the implicit ones entwined in choice of subject, research
design, framework of interpretation, or even what is considered historical
reality or the nature of time?55
It is the imputation of meaning that arouses claims of bias, partiality,
partisanship, and the like. At their most fundamental histories give the
past meaning through the arrangement of their stories, facts, and generalizations into syntheses, and those syntheses in turn provide the meaning
of the story and the context of the facts and generalizations. Historians
believe only through such organization does an assemblage of facts
become a proper history. Modern historians search not for the essential
meaning of all the past, once the domain of universal history or the philosophy of history. Rather they seek arguments, stories, explanations,
interpretations, and perspectives that fashion a multitude of factual and
other statements into a meaningful synthesisone that an audience can
understand and appreciate. It was and is here that grand and metanarratives play such an important role in providing meaning for the profession
and audiences alike, especially implicitly, by offering a larger framework
for the narratives, arguments, moral and political evaluations, and other
statements. What seems objective and factual to one audience or interpretive community, however, appears biased and implausible to another.
At times what is profoundly meaningful to one audience makes little or
no sense to another audience.
Voice and Viewpoint
Both perspective and meaning, whether explicit or implicit, find their
expression through voice and viewpoint. Questions about voice ask who
speaks and for whom in the text or other medium, and the analyst inquires
how and in what form. Questions about viewpoint ask from what and
whose viewpoint, that is, for what and whose perspective. Once again the
analyst queries about form as well as content. Only by taking a viewpoint
can the historian select and organize her factual and other statements.
Viewpoint gives coherence to facts and statements about the past; voice
gives expression to them. At the same time, it is adoption of a viewpoint
that leads to what others label bias, partiality, and lack of objectivity. The

Historical Synthesis


big question (from the perspective of the preceding chapter) is whether

the voices and viewpoints are found in the sources or supplied by the historian. Are they re-presented or constructed?56
Do the historical actors speak for the historian as well as themselves, or
does the historian speak for them in and through the construction of the
history? In a re-presentation the historian often accepts the actors viewpoints along with their statements. Is the best mode of exposition then
quotation with paraphrase a second choice? In a construction the historian always speaks for herself, but frequently in the name of the actors.
Can the actors speak for themselves or only through the historian in each
synthesis? Who speaks for the unrecorded, the undocumented? Oral historians claim their approach recovers evidence of such activities and
thoughts not available through traditional means.57 Must a historian
share class, gender, ethnicity, religion, or politics with the actors in order
to speak for them? Must biographers admire, or at least like, their subjects
to be fair in their representation of them? Ought historians make a contract with past peoples, so to speak, to represent their actions and their
viewpoints as honestly and authentically as possible as one noted scholar
once avowed in a session of the American Historical Association?58
Historians efface their personal presence in a history by using the
third-person voice. Such effacement is supposed to enhance objectivity.
Historians are warned and usually criticized for using the first-person
pronoun outside of footnotes, introductions, or their equivalents in other
media. At the same time such effacement of authority implies an omniscient viewpoint. Would use of first-person voice better cue the reader to
the viewpoint of the historian in a specific work?
Arguing and narrating from a viewpoint differs from arguing for a
viewpoint. The second is usually explicit in story or argument as theme or
thesis, but the first is usually implicit. Both select and shape the facts presented, but, if the viewpoint is implicit, the audience must read between
the lines or look behind the image to find it. Viewpoint in a history may
be from the perspectives of the historical actors or the historian, that is,
from within or outside the historical world being conveyed. Whether historians re-present or construct statements about a historical time and
place, whether they adopt viewpoints and voices from the past or offer
their own, they must consider and combine at least four different kinds of
viewpoints in lecture, book, film, report, or exhibit.
First, viewpoint may be perceptual. From whose perspective or angle
is the physical world perceived or represented? Point of view in film is a
good literal illustration of this viewpoint. How much is seen through the


Fashioning History

eyes of the actors and how much from beyond them, even an overall
birds-eye or synoptic view by the director? How is the landscape conceived as well as perceived in a history? Historians visit the locality of the
events they describe, although the events occurred long ago, because they
hope to see what past persons saw. For the same reason, some historians
join others in trying to preserve some historic buildings, battlefields, and
sites from modern development. What and whose names are on the land
and what does that show about its comprehension in the past? Whose
ecological understanding is conveyed by whether aboriginal or conquerors place names are used? How did those living then understand spatial and social matters as opposed to how we look at them today? Historical
and perceptual geographers as well as historians try to convey a sense of
On the other hand, for historians to imagine the past as people then
felt and perceived it becomes ever trickier if not harder as transportation
and communication speeded up over the millennia. The transition from
oral to scribal to print to cyber cultures not only determined the nature of
the surviving evidence of past worlds but also offers its own evidence of
different perceptual and conceptual worlds. The almost instantaneous
communication of the telegraph and the increased speed of travel first by
steamship and railroad and then by the airplane shrank the earth and
increased the interchange among peoples. As the result of these communication and transportation changes, historians need ever greater imagination to picture the physical and social context of peoples the farther
removed they are from the present.60
It is of course fashionable for scholars in todays world to stress how
great social and cultural interchange was even in the farthest past and
among all peoples, even those once considered primitive, as if the world
of yesteryear was similar to the global now. Hence past societies and cultures once pictured as isolated, self-contained islands outside the stream
of history are now depicted as archipelagos wide open to constant commercial and intercultural exchange very much in the flow of world history.61 In fact, the very conception of a culture or a society, even in the
extreme past, has only an attenuated meaning in scholarly usage today
given the extreme permeability of their borders and their continuous
change, hence the vocabulary of transnational, intercultural, translation,
negotiation, creolization, and hybridity to describe the past and present
encounters of peoples, the effects of decolonization and subalternity, and
the impact of border crossings and diasporas.

