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Local History and National History: The Quest for the Peoples of England1

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  22 January 2009

Charles Phythian-Adams
Department of English Local History, University of Leicester, Leicester, UK.


It is arguable that what has most bedevilled the recent academic practice of history in Britain has been the triumph over integrative history - or that mode of history which seeks to reconstitute and to explain the multi-dimensional nature of past experience - of what might be called the disintegrative historical approach, that is, specialised thematic history. The former mode includes local history, national history (by which here is meant much more than the political or constitutional history of the Nation State), international history - even histories of ‘civilisations’ or of the world - and takes ‘society’ as the central organising principle over time. The latter mode comprises, for example, political history, demographic history, economic history and so on through to such exotic sub-species of the so-called new social history as the histories of class, gender, sex, crime or leisure. Put crudely, if this second type of historical approach concerns itself with particular categories of persons or activities, with pre-selected processes and with highly specific tendencies in the relatively short term, then