Whither Urban History?

Anthony Sutcliffe considers the contribution which urban history has made to our understanding of the past – and its likely use in the future.

During the Robbins era of University expansion, self-conscious fields of interest proliferated within the historical sciences. Urban history was a classic example. Between 1963 and 1978, what began as a small meeting of enthusiasts over a meal at a generalist conference expanded into the multi-faceted Urban History Group, a learned society in all but name, sustained by a permanent committee, conferences, and publications. Many historians have been suspicious of this growth of 'adjectival history', as it has sometimes been called, but historical perspective itself now allows us to see that, at a time of global expansion, the creation of historical knowledge had to be split into more intimate human units to allow constructive debate to continue. Some of the biggest post-war breakthroughs in historical methodology, perception and knowledge have been made within these salients rather than across a broad front. Certainly, there is a problem of synthesis, but it is scarcely insuperable, given that synthesis is the fundamental skill of the historian.

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