Project Officer: This interview is being conducted for the
‘Making history: the discipline in perspective’ project, the Project
Officer Danny Millum will be speaking to Professor James Dunkerley about
his experience of, and views on, changes in the discipline and the academic
profession of history.
Professor Dunkerley, may we start with your giving us some brief biographical information?
James Dunkerley: Sure, I was born in 1953 into a middle class family, principally with a military background so I didn’t have a single place of upbringing. I was sent away to boarding school. I went to what was then called a direct grant grammar school: Abingdon School, just outside of Oxford, where I first was taught serious document-based history for A-Level. We did work on the Reformation. I then went to study Modern History at the University of York between 1971 and 1974. I was then taught by some great historians.
1971–1974 was a very turbulent time in higher education, particularly in the new universities, and so we had, I suppose it would be fair to say, a very politicized experience. One of my professors, Gwyn Alf Williams, who then went on to Cardiff, told me that I had been taught too much left-wing history and needed to learn from a different perspective, so he sent me to Oxford where I did a MPhil in Latin American Studies and then a DPhil, which I got the same week that Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister.
PO: So it was when you went to Oxford that was the first time you specialized in Latin American History?
JD: Pretty much. At York Gwyn Williams ran a third year special subject on guerrillas. And we were in that year the coup in Chile occurred; September 11, 1973. So we were looking at the peaceful road to socialism that had just been, obviously, overthrown in a very bloody way and comparing that with the guerrillas, the armed struggle if you like, elsewhere in Latin America. I was designated to look at the defeat of Che Guevara, which had only happened six years earlier. So we were comparing the defeat of a guerrilla with the defeat of a parliamentary democracy. That was my first piece of Latin American research, and, of course, it was very contemporary.
PO: You obviously mention Gwyn Williams as an influence there. When you went to Oxford were there other influences on your development?
JD: Yes. I should say that Gwyn was the most important contemporary influence although he himself, began as a medieval historian and had concentrated on the 1790’s. In York you had to take a period-based course in your first year doing history. I, for some contrary reason, decided not to take the most popular option which was the French Revolution through to 1848. I took medieval history with Peter Rycraft.
I was also taught by a great historian – a very different character to Gwyn Williams – Gerald Aylmer. He had been writing on the 17th century, on the King’s servants and State’s servants. Really fantastic, rigorous and very insightful studies of the English state, to some degree the British state. Gerald had also developed a course on early British settlement of North America so that was another strong influence on me. Although it did take another 35 years before I realized that’s where it came from.
But there were many others; there was a fine history department set up, not least by poaching from Manchester. The first vice-chancellor of York had been the head master of Manchester grammar school. There was a feeling that the Manchester history department represented some very great talent that could be moved so the core of it was taken from there. And they were a very, very diverse group, not without some personal tensions, but was a truly inspirational department for many different ways. No such qualities of the same type existed in Oxford, I have to say.
PO: That’s interesting
JD: Yeah, it was much more disparate. But I was also being taught in a multi-disciplinary area studies degree. So I moved from a discipline to an area. Although I majored in History within it, and I was tutored by Malcolm Deas, who was a historian of the 19th century, particularly in Colombia. He himself was appointed as a lecturer in government. So my experience of Oxford when I first went there in 1974 was that there weren’t the boxes that you’d expect elsewhere.
At that time the professor of Latin American History was Christopher Platt, who was a very traditional, business historian who also wrote on the consular service, a very Anglo-centred, almost an imperial historian. His father had been an executive in Royal Dutch Shell and he engaged in some pretty sharp polemics with the dependency theorists, particularly in the United States. I think it would be fair to say he was already unwell, and he was difficult man. But at that time, his approach, the conservative business based approach, didn’t appeal to many students. So I actually found my intellectual influences outside of history, or outside of mainstream history.
I found them in the remarkable condensation of talent at All Souls College at that time – Isaiah Berlin, Leszek Kołakowski, and Charles Taylor. Berlin was obviously frail, but still mentally very alert. Kołakowski was probably at the peak of his intellectual powers, and they had interestingly complementary but different views on Marxism. Charles Taylor was just coming out of his biography of Hegel into what I would call a sort of ethical, moral philosophy. They would all talk about history but they weren’t actually doing it as mainstream historians.
PO: Yes, that makes sense. I suppose when you went on to do further research yourself, then, that explains some of your approaches and the fact that you weren’t writing from a strictly historical background, or as a traditional historian, that you had taken influences from other areas, as you say.
