History in New Worlds: Surveys and Results in the United States and Australia

By Warren-Findley, Jannelle | American Studies International, June-October 2004 | Go to article overview
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History in New Worlds: Surveys and Results in the United States and Australia


Warren-Findley, Jannelle, American Studies International


   The most significant news of this study is that we have interested,
   active, and thoughtful audiences for what we want to talk
   about. The deeper challenge is finding out how we can talk to--and
   especially with--those audiences. History professionals need
   to work harder at listening to and respecting the many ways
   popular historymakers traverse the terrain of the past that is so
   present for all of us.

   Roy Rosenzweig (1)

In 1994, 808 randomly selected Americans and another 645 Native Americans, African-Americans and Mexican Americans spoke on the telephone to interviewers from the Center for Survey Research at Indiana University in the United States about the various meanings of history in their lives. Close to 850,000 words were captured in transcripts that took about three years to analyze and interpret. In 1998, the survey organizers Roy Rosenzweig of George Mason University and David Thelen of Indiana University published The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life to report on their findings.

Intrigued by the Rosenzweig and Thelen survey effort, a group of Australian historians recently organized and administered a similar survey, "Australians and the Past," to investigate the meanings that history has for Australian citizens. Built on the same format of random but statistically significant telephone interviews, the Australian results are currently being interpreted. How do the two surveys compare in questions asked? How similar are the results? What can comparing the two tell professional historians and the general public alike about popular uses of history in an international context? The answers to those questions should help public historians better target their work to the audiences they command.

The original impetus for surveying the 1500 American respondents came from the felt need on the part of the directors to better link U.S. historians and their audiences 2 Born in the days of the "new social history" in the 1960s and 70s, and the efforts on the part of some academically-trained and employed U.S. historians to make space in the public telling of historical narratives for community voices of various origins, the urge to bridge the gap between professional historians and the general public had been a topic of concern for some time. But until the Presence of the Past survey, few had really considered that it was necessary to explore the ways that those on the other end of the bridge actually used history in their daily lives, or whether those uses actually or potentially shaped the audience for the work of professionals. As the "Introduction: Scenes from a Survey" notes,

   we realized how little we knew about the values and perspectives
   Americans were bringing from their personal
   experiences to these historical dialogues. To help create a
   history that would extend beyond the content and practice
   of elites, we needed to hear a much wider range of
   people tell us about how (or even whether) the past mattered
   to them. (3)

In the discussion of methodology, the authors noted, "Our questions reflected our interest in two general areas: activities and attitudes. We wanted to carry out a census of behaviors, attitudes, and experiences related to the past. Then we wanted to map and understand the multiple ways that Americans value, use, and experience their pasts." (4)

One of the first issues to be confronted dealt with the language used by the interviewers to describe what was being sought. "History" sounded too formal, official and, from the memories of school experiences, painful; "heritage" and/or "tradition" had broad general meanings; "the past" appeared to be the verbal formulation that elicited the most detailed and rich responses. Respondents were most likely to define their responses to sources of information as "trust." "Connection" seemed to best describe the interviewees' relationship to various pasts.

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