Do Historians Have to Be Socially Responsible?

tags: Social Responsibility

Arundhati Virmani teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Centre Norbert Elias, Marseille. All the references below can be found in her article, “The Annales’ Agenda in Perspective: Social Responsibilty of the Historian,” Economic and Political Weekly.

The idea of Social Responsibility, suggesting moral responsibility for knowledge production or work practices is more easily associated with the corporate sector. Yet the question was raised as early at least as 1923 by the Belgian medievalist historian Henri Pirenne, who denounced the role of history in paving the way for the First World War. Historians had let themselves be swept away into feeding nationalist passions.

Pirenne’s address convinced French historians Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre to propose a new road map for historians. Their journal Annales, founded in 1929, switched from the traditional dominant adherence to politics to privilege the long-term, comparative, interdisciplinary approach. They envisaged a more active role for historians as decisive participants in the new world order through collaboration with international organizations like the International Labour Organization that were laying the guidelines for social justice and international norms on labour issues. At the same time, historians would dialogue with high state officials in France: engineers, future architects of material landscapes of society. Here was a new public role for history: a transfer of knowledge by specialists to the makers of future public policy, such as bankers, administrators, technicians. Annales published in-depth, comparative examinations of subjects ranging from mining, colonial situations, to Nazi youth groups, presenting an informed understanding of the problems and stakes. They thus hoped to broaden the terms of debates or understanding of political problems.

The War and German Occupation of France gave these questions a sudden urgency. Was the historian’s task to continue his work, and not cave-in to government pressures? Or was it to engage in a political activism? The questions of social, civic responsibility haunted and affected the relationship of the two historians. They would drive Marc Bloch to Resistance. His reflections on the responsibility of French elites and governments in his book Strange Defeat, published after his murder by the German Gestapo, posed the dilemma of the historian’s responsibility in political terms.

How has Annales approached these questions in the post Bloch-Febvre period? My interviews of six of the nine editors of the journal since 1970 revealed different perspectives: the notion of responsibility was more a matter of personal ethics than a professional matter (Revel). The journal guarded a cautious distance from political engagements (Burguière). It followed the tone of Parisian bourgeois salons where talking politics was not propah (Valensi). At the same time, editorial members were conscious of the journal’s heritage (Lilti). It necessarily colored their approach to deciding journal content (issues on Holocaust, sub-urban violence, gender, etc.) or its departure from Euro-centric navel gazing. However, in 1990 the change in the subtitle to History and Social Sciences indicated the journal’s concern with understanding how society held together or its social phenomenon (Grenier). The historian’s increasing public role and interventions, critical, civic and ethical (Anheim), were felt to be part of the “historian’s craft,” as Bloc had famously put it.

As a scientific journal concerned with publishing innovative research rather than affirming militant positions, Annales has retained the original program of strengthening the citizen’s capacity to emancipate herself by acquiring a better understanding of the social mechanisms of change.

The expansion of history beyond the grasp of the academic historian has given a new edge to the question of responsibility. Today, practitioners of history abound. Memoirs, oral history, and public history have pushed the frontiers of what constitutes history and how it should be practiced. The challenge is not only to uncover wie as gewesen ist but also communicate it and not leave the market to sensational fictive, recycled versions through novels, films or political demagogy. It is not enough to produce the truth but to make it known, in short, battle for a place in the mediatic sun and in the public space.

Historians continue to evaluate their critical function and effectiveness as academics but also as social actors, whether through the prism of ethics, social responsibility (Bédarida 1995; Dumoulin 2003), or through their civic or political role (Mukherjee 1996 ; J.N.U. Nationalism lectures 2017). This can signify speaking truth to power, denouncing demagogic manipulations of the past by political régimes or parties (Revel, Levi 2002), or defending the historians’ freedom to investigate and analyze without censorship. If in some countries this is an intellectual exercise, in countries like India, Pakistan, Turkey or China, the stakes are more serious.

The History Manifesto (Guldi, Armitage2014), reflecting on the role of history in contemporary society calls for a comeback of historians to their rightful place amongst policy makers. No doubt, the specificity of a long-term approach as well as knowledge of a wide variety of sources can both deepen an understanding of critical issues from climate change to governance and widen options to think about the future.

But the challenge for historians, I suggest, lies equally in communicating their expert knowledge to people. As we question ourselves about the need to make history publicly significant and useful, it becomes important to debate how we are communicating historical knowledge and interpretations as we move towards a digital age and open access to academic knowledge.

To conclude, the notion of social responsibility could be extended to fixing the major questions of research in the years to come without them being imposed by political authorities of our country and by the dominating institutions in the world of social science research. Is this not the real and difficult challenge if we want to preserve what is at the heart of our professional ethics, that is to say, our intellectual freedom.

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