The Evolution of "New Political History" in English-Canadian Historiography: From Cliometrics to Cliodiversity

By Glassford, Larry A. | American Review of Canadian Studies, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Evolution of "New Political History" in English-Canadian Historiography: From Cliometrics to Cliodiversity


Glassford, Larry A., American Review of Canadian Studies


Traditional political history in English-speaking Canada has been in retreat for the past twenty-five years. Where once they dominated the profession, now the scholars who teach and study past political phenomena have become, at many Canadian universities, if not an endangered species, then certainly an outnumbered one. (1) Once an elite who investigated elites, now they have been marginalized by those who investigate the marginalized. History from the bottom up, now sits on top. Ironies abound.

As one measure of this remarkable changeover, a comparative examination of the articles published forty years ago versus those from the present era in The Canadian Historical Review (CHR), the establishment journal of the English-Canadian historical profession, is instructive. In 1960 and 1961, traditional political history was in its heyday. During those two years, the CHR published twenty articles in eight issues. Of these, fully thirteen would easily fit into a political category. Representative titles included: "Clerics, Politicians, and the Bilingual Schools Issue in Ontario, 1910-1917," by Margaret Prang; "The Political Career of Sir Hector Louis Langevin," by Barbara Fraser; and "Dafoe, Laurier, and the Formation of Union Government," by Ramsay Cook. Another five would best be categorized as diplomatic history, a close cousin of political history. Typical of this genre was "The Alabama Claims and the Anglo-American Reconciliation, 1865-71," by Maureen M. Robson. The remaining two articles were from bus iness history, both concerned with aspects of the fur trade. Clearly, based on this sample, English-Canadian historiography at the beginning of the 1960s was heavily weighted toward the political field, with emphasis on macro themes like elite politicians and statesmen, public institutions, and national issues. (2)

Zoom ahead forty years, and the picture looks quite different. In the two years 2000 and 2001, the CHR again published twenty articles in eight issues. This time it is social history, or perhaps more accurately, sociocultural history, that is the dominant genre, representing sixty-five percent of the total. Typical articles include: "Social Investment in Medical Forms: The 1866 Cholera Scare and Beyond," by Bruce Curtis; "Railing, Tattling, and General Rumour: Gossip, Gender, and Church Regulation in Upper Canada," by Lynne Marks; and "Reciprocal Work Bees and the Meaning of Neighbourhood," by Catharine Anne Wilson. Micro has replaced macro, and social and cultural have teamed up to replace political as the dominant genre in the discipline. The present-day sample does include four political articles, but the tone is very different to the one from four decades ago. "The Never-Ending Story: The Struggle for Universal Child Care Policy in the 1970s," by Rianne Mahon, is typical of the group. Political themes ten d to be viewed from the perspective of the victim, or client group, rather than that of the elite politician, bureaucrat, or business leader. Politics is most often seen as a dependent variable in the analysis. Two papers in diplomatic and one in intellectual history round out the turn-of-millennium sample, the latter a retrospective look at the influential Canadian Centenary Series that began in the 1960s. (3)

The old paradigm, the traditional political history, against which the new wave of 1970s-and-beyond historians were rebelling, was perhaps nowhere better symbolized than by that same Canadian Centenary Series, (4) a multivolume history of Canada covering the period from the first contact of Europeans and Natives to 1967. It was, at least in part, conceived as a Centennial gift to the nation by its academic historians. The original coeditors were W. L. Morton and Donald Creighton, two senior Anglo-Canadian historians who were seen at one time as representing separate schools of thought, for the latter was a Laurentian centralist, and the former first gained prominence as a Progressive regionalist. …

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