History's Obsession with Complexity and What Comes Next

Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
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?
Interesting post, not sure I buy the premiär entirely, but interesting nonetheless.

I have a few questions:
1) is it really so strange to be obsessed with how smart we are? Isn't it this "smartyness" that got us here?

2) there seems to me to be a lot more to study in civilizations than in more primitive cultures. You simply have more stuff to focus on.

Here is where I disagree with you: on the One hand you say "there is nothing special about civilisation", in the other hand you use technology as an example of something that gave rise to it. Well, where did it come from? Did God say in the beginning "there shalt be means of production? What is your position, that technology is just a product of trial and error and therefore "doesn't count" as a cultural phenomenon? Not sure I follow.

I'm skeptical towards this too great focus on exogenous factors. Culture matters, and individual actions matter. I don't think you can just reduce all civilisations to "civilisation", much of what I find interesting as an aspiring historian is the cultural differences between different kinds of civilisations and what happens when they interact... These parterns seem to me inseparable from the more basic things like geography, ecology, biology, arguably technology as well, and just like they are influenced by these things you describe which a Marxist would call "the base" these cultural factors also influence "the base" in turn. Perhaps more so the more advanced a society becomes?


To answer your question: I can't see any other line of inquiry outside of understanding cultures and civilisations which is relevant for a historian. That doesn't mean you can't integrate for example evolutionary biology or ecological science or in the future maybe data science into the understanding of history. But the study of civilisations are not moving away I think, far from it. I'd say given how homogenous so many social processes are becoming around the world, hell, sociologists and economists might actually be able to use their methodologies to understand something for a chance ...
 

Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,722
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?
Hyper focus on civilization is really hyper focus on us. It is just a form of narcissism but quite limited by the view point of the historian and the timeline where events closer to the present usually have way more source material while further away whole theories are based on a handful of evidence.

Ironically the more recent history tends to be the most contested because of its direct application to the future and how a given society is ruled.

Leaving out the focus on human civilization historians could move to studying the development of the ecosystem, of the universe, or other things... wait- I think that is already happening but they call it science.

Basically if the sarcasm wasn't clear I don't think we can study something other than human civilization and still call it history unless we call it, Thestory. History is the division of past events into a meaningful story- thus whoever tells the story gets their view of events included simply by the frame of reference.

The quote you often hear about 'History is written by the victors,' is probably better expressed as- 'history is formed by the socio-political context of those who survived the events with the greatest progeny' or something like that.
 
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
Hyper focus on civilization is really hyper focus on us. It is just a form of narcissism but quite limited by the view point of the historian and the timeline where events closer to the present usually have way more source material while further away whole theories are based on a handful of evidence.

Ironically the more recent history tends to be the most contested because of its direct application to the future and how a given society is ruled.

Leaving out the focus on human civilization historians could move to studying the development of the ecosystem, of the universe, or other things... wait- I think that is already happening but they call it science.

Basically if the sarcasm wasn't clear I don't think we can study something other than human civilization and still call it history unless we call it, Thestory. History is the division of past events into a meaningful story- thus whoever tells the story gets their view of events included simply by the frame of reference.

The quote you often hear about 'History is written by the victors,' is probably better expressed as- 'history is formed by the socio-political context of those who survived the events with the greatest progeny' or something like that.
Yeah. History as a discipline more or less presupposes that it's relevant and meaningful to study such things, in that culture specific and very antropocentric way.

Haha, a nice and pretty biting allusion to Francis Bacon (I think).

Your definition of history as "the division of past events into a meaningful story" is interesting... not sure I buy it or not. Surely it's about finding the truth, and describing things as they are (or were)? Also, about the meaning of narrative (what I suspect you mean with meaningful story)... have you read Herodotus? Not much narrative there - or at least not much clear narrative.

The problem with saying "oh, it's about dividing or constructing a narrative" (sorry if I'm picking words) is that it flips the legitimate causality around, in a way. Sure, in practice that is how historians usually work, for practical and psychological reasons - but is that the ideal? I like to see it as historians finding a narrative from what remains of the past. It's just not the case that we sit with an understanding of the past, and we have all these data and material which we just need to "systematize". That may be "a lie" or "nonsense" or whatever, but if historians start thinking of themselves as primarily "constructing" things I believe chances are even greater that historians will start making stuff up than if they have this "naïve" idea that it's about finding the past.

Anyway, all of this touches upon the interesting question, which is: what is history anyway, and what is the point of studying it? Some of the reason to me seems to be existential and ethical really, rather than purely intellectual. History seems to be the only kind of study, outside of ancient epic poetry perhaps that really grapples with time. The sciences are usually quite ill equipped to handle the fact that we are all mortal. To the archetypical scientific mind everything is general, timeless, abstract and in some ways dead. Biology is different, but outside of that discipline there seems to me to be a tendency to look at everything in these rationalistic ways, as if everything is really Euclidean geometry.
 
Last edited:

Larrey

Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
5,832
The narrative aspect of history is tricky. It's kind of unavoidable to get structure and meaning out of the information from the past we have to work with, but historians rarely focus a lot of narrative. Being a "good storyteller" isn't part of the requisite for professional historians. It's even one of those things that (professional) historians underemphasize, and even worryingly leave understated. Which tends to mean there can well be implicit narratives spinning in the background, implicitly structuring and providing (narrative) meaningfulness, but they tend to not be lifted to a conscious level where they are supposed to be examined.
 
  • Like
Reactions: NordicDemosthenes
Apr 2018
979
Upland, Sweden
The narrative aspect of history is tricky. It's kind of unavoidable to get structure and meaning out of the information from the past we have to work with, but historians rarely focus a lot of narrative. Being a "good storyteller" isn't part of the requisite for professional historians. It's even one of those things that (professional) historians underemphasize, and even worryingly leave understated. Which tends to mean there can well be implicit narratives spinning in the background, implicitly structuring and providing (narrative) meaningfulness, but they tend to not be lifted to a conscious level where they are supposed to be examined.
Agreed!

An honest and clear narrative is much to be preferred over an implicit and murky one in my book. It also makes for more fun reading...