JD: Absolutely. I should add that this was at a time when History Workshop Journal at Ruskin College was flourishing in the early days of the journal. I think that it would be honest to say, Danny, that the move from history to area studies alone wouldn’t have produced a multi disciplinary sensibility. It was that move combined with some remarkable historians and remarkable practices in the case of HWJ.
There were some very energetic and interesting movements in other disciplines at the same time that made me realize that whilst I wanted to be within the discipline of history because I loved doing it, the idea of what I call disciplinary heroism, the idea that it is this sort of amour propre that attends people who don’t investigate the frontiers and the boundaries of their own discipline but just remain enclosed within the custom and practice. seemed to be very retrograde. You can enjoy and be creative as a historian; but you must always be alive to the dangers of hubris
PO: I think that a lot of reactionary historians, if you like, or conservative historians have defended that position in that way haven’t they, by a call for a return to the sources,and the idea that history is somehow separate from the social sciences and is a nobler calling in a way?
JD: Yes. I can’t see much a value in that. I think history is a social science, but it is also an art. We should be honest and say that these cleavages exist within the discipline understood in the most creative and constructive way.
What’s interesting is at the moment we are in the middle of the research assessment exercise in the universities in the United Kingdom, and I’m on a panel for politics, not for history, but I have been assigned a lot of work because it is obviously historical in nature. We’ve been charged to assess these outputs as their so ugly nomenclature refers to them in terms of rigour, originality, and significance.
All of them are important, but they are important in combination as well. There is no point in just saying that we can only go back to the sources and be ultra rigourous without having originality and without being candid about significance. Significance changes. The problem with significance is that, if you like, at the weak end of that spectrum you go into fashionability and fashionability is something that we should be very careful about and very cagey about. Fashionability sounds as if it is a mere caprice or whim of taste but it’s incredibly powerful economically, it drives journals, it drives money through research council funding and so on. So fashionability isn’t just a superficial phenomenon at all; it is very powerful.
PO: It’s more difficult to resist in a sense than you might think.
JD: It’s a greater lure. I agree, yes.
PO: I was going to ask you next about the development of the studies of the Americas and Latin America and who were the most important figures in that field. I know to a certain extent that you’ve answered that, but do you think it would be possible to take a slightly wider view to comment a little bit on pioneers in the field or how the study has developed?
JD: Of course. Perhaps it would worth presaging that by saying that Latin American History existed before Area Studies in this country, but not in any structured kind of way. There wasn’t a recognized sub field. In fact, in Britain there was relatively little serious history of the region, except in the case of Brazil where we can say the work of Manchester and Charles Boxer in the interwar period really was exceptional. But generally speaking, the history of Latin America was studied much more in the United States than in the United Kingdom.
JD: The first chair set up here in University College London in 1948 was held by Robin Humphreys, who only died in 1996. He became the first director of the Institute of Latin American Studies. And it is fair to say that all the directors of the Institute of Latin American Studies have been historians, if I count myself as a historian.
In 1965 a Review was set up by the University Grants Council and chaired by Professor J. H. Parry, who had worked on overseas trade in the early modern period and had also been a senior University Administrator in Nigeria. The committee decided to set up five centres, in London, Oxford, Cambridge, Liverpool, and Glasgow. The original money lasted not very long but it did generally get well invested, and since then only really the centre here in London has retained control of its own budget. We’ve merged as well, so we’re part of the School of Advanced Study. It’s fair to say we’re in a new phase of the organization of Latin American History, which is both in the centres and the departments around the country.
PO: Since the Parry centres were set up in essence they’ve also evolved, although they still exist?
JD: They have, yes. And they have evolved partly through a flanking movement on the one side through institutional changes, not so much in terms of the frontiers between disciplines, but in the way that post graduate teaching is delivered. Because Latin American history has characteristically been seen as a master’s level rather than being taught at undergraduate level. Although, I should say that it is taught very well at undergraduate level, at non-Parry centre universities, particularly in this case, at Warwick, in the School of Comparative American Studies, part of the history department, and at Essex.
They’ve evolved that way, but they’ve also developed in terms of intellectual movement. Where it seems to me the emergence and consolidation of world history has meant that Latin American history is seen now as not just a distant segment or category but part of a whole. In global history, world history, international history – call it what you may –Latin America is recognized as having a kind of key role. Moreover, I think this is the interesting thing we might want to come back to; some parts of the world are studied for certain periods. Latin America is increasingly shown to be interesting for all the periods since European colonization, if you can call it that, and indeed, prior to it. We can talk about indigenous empires, as well. It is well represented in a wide range of chronology.
