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The historiographic proposal of History under Debate(1)


Carlos Barros
Universidad de Santiago de Compostela

What I am submitting today is an advancement on a set of proposals on the profession of historians and the writing of history that shall be the object of discussion within the academic net of History under Debate, which I am honoured to coordinate.

After eight years of contacts, reflections and debates in the form of conferences, inquiries and on-line contacts (, we have felt compelled to make explicit and update our historiographic stance through critical dialogue with other historiographic tendencies developed in the last decade of the twentieth century :1) the sixties and seventies continuism , 2) postmodernism y 3) return to the old history, the latest historiographic innovation. Those alternatives that remain in place after this historical and historiographic transition will have to agree on a common paradigm for the historians of the twenty-first century.


A Science with a subject

We advocate neither Ranke's objectivist history nor the subjectivist history of postmodernity : we propose a science with a human subject which discovers the past as it builds it.

Taking into account the two subjectivites, i.e. historical agents and historians, that have an influence on our process of knowledge is the best guarantee of the objectivity of its results, which are necessarily relative and, therefore, rigorous.

The time has come for history to update its concept of science, abandoning the naive objectivism inherited from the nineteenth century.

The narrowing of the gap between scientific and humanistic culture will facilitate the definition of history as both a social science and as part of humanities.

New erudition

We propose a new erudition that widens out the concept of historical source to include non-official documentation, non-written evidence, be it oral or iconographic , to the non-sources: silences, errors, gaps that historians must evaluate seeking to achieve objectivity also through the plurality of the sources.

A new erudition decisively supported by a knowledge that is not based on the sources provided by the researcher: History made of ideas, hypothesis, explanations and interpretation, which, in turn, help us build up the sources.

A new erudition that, acknowledging that empirical work leads to the historical truth only through the communities of historians, promotes debate and consensus in collective spheres.


Recovering innovation

A new paradigm is necessary that gives back its academic and social prestige to method and theme innovation, to questions and answers, in short, to originality in historical research . A new historiography that looks ahead and gives the profession of historians a enthusiasm for renovation and historiographic commitments.

New lines of research will be found if we use our own heads. On the principle that there is nothing in history that should not concern us. We will advance through the mixture and the convergence of genres; by finding new uses for old things from biography to microhistory; by paying attention to cultural and scientific needs in a society undergoing a profound transformation.

Twenty-first century historiography requires the eagerness and the reality of truly innovative approaches. Or else, like Lot's wife, it will turn into a sculpture of salt.


The new historiography must extend interdisciplinarity in a balanced way : inwards, by restoring the unity of history and outwards, by widening out the range of alliances.

It is our duty to bridge the gaps between the huge archipelago that has become our discipline over the last few decades .

Likewise, history must interchange methods, techniques and approaches with the social sciences but also with literature and the philosophy of history and science as well as with natural sciences and the newly-born disciplines dealing with new technologies and their impact on science, culture and social communication.

There are three avenues that, in our view, should be avoided in our effort to enrich history: 1) to pursue an impossible 'unified social science' around another discipline; 2) to turn the history- social science dialogue into the magic wand for the 'crisis of history'; 3) to dilute history in this or that successful discipline, as it is advocated today, by radical narrativists in relation to literature.

Against fragmentation

The failure of 'total history' in the sixties and seventies paved the way for a swift fragmentation of themes, methods and schools which seemed to come to an end in the nineties and that is proving increasingly anachronic for the global world ahead. The alternative is to promote new forms of globality which result in the convergence of historical research, beyond historical specialties.

So as to make a history free of adjectives possible, it is, therefore, necessary to try out research projects that adopt the global as their starting point: mixed lines regarding themes, methods and traditions; incorporating to general history specialized paradigms ; scrutinizing general history through concepts such as narration, scale or comparison ; investigating world history as global history; utilizing new technologies to work at the same time with writings, voices and images; developing reflection and debate as a common ground for all historical specialties.



The Historiographical Task

Being aware that subjects influence the results of research it becomes necessary to investigate researchers themselves for the sake of historical objectivity. How? By attempting to integrate individuals in groups, schools and implicit or explicit historiographic tendencies , because they condition the evolution of written history and ultimately justify our considering a historian as a 'master'; by studying historians for what they do, and not just for what they say; by applying( with some qualifications) three key concepts in the history of postpositivist science: 'paradigm' as a set of shared values; 'scientific revolution' as break and continuity; ' community of specialists' because of their deciding power, which is, in turn, conditioned by their social, mental and political environment . In short, by doing an immediate historiography so as to anticipate the events that provoke historiographic changes.

