The state of political history

Since the 1980s, political history as a historical sub-discipline has gone through a series of reinventions, each of which can be considered as attempts to define the specificity of an approach to history that for a long time was equated with history per se. It was only after the rise of social, economic and cultural history, that political history came to be viewed as a part, yet not the whole of history, which moreover had failed to compete with other approaches due to its elitist, superficial, and narrowly national perspective. In response to these challenges, many of the historians who persisted in their interest in things political, have made huge strides in renewing the field, first of all by embracing the particularity of a history focused on politics: the political now came to be understood as a domain or aspect of society with its own historical development.

Approaching the political as a specific historical phenomenon enabled its historians to reintegrate elements from competing sub-disciplines: intellectual history high-lighted the changing conceptualizations of the political; cultural history offered insights on the nature of specific and changing cultures, traditions, repertoires and styles of politics; neo-institutional social and economic theory contributed to a renewal of an interest in distinctly political institutions like the state, constitutions and regimes. Each of these innovations also contributed to a rethinking of the national state as the self-evident context of historical research; while more traditional political historians still may struggle with the odium of tediousness, those who are more à la mode recognize the political in every aspect of global, local, transnational and transversal history, while also the historians of emotions, the environment, the autobiographical or the technological easily acknowledge the political dimensions of their objects of interest.

 

Questions for historians of the political

Considering these remarkable changes, it may now be the time to present an overview of the state of the art in the history of politics and to ask the question what it is that binds the historians of the political in their common endeavor. What are the main topics, puzzles, questions and methods that have evolved over the last couple of years? Does a history of politics dissolve in a series of disparate domains – from the politics of identity to the politics of science; from the politics of style to the politics of memory? Or is there still a core of political history – a focus on power, authority, legitimacy, participation, representation, or deliberation; or on the political as an agonistic field of friends and foes, defined in the extreme by the use of violence?

Or more pragmatically: what are the main topics that historians of politics are currently involved in: democracy, collective violence, social movements, state formation? And even more down to earth: which places and times are the object of interest of historians of politics – is it still the nation state, or is it the local, the transnational, or the global; old and new cities, regions, empires, or international institutions like the United Nations? Is it only the most contemporary history, or also earlier times; good old ‘histoire événementielle’ or also developments that last longer than yesterday’s news?

Finally, this also involves the political nature of the history of politics. Like any other discipline within the humanities, history is a discipline of considered and contested prejudices, that are only overcome by systematic questioning the limits of our understanding. Yet historians of politics might be distinctly aware of the political mechanisms that are at work in the construction of these limitations, including their own role in legitimating or criticizing the political assumption of their own time and that of their predecessors. So what is the political nature of a history of politics, especially now that we all are supposed to focus on impact and social value of our scholarly work?

               

Intellectual and practical aims

These are the questions that we want to address in a conference aimed to map the state of the art in the history of politics. While a primary goal of the conference is to enhance our self-understanding, and to offer all of us who are embroiled in our specific topic a chance to get a quick overview of the terrain we all are treading, a further goal is to explore new opportunities for research and collaboration, most of all to scholars of a younger generation who look for ways to create new routes through uncharted territory. In this way, we hope to contribute to the main goal of the National Research School for Political History OPG, which is to function as a platform for training of researchers and for the development of research on political history in the Netherlands and abroad, both for upcoming and for established historians of the political.

Format

Given these intellectual and practical aims, we propose a meeting with a more practical focus than regular historical conference. Instead of a series of lectures of papers on specific topics, we hope to invite a series of debates to evaluate the current state of the art, as well as to create platforms to talk about collaboration in future projects. In order to achieve these goals, we will organize this conference along three separate lines: debates, presentations, proposals, spread over two days.

 

Debates

We plan five debates, each preceded by a 20 minute key note on main issues of the debate. The key note is given by international scholars, the panel contains a mix of older and younger generations. The idea of the debate is that the key note speaker addresses the questions formulated above, and comments on the ways in which the study of the political has developed with regarded to the more specific area addressed in the debate. The panel members are selected both on the basis of their work, but also on their disciplinary profile – aiming to have at least one panelist coming from an adjacent field, of the social sciences, philosophy, law or literary and cultural studies. The themes of the debates are:

  • Writing the History of Political Culture
  • Writing the History of Political Institutions
  • Politics of the History of Politics
  • Writing Global History
  • Writing the Political History of the Social

 

Presentation of new proposals

In sessions (in between the debates), new proposals can be presented and collaboration forged in elevator pitches, speed dates and sand pits.

The elevator pitches serve to present a topic on which researcher seek collaboration with others. Participants interested to give an elevator pitch are requested to apply before the conference. Speed dates are set up to talk with researchers who have previously pitched their ideas about the possibilities to work together or to contribute ideas for further development of the ideas presented in the pitches. (see also call)

Sandpits consist of a group of 15-20 people from different disciplinary backgrounds and varied historical interests, led by a technical chair, who in four sessions of one hour one try to create several research groups which formulate a research project. Each sandpit has a central topic, connected to the main themes of the conference (political culture, political institutions, transnational politics, subpolitics). The first sessions is aimed to find partners within the sand pit; the second session is aimed to formulate a research problem; in the third session a rudimentary research plan is formulated; in the final session, each group presents its research plan. Researchers interested in the sandpit are requested to apply before the conference, with a short cv, list of five main publication and 100 words description of field of interest. The chairs of the sandpits decide who is participating in his/her sandpit. (more information: i.dehaan@let.uu.nl)

 

Posters

Research Master Students and PhD candidates who work in the field of political history present their research on posters during the event and discuss their work with participants. Thus a state of the art of new and ongoing research by young scholars will be made visible. (see also the call)