Historical Synthesis


The debate over the social construction of nature versus its independent material effect seems another aspect of perceptual viewpoint. Whose
and what understanding of nature should be used in a history: the actors
or the historians? Those historians conveying the perceptions of the
actors re-present those views as such through quotation or paraphrase.
For them, the natural environment, like the social one, is the creative construction of the inhabitants. Such an approach is likely to offer the social
construction of nature by those who modified it as they used it. The users
understanding of their physical environment is a social and ideational
artifact in this view. Others argue that historians willingly or otherwise
judge the environmental soundness of their actors views and, more
importantly, their actions. It is this step that contrasts the historians theory of what is nature and how it works with that of the actors. Of course,
all historians seek varying and complex relationships between past
humans and what they called or we call nature. Historians who point
out the unintended consequences of deliberate policy and uses depend in
the end on more than the social construction of nature. These historians
base their findings upon their understanding of the coercive reality of the
natural environment when humans tried to fool mother nature too
much. In the end all environmental histories take a stand on the degree to
which nature in a given place and time is chiefly a cultural interpretation
of a societys relationship with its physical environment and the degree to
which nature possesses an independent environmental reality, or as some
say a material agency, in those circumstances? Both actors and historians define what is natural and nature.62
Considered equally natural was the rise of nationalism and the nation
in history. Romantic nationalism and modern scientific historical method
arose together in the nineteenth century, especially in the Germanies as
the idea of the Fatherland was created historically as well as symbolically and territorially. In line with these dual trends, the nation became
not only the preferred unit of analysis but was presumed the most appropriateeven most naturalone for history. Historians assumed in many
ways that the national histories of England or France or even the United
States were not only the normative goal of actual history for all peoples
but also its normal route and the focus of its narration as a result.63 Most
professional historians continued until recent decades to stress the nation
as the proper stage, the best context, for history (as well as the basic social
actor), whether conceived as a state, a society, or a culture. Questioning
the simultaneous rise of a nation, nationalism, and nationhood and seeing nation formation as a multiple concatenation of events and persons


Fashioning History

led to two distinctly different results in todays historical practice (besides

abandoning the Western European model of nationalism as normative,
normal, and natural).
First, historians no longer assume that the nation is a naturally occurring and normal entity or that nationalism is a primordial drive in peoples psyches and a part of human nature. Historians today increasingly
explore how national territories, a national political system and state,
national institutions and a society, and corresponding symbolic and cultural representations come into being through changing boundaries, the
creation of governments and political allegiances, new social and institutional arrangements, revised ethnic and gender definitions, cultural
inventions and symbolic attachments, commemoration and collective
memory. In this manner, nations were constructed first by their citizen
subjects and then by historians.64
Secondly, historians have also displaced increasingly the nation as the
principal stage for histories in favor of local communities and everyday
life or transnational movements and border crossings to focus on what
and who was involved in past processes and what were the effects.
Whether or not the extrapolation of the globalized world of the twentieth
century to the past will be found as insightful in the future as now, historians today speak in terms of capitalist world systems, colonial and imperial systems, the Atlantic world, hybrid cultures, and transnationalism.
They have transformed the earlier study of migrations from one nation to
another that stressed the recipient society and culture into diasporas from
a source society or culture that emphasizes the interaction between earlier
and later times in both provider and recipient societies. They prefer to
look at movements and cultures that transcend national boundaries
rather than the older approach to the nation-state system and the resulting diplomacy and international relations. And last, they feel that the
study of everyday life uncovers the people, events, and institutions that
created, sustained, or opposed the larger trends and social arrangements
previously presumed in national histories or omitted from them when
using the nation as the primary focus. The transformation of local history
into microhistory, international relations into transnational trends,
migrations into diasporas, and newer definitions of ethnicity and nationalism all seem part of the recent movement from social to cultural history,
from structural analysis to narrative agency and contingency.
The last example of perceptual viewpoint concerns how the geography
of the world is represented ideologically. Just by repeating, for example,
the terms New World and Old World promotes European societies

