Blog Post #7: The History Manifesto


This week, I read an intriguing book by Jo Guldi and David Armitage called The History Manifesto (2015). In the book, the authors Guldi and Armitage claim that modern historians are currently too enamored with micro-histories to solve long term issues. In their book, Guldi and Armitage evoke the spirit of Braudel with their discussion of time and their embrace of the longue-duree. As the authors point out, historians painstakingly ponder the most effective way to portray historical time. Indeed, as Fernand Braudel stated in a 1958 article in which he coined the term “longue-duree”, “In truth, the historian can never get away from the question of time in history: time sticks to his thinking like soil to a gardener’s spade.” While discussing historical time, Guldi and Armitage lament the lack of “long perspective” in our culture. They argue that the scholarly world is inundated with short term studies that focus on local experiences, race, and class. According to the authors, society is “hungry” for “long term thinking”. The authors reproach historians for their supposed retreat from the longue-duree and they ask that historians return to the study of complex issues such as famine, drought, poverty, and political matters.

After the book was written, the American Historical Review included a scholarly exchange about the book’s assertions. In the exchange, Deborah Cohen and Peter Mandler take issue with many of Guldi and Armitage’s statements. They question the book’s arguments and lack of evidence pertaining to the retreat of the longue-duree. They challenge the book’s assumptions about the historian’s role as keepers of big data, and they accuse Guldi and Armitage of narrowing the public role of historians. Ultimately, Cohen and Mandler claim that Guldi and Armitage cherry-pick data from doctoral dissertations and other sources to support their arguments about the retreat of the longue-duree.

As someone who is using the micro-history approach in my research, I find myself agreeing more with the criticisms of Cohen and Mandler than with the perspective of Guldi and Armitage. Throughout The History Manifesto, it seems as if the authors are making a case for historians to abandon micro-histories all together. It is as if Guldi and Armitage view micro studies as not being as worthwhile or as meaningful as a long term study. As Cohen and Mandler point out, Guldi and Armitage actually admit in the book’s conclusion that the longue duree approach is not always the right one. Indeed, “The scale of the study depends on the questions to be answered”. Also in the conclusion, the authors call for micro and macro historians to work together, but Cohen and Mandler view the appeal as weak and disingenuous.

I was pleased to see Cohen and Mandler contest Guldi and Armitage’s claims about history’s “retreat from the public realm”. As a public historian, I feel that the opposite is true. Due to the proliferation of the Internet, podcasting, digital exhibits, and digital archives, historians now engage with the public more fully than they ever have before.

In the American Historical Review exchange, Guldi and Armitage respond to the criticisms of Cohen and Mandler. They defend their assertions and their data. They also explain that The History Manifesto’s central argument concerns the fact that “major institutions that shape most people’s lives, most of the time—governments, corporations, NGOs, international agencies, and the like—often lack a sense of history and do not engage the expertise of historians as they gather information, formulate policy, or make far-reaching decisions.” That is why they challenge historians to shift their focus from short term narratives in order to take on larger topics. They argue that the longue-duree approach can be used by historians to address pressing, long term concerns of our time such as climate change.

The History Manifesto spends a whole chapter on the topic of digital tools. The authors indicate that historians should supplement their knowledge, research skills, and archival sensibilities with digital tools in order to uncover patterns of the longue-duree. Guldi and Armitage explain that distant reading, data visualization, and digital tools can be designed to answer complex historical questions. The authors claim that the longue-duree uncovers information that can be used to better understand events of the past. It can also reveal patterns that might prompt society to make better decisions in the future. Digital technology has nurtured the return of the longue-duree approach in recent years through the emergence of “big data” used to analyze large quantities of historical data. Guldi and Armitage believe that historians are particularly well equipped to utilize big data to make sense of the economic, political, and ecological information that is gathered.

Overall, I really enjoyed the book and it made me think about how important longue-duree studies truly are. However, I think that the book could have been a little more balanced concerning highlighting the importance of both micro and macro studies. Surely there is enough room for both approaches.

Jo Guldi and David Armitage, The History Manifesto (Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2014).
Deborah Cohen, Peter Mandler, Jo Guldi, and David Armitage, “AHR Exchange: The History Manifesto,” The American Historical Review (2015) 120 (2): 527-554.


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