"Real Solemn History" and Its Discontents: Australian Political History and the Challenge of Social History

By Bongiorno, Frank | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, March 2010 | Go to article overview

"Real Solemn History" and Its Discontents: Australian Political History and the Challenge of Social History


Bongiorno, Frank, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


Introduction

For Catherine Morland in Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey, quoted above, history is the story of the political affairs of a powerful, male e1ite. It is counterposed with other, implicitly less masculine, less "political" and more entertaining genres of writing. The particular sting is in the final comment. It is historians' failure to exploit the full imaginative possibilities of their enterprise that is the problem. There is latent within "history" a richer set of stories than historians have told, if only they looked beyond their limited horizons.

When academic history emerged in nineteenth-century Germany, it was the study of the nation-state and international relations, a way of understanding the historian's enterprise that was also influential in the English-speaking world. For Sir John Seeley, history was "past politics", politics "present history". (2) Official archives had privileged status and history was a "scientific" account of the past, in reality reduced to the affairs of a powerful minority. This scholarly tradition came to Australia in the late-nineteenth century and while it is not dead even yet, there are few scholars today who can write political history without drawing on evidence and techniques associated with the practice of social history. (3)

This article will explore the uneasy relationship between Australian political and social history. The social history revolution hit Australia when academic political history had not yet established a secure place in the emerging history departments. In the 1970s and 1980s "history from below" undermined conventional political history even as it offered the possibility of novel approaches, sources, topics and methods. Yet the history of politics--conceived in terms of the study of parliamentary affairs, leading men and political organisations and ideology--was largely vacated by historians, who turned their attention to race and gender relations, immigration, health and medicine, sexuality, work, leisure and sport. Political history for a time became the preserve of journalists and political scientists, a process that helped seal it off from the transformation of historical practice.

Political history's recent revival has been partly stimulated by social history's achievements; Australian scholars have begun to produce a political history from below. Social and political movements have received attention alongside political parties which have been explored from the perspective of the middle-level leaders and rank-and-file. Historians have also turned to spatial contexts, whether understood as the influence of locality or region, or the ways in which politics is practised in precincts such as the street, the meeting hall, the pub, the park or around the camp-fire. The rise of social history, far from having killed political history, has enhanced its narrative richness and explanatory power, even if the full potential of this relationship is yet to be realised.

From Political to Social History

The writing of political history occurred throughout much of the colonial era, often produced by men active in the events they narrated. Academic political history is of more recent origin. Australia's first history professors of the late-nineteenth century sometimes turned their attention to local politics but it was the profession's growth after the Second World War that saw political history approach the closest it has managed to a golden age. New academic and semi-academic periodicals provided research outlets, as did university publishing houses. Postgraduate students in history and political science produced work that sometimes appeared in journal articles, less frequently as published monographs, but most often in the library basements and glass cabinets of Australia's politics and history departments. (4) Yet there were early indications of a shifting terrain. In the 1950s Margaret Kiddie and Geoffrey Serle were each working on social histories of colonial Victoria and of the first three doctoral candidates at the new Australian National University, two were concerned primarily with "social history", (5) Eric Fry explored the urban working class of the 1880s from a Marxist perspective, in a study that prefigured the emergence of an urban history in the 1970s with different intellectual moorings. …

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