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Where Does History Come From?

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Alun Munslow argues that the centrality of narrative to history undermines empirical views of the subject.

Where does history come from? This may seem like an odd question. Surely history comes from the traces of the past that historians find in their sources? However, we might get a different answer if we put the question in another way. What happens if we choose to view history as what, from one perspective at least, it plainly is: a narrative written about the past constructed by the historian in the present? This is clearly not the way history is conventionally defined. To be technical for a moment, it is more usually described as an empirical and analytical undertaking – a source-based and inferential activity concerned with the study of change over time. I am posing this question – where does history come from? – because I think historians still tend to ignore the role of narrative in doing history.

What is a historical narrative? I define it as that written composition of historians that encompasses their source-based data founded on certain principles of selection and organisation. So far so good? But, in addition, the historical narrative also encompasses the arguments used by the historian to establish cause-and-effect relationships between past events. What is more, the historical narrative is also the site of the historian’s emplotment (what the historian thinks the order of the events described lead up to and mean). Additionally, the narrative is where the ideology and the social theory preferences of the historian exist and do their work. The historical narrative is far more than a chronology of events. A study of the historical narrative and how it works highlights another thing. It should make it clear how ‘the past’ and ‘history’ are quite different objects. The former is what actually happened but which is now gone, while the latter, although it is a source-based and inferential inquiry, is only ever its narrative representation. History is, therefore, a substitution for the now absent past.

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