Historical Synthesis


and devalues other peoples cultures. Such ideological geography includes

the arbitrary division of the planet into continents and hemispheres; into
West and East or West and the rest; and even the common favorable
judgment of the North over the South whether in so many countries
(France, Germany, Italy, and the United States for example) or continents
and hemispheres in general. The longtime concentration in histories on
nations, their lands, and their boundaries worked against portraying the
past according to sea- and ocean-based systems until recently. Historians
were slow to accept the idea of the Atlantic world of eighteenth century
or even the Pacific Rim in the twentieth century unlike the Mediterranean
World of ancient times and later. Confusion over the boundaries of the
Middle or Near East and of North and Latin America versus North and
South America reveal their ideological foundation. That presumption is
even more evident in the once popular designation of the so-called
European (and other advanced nations); the former Communist
East; and the rest (called successively the undeveloped, underdeveloped, and developing nations) as the First, Second, and Third Worlds.
The numbering system makes clear the Eurocentric basis of the nomenclature even as it elevates the economy and/or the political system of certain so-called Western nations as the chief criteria for making the ranking.
(The core, semiperipheral, and peripheral zones in World Systems
theory resemble in number and function if not in moral judgment the
Eurocentric history of imperial expansion.) The once extensive red or
pink color on world maps to designate the British Empire quite literally
colored the imagination of those viewing the map about the place of that
island in the planets affairs. The red- and blue-colored states from the
2000 electoral map of the United States have become a short hand for a
host of attributions about the cultural as well as political divisions in the
nation. All such metageography conceals complex actuality in the eyes
of many scholars even as it supposedly conveys that reality to those
expounding it.65
Such metageography poses the usual problems for historians. If they
re-present it through repeating the views of some past actors, they must
be careful not to accept its premises and perspective as determining their
own geographic views. If they construct the world of past actors, they
must not substitute their own geographical stereotypes for those of their
actors. This is the message of Edward Saids influential book on Orientalism,
which exposes the ideological biases of Western conceptions of the East,
particularly of the Middle East. Of course, such metageographical
notions have their own history.66


Fashioning History

The most influential interpretation of American history depended

upon just such ideological geography. Frederick Jackson Turners conception of The Significance of the Frontier in American History, to use the
title of the paper he delivered in 1893, outlined how (white) American
settlement recapitulated continually the evolutionary stages from savagery through agrarianism to civilization as it advanced across the United
States.67 Each section of the country repeated the process from English
settlement on the East Coast until the Superintendent of the Census
declared the frontier had effectively ceased in 1890. For Turner, the constant recapitulation of evolutionary stages on each frontier explained why
the United States differed from European nations in values, outlook, and
national character: the reversion to earlier social relationships reinforced
the democratic society of that level throughout United States history. The
school that Turner founded dominated the interpretation of United
States history until after the Second World War.68
As these last paragraphs indicate, a second kind of viewpoint may be
summarized as conceptual, that is how the world is represented from the
standpoint of a belief system, ideology, or worldview. This is the domain
proper of intellectual and cultural history. The history of ideas from
Arthur Lovejoys earlier mapping out of what he called unit ideas to
recent Anglophone attention to the history of political discourses to the
current Germanic interest in begriffsgeschichte, or conceptual history, all
trace formal ideas over time. Lovejoys interest in the assumptions grounding the Elizabethan chain of being, Quentin Skinners detailed examination of how the meaning of Hobbes and Lockes words derived from
intended action and political context, and Reinhold Kosellecks extended
historical analyses of political and historical concepts all focus on the language of academic and other formal thinkers.69 Although cultural history
also takes the human symbolic realm as its subject, it stresses collective
representations, general assumptions, common perceptions, and even
communal feelings, particularly of ordinary people. Just as philosophy as
a discipline proved handy to intellectual historians, so anthropology provided inspiration and models for cultural historians. If intellectual historians frequently deal with the academic and formal ideas or even the
so-called elite culture of a people, cultural historians attempt to interpret
culture more generally according to their anthropological insight.70
Cultural history of this kind was perhaps best known first through the
French study of mentalits but more recently the field has proliferated
through the study of cultural practices, representations, productions, performances, and contingent but structured occasions. Two of the classic

Historical Synthesis


studies in the field utilized detailed inquisitorial records to reconstruct the

worldviews of common people. The Italian microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg
used the seemingly eccentric but original cosmology of Menocchio, a sixteenth-century Friulian miller who was eventually burned at the stake, to
portray the conflict between and yet interdependence of elite and popular culture.71 The French Annaliste Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie seemed to
present the very lives and thoughts of the early fourteenth-century villagers of Montaillou, whether that was the nature of their housing and
habits, sheepherding and ecological practices, the relations between men
and women, sexual norms and experiences, gesture and gossip, or attitudes toward death, nature, the hereafter, and the past.72 More recent cultural historians explored the image and representation of the body and its
parts, Parisian apprentices massacring cats, the nature and practice of
reading and the culture of the book, and common emotions and general
perceptions of all kinds. Just as cultural historians enlarged their purview
to include such topics, so too have they begun to apply their approaches
to political, economic, and social history topics. In doing so, these historians have reversed the long-standing professional commitment to the
primacy of the political, economic, and social history of culture to develop
instead the cultural history of the political, the economic, and the social.73
Intellectual and cultural histories would appear a prime application of
re-presentation of the evidence given their methods and goals, but construction always accompanies such efforts as interpretation, conclusion,
or lesson. Although cultural history, for example, supposedly seeks to
understand past worlds in terms of how their inhabitants did, such a goal
necessitates as much construction as any other kind of history. Even Carlo
Ginzburg artfully organizes his seemingly endless quotation from the
inquisitorial records, carefully construes the significance of the questions
asked and how answered in terms of his own inquiries, and ultimately
extrapolates some larger conclusions about the relationship of popular
and elite cultures from the recorded evidence as he re-presents it. Even the
literal re-presentation of the past through authentic material objects in a
museum requires much interpretive construction, as we shall see in Chapter 4.
Perhaps more than in any other kinds of history, intellectual and cultural histories juxtapose past and current conceptions of reality. Such juxtaposition poses choices which in turn necessitate interpretation and
construction by historians. While such choice particularly confronts the
historians when their evidence describes the actuality of witches, magic,
and miracles, they face the same basic problem when the sources present
or posit racial, gender, or ethnic inferiority. Ultimately intellectual and


