Peter Burke (2005) discusses impact of postmodernity on historical practice

In addressing links between history and social theory, Peter Burke in History and social theory, second edition (2005) speaks of postmodernity and postmodernism.

Postmodernity, in Burke’s terminology, refers to an intensification or acceleration of trends associated with the earlier period in recent history known as modernity.

According to Burke, postmodernity has had considerable impact on historians. Postmodernism, meanwhile, which is seen by some observers as referring to a completely new epoch, has so far (as of 2005) had a relatively minor impact on historical practice.

He notes that if we “define deconstruction, poststructuralism and related developments in a precise way, examples of their influence” on the work of historians remain relatively few (p. 176).

“If, on the other hand,” he adds, “we turn from postmodernism to postmodernity, … this vaguer term does seem appropriate for describing certain new features of historical practice” (p. 177).

From social history of culture to cultural history of society

There has, for example, been a shift away from a ‘social history of culture,’ of the kind practised by the Hungarian art historian Arnold Hauser in the 1950s.

The shift, in this regard, has been toward what the French historian Roger Chartier (1997) has described as the ‘cultural history of society.’

Burke concludes that the current emphasis on cultural creativity, and on culture as an active force in history, “may well have gone too far” and “needs to be accompanied by some sense of the constraints within which creativity operates” (p. 179).

The author doesn’t favour replacing the social history of culture with the cultural history of society. Instead, he says, “we need to work with the two ideas together and simultaneously, however difficult this may be” (p. 179).

A previous generation spoke of a social history of culture

I will now speak in some detail about the two approaches to historical practice, before and after the emergence of postmodernity, as described by Burke (2005).

In The social history of art, Hauser wrote in a genre which Burke identifies as a sociology, or a social history, of culture.

This pre-postmodernist genre, notes Burke, “was essentially Marxist, or at least Marxian in the sense of treating art, literature, music and so on as a kind of superstructure, reflecting changes in the economic and social ‘base'” (p. 120).

The ‘cultural history of society’ is a term used by the French historian Roger Chartier.

Chartier is among the contemporary historians who have contributed to the field known as the ‘history of reading,’ which focuses on “reconstructing readers’ views of particular texts via the study of annotations, the records of lending libraries, and letters from readers to famous authors such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau” (p. 103).

In the cultural history of society mode of historical practice, Burke remarks, historians have increasingly recognized the power of the ‘imagined,’ as in the study by the French historian George Duby (1978) on the idea of the ‘three orders’ of society, or in recent work by other academics regarding images of France and India.

When we speak of the ‘three orders’ of society, we are dealing with class and status, that is, with social stratification. We’re dealing, in other words, with how academics address the fact that most if not all societies have inequalities in distribution of wealth and power.

“To describe the principles governing this distribution,” says Burke, “and the social relationships to which these inequalities give rise, it is difficult to do without a model” (p. 32).

Thus a range of metaphors and terms have arisen including ‘social stratification’ and ‘social structure.’

This is an area where, as Burke remarks, historians have in the past been prone to use technical terms such as ‘caste’ and ‘social mobility’ — without, however, “being aware of the problems associated with them or the distinctions social theorists have discovered to be necessary” (p. 60).

He refers, in this context, to recent studies in the social history of language which have brought attention to the influence that language has on society — for instance, the use of opposed terms such as ‘middle classes’ and ‘working classes’ in determining the constitution of social groups.

Burke adds that forms of social organization such as ‘tribe’ or ‘caste,’ once assumed to be ‘social facts,’ are now viewed as collective representations.

By way of example, notes Burke, according to the French anthropologist Jean-Luc Amselle, tribes or ethnic groups such as the Bambara or the Fulani in West Africa “were effectively invented by colonial administrators and anthropologists, though these terms were appropriated later by the Africans themselves (some historians take a similar view of caste in India)” (p. 178).

“Amselle (1990) himself treats terms such as ‘Bambara’ as descriptions not of entities — a view he criticizes as essentialist or ‘substantialist’ — but of systems of cultural transformation”  (p. 178).

Orientalism and religion

The reference to Amselle’s observations about ‘essentialist’ descriptions by colonial administrators brings to mind comments by A.L. Macfie in Orientalism (2002).

Macfie notes that “Many remarkable claims have been made regarding the impact of orientalism in the East, but few can equal that made by Richard King, a scholar of ancient Indian philosophy and religion, … that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries orientalists effectively created the religions of Hinduism and Buddhism” (p. 179).

An ‘orientalist,’ as Macfie notes, used to be among other things a term given to a scholar versed in the languages and literatures of the East. The term has in the last generation acquired many other meanings, and has been the subject of extensive debate, as Macfie outlines in his book.

Richard King makes his claim in Orientalism and religion (1999).

Macfie adds (p. 179) that King is not suggesting that the peoples of Asia had failed to develop “complex systems of religious belief comparable to those of Europe.”

What King is suggesting, instead, says Macfie, is that peoples of Asia “had not, as the Europeans had done, developed the notion of ‘religion’ as a monolithic entity, involving a unified set of beliefs, doctrines and religious practices. The categorization of Indian beliefs and practices, under the general headings of Hinduism and Buddhism, was therefore left to the Europeans, mainly the British, to accomplish” (p. 179).

The city is everywhere and in everything

To return to examples of the influence of postmodernity, Burke notes the city is no longer viewed as a social entity. Urban theorists such as Manuel Castells speak instead of the dispersal of social relations and the flows of people, commodities, and information.

“In the world system of today,” notes Burke, “‘The city is everywhere and in everything,’ forcing geographers, sociologists and historians to reimagine the urban” (p. 178).

Castells has argued that networks constitute the new ‘social morphology’ of society. If that is the case, concludes Burke, then the network analysis that Burke speaks about elsewhere in his essay “is among other things a symptom of postmodernity, and possibly a projection of other arrangements — we can no longer call them structures — on the past (Castells 1968, 1996: 469; cf. Abrams 1978; Amin and Thrift 2002)” (p. 178).

The latter comment echoes the view that each new generation interprets history in accordance with the evidence currently available to it, and in alignment with that generation’s role as an imagined community.

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