Global Historiography

The exhaustion of national centers of renovation in the twentieth century has provoked a historiographic decentralization which the globalization of information and knowledge is consolidating. Historiographic initiatives are now closer than ever to us all. Evidence of this is the growing importance of both a critical Latin historiography and a Postcolonial historiography. Transnational communities of historians, organized over the Internet already play a role in the creation of new consensus to the detriment of the old system in which some historiographies depended on others. We, nonetheless, do not see globalization as a standardizing process. We think and do history and historiography in different, superimposed ambits: local, regional, national, supranational and international.

Autonomy of the historian

As the collective projects of the twentieth century fell into decline with no new paradigms clearly taking their place, the influence of the publishing market, the great media and political institutions became bigger in the writing of history, its themes and methods.

In order to recover the autonomy of historians to decide the how, the what and the why of historical research it would be necessary to rebuild tendencies, associations, and communities that revolve around historiographic projects rather than around academic fields ; to potentiate critical historiographies outside the established powers; to use the Internet as a democratic, alternative media for the publication and circulation of initiatives and research; to observe the evolution of immediate history so as to capture the present and future historiographic needs of civil society.

Identifying tendencies

The most noxious way of imposing one's own historiographic tendency is to negate the existence of other historiographic tendencies. The prevailing individualism, academic compartments and national borders hide what we share, often without our being aware of it. It is therefore, our view that the existing, more or less latent and organized tendencies should be brought to the surface so as to clarify where each of us stands, delimit debates and facilitate consensus. An academic discipline with no tendencies, discussion and self-reflection is subject to extra-academic pressure. Being aware of our historiographic commitment makes us free before undesired influences, breaks personal, corporative and local isolation and should facilitate public acknowledgment as well as the usefulness of our work .



We are against making a fresh start and ignore the history and historiography of the twentieth century. The return of the old history makes advisable to remember the critique made by Annales , Marxist and Neopositivism , but it also demonstrates the partial failure of the historiographic revolution of the twentieth century of which they were protagonists. The necessary critical and self-critical balance of historiographic avant-gardes does not annul their relevance as indispensables traditions for the construction of the new paradigm because they symbolize the school spirit and historiograpic militancy, the concept of a professional history opened to the new and to social commitment , features that we must recover in the new century in a different academic, social and political environment and having at our disposal much better means than in the sixties and seventies.


Digital Historiography

New technologies are revolutionizing our access to bibliography and the sources of history. They overcome paper limitations for research and publication ; they make possible truly global communities of historians . The Internet is a powerful weapon against the fragmentation of historical knowledge , but only if its enormous potentialities are used as a instant, worldwide and non-hierarchical tool for communication.

Digital historiography is complemented by books, conventional forms of research, circulation and academic interchange . This new paradigm of communication is not going to substitute face-to-face work and its century-long institutions, but the virtual world will increasingly become more fundamentally part of the real . The Internet generalization and the computer literacy of the younger generations will lead to the success of this new historiography as an important powerhouse for the paradigmatic revolution between the twentieth and the twenty-first century.

Generation change

The second decade of the twenty-first century will see a generation change in faculties as a consequence of the retirement of those born after the Second World War . Will this demographic transition imply the consolidation of a change advanced in paradigms? We cannot be sure.

The 1968 generation, our reference point, was rather an exception. Among current undergraduates we can see the same heterogeneity as in the rest of society. We may find older historians who continue to be innovative and younger ones who have nineteenth-century concepts of what the historians' profession and their relationship with society should be . Our responsibility as historian educators is, in this sense, huge. Never before was so important to explain history with advanced approaches from high school to postgraduate courses. Future history is conditioned by the education received to future historians : our students.


Thinking history

It is essential for the historian to think about the theme, the sources and the methods, the questions and the answers , the social interest and the theoretical implications, the conclusions and the consequences of an historical investigation.

We are against a ' work division' in which history provides the data and other disciplines reflect on them ( or write stories with a popularizing purpose). History professional have to assume their intellectual function and complete the cycle of historical studies from archive work to the assessment of its impact on the social and human sciences, in both society and politics.

The training of history students in methodology, historiography, philosophy of history and other theoretically-based disciplines will increase the future creativity of historical research and the standing of history in the scientific and cultural system.