PO: And, certainly from your work here at ISA, and from speaking to John Elliott in one these interviews, who just produced his book a couple of years ago on empires of the Atlantic world, it also seems as if there is a move to study Latin America within the context whole of the Americas.
JD: Absolutely. This is a step process which began with Atlantic history and that itself has been promoted particularly by Bernard Baylin at Harvard, but it has had a significant British and Canadian as well as African and Latin American input. I would put it as having ‘come of age’ in the last fifteen years.
And what we now see increasingly is a movement within Atlantic history to the South Atlantic from the North Atlantic. It very much began like the work of Brevnor for what people call the Anglosphere or the North Atlantic triangle which, of course, is represented in the Cold War world by NATO. Perhaps in Britain we’ve become more aware of the South Atlantic because we had a war with the South Atlantic a quarter of a century ago.
But it is plain that some very, very important areas of history – take, for instance, the study of slavery – were both North and South Atlantic-based. Clearly, Brazil can be compared with the southern states of the United States of America, and seeing and comparing the African elements of that, as well as comparing the commercial entrepreneurs of let’s say, Jamaica and Cuba, meant that sticking rather in a slightly cautious way to the existing political frontiers of the world and putative cultural frontiers was actually going to be prejudicing the history, not assisting it. So that by looking at these things afresh you are actually going to open up new archival journeys. When you open them up, you start to look at things that never occurred before.
We now find, for example, very rich work on Portuguese merchants who were trading in slaves in Brazil and in British colonial territories. That work has been going on for half a dozen years, but there is a lot more to be done there. 15 or 20 years ago that would have been seen as so esoteric, so recherche it wouldn’t have had any significance at all. Now it’s at the leading edge.
PO: So in fact these are quite rapid and recent changes?
JD: Yes, yes. And they’re producing a review in the first place and in some cases, of perhaps more energetic, perhaps younger US based historians, a revisionist view of what counted. That is in one particular debate, that is very rich, making people look at the supposed superiority of Anglo-America over Spanish and indeed Portuguese America, even after US independence. It’s producing some interesting and quite charged debates.
PO: Concerning things which in that case had been almost historically accepted for such a long period as well.
JD: Absolutely, yes. Perhaps even more than that it has politicized and ideologized this idea of American exceptionalism, and the idea which social scientists call path dependency (which is their way of dealing with history to some degree) – the trajectory of certain customs and practices and ideas and cultures coming down from the past and sedimenting, if you like. In the case of the United States this great emphasis is on the puritan legacy and that this is a kind of heritage. That has been quite tellingly criticized in its own terms, because we’ve got various folkways in the United States. There are plenty of places that were not Congregationalist in the first instance, and perhaps in the case of say, Maryland, not even Protestant.
But now what we’re getting is a very interesting debate – which again you might think is quite esoteric – comparing religious language between Protestant mainstream Episcopalian Anglican as well as Puritan Protestant sermons, and Catholic sermons both lay and of the orders in the south. And when you get to that point, this comparison really does show up, perhaps, arguably in the work of somebody like Jorge Cañizares who’s of Ecuadorian background. He’s arguing that there’s far greater similarity than there’s difference. And the debate there is principally with another fine historian Patricia Seed, who is at University California, Irvine, who sees two quite distinct pathways of how the different home cultures become settler colonial cultures and then become morphed into indigenous values. There’s an awful lot going on, and it is an exciting time.
PO: Because that’s sounds to me, I don’t know whether you would agree, like an indication not only of a move toward comparative histories, but also of an adoption of what some people describe as the cultural linguistic turn, when you talk about looking at the texts themselves and the language that is used there. Would you say that’s something that’s been adopted in this area as well, or is that still a point of contention?
JD: Both, actually, to be honest. We’ve seen probably a far greater adoption of it in US universities, where it has created a sharp debate around the whole approach of cultural studies and post-structural epistemology. And the claims, or the counterclaims, from what post-structuralists would call empiricist historians, who argue for a rather traditional form of scientific inquiry in which the fact is sovereign, and that fact is not, in essence, contestable.
We’ve had those debates, particularly in the Hispanic American Historical Review, nearly a decade ago now, about the cultural history of Mexico. And those debates, sometimes ill tempered (sometimes almost as ill tempered as the debates of dependency twenty years beforehand) had, I think, really shown up the way in which the “cultural wars”, if I can put that in figurative inverted commas, in the United States had entered our profession. So it was more a reflection of the cultural climate of the United States in the 1980s and 1990s than it was of Europe, but that is not to say we do not have those pressures and the creative elements that they engender in Europe as well.
PO: Ok, that all makes sense. That’s all very interesting. Before we move on general questions, I just wondered if there are any other institutions or organizations that you see as being particularly significant in the development of the study of the history of the Americas, and I’m thinking in this country.
JD: Right, in Britain. There is a periodization here, it’s a loose one but I think it may be useful. The Parry centres are set up in 1965, they formed part of the creation of the new universities in the 1960s, although none of them were set up in a new university. The new universities by in large decided to go their own ways. I couldn’t argue for each case precisely why. But it seems to me that they were right to do so. And two universities, Warwick and Essex, really embraced Latin American Studies. Later on, Portsmouth did as well. But those two really had a rich, largely unfettered approach. It’s worth remembering that colleagues who later moved on began at Essex, particularly Simon Collier and Alan Knight.
Simon sadly died far too young a couple of years back, when working at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He was vital for promoting the field in a quiet, modest way. Perhaps his conservatism at the time didn’t chime with the fashionable mood of the 1960s. But he had a grace and elegance about him, intellectually as well as personally, which meant that he was very influential. A historian of the 19th century Chile and a historian, rather like Gerald Aylmer, of ideas and state-craft, which were out of fashion but later to come back. The state would be brought back in.
Alan Knight began there and then went to Texas. Alan was an important figure and a fine, fine historian of Mexico. In fact, he’s got a much wider compass, so he’s always thinking in comparative terms although he’s very reluctant to stick within categories. I mean he’s much more concerned with this interface between history and social science in which he retains a sometimes rather disturbing scepticism about the language and method of both.
He is a very good example of the richness that can come when you’ve got that openness. He’s rigorous, he’s original, and he can see the significance of things. He came back from Texas, having effectively completed his two-volume history on the Mexican Revolution (a wonderful resource – a very, very rich history which remains the classic reference), to take up the chair in Latin American history at Oxford where he remains, and he’s been there for some time now.
Essex was rich then and it has another generation of historians who followed up, Brian Hamnett and Matthias Röhrig-Assunção, working Mexico and Brazil.
We need to recognize the salience of Brazil here because one of the things that we do need to be aware of is that in 2008 there is no longer the Centre for Brazilian Studies at Oxford set up by Leslie Bethell. Leslie Bethell was in the traditional Parry Centres, he was the director of this institute between 1987 and 1992 and, of course, he was the general editor of the ongoing Cambridge History of Latin America which started rolling thirty years ago. It is the very formidable British contribution to the study of the region. Now the only real centre which includes history is in London at King’s College.
But I also wanted to talk about Warwick University because that was the other new university in the 1970s where Latin America was taken up and taught from a different angle within a history department but with significant autonomy. And this is a fascinating experience which is perhaps is coming towards a natural phasing in that the young historians and the students of literature who were appointed in the mid 70’s are now approaching retirement.
JD: They were all appointed principally by Alistair Hennessy, who had begun his life as a historian of Spain but had become increasingly interested in Spain’s colonies, and within them Cuba and Argentina. He wrote a very fine survey text on the frontier in the mid 1970s, a pioneering text in which he compared the North and Central and South America. He’s retired now but he’s gone one step further in that he’s incorporated the Philippines, which are often forgotten as a Spanish colonial territory. The galleon from Manila used to go to Mexico once a year – an extraordinary phenomenon that needs more research. But what Alistair did distinctively as he set up the centre in Warwick was to include the Caribbean.
JD: And this is vital. In the Americas as a whole people can resent the fact that Latin America is ill treated in terms of politics and power with respect to the United States. People tend to ignore entirely – unless they’re a part of the diaspora –the Caribbean and Canada; Alistair was very, very clear that the Caribbean was vital, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries.
So they had a Caribbean element to their Latin American programme and that was very important. Hennessy created some holdings on Cuba, particularly the run of the Cuban newspaper of the revolution Granma. I think I’m not wrong in saying is unique outside of Cuba, this holding, and which has now been moved to the University of Nottingham, but it was Alistair’s creation. The Warwick approach is not quite what we’ve done at the Institute where we have a comparative course. They taught the elements of comparison without taking the comparison itself, separating it out. So you would have courses on the United States, and you would have courses on the Caribbean and you’d have courses on Latin America and the students would generally be in a comparative environment.
PO: That’s with undergraduates?
JD: That was with undergraduates and, in fact, they have got a master’s degree in race related. But it’s never recruited a great many students. I think that the great richness of the programme at Warwick is the fact that it takes a multi-disciplinary sensibility but doesn’t ignore the fact that to make that work as a young scholar you have to have a disciplinary grounding.
JD: I think it’s unique, actually, in a sense because it’s much bigger than in Essex and it’s within the history department. They have made sure to train historians with a multidisciplinary sensibility in the Americas. That is a wonderful achievement.
PO: Can you think of any institutions outside the universities that have played a role in the development of the study of history? Not necessarily solely in terms of the historians who have worked but also in the provision of sources for the historians.
JD: Yes, well that is a really interesting question. I’m of a generation that still refers to the Public Record Office, and I have to confess I’m from a generation that went to it when it was in Holborn, not in Kew. And for my generation the most common experience was to work first on British based documents, diplomatic documents, traveller’s accounts, and (this is important) papers of companies investing or trading with Latin America, of which there is a great richness in London, and Liverpool. Then you go to the field and experience it. If you’re a colonialist you’ll probably go to Seville first, but if you were a modernist you would almost certainly go directly to the Americas.
When I went to university this was an exotic trip to make and not many people had done it. Indeed some people, some scholars – Harold Blakemore, who was a long time (here at the Institute) historian of 19th century Chile didn’t go to the region until he had written his PhD. So this is an experience of a different order. Wide-bodied jets come in at the end of the 1960s and early 1970s, and the price and the inconvenience of international travel diminished rapidly.
Now, most students coming to university have had a gap year in the region. So their experience of the region and the sort of cultural context which the sources relate to is ten to fifteen years younger than people of my generation (although I myself actually went early and to difficult places). As a rule the sources in Britain have changed somewhat. They’re now sources that might be used (unless you’re doing a topic on British Trade or British cultural influence) to triangulate documentary and other sources in the region, rather than serving as your starting point.
PO: That makes sense.
JD: Although there wasn’t very much history of Latin America done, that which was being undertaken could be done at a high level of rigour, based on our documentary archive sources to do with trade or to do with investments. For example. at Barings Bank, which Christopher Platt worked on.
I think it’s fair to say now, that given the British investment, the British domination of foreign investment in Latin America until WWI, there are lots of sources in Britain that have been worked well, particularly by Platt’s students, now senior members of the field. But they’re shifting.
The study of history in Latin America growing in the 1960s and 1970s wasn’t really focused on sourcing; it was also about setting up a community which would go beyond the University (which was your question). The Society for the Study of Latin American Studies had a newsletter through the 1960s and 1970s, but didn’t issue a journal which is the Bulletin of Latin American Research until 1981. The first journal set up here exclusively to deal with that was the Journal of Latin American Studies, established in this Institute and published by Cambridge University Press, but representing what was called the ‘Standing Conference of the Parry Centres’, if I might put it like that, where all the significant programmes of Latin American Studies, which included Essex and Warwick, were represented among the editorial board. And although it is a multidisciplinary journal, the Journal of Latin American Studies still represents history more than any other discipline. It’s an international journal that is recognized for doing so. The Hispanic American Historical Review moves around various universities in the United States, published by Duke University Press, and that is comprehensively historical.
PO: I suppose when it’s included in its title then it‘s part of its remit?
JD: Yes, it has a different approach to reviewing. But in terms of journals we have two international journals in the United Kingdom. And although The Bulletin of Latin American Research, I would say, is more interdisciplinary, it has not quite got the same representational profile or the same role in the discipline of history that the Journal has. So we’ve got a national association which has been very rich in activities and has an annual conference, and two journals, none of which are restricted to the universities, but principally reflect university contributions to the field.
PO: And you also mentioned before a slightly different type of institution: The Cambridge History of Latin America and said that it might be important to come back to that and maybe say a few words about how that came about and it’s influence if you like.
JD: That’s very important. Its been going for over thirty years so it’s subject to some criticism for being out of fashion. It’s also very difficult to write synthetic overview chapters. One of the great richnesses of this project, which has always been edited by Leslie Bethell, is that it includes in the 11 volumes, a separate volume of bibliography for each chapter.
I have written some chapters, and I know that drafting the bibliographic survey was almost as demanding as writing the synthetic chapter itself. It has been criticized for over representing British history of Latin America. I think it’s an unfair and unwarranted criticism. It’s true that British history is very well represented, but in some areas British history is simply amongst the best.
But overall the argument would be that it under represents United States history of Latin America and that it represents a certain liberal progressive structuralist view of Latin America, so not your linguistic turn, not so much the cultural studies side of the discipline. Although, I should say, that in one or two essays, particularly that of Richard Morse, looking at the cultural history of the region in the late 19th and early 20th century there is a remarkable analytical interpretation, sometimes difficult to pick up. And it’s not safe work; it’s not predictable at all.
It’s still completely defensible to have structured this project around a mix of periods of the actually existing nation states and of regions. That is how we were thinking, conceptually, of the region in the 70s and 80s and to some degree the 1990s.
What we weren’t doing nearly so much was recognising and reckoning, if I may put it like that, local history, which was being practiced as a subset of national and regional history rather than as being a ’pluriverse’ of itself. Although, of course, when you reflect upon it, parish records are some of the best sources for cultural, economic, and social history that anybody has. That’s where a lot of US history, a lot of good, rich US history of Latin America is being done now.
The Cambridge History does not really reflect that, and that is perhaps inevitable because of its design and because it’s such a large enterprise.
PO: It’s the nature of ongoing histories of that sort to a certain extent that the initial structure fixes what you’re going to do subsequently.
PO: And that would be the same for anything, really, wouldn’t it?
PO: Okay, so moving back to a more general focus, I was wondering Professor Dunkerley if you could comment on how you think the pressures of academics have changed during your career.
JD: Well, I think they’ve increased considerably. To some degree, pressure has become stress because we’ve become much more regulated. That’s not a wholly bad thing – regulation is neither a vice nor a virtue in itself, but it has certainly increased pressure, particularly in the regulation of teaching and research, and you wonder whether that pressure has been constructive. It’s no doubt the case that resources now are much more freely available than they were thirty years ago. And that if we are, as we are in the United Kingdom, essentially within the public sector there should be transparency and accountability for those resources.
However, I do believe there is a fundamental flaw in the dual funding process, whereby there’s a core funding coming from HEFCE and the semi-autonomous side of the state and then that of the funding councils. The United States, for example, doesn’t have that system. So we’re subject to two pressures on the research side and of course we’ve got the whole audit of teaching, which didn’t exist before. As I say, not universally positive or negative, but definitely an extra pressure. Scholars now have to be scholars as intellectuals and academics as managers, unless they’re in a very privileged positions, which relatively few of us are.
PO: You mentioned the effect of different steams of funding, different ways in which funding comes to institutions such as this. Would you be able to say something about institutional changes that may have produced this, again during your career? I don’t know whether you see it not only as changes in these bodies, but changes emanating from government policy.
JD: Yes, I think it is more government policy than any other single variable. And most colleagues today in the process of the Research Assessment Exercise, which began (I hesitate to use the term ‘light touch’ because it’s now almost a swear word) as a ‘light touch’ have gone through some excessively bureaucratic experiences. The six or seven year cycle, whereby effectively four elements of everybody’s work is read, puts an inordinate amount of pressure on the people in the panels, not to mention determining the form of scholarly publication, often at the expense of originality and creativity.
What that’s done, effectively, is to create a shadow world, whereby managers of universities, deans and heads of department, have used the Research Assessment Exercise as a management tool. As there have been cultures created around it, some of which don’t [help].
JD: But it puts pressure on colleagues to act in, to conduct a certain type of academic behaviour. And I think, although all people working at universities should sensibly have a balance of behaviour, at some levels there is a bias against originality, and for safety. For example in adhering to a certain pattern of behaviour or respected journal publication. Publishing in scholarly journals is an important part of an academic profile, but it can become fetishized. And it can actually militate against really rich, long term research and writing of history.
PO: Because you mentioned when you brought out your own Americana, about that flying in the face of the scholarly protocols of the time, just as you say in terms of size and material covered.
JD: Yes, I think that’s right. Americana was a risky enterprise. I hadn’t a clear idea when I embarked upon it what I was going to do, but I had the great good fortune to have heads of department who trusted me; who could see that this was deviant behaviour, but thought that it might yield a result. In actual fact it probably didn’t for them. It was very, very gratifying for me to have undertaken that intellectual journey and published a 600 page book. It fortified my love of history and my recognition of our duty to the dead to manage their affairs, but it wasn’t a sensible institutional thing to do for my department.
PO: But does that indicate by the fact that you said you had heads of department that trusted you that within this RAE type of environment, there was still a degree of flexibility?
JD: Yes, absolutely. In that particular exercise we were able to see what each ‘output’, as I say is such an awful term, was awarded. We won’t be able to do that this time around, we’re just going to see the general profile. But in 2001 I could see that the panel actually recognized the book as being interesting and gave it a five star. Although it wasn’t a commercial success, and although it didn’t really enter into the debates in the field at the time, I couldn’t decry the RAE for not recognizing a work in which I enjoyed writing
So it has got its positive sides; it is taken seriously by the people engaged in it. I know, from experience, that they agonize over what they’re doing. Like many good colleagues in the profession, they may have reservations about certain institutional instruments and public policy, but they recognize, perhaps in a British pragmatic way that they have to engage in it.
PO: Besides the RAE, obviously, you’ve been director of the Institute for the Study of the Americas here for some time, and there’ve been a great deal of changes, or at least proposed changes in the structure of the University of London. I was wondering if you could say anything about other developments in terms of institutional changes in your time in a position where you’re experiencing and maybe affecting these changes?
JD: Well, history in London is really unique in that the subject panel is keeping the old federal university always in mind because historians in the university still collaborate more than any other discipline.
JD: I think it’s fair to say, I’m not fully familiar with medicine, but I suspect even with medicine. I suspect that the history panel is unique. So the university system in London has broken up in many ways for the good, but in some ways for the worse, because we’ve not been able to undertake the collaborative enterprise that you do require for the kind of history that is today recognized as being rich. Which is international, is not jealous of periods, can be very, very deep, can involve archaeology, involve very often the use of languages, and is world wide in its scope. That kind of history is very hard to teach comprehensively and well in any single department, even in these large departments like University College or Kings there are gaps and there are, obviously, the traditional inherited boundaries.
So inter-institutional, intra-university collaboration is vital. We need to be aware of the fact that, although, the School of Eastern European and Slavonic Studies is now in University College, and SOAS is freestanding, there should be interactions between them.
Now, I think that the profession as a whole has seen the multiplication of universities, and we have well over 100 universities, most of which have history departments, in the United Kingdom. In 1800 there were six universities in Great Britain, four of them were in Scotland.
There is probably still a lot of scope for this collaboration at the regional level. Let’s say the northwest, you’d see a synergy between the departments in Manchester and Liverpool – Liverpool once having an economic history department freestanding. Or in Scotland, between Edinburgh and Glasgow, where the same thing applies, one university has a different profile.
JD: And it’s possible for Glasgow and Edinburgh or Manchester and Liverpool to get together to form a research cluster and make joint bids to the research councils. I think that, the more of that that happens, the more it’s divorced from this sort of slightly mad competition for student numbers and the fee income that comes with them, the better. I think the richer the profession will be at a national level.
PO: Do you think the way in which the introduction of fees and that becoming a necessary funding stream, do you see that to a certain extent as distorting an institution’s priorities?
JD: Yes, that would be a fair inference. It isn’t an immediate distortion, it’s one at several distance, second-hand, third-hand distortion. But what it has done is introduce a level of competition into university life. And, without fully expunging the oligarchic consensus among vice chancellors, it has encouraged a kind of retrograde machismo. Some of them are wonderful managers and great scholars, and we should really appreciate the fact that, of course, they are properly rewarded. We should appreciate that they are prepared to shoulder responsibilities and get to grips with a tough world which management and money are interacting in a quite disturbing way sometimes.
But there has been an ethos of competition, which is not productive and creative at every level. And I think it’s very hard for people in departments to deal with that without themselves going into a bit of refusnik behaviour, and that doesn’t help either. It’s a difficult one, and it does, as you say, derive essentially from public policy and institutional regulation.
PO: Looking at something slightly different here. I was wondering if you could move to a kind of different branch of history as it’s practiced at the moment, and if you had anything to say about how the relationship between academic and popular might have changed?
JD: Well, I think it has, and you know, all to the better, really. The way I saw it first and appreciated it was on television, but followed quickly by very popular history journals: History Today (which had already existed) and BBC History, which of course in itself was a commercial undertaking.
But what both those journals did was to combine professional academic historians writing in a more popular voice with people who worked in the media or published as independent authors, and very often at just as rigorous level of research, and at perhaps an even better level of expression than academic historians. So that combination created an audience, as well as meeting the needs of an existing audience.
We know that there has always been an interest in genealogy, but only with the advances in technology is this now available – sometimes completely free and sometimes at a relatively modest charge. Everybody wants to know their family history. Again, rather like local history, it is no longer the poor relation, in the sense that it might be a covert activity by an aged uncle or something like that. People can see how social history counts, through their own family descent.
