History's Obsession with Complexity and What Comes Next

Feb 2017
193
Canada
#1
As the history I've read gets wider I'm noticing a recurring pattern where historians focus on communities that are 'complex' and 'advanced', how these societies become complex, and so on. It seems to me like this is a hold-over from the days when we were obsessed with how smart we are, and how we were able to create such specialized societies.

And yet I think we've now reached the take-home consensus that 'complex' communities are a product of technology, climate, and ecology. There's nothing particularly special about civilization, other than that a specific set of conditions in specific locales allowed it to take place.

So what I wonder is:

Say in theory history moved on from this kind of hyper-focus on civilization, what would come next for the field? What kind of inquiry would be relevant?
 
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Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
4,616
Portugal
#2
As the history I've read gets wider I'm noticing a recurring pattern where historians focus on communities that are 'complex' and 'advanced', how these societies become complex, and so on. It seems to me like this is a hold-over from the days when we were obsessed with how smart we are, and how we were able to create such specialized societies.

And yet I think we've now reached the take-home consensus that 'complex' communities are a product of technology, climate, and ecology. There's nothing particularly special about civilization, other than that a specific set of conditions in specific locales allowed it to take place.

So what I wonder is:

Say in theory history moved on from this kind of hyper-focus on civilization, what would come next for the field? What kind of inquiry would be relevant?
Hi Voltaires Hat,

I am not sure that I understood you well enough to comment. What do you mean with “as history gets wider”? You mean as you change from a local monography to the history of a region/country/continent/world history, meaning wider in geographic terms? Or when it gets wider in the timeline? Or wider when it brings other disciplines/sciences to the analysis? Can you give an example?
 
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#3
As the history I've read gets wider I'm noticing a recurring pattern where historians focus on communities that are 'complex' and 'advanced', how these societies become complex, and so on. It seems to me like this is a hold-over from the days when we were obsessed with how smart we are, and how we were able to create such specialized societies.

And yet I think we've now reached the take-home consensus that 'complex' communities are a product of technology, climate, and ecology. There's nothing particularly special about civilization, other than that a specific set of conditions in specific locales allowed it to take place.

So what I wonder is:

Say in theory history moved on from this kind of hyper-focus on civilization, what would come next for the field? What kind of inquiry would be relevant?
It's common for some historians to use technology to assess a culture, which can be simplistic.

It's also common for historians and others to use 'the great man" approach to history.This approach makes history look simple, linear,. The impression given is X event was caused by X great men/ man.

I think that approach to history can be misleading. I do not have a theory of social change, although I am aware of several. My approach is to argue that history is a dynamic, in which changes is continuous. This approach can make study impossible, if too much focus is given to minutiae ; it is the task of t the historian to decide what is relevant.

There is an historian who has made some pretty good programmes about Roman history. Her name is Mary Beard. her approach includes examining the lives of ordinary people as much as possible.Often difficult due to lack of material.

Below a link to Mary Beard's doco on Pompeii

 
Feb 2017
193
Canada
#4
Hi Voltaires Hat,

I am not sure that I understood you well enough to comment. What do you mean with “as history gets wider”? You mean as you change from a local monography to the history of a region/country/continent/world history, meaning wider in geographic terms? Or when it gets wider in the timeline? Or wider when it brings other disciplines/sciences to the analysis? Can you give an example?
As the history I've read gets wider. In other words, as I gain more depth of study, read more, learn more. As this happens I come across more and more works talking about complexity and advancement.
 

Tulius

Ad Honorem
May 2016
4,616
Portugal
#5
As the history I've read gets wider. In other words, as I gain more depth of study, read more, learn more. As this happens I come across more and more works talking about complexity and advancement.
Oh! Sorry, got it now! But can that happened due the themes and authors you choose to read. My usual readings are mostly about Portuguese (and Spanish) history, and before the existence of Portugal about the societies and civilizations around the Mediterranean, and I don’t get that idea.
 
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#6
As the history I've read gets wider. In other words, as I gain more depth of study, read more, learn more. As this happens I come across more and more works talking about complexity and advancement.
YUP; as you continue studying, you learn more and more about less and less.---not sure that is avoidable, or even a bad thing.
 
Feb 2017
193
Canada
#7
Oh! Sorry, got it now! But can that happened due the themes and authors you choose to read. My usual readings are mostly about Portuguese (and Spanish) history, and before the existence of Portugal about the societies and civilizations around the Mediterranean, and I don’t get that idea.
Yea, granted there's plenty of history out there without this focus, but it is a trend I've noticed. Even if you read very specific histories you can sometimes see it come out in the language that's used. There is often a kind of implication that complex = good = worth studying.

You can even see this come out in what historians don't study. The lion's share of information out there is on agrarian or post-agrarian societies. Granted, a part of this might be because these are major sources of evidence.
 
Feb 2017
193
Canada
#8
YUP; as you continue studying, you learn more and more about less and less.---not sure that is avoidable, or even a bad thing.
Agreed, that's been true of my experience.

When I first got into reading about the field I imagined a big gap between modernity and the medieval/ancient periods. Where in reality the patterns and trends don't actually change much, and in modernity the major difference is that we learned how to burn oil and harness electricity.
 
Oct 2018
1,209
Adelaide south Australia
#9
Agreed, that's been true of my experience.

When I first got into reading about the field I imagined a big gap between modernity and the medieval/ancient periods. Where in reality the patterns and trends don't actually change much, and in modernity the major difference is that we learned how to burn oil and harness electricity.
"in modernity the major difference is that we learned how to burn oil and harness electricity.' Maybe just a smidge over simplified. Perhaps look at the notion of consumerism, comparing 'standards of living ' between say 1940and 1970.

Also, have a look at the place of women in our society, beginning with what I consider to arguably be the most important invention of twentieth century; the contraceptive pill. It's no accident that 20th century feminism didn't really get going until after that invention.

---Of course ,these are just my views. There are dozens of other ways to proceed.; good luck in finding yours
 
Last edited:
Feb 2017
193
Canada
#10
"in modernity the major difference is that we learned how to burn oil and harness electricity.' Maybe just a smidge over simplified. Perhaps look at the notion of consumerism, comparing 'standards of living ' between say 1940and 1970.

Also, have a look at the place of women in our society, beginning with what I consider to arguably be the most important invention of twentieth century; the contraceptive pill. It's no accident that 20th century feminism didn't really get going until after that invention.

---Of course ,these are just my views. There are dozens of other ways to proceed.; good luck in finding yours
No argument there, but my argument is that our ability to harness oil and electricity is literally at the root of every other advance of modernity. It's not that it's all that happened, it's that the corresponding, exponential increase in energy intensification allowed for enormous specialization.

For a significant proportion of the world food security is not even close to a concern, but rather the opposite - we're burning through so much energy that we're changing the biosphere. And with that food security comes astonishing specialization and innovation.
 

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