The History Manifesto (Jo Guldi & David Armitage) – A Review

Almost immediately into the introduction of The History Manifesto, I was excited to see Guldi and Armitage’s focus on long term thinking, and especially the mention of the Long Now Foundation. I’ve been casually interested in the subject since I read Neal Stephenson’s Anathem in 2008, a sci-fi novel premised on a society’s solution to long term thinking, setting up a monastic order that is cut off from communication with the outside world for set periods of time. Stephenson was inspired by the Long Now project. Guldi and Armitage, luckily for us historians, don’t recommend anything as drastic as Stephenson’s fictional solution. In fact, they argue the opposite, historians, especially those who work with long term thinking (longue durée) projects, should be more involved with policy decisions that affect the world outside of academia. And the thing is… really want to agree with their argument. In fact, I do agree that longue durée projects are important, and more historians should be policy advisors. Unfortunately, for me, the book attempted to make that point in a way that felt rambling or incohesive.

The authors begin with a historiographical account of longue durée trends in the history profession, and then of the decline of that trend in the 1970s. While their examples of longue durée histories are admirable, it is when they begin to discuss micro-histories that the argument seems to lose steam. Guldi and Armitage alternate between being critical of the rise of micro-histories in history academia, and of praising them for their ability to be used as parts of longue durée histories, or as social critiques. They write that “[i]n narrowing, [micro-historians] found the freedom to take on big ideas and to publish authoritative and insightful perspectives that helped the public to contextualise enormous forces like racism or nationalism as constructed developments rather than as a natural social order somehow predestined to shape human minds for eternity.” I realize that the authors’ complaint with micro-history is not necessarily the mode of historical thinking itself, but how its rise seemed to be at the expense of the longue durée. While I’m sure there is some truth to that narrative, they also write of longue durée histories taking place during this time period as shining examples in the short-term darkness. This didn’t convince me that the situation was as dire as they seemed to make it out to be.

My biggest problem with the book was the premise that the authors took that Historians are the only profession that is trained and capable of analyzing long term trends of data in a way that is critical and contextual.  They are extremely critical of other disciplines like anthropology and, most especially, economics. While I’m completely on board with the idea that historians should be at the forefront of policy advising because of these specialized abilities, and with critiquing other disciplines for their lack of critical thinking, to go so far as to say we (historians) are the only ones capable of doing so, or to criticize (not critique) others without offering solutions or collaboration is failing to examine our own faults while demonstrating a lack of faith in others. Although even Guldi and Armitage again contradict themselves later in the book, offering glowing reviews of anthropological studies, and stating “History is not unique in having a vocation to enlighten and reform, at least if it is compared with the other disciplines – sociology, anthropology, political science – usually collected under the umbrella of the social sciences rather than juxtaposed with sibling
disciplines in the humanities, such as philology or musicology.”

Guldi and Armitage are proponents of the capabilities of big data, and its application in longue durée projects. And while I agree that somewhere down the line this may be the case, I don’t think that (in many cases) the data is there yet. In more of their contradictory fashion, the authors offer examples of projects using big data that either aren’t big data (if you can collect all the data by traveling to archives and extracting the data yourself, what your working with isn’t “big data”, it’s just a lot of data), or aren’t longue durée projects (most of the examples they use take place of decades, not centuries or millennia, as they frame “longue durée” history earlier in the book). But the reason for this discrepancy is that the data for longue durée history just isn’t there yet. Most “big data” is based on digital records, and born digital records have only been kept for a few decades, and despite how it may sometimes seem digitization of masses of records is really still in its infancy. I think we’ll get there eventually, and when we do, the longue durée framing will be an amazing way to work with big data.

One of the biggest questions I have at the end of the book, isn’t whether historians can go back to making longue durée histories that are influential in policy making decisions, it’s that even if we can do that (which I think we can and should), how can we convince the policy makers our work is important? Will the work itself be evidence enough of its importance to those in power? I doubt it. I don’t think it’s historians that need to be convinced of the argument presented in the book, it’s politicians.

In the end, I still support their premise, but Guldi and Armitage seem to want to make it hard for me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *