Historians: Who do We Think They Are?

Do we need to know?

A specialism in a particular area of history is a funny old thing. Certain fields appear to exempt the researcher from any potential accusations of vested interest, while others appear to invite the observation that the author must be a sympathiser.

I am now the author of two books on Fine Gael history: one exploring the ‘parent years’ of Cumann na nGaedheal, the other examining the party’s experience from the 1950s through to the ’80s.

Window

It certainly wasn’t a case of writing what I know.  Though I grew up in a very political household and my parents favoured different parties, Fine Gael was not one of them.  In fact, I came to the history of the party’s antecedents in my early twenties largely due to the advice of my PhD supervisor who pointed out a gap in the historiography.  I subsequently became fascinated by the party’s later development after watching the RTÉ three-part series Fine Gael: a Family at War.  For those unfamiliar, the mini-series hardly offered a glowing account.  As the subtitle suggests, it was instead a detailed look at the internal disagreements and leadership struggles that convulsed the party in the years after the FitzGerald era (1977-87).  I was hooked, but the point is my interest came from a very negative place.

When I revealed to a friend recently the identity of the person who will launch my new book, he laughed and good-humourdely joked that I’m at risk of being labelled a Fine Gael apologist.  The content of the book suggests otherwise (see here, for example).  It was a timely remark, because in recent days I’d be talking with a colleague in work about such attitudes, albeit in the context of wider historical writing.

I am intrigued that some historians are more naturally linked with certain topics than others.  The criteria for that association is an interesting one.  Choosing to write about a moderate political party seems to imply to some that the author must be a sympathiser, perhaps even a member or maybe even that the book was written for rather than about the party.  This isn’t necessarily assumed of those who write about extremist parties or the paramilitary organisations sometimes associated with them.  Or to take an extreme example: the idea that there must be some motive for those who research the history of child abuse would not be countenanced.

How I vote is between me and the ballot box, but isn’t there always an element of bias, regardless of our topics? The very act of choosing to research and write about one area, rather than another, is selective.  I’ve often wondered whether historians should ‘declare themselves’ in the introduction to their books.  It’s an idea I’ve heard discussed at conferences on several occasions, but ultimately the conversation always comes back to the same question: surely it’s what we do with the material, rather than our backgrounds, that is of greater relevance?  And on that note, I’ll leave you with the following video that left many of the students of the Writing the Past module I co-teach somewhat speechless.  Within seconds, you’ll understand why…

‘To be clear, I am a scholar of religions with four degrees, including one in the new testament and fluency in biblical Greek who has been studying the origins of Christianity for two decades’ ~ Resa Aslan explaining why his religious background is irrelevant to his ability to write on the life of Jesus.

Hat-tip to my colleague, Dr Jennifer Evans, for pointing this one out. 

  

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About Dr Ciara Meehan

I am a political and social historian, specialising in Ireland's twentieth century. My first book, The Cosgrave Party, was published by the Royal Irish Academy in 2010, while my new monograph, A Just Society for Ireland? 1964-87, was published by Palgrave Macmillan in October 2013. Having previously lectured at University College Dublin, I joined the History staff at the University of Hertfordshire in September 2013.

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7 Comments on “Historians: Who do We Think They Are?”

  1. jennifer Says:

    What a great summary of all our musings about this. I’m sure we will continue to discuss this at length

    Reply

  2. Steve Says:

    Therein lies the problem when writing a ‘popular’ book for the general public rather than for, let’s say, an historical journal. It is the nature of the public to assume the writer leans a particular way either politically or socially. I don’t think it is necessary or right for an historian to declare themselves one way or the other in their introductions as I feel the content should speak for itself.

    Reply

  3. Steve Says:

    Just to clarify, I believe it is absolutely necessary to write these books as without them people like me would not have had such an interest in history! I’m not suggesting that books about subjects such as this should not be written for the general public, just that the writer should not need to declare their political leanings in the introduction, as otherwise this could well set the tone for the book, which would not necessarily be a good thing!

    Reply

    • Dr Ciara Meehan Says:

      Steve, that’s a really good point about writing ‘popular’ books (although neither of mine are). Those less familiar with the process of historical writing won’t be as aware of the processes in place (such as peer-review) that try to limit bias, etc.

      Reply

  4. bealoideas Says:

    That Resa Aslan interview is pretty embarrassing. The odd thing though, currently he is not a religious studies prof but actually a prof of Creative Writing. I suspect he is just a jack of all trades tbh.

    Reply

    • Dr Ciara Meehan Says:

      Thanks for stopping by. I posted the video more to illustrate how people can assume a lot about an author based on their religious / political background. The presenter clearly hasn’t read the book and is obviously hung up on the point about his faith. Thinking of doing a follow-up post on professional credentials.

      Reply

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. On Bias and Credibility in Historical Writing | Jason Warren - November 8, 2013

    […] couple of weeks ago, Dr. Ciara Meehan offered a blog post that presented some intriguing questions about the interaction between bias and credibility in […]

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