It is our view that the historian who does the reflection also conducts research work and that the historian that reflect also investigates, thus superseding the inevitable dilemma of (positivist) practice with no theory or a ( speculative) theory with no practice. A greater unity of practice and theory will enable a greater individual and collective coherence between what is historiographically said and what is empirically done.

The ends of History

Historical acceleration in the last decade is replacing the debate over 'the end of history' for the debate over the 'ends of history'. Assuming that history does not have pre-established aims and that in 1989, a profound historical change began we should ask ourselves where it is taking us , who is leading it, in favor of which interests and which are the alternatives.

The historian must help make possible that the subjects of history build historical futures which guarantee a free and peaceful, full and creative life to men and women of all races and nations

The historian must contribute to a new enlightenment which, learning from the errors of history and philosophy, restores the sense of progress demanded by society, guarantying the great majorities the enjoyment of the revolutionary advancements of medicine, biology, technology and communications.



Vindicating history

The prime commitment of historians should be to vindicate the function of history , of humanities and social sciences in the education of citizens and the formation of community consciousness.

History should oppose those parochial and neoliberal notions that still seek to confront technical knowledge and culture, economy and society, present and past.

The more evident consequences of the policies of social undervaluing of history are the lack of career prospects, a decrease in vocation in history school and the obstacle to generational continuity. The communities of historians should accept as ours the problem the poor career prospects faced by history undergraduates and contribute to finding solutions that imply a revaluation and a renovation of the profession of historians.


In a time of paradoxical returns , we would like to offer our support to the renewed commitment of renowned scholars with social and political causes related with the defense of universal principles of justice and equality, peace and democracy. Attitudes showing solidarity which counterbalance other commitments with the great economic and political, publishing and media powers . A vital counterbalance to prevent the separation of history from the great social majorities who finance through their taxes our professional activity.

The new commitment we advocate is diverse, critical and future-bound. Historians should fight , using the truth as we know it, those myths that manipulate history and promote racism, intolerance and class, gender or ethnic exploitation. Opposing, with our knowledge of the past, those futures we do not want. Working together and competing with other social and humanistic scientists in the building of historically better worlds as professionals of history, but also as citizens.

The relationship of the historian with reality around us implies its analysis within the temporal context. If we previously said that our science is inseparable from (the plural)subjectivity of the historian, we do not find therefore qualitative differences between immediate history and mediate history, between a more contemporary history and another looking at the more distant past. Everything is history , although the more we go back in time the less competent we become to study the economy, the society, the mentality and the politics.

Present and Future

Our object of study is obviously enough in the past, but we are in the present, and the presents are full of futures. Let us conclude by saying that historians cannot write history with rigor outside their time and their permanent flow.

We can speak of different levels of relationship between the historian and the present time: a political and social commitment, research topic, historiography of intervention or methodological criteria for historical research. It was half a century ago that the founders of the Annales school formulated it : "to understand the past through the present and understand the present through the past".Today, it is also equally necessary to emphasize the past/ future relationship.

The fall of the teleological philosophies of history, whether socialist or capitalist, has underlined a future more open than ever. Historians must assume their role within its definition with the experiences and the historical arguments, with hypotheses and proposals originating in history. To build the future without resorting to history would condemn us to repeat its errors, to resign ourselves to the lesser evil or to build castles in Spain.

New paradigm

The historiography depends on historians and history. The change in historiographic paradigms we have been proposing since 1993 relies on the accelerated historical changes starting in 1989. Between December 1999 and June 2001 we have seen the appearance of an unprecedented global movement against globalization that seeks alternatives to society : unique thinking is now less unique. The globalisation, the society of information, the new scientific- technological revolution is branded by many as change in civilization.The change in civilization, the society of information, the new scientific, the new scientific- technological revolution is branded by many as globalization???. It is not easy to glimpse what the future has in store for us. We all must work together.

History under Debate is an active part in this transforming process: we want to change the history being written and contribute to change human history. As the historiographic debate evolves and immediate history , our proposals will receive more or less disciplinary consensus, we will vary them or not according to our interests, although there are approaches which, being minority, are unavoidable to critically condition the new paradigm, the set of beliefs and values that regulate our profession as historians in the new century. For all these reasons history shall absolve us, or that's the hope.

1. Paper given on June 2nd 2001 at the 30th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the Comparative Study of Civitalizations (Campus of Newark, Rutgers University, New Jersey, USA).

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