Also, it seems to me, that the advantage of popular history was that it was able to bring out of the closet (some of us are rather sniffy about this) biography. The linguistic turn, and the whole question of subjectivity, in which psychoanalysis had such a big part to play, in the development of the discipline meant that a restored respectability came to biography. Although lots of people would still criticize certain biographies as exceptionally speculative, with unwarranted interpretation of things for which the evidence doesn’t exist.
The development of biography and popular biography, taking icons such as the monarchy or heroes of the past has, in my view, contributed toward methodology, because in certain areas, in certain periods we don’t have the documentary evidence to provide what people in the 21st century believe would be a rounded depiction or understanding a certain phenomenon or a certain person. Therefore, we have to engage in counterfactual, and counter intuitive thinking. It can be taken too far. I actually believe the ‘what if’ school of history is over worked.
JD: It’s not for me a useful end product, but it is a useful sort of medium (in the medium term) – an operational or practical device for us to think about ‘what if’ in terms of where we might go to find the falsification, or the verification, of a certain hypothesis.
Now, biography does that, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly in ways that I think have generally enriched the field and that has obviously been a big seller. You can see that by having, for example, a series on television to do with the monarchy, or certain monarchs, or certain dynasties within the monarchical tradition of these islands, you move almost seamlessly, take Schama’s, through various methods. And that has been wholly to the good. I suspect some very distinguished academic historians might, upon reflection, admit to it influencing them as well. Certainly, what it’s done is made our work much more valid for a wider social interest.
PO: That’s interesting. I was just wondering as well whether, as you mentioned Schama there, obviously a respected academic historian in his own right producing popular history, this is a new development or has it always been the case that that would be the direction people would travel in, if you like?
JD: I suppose you might take A. J. P. Taylor as the sort of recent pioneer in this respect. And there are histories of Taylor still coming out; biographies and memoirs of Taylor coming out. I never actually saw him live. I only saw him on television. And now he looks quite old fashioned. Of course, television has moved, we’re still in this moving technological frontier.
We haven’t talked about the internet really, other than the question of family history, but that’s affected practice at every level, and the digitalization of sources and so on and so forth. In a way, we are all becoming more popular because we’re all more accessible. The question is whether we make our work, our objects of study and our expression consonant with that greater accessibility. Everybody wants a combination because most historians teach, and most teachers want to communicate. Expression is necessary but insufficient. So you have to communicate, and the wider audience you do so to, the better.
Now the key issue here – lets be frank about it – is whether in the process you prejudice the professional practice, whether you are somehow sort of ‘dumbing down’. But it’s a bit like the whole question of regulation not being intrinsically or inherently good or bad. I don’t think being popular is either. It’s just a question of how you do it. So we have historians of every age practicing today who are more or less inclined to do so. People might be slightly less sniffy on the question of how much ‘dumbing down’ has gone on, or how much hubris or personal ambition is involved in the reward of recognition in the media – the media dons sort of question. And whether people are just using a media appearance to promote themselves, rather than their subjects. There are moments when historians need to be in there, there needs to be a sort of autobiographical moment.
American individualism has probably over-promoted that. Yet, we have to recognize authorial footprints in all our work. It’s merely again along that spectrum where the popular side is explicit authorship. On television and the mass media it is visible authorship.
PO: You were talking there about developments in popular history you’d like to see and you also alluded to the internet as well and the effect that’s had on history. Perhaps this would be a good time to ask for your thoughts on the future of history as a discipline and a profession I suppose?
JD: Well, that’s always changing, but professional history is really quite young. Medievalists would make quite a big distinction between the chronicle. We can see it being practiced all the way back but it changes the whole time, it knows itself in different ways, and today has an unprecedented technological environment in which it works.
The internet age is clearly a massive emancipator of sources, of research capacity. Some of it is limiting, and some of it is distracting. Limiting because one tends to become lazy, one tends to mechanically reproduce things such as through photocopying or now digital photography that would actually be better read there and then and noted and considered in the research act. The archive has taken on a different quality. And, of course, we have this idea of cheap, free, and you might think superficial information available through search machines. Again, there are questions of verifiability and falsifiablity that are so fundamental to the practice of research in history that we need to insure ourselves that there is transparency and accountability throughout.
PO: The Wikipedia question, to an extent, is a historical question.
JD: It is, yes, absolutely. And if we set ourselves
up as being scientific in a 19th century term, in terms of rigour and
empirical research then we really have to deal with the Wikipedia question
as thoroughly and exhaustively as any other discipline.