Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

What is Culture?

If the past is to be understood as an enormous landscape that historians are charged with the task of exploring, then cultural historians are the academics gazing at every vista and examining every pebble asking the question, ‘but what does it mean?’

Influenced by anthropology in the 1970s, and building upon the new directions taken by social history in the 1960s, cultural history gained increasing momentum until reaching virtual domination as one of the leading methods of historical inquiry in the present day. This expansion has now reached a point of crisis where practitioners and critics alike argue that the field is so expansive as to encompass everything, and therefore mean nothing.

With this growth has come extensive theoretical debate about what constitutes ‘culture’ and whether it is even possible for historians to understand what something meant to individuals in the past. In the midst of such a crisis of identity, it is perhaps useful to go back to basics for an understanding of the fundamental features of cultural history, and perhaps the best way to get at the essential core is to consider what cultural history is not.

As historians gained more and more knowledge of ordinary people some became dissatisfied with what they saw as the limitations of social history because they believed it ignored details of everyday life and experiences. The desire amongst academics to explore new frontiers such as religious beliefs, sexuality and human agency led to new approaches being adopted from other academic disciplines such as anthropology, literary theory and philosophy.

The importance of interdisciplinary borrowing is particularly evident in two of the central figures in the development of cultural history who were not themselves historians by trade, but whose theories and writings would have a profound effect on historians and their work: Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist; and Michel Foucault, a philosopher turned ‘historian of the system of thought.’

Geertz saw humankind as existing in self-spun webs of significance, which could be analyzed and interpreted for their meaning. Culture for Geertz was a commonly understood yet unspoken by-product of a community, an acted document that can be read for its symbolic meaning. Culture was not a power that influences actions or events, but rather a system of signs that could be intelligibly (or ‘thickly’) described. His approach to culture introduced entirely new types of source material for historians who were more accustomed to using traditional textual sources – paintings, popular literature, diaries and the materials of everyday life as well as rituals, behaviours and practices could now be analyzed like texts as evidence of the culture that produced them.

One of Foucault’s greatest influences on cultural history is his emphasis on language and discourse as a means of analyzing change over time. His history was like no history ever done by a historian, and it forced a paradigm shift in the ways historians understood and interpreted the past. Instead of seeking the origins of, and causes for specific events he searched for cultural formations or systems of power and classification in the past. The relevance of Foucault’s work is not in the legacy of a specific theory or methodology, but rather in the aftershocks caused by his challenges to traditional understandings of how to approach questions about the past. By rejecting an understanding of history based on what happened and why and replacing it with an excavation of different systems of language, power and knowledge over time he completely shifted the focus of historical analysis.

Foucault Meme

Much has happened in the field of cultural history since Geertz and Foucault, and there has been much debate concerning the methodologies and limitations of cultural history. The history done in the wake of the cultural turn was termed the New Cultural History, which has since become somewhat old.

Over the past decade or more historians have become increasingly uncertain about the direction the cultural turn has taken them. These doubts are based partly in an ongoing epistemological debate about the fundamental basis of all knowledge, however of more pressing concern is the sheer breadth of the field. Virtually anything can have a cultural history, and it appears that most history done in recent years is of a cultural ilk.

The popularity and vastness of the field, both in academia and in the proliferation of popular television programming, has left many thinking that at present all history is cultural history, and many are questioning what the next direction may be. Perhaps it is at this point, when historians cannot see the proverbial forest for the trees that it may be more useful to step back and provide a clear and simple definition of what cultural history is and is not.

Some of the confusion surrounding what cultural history is may result from attempting to define it as a tangible ‘thing’ rather than an approach. Cultural history as a noun is a daunting concept because absolutely everything created by humankind is subject to interpretation through a cultural lens. Everything created is a product of a community within its own web of significance, and therefore in this regard everything is cultural history. The abundance of books with titles beginning with ‘The Cultural History of…’or ‘(fill in the blank): a Cultural History’ is proof enough of this.

The Cultural History of...

The Cultural History of…

However, cultural history as a verb is potentially a different matter. The pursuit of cultural history can be a clearly definable approach that goes beyond questions of what happened and why in an attempt to understand what things meant to past individuals, communities and societies. By this definition, at its most basic and broad, cultural history is the analysis of the significance of events in the past to those who experienced them, and how these meanings changed over time.

Defining culture in this manner assumes that humans living in any community will have at least some level of shared beliefs, values and understandings that shape their experiences and inform their actions. This definition of cultural history owes a great deal to Geertz. The influence of Foucault is also evident because the emphasis here is not necessarily on what happened and why, but on the underlying patterns of belief and behaviours that define groups and communities. All history that concerns itself with meaning and belief is cultural history. Any history that does not ask, ‘but what did it mean?’ is not cultural history.

This definition is useful because of its simplicity. It reduces an increasingly complex concept to its lowest common denominator to allow for a clear categorization of history into cultural and not cultural. It is perhaps an oversimplification, however given the extent to which complex philosophical debates regarding meaning and knowledge have gone it is a pragmatic means of rediscovering our bearings.

The cultural turn has had an undeniably massive impact on historiography, as well as on various other academic disciplines. It can be difficult at times to locate current history that is, by this definition, strictly non-cultural history, or histories that analyse the ‘who’, the ‘how’ and the ‘why’ without the ‘what did it mean.’ Although cultural history is the dominant approach it is not the only approach. In reality both cultural and non-cultural approaches sit comfortably side-by-side.

If, in fact, cultural history were the only approach to history the field would be at risk of drifting off into the philosophical abstraction of Foucault. In order to analyze what systems of meaning, belief, rituals and practices meant to anyone at any given time they must be put into the context of the who, the how and the why. In return cultural history can provide a more diverse and extensive understanding of a historical question by searching for beliefs and practices surrounding historical phenomena.

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Further Reading

Jonathan Barry and Joseph Melling, ‘The Problem of Culture: An Introduction’, in Joseph Melling and Jonathan Barry, eds., Culture in History, (Exeter: Short Run Press, 1992)

Richard Biernacki, ‘Language and the Shift from Signs to Practices in Cultural Inquiry’, History and Theory 39 (2000), pp. 289-310.

Victoria E. Bonnell and Lynn Hunt, eds., Beyond the Cultural Turn (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1999)

Peter Burke, What is Cultural History? (Cambridge: Polity, 2008)

Paula S. Fass, ‘Cultural History/Social History: Some Reflections on a Continuing Dialogue’, Journal of Social History, 37 (2003), pp. 39-46

Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick Description: Towards an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

John R. Hall, ‘Cultural Meanings and Cultural Structures in Historical Explanation’, History and Theory, 39(2000), pp. 331-347

Richard Handler, ‘Theory in History Today’, The American Historical Review, 107(2002), p. 1512-1520.

Lynn Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, (Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1989).

Peter Mandler, ‘The Problem with Cultural History’, Cultural and Social History, 1 (2004) pp. 94-117.

Patricia O’Brien, ‘Michel Foucault’s History of Culture’, in Hunt, ed., The New Cultural History, pp. 25-46.

Mirin Rubin, ‘What is Cultural History Now’, in David Cannadine, ed., What is History Now (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002).

Carol Watts, ‘Thinking about the X Factor, or, What’s the Cultural History of Cultural History?’ Cultural and Social History, 1(2004), pp. 217-224

Jeffery Weeks, ‘Foucault for Historians’, History Workshop, 14(1982), pp. 106-119

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5 thoughts on “Back to Basics: What Isn’t Cultural History?

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