Narrative history

People sometimes imagine that history is narrative, full stop. This is not the case; there certainly are important forms of historical writing that do not take the form of narrative. But let’s consider some of the logical features of narrative, since there is no disputing that this is one important variety of historical knowledge.

What is a narrative? Most generally, it is an account of how and why a situation or event came to be. A narrative is intended to provide an account of how a complex historical event unfolded and why. We want to understand the event in time. What were the contextual features that were relevant to the outcome — the settings at one or more points in time that played a role? What were the actions and choices that agents performed, and why did they take these actions rather than other possible choices? What causal processes — either social or natural — may have played a role in bringing the world to the outcome of interest? (For example, the Little Ice Age pushed Europe’s population into different patterns of cultivation and fishing, with major consequences for subsequent developments; Brian Fagan, The Little Ice Age: How Climate Made History, 1300-1850.)

So a narrative seeks to provide hermeneutic understanding of the outcome — why did actors behave as they did in bringing about the outcome? — and causal explanation — what social and natural processes were acting behind the backs of the actors in bringing about the outcome? And different narratives represent different mixes of hermeneutic and causal factors. Bob Woodward’s narrative of the Bush administration’s decision to go to war against Saddam Hussein is primarily actor-centered and interpretive — who said what, who influenced the decisions, the reasons and motives that ultimately prevailed with the president and top national security officials (Plan of Attack). Juan Cole’s treatment of the same historical moment, on the other hand, gives more emphasis to hidden motives — what the “real” objectives were (see his blog, InformedComment). But both authors aim to clarify the reasoning, motives, and dynamics among decision-makers that led to the outcome.

Narratives about the decision to go to war against Hussein’s Iraq have an important feature on common: they single out a fairly brief historical moment and focus on the proximate actions and causes that created the outcome. This is an instance of “micro-history” — an effort to explain and understand an important but bounded event. Is it possible to construct narratives of more extended historical processes?

Certainly it is. Consider histories of World War II, the Holy Roman Empire, or the Qing Dynasty. These are each large complexes including thousands of events and conditions over an extended period of time. Histories of these topics often take the form of chronologically organized presentations of occurrences and conditions, with a narrative storyline that attempts to hold these events together in a single story. There may also be an effort to break down the history topically or regionally — “War in the Pacific; North Africa; Western Europe” or “Technology; Intelligence; Supply and Industry; Command; Genocide”. But for the history to take the form of a narrative, there needs to be an organized effort to weave the account into a somewhat coherent story; a series of intertwined events and conditions leading eventually to an outcome.

A crucial and unavoidable feature of narrative history is the fact of selectivity. The narrative historian is forced to make choices and selections at every stage: between “significant” and “insignificant”, between “sideshow” and “main event”, and between levels of description. (Is World War II better described at the level of generals and policy-makers or infantrymen and factory workers?)

Another crucial feature of the genre of narrative history is the tension between structure and agency. Historians differ about where to set the balance between constraining structures and choosing agents. Partially this is a difference of opinion about the relative weight of various kinds of historical factors; but it is also a disagreement about what is interesting — choices or background conditions.

What are the criteria of success for a historical narrative? To start, there is the issue of the factual claims included in the account. A narrative of Abraham Lincoln’s presidency that gets the names of the members of his cabinet wrong will not do well in the New York Times Book Review. Second, there is the overall persuasiveness and foundation in evidence of the interpretations of actions that are offered. Third, the causal claims that the account advances will be tested for their empirical and logical foundations. If the claim is made that some aspect of Andrew Jackson’s presidency was influenced by the fragility of current banking institutions, we will want to assess whether this financial feature could be judged to have this result in the circumstances.

These are criteria that relate directly to the epistemic status of the many claims that the narrative advances. In addition, it is plausible that we evaluate narratives according to non-evidentiary criteria: the coherence of the story that is told, the degree of fit between “our” interest in the historical moment and the content of the narrative, and the degree of “lean” comprehensiveness the author provides. Does the author provide enough of the right sorts of details to make the story comprehensible, without overwhelming the reader with a thicket of extraneous facts?

Some of these criteria are clearly epistemic, having to do with evidence and credibility. But others are more aesthetic and interest-based, having to do with how well the account fits our expectations and interests. And this fact seems to set a bound on the degree to which one account is objectively superior to another.


One response

  1. Allow me to recommend Andrew Abbott (2001) Time Matters: On Theory and Method, where there is a fascinating discussion of the issues raised here, starting from a critical reassessment of what Abbott calls the General Linear Reality model that underlies much sociological research.

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