A noted historian offers a lucid overview of her changing field.
“History is always under construction,” writes Hunt (History/UCLA; Inventing Human Rights, 2007, etc.) in this study of the current state of historical writing. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, histories served the purpose of reinforcing national identity, telling a story meant to provide disparate ethnic groups, classes and regions with a common sense of their country’s past. By midcentury, however, new perspectives emerged, influencing research and writing: Marxism, which focused on class struggles; modernization, which investigated the transmission of knowledge and the conflict “between modernizing forces and traditional groups who are left behind”; the French Annales school, which examined society, social groups and economies; and identity politics, which looked particularly at women, minorities and immigrant groups. These four paradigms, the author argues, were undermined by cultural theories emerging from the 1960s to 1990s: Race studies, queer studies, gender studies and post-colonial studies served as critiques, insisting that “race, gender, and class could not be viewed as stable categories determined by biology, demography, or economics” but rather were “shaped by unstable systems of interrelationship created by shifting cultural values.” Beginning in the ’90s, many historians developed a new interest in transnational and global history, posing a challenge to redefine the boundaries of society. Historians thinking globally widen their scopes to consider the relationship of humans to the natural world, individuals’ psychology and the connection between biology and culture. Hunt offers some startling examples of global interactions—e.g., the desperate demand for Chinese rhubarb, used as a purgative in 17th-century Europe, which affected travel, economics and the transmission of medical knowledge from China to Europe. When tea drinking became a popular leisure time activity, it inspired importation of special cups, saucers and teapots and influenced the creation of meals as “important domestic activities” signaling refinement.
In this incisive look at the history of history, Hunt asserts that globalization will inspire a new paradigm acknowledging the importance—and inevitably—of cross-disciplinary and collaborative inquiry.