Fashioning History

cultural history probes the very foundational assumptions of professional

history today. When and why did the past become considered different
from the present? When, how, and why did the assumptions of source
criticism allow the winnowing of facts from their evidential context?
When and how were the nature of narrative and other modern expository
forms accepted as the mediums appropriate to professional history?
When and how were the divisions of time naturalized and made fundamental to historical understanding? How and when did factual accuracy,
objectivity, neutral chronology, and temporal plenitude come to measure
what was proper for professional history?
The third kind of viewpoint may be designated in general as evaluative, that is, people and events are judged according to some ones moral
standards or value system. Do the values and morals come from the historical world of the past or from world of the present? Should historians
(and their audiences) judge the morals of past people by our own? Or, are
ethics best appreciated and applied as a matter of time and place? Absolute
moral judgments condemn some behavior as bad no matter when and
where. Situational or contextual ethics seem inadequate for the sins of
racism, genocide, and oppression. But what about equal condemnation for
poverty, sickness, illiteracy, war, and criminal executions? What of praise
for the ethical treatment of animals and the philosophy of vegetarianism?
Historicism as the principal insight of the modern historical profession only compounds the ethical problem. Although the meaning of the
word has generated controversy since its German invention in the nineteenth century, the core of the conception lies in the assumption that
thoughts, activities, and institutions are best described and explained as
somehow fitting together in the era in which they are said to occur.
Understanding past peoples ideas and actions in terms of their times
stresses specificity, uniqueness, and temporal location, and that orientation has remained fundamental to the historical discipline.74
Such an orientation suggests two approaches to ethics and morality:
(1) each era as well as people has its own standards for judging the behavior of then and there and (2) historians today have their own moral criteria as a result of their own changed times. Should historians thus accept
the morality and ethical criteria of past actors as agents or the standards of
modern times and society? Historicism would seem therefore to hoist historians on the petard of their most cherished insight. The historical
method goes only so far in ameliorating the problem. The moral views of
past persons and their societies can be re-presented as facts in their own
words and perhaps actions from the surviving evidence. On the other

Historical Synthesis


hand, the historian can construe, that is infer and construct, past ethics
from the silence of the sources on the matters investigated. Of course, the
historian can eschew explicit moral evaluation but certainly imply it
through the quotations and paraphrases she uses in re-presenting matters.
In still another strategy, the historian can assert that her moral ends give
meaning to facts about the past for a present-day audience. In all these
cases, the professional principles or context of the modern historian do
not resolve the moral issues of re-presentation and construction, of implicit
versus explicit judgments, and absolute morality or contextualist ethics.75
The fourth and last kind of viewpoint is grounded on an emotional
stance or empathetic identification. How should the historian and the
audience feel about the subject of a biography, the goals of a political or
social movement, or the nature of a cultural achievement after hearing a
lecture, reading a book, attending an exhibition, or seeing a film? Was some
moment in the past a golden age from which the present is a decline? Or,
should the audience feel better about the present in light of comparison,
explicit or implicit, to the past? No matter what museum curators do to
forestall such implicit comparisons between past and present lifestyles,
museum viewers usually note the great progress in technology at the same
time as some lament the more rushed and complicated life such progress
brought. In the end, should the book reader, lecture listener, museum
attendee, or film viewer feel good, bad, or neutral about change, persistence, stability, or transformation in the past?76
Diverse perspectives and meanings as with other kinds of interpretations arise from historians, their critics, and their audiences being situated
in specific but different social (and temporal) locations with differential
access to power, knowledge, and its distribution. Their very situations
surely influence, perhaps determine, what they consider truth, reality,
facts, and the meaning of history. When approved of by a wide circle of
people in and out of the profession, the perspectives and meanings are
considered truthful and objective. When they are confined to a small circle of advocates, the majority considers them biased and subjective or just
unimportant. Does this mean that truthfulness, objectivity, and factuality
are ultimately a function of numbers and/or power, first in the profession
and then in the larger society?77
Arguments in the historical profession over partiality and impartiality,
truth and propaganda, partisanship and neutrality, fact and value have
traditionally centered on the notion of objectivity.78 Conventionally, the
notion of objectivity pertains to the relation between the observer and the
observed object. By definition, objectivity presumes the characteristics of


