The Problem with Modern Historiography: Too Much Abstraction


he problem with modern historiography and the way historians study history is that they tend to dwell too much into abstractions, when in fact history should be studied through individuals and their stories. How many times have you picked up a book or read a short piece on some event that described everything accordingly, but you couldn’t relate to it?

The problem with this type of history is that it fails to make people the subjects of study , which in turn fails to personalize our ability to understand experiences. This is what makes history boring, and perhaps more importantly this is what makes people turn away from it. However, if we put people in the center of our study, and try to understand history through their eyes, their roles in it and how it affected them, then maybe we will be able to relate to them. Here is an example:

Let’s say I am going to talk about the horrors of the Jim Crow South. Here are two quick passages. Which one is less boring?

1. The Jim Crow South was a detestable place because of the incessant segregation laws that dominated the landscape for more than three quarters of a century.

2. Henry Adams was a black sharecropper, ex-slave who suffered greatly under his former master, and the increasingly horrible segregation laws of the Jim Crow South, that would come to dominate his family’s life for the next three generations.

Is it just me? Or it seems that when I talked about Henry Adams its just a bit more interesting. The point of this is that don’t make history boring. People will not read it. And finally, people like to read about other people they can easily relate to.

Yet mass produced history books which continually reiterate dates and facts flood the market, while the few books that are directed at individual narratives seem to be scarcer with each passing year. The worrying issue however is not the persistence of two-bit history authors which have always been in existence, but rather the populace’s apathy towards proper writing in history achieved through actual historiography.

Although this might seem far-fetched it is evident  that a great deal of history books today are not in fact written by actual historians but people who have spent too much time browsing through Wikipedia articles, rather than archives. Yet, I digress substantially.

History is about people, as well as the human condition.

Published in The Art of Polemics, Issue 1, on June 18th, 2014.



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