Who speaks for history?

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This paper proposes that historians' thinking about the nature of our discipline could benefit from the adoption of ‘ethnographic’ approaches. Concretely, it suggests that we attend to how our professional lives and practice are shaped by factors like the machinations of patronage and publishing, the dynamics of academic politics and career building, the pressures generated by institutional and professional structures, the role of our emotional, political and aesthetic commitments, the demands of the multiple audiences whom we address, and indeed the diverse contingencies of real life. Three issues are highlighted to illuminate the potential of this research agenda. First, it explores the rhetorical strategies employed, and the professional and cultural resources that are drawn upon, in order to establish authoritative speaking positions in recent texts on history and theory. Second, it connects these concerns up with the institutional politics of academic history in the UK. How are disciplinary agendas—especially in relation to fundamental theoretical questions—set by learned societies, the historical ‘establishment’, and the operation of funding mechanisms? Third, it considers the emergence of a new breed of ‘telly-don’ amidst the proliferation of history in the visual media. For a broader public, these individuals are the spokespersons for history, but what do they signify about the cultural politics of the discipline, and how should we contextualise them against the epistemological debates precipitated by postmodernism? The paper concludes that these approaches can both provide a more richly textured picture of the cultural politics of academic history and help us to understand how the discipline's epistemological and methodological norms and dominant modes of representation are reproduced, negotiated and resisted.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)503-519
Number of pages17
JournalRethinking History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 01 Dec 2005


  • ethnography
  • disciplinary culture
  • rhetorical strategies
  • institutional policies
  • television history


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