Fashioning History

the object itself solely determine the understanding of its nature by all
observersas is supposedly the case in the physical sciences. In this view
of matters, therefore, the perspectives of the observers are not relevant to
the description of the object and maybe even to its explanation. Subjectivity
in contrast assumes the understanding of the object depends upon the
perspective of observer. Explanation in this view is not only dependent
upon the perspective taken by the observer but so may the description of
the object. For those who believe in the possibility of objectivity in historical practice, truth results from the correspondence between the presumed reality of the past and the empirical investigation of the record it
generated. If interpretations differ, then the facts will determine their
truth, for in the end facts exist prior to and independent of interpretation.
If perspectives are many, truth is one for the known can be separated from
the knower and facts from values and viewpoints. Ultimately in this view,
history must and can be separated from fiction in order to avoid the evil
of relativism and all that means for the justification and very existence of
the profession itself. Of course, the possibility of objectivity in historical
practice depends upon ones perspective on these issues.79
Although the ideal of rigorous objectivity has long justified professional practices and products, most historians honor such strictness only
in spirit today. Professional ethics, social theory, and contending interpretive community affiliations all point elsewhere. If (absolute) objectivity means being free of all (social) context and independent of all interpretive
frameworks, then few today subscribe to such a view. If objectivity means
that a project follows professional procedures and represents the majority
opinion in a profession, then many more subscribe to this version in theory and even more in practice. If objectivity means agreements only
among some and not other interpretive communities, then fewer may
subscribe in theory even though they may claim that the ideal still justifies their truths versus those of others. In that sense they are all espouse
realism as the most useful philosophical foundation for the discipline.80
Both multiculturalism and postmodernism highlight the existence of
multiple voices and viewpoints in practice as well as theory. Accordingly,
viewpoint can no longer be considered from nowhere at all, a position the
intellectual historian Allan Megill cleverly named immaculate perception,81 or everywhere at once, usually denominated the omniscient or
God view. Thus Donna Haraway warns in her oft-cited article Situated
Knowledges against speaking universally but thinking locally. She argues,
objectivity turns out to be about particular and specific embodiment and
definitely not about the false vision promising transcendence of all limits

Historical Synthesis


and responsibility. She goes on to point out that from a feminist point of
view The moral is simple: only partial perspective promises objective
vision. . . . It allows us to become answerable for what we learn to see.82
Social engagement, if anything, enhances the ability to see as well as promote
the truth.
To serve the end of truthfulness, objectivity need not, indeed cannot,
be neutral, as the American intellectual historian Thomas Haskell argues
so forcefully, I see nothing to admire in neutrality. My conception of
objectivity . . . is compatible with strong political commitment. It pays no
premium for standing in the middle of the road, and it recognizes that
scholars are as passionate and as likely to be driven by interest as those
they write about. It does not value even detachment as an end in itself,
but only as an end in indispensable prelude or preparation for the
achievement of higher levels of understanding.83
Such commitment and passion ensures conflict among rival perspectives, which in turn assures the individual scholars partial viewpoints
become the community of scholars responsible pursuit of moral and
other truths. (This passionate objectivity demands as it presumes open
debate in the profession and the larger society.) The German theorist of
history Jrn Rsen makes the point even more forcefully: neutrality is the
denial of history because without perspective historical discourse has no
meaning. Neither narrative nor metastory can exist without the historians viewpoint.84 Or, as the British military historian Michael Howard
put it so pithily, No bias, no book.85
Objectivity, in short, is intersubjective agreement in both practice and
theory, as it derives from dialogues first within the profession and then
between the profession and the divisions of the larger society.86 The truths
affirmed by such a view of objectivity are idiosyncratic or political until
their truthfulness is ratified by a majority of the profession voting by
favorable reviews, election to prestigious professional offices, awarding of
fellowships and jobs, and the conferring of prominent chairs and honors.
Truthfulness and objectivity in this view depend upon how many different groupings hold how much in common about what it takes to produce
a valid history. Truthfulness and objectivity are, first, a consequence of
intersubjective agreement among individuals in an interpretive community and, second, negotiation between interpretive communities to expand
the original circle of agreement. Historical truths result from such objectivity, and both are the products of genre maintenance and policing. Both
truthfulness and objectivity constitute the rationale for the practice of
professional history. As a result, both are said to ground as they supposedly


Fashioning History

result from the procedures of historical methods and syntheses. Using the
rhetoric of factuality, truthfulness, and a new definition of objectivity
against their supposed enemy relativism shows historians are once again
being practical realists about their discipline and profession.
The more viewpoints and voices in the historical guild and in general
society, the more traditional history is challenged in forms of exposition
and explanation. Such a challenge underlines not only the role politics
plays within historical arguments and narratives as such but also suggests
the politics entwined in the various kinds of histories and the very nature
of history in general. No place is this political foundation better seen these
days than in the relationship between gender and genre. Concentration on
female work and roles in and out of family settings not only changed or
expanded the facts but also the forms of history. Political and military history excluded women and large sectors of society; social and cultural history included more groups and made the past relevant to the hitherto
socially marginalized.87 Indeed, some feminist theorists argue that the
whole fight over objectivity in the discipline and the search for the one
best story is a male approach to the world and the past. In their opinion,
then, gender and genre maintenance had gone hand in hand earlier in the
Regardless of ones positions on these matters, one must conclude that
perspectives and meaning(s) pervade histories and find expression through
voice and viewpoint in texts and other mediums. Sometimes they are
explicit as part of the argument, story, or explanation. Sometimes they are
implicit in the very framework of interpretation, choice of research
design, how historical reality is defined, or subtextually between the lines.
Perspectives and meaning(s) in histories can re-present those found in the
sources, or historians can impose them through their interpretive constructions. Sometimes the perspectives are widely shared by other historians and their audiences, sometimes not. In the latter instance, each
contending side accuses the other of advocacy, partiality, bias, distortion,
or propaganda and attributes to itself impartiality, perspective, factuality,
and truthfulness. Both recontextualize the past according to their viewpoint and purposes.
Multiculturalist and feminist theory underscored the presence of viewpoint in every history at the same time as that understanding undermined
the monopoly or universality of any one viewpoint in the discipline. In
this state of diversity, then, the lessons of history will always be most manifest to those who propound them but not necessarily to others. The
meaning of (a?) history will be clearest to those of the same interpretive

Historical Synthesis


school that elucidates it but challenged by those in other schools. From

this standpoint, the uses of history are many but the ultimate purpose is
the same: to offer convincing, yet presumably accurate, representations of
the past to as many individuals as possible. The diversity of viewpoints
makes such a goal a challenge. Perspective and context, meaning and
viewpoint, interests and uses, purposes and products must therefore be as
much a part of historical practice as they are always a part of historical
theory. To put something into historical perspective is to put it into some
historical context, and vice versa, and both are shaped by personal, professional, and larger societal contexts at the time.
Schools of Interpretation and Metanarratives
Schools of historical interpretation and metanarratives are not only the
culmination but, paradoxically, often the inspiration for historical syntheses, even their foundation. Historical synthesis culminates in interpretive schools and metanarratives because of the historians quest for an
ever-larger context to organize her story and argument, to interpret and
explain the multitude of events, and to provide larger perspective and
meaning for a history. Conversely, the historian can synthesize narrative
and argument, explanation and interpretation, perspective and meaning
into compelling relationships with each other in a history through contextualization according to the premises of some historiographic school or
In either case, the act of contextualizing history eventuates in a historical interpretation. Interpretation is a much used term by historians,
hence has many meanings in the profession.89 Interpretation is both a
practice and a product of the historical enterprise. As a practice, as we see
throughout this book, it pervades all aspects of historical research and
synthesis. It possesses at least four meanings as a product of those practices.
An interpretation, in one widespread usage, is the personal imprint an
historian gives any one history through the selection of facts and generalizations, their overall organization, the pattern of meaning presented, and
the lessons elicited and perspectives adopted. An interpretation in this
sense refers to the style, broadly speaking, of a historical work, and is conveyed primarily through voice and viewpoint. Such style embodies the
individualistic, creative side of historical practicethe great goal of all
humanistic enterprises in modern times. Scholars presume that such an
interpretation reflects the historians social background, political outlook,
and scholarly and other commitments.


Fashioning History

To the extent that several or more histories embrace the same special
methods, set of arguments, or basic perspective, they are referred to as a
school of interpretation. That method is the basis of the school is clear in
oral history and the quantitative and psychoanalytical schools of history.90 The terms Marxist and neo-Marxist were applied to a number of
schools in the twentieth century that were inspired by the perspective and
methodology of the great nineteenth-century social theorist.91 Arguably
the most famous of twentieth-century schools was the French Annales
school. The second name of its journal, Annales: conomies, Socities,
Civilization, suggests its ambitious program.92 What distinguished the
diverse practitioners of this school was the focus on the continuing effects
of long-term phenomena as opposed to day-to-day events: slow changing
patterns of trade and economy, persisting kinship and social relations,
enduring intellectual systems or mentalits, or even slower climatic or
demographic cycles. As mentioned earlier, successive schools of United
States historiography are commonly designated the progressive or economic interpretation from the first decades of the twentieth century to
the end of the Second World War; the consensus or counterprogressive
interpretation in the 1950s and 1960s; and the New Left or neoprogressive interpretation from the 1970s onward. Those histories of historywriting known as historiography frequently study changing interpretive
schools. To consider the nature of an interpretive school begins the shift
from an individual history or histories to the idea of the past as history.
The search for a larger context for general histories or even history in
general underlies the third and fourth meanings of interpretation. If
many historians search for a larger context results in the same explicit
overall story, then we can call it a master narrative, perhaps a dominant or
governing narrative, or even a grand narrative. Such a master narrative
might result from either the implications the historian draws from a more
specialized history, that is, the larger story of which the special history is
a part, or it might be the topic of a more general history. Some wellknown master or grand narratives are the rise and spread of Western capitalism, nationalism, and imperialism across continents and centuries.93
When the framework or larger context is implicit in a number of histories, it may be termed a metanarrative.94 Metanarratives are literally the
grand or great stories behind the more explicit stories. These implicit
grand narratives or major interpretive codings are the strings that hold the
necklace(s) of facts, explanations, and generalizations together not only in
both specialized and general histories but also in any exposition of history
in general. They provide the contextual coherence for the larger truth of

Historical Synthesis


a history, and they validate that history as they organize it. Where once
history revealed the working of Gods will, classic historical metanarratives since the Enlightenment relied on the ever-greater development and
dominion of reason especially as seen in scientific and technological
advancement, the inexorable spread of freedom as institutionalized in liberal democracy or prophesied by Marxism, and the confidence in inevitable
progress to provide the ultimate, universal truths of history (even though
modeled on Western themes and institutions and from a Western perspective). Recent metanarratives counter these classic ones by stressing
the persistence of ethnicity and social and cultural diversity, agency over
nature in creating ethnic and sexual identities; the spread of global capitalism with its many discontents; the empowerment of subordinated
peoples and the rise of postcolonial hybrid cultures; the seemingly apocalyptic ecological constraints on modern economies; and finally even the
arguments over the existence and effects of late industrialism and postmodernism. Like the old, the new metanarratives seek to provide ultimate
answers about the origins, purposes, and fate of a people, even though the
claims of the new may seem less universal and ethnocentric to us today
than those of the old.
What separates the third and fourth meanings of interpretation is how
evident or hidden, how explicit or implicit, is the string holding together
the necklace of facts and other statements in an individual history, a general history, a school of history, or especially in what is referred to as history in general. Whether explicit or implicit, grand or metanarratives
provide the most basic and largest contexts of all kinds of histories. The
larger the contextualization provided by such a narrative, the more likely
it is implicit, and the more likely it is this implicit story that gives coherence to the ostensibly disparate facts, explanations, and generalizations
presented. Metanarratives underlie both individual and collective memories and supply the links between them. Such metanarratives, by providing a fundamental context, shape histories regardless of medium and topic.95
Questions of identity and origins particularly evoke metanarratives for
their answers. Who are the we presumed in a lesson, book, exhibit, or
film? If national progress has abated as a dominant narrative to organize
histories, the central role of the nation as the chief setting for history still
thrives. While the idea of the nation no longer is accepted as the inevitable
and natural outcome of a peoples history, the nation is still the normal
stage for presentation of many histories, although called the state, a society, or a culture. The academic history profession is still divided mainly
according to national histories. Nationalism may need to be explained in


Fashioning History

history but history departments remain mainly organized by national histories. Many major journals, such as the American Historical Review, arrange
most of their reviews by geographical area as well as time. American,
English, French, and German exceptionalism still thrives in metahistorical practice if not always in theory.96
Ethnicity is not only a major component of collective memory but
also the basis of many a national history yet today. Whiteness studies trace
the evolution of certain nationalities becoming American and predominant in United States history. White constituted the main ethnic affiliation of those Americans that figured prominently in the history of the
United States from its English colonial beginnings, which concealed any
Native American or Spanish genesis. Anglo-Americans long assumed
themselves the majority and without ethnicity. Only immigrants or
minority persons possessed race or ethnicity in this story. And historians seconded this opinion explicitly and tacitly until recently whenever
they spoke or wrote of the American people.97 In a similar manner, the
preferred metanarrative of the English people traces their roots to the
invading Angles and Saxons rather than the indigenous Britons and
ancient Celts.98 Such competing metanarratives of national racial and
ethnic origins are common to many peoples.99
That ethnic metanarratives even ground the origins of Western civilization is shown by the heated controversy over the claims of political scientist Martin Bernal that ancient Greek civilization originated with Semitic
Phoenician and Egyptian peoples rather than later Indo-European northerners. In his provocatively titled, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of
Classical Civilization, he argues that this history, acknowledged by the
ancient Greeks themselves, was ignored or distorted beginning in the late
eighteenth century in order to give a white European ancestry to those
later Greek achievements considered the foundations of Western civilization.100 By the early twentieth century this racist-motivated Aryan myth
had triumphed over ancient knowledge, according to him. Bernals assertions elicited a vast outpouring of books and Web sites denying or supporting his scholarship and reasoning.101
The whole idea of otherness depends as much on a metanarrative as
does sameness.102 Sameness and otherness receive visual, often vivid, portrayal in museum displays. Do the peoples depicted in the exhibit look
and act like us to encourage identity, or are they presented in ways to
show difference and relativism? The answers to this question are particularly evident in museum exhibits about early humans: are they represented as more ape-like or more human? Questions about similarity and

Historical Synthesis


difference can be applied to any of the so-called prehistoric peoples and

their modes of life. The lives and artifacts of Native Americans and others
long presumed people without history, to once again use Eric Wolf s
title, are displayed in natural history or anthropological museums as
opposed to history museums. On the other hand, archaic Greek, Roman,
Egyptian, and Near and Middle Eastern peoples and their societies are
represented in historical museums as well as archaeological ones. Only
recently are the Mayan, Incan, and Aztecan civilizations being accorded
the same status.
Feminist scholars and womens historians still fight the metanarrative
of male-dominated histories that either exclude the activities of women
altogether or relegate them to the margins of the story. Once again this
issue is depicted visually in museum murals and dioramas of gender. This
matter concerns less the physical appearance of men and women and
more where they are located in a display and what they are doing. Are the
men central and active while the women are peripheral and passive or
even absent? Do the mens activities, such as fighting or business, and the
womens activities, such as cooking or housekeeping, confirm traditional
stereotypes of male and female roles and, more importantly, the worth of
those roles?103 According to some scholars this male bias is even marked
in archaeologys naming of cultural stages by tool making. To designate
human cultural epochs as Stone, Bronze, and Iron Ages is to stress male
activities and artifacts. Even to argue that civilization and history began
with writing favors male over female activities.104 In the end, is the master narrative of western civilization still a male story in all too many texts,
films, and museum displays?
Although Enlightenment faith in the progress of civilization appears
dead for moral and political affairs, that metanarrative still constitutes the
implicit if not explicit basis for medicine and technology in many a lecture, book, and museum exhibition. Though the historians producing
these histories deny such an explicit lesson, their hearers, readers, and
attendees draw that conclusion so popular is the metanarrative. Even historians writing about the history of history all too often imply that recent
interpretations are superior to older ones. That trend is reinforced by the
normative turn in the return to history in the social sciences as well as the
historical profession itself. Emphases on the morality of historic agents
leads to judgments of their actions as better and worse, which extends to
lauding newer histories emphasizing that approach over older ones seeking, even professing, neutrality if not always finding it. Particularly revealing


Fashioning History

are the changing judgments on past historical interpretations and the

search for the precedents of todays more approved histories.105
In the end, all kinds of histories, whether argumentative or narrative,
whether the history of a life, a town, a region, a nation, or the world; of a
day, year, decade, century, millennium, or longer; no matter how partial
or comprehensive, all rely explicitly or implicitly on a larger narrative
context to frame their arguments, specific stories, moral lessons, and perspectives. To cover both the explicitness of grand narrative and the implicitness of metanarrative, I employed the term Great Story.106 Great Stories
serve as the larger or largest framework for organizing the disparate,
embedded stories and arguments of a segment of history, whether partial
or more general, short term or longer. They provide the coherence so necessary to make what otherwise would be a chronicle or annals into a narrative history. In current practice, such Great Stories serve as the larger
context for an overall approach to a national, transnational, or even global
Such Great Stories underlie even the past itself conceived as (a) history.
The only question, as the parenthesis in the preceding sentence indicates,
is whether the ultimate context of the past as history is one or more Great
Stories. Numerous Great Stories exist in normal historical practice, but
does the profession seek or at least prefer one overall Great Story as the
(an?) ultimate and necessary context for all the other contexts? Historians
once thought such comprehensive Great Stories were only the province of
(and most evident in) the speculative or universal histories seeking the
ultimate meaning of the entire human past, whether as class struggle,
clash of civilizations, technological improvement, or democratic advance.
Now they recognize that even less grand interpretive efforts use some sort
of Great Story to provide conceptual structure in humbler, everyday histories. The construction of a Great Story or Stories as context in a history,
in an interpretive school, or for history in general constitute the ultimate
intervention by the historian to make sense of the past as history. Some
scholars therefore believe the greatest metanarrative is the standard,
unquestioned approach to historic time in western discourse.108
Subtextual analysis, or reading between the lines, of a history or history in general is the domain proper of metahistory. No longer reserved
for the great universal interpretations of all history or the search for the
ultimate meaning of the past, metahistory today explores on one hand the
larger and largest contexts posited by histories in general in the profession
and on the other hand the foundational premises of historical methodology underlying those histories and therefore the fashioning of them. In

Historical Synthesis


the former case, metahistory examines the implicit models of human

behavior (classically hidden in traditional histories), the implications of
the politics presumed in a history, or the premises and nature of a historical narrative. In the latter case, metahistory looks at the epistemological
and ontological presumptions of a history or history in general as practiced by a school or the whole profession or examines the linguistic rules,
the rhetorical strategies, and the premises of historical narrative in general. (The study of such rules and premises is known in literary theory as
narratology and what is studied is called narrativity.) Metahistory in both
of its forms provides as it studies the context of contexts, the framework
for the embedded layers of a history, and the premises that generates them.
In its most controversial form, metahistory studies the imaginative
configuring historians perform to shape their material at its very foundations. Hayden White, whose Metahistory gave the term its new meaning,
argues that historians emplot their (hi)stories according to the same four
basic forms of romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire as other literary
authors. Likewise, he insists that the imaginative prefiguring that grounds
their texts takes the form of four classic rhetorical tropes: metaphor,
metonymy, synecdoche, and irony. Whether dividing all of the historical
imagination into four parts is too few, too many, or just right is of less
concern to my argument at this point, then what such a scheme implies
about the nature of history and historical practice. To extend for the
moment Whites reasoning, are there only so many general plots by which
historical syntheses can be organized? Students of literary narratives find
only a limited number of plot elements and structures. Hayden Whites
stress on four basic emplotments and prefigurings as common literary
structures suggests that historical narratives are restricted in their basic
variety in the same way, despite the infinity of actors, events, and times
that such structures may contain. In the end, must all of the past be fashioned into one or another Great Story in order to comprehend the
changes in human actions and institutions over time? Or, can historians
postulate and conceive of the past as a big picture that cannot be fully
narrativized? If the entire past cannot be narrativized as such, then must
one understand that big picture as some great annals or great chronicles
rather than a version of proper history? If this is the case, the past only
becomes history through the creation of histories by historians. History
conceived as a whole is the idealized or hypothesized story of the past postulated and extrapolated from various historians histories.
All of history therefore shares the same characteristics common to all
histories. Historical syntheses may be narrative or argument, but most


Fashioning History

histories use both. Historical syntheses unite explanation and interpretation through style and rhetoric. Historical syntheses combine meaning
and perspective through voice and viewpoint. Contextualization ranges
from the simple juxtaposition of factual statements to Great Stories themselves. Great Stories vary from explicit petit rcits to overt master narratives, from complexes of implicit presuppositions to entire metanarratives.
While all histories have common characteristics, they vary by degrees of
intervention and interpretation by historians acting as supposed intermediaries between the survivals from the past and the type of historical products they create in the present. The next three chapters examine the
relationships among the empirical and the literary and artistic elements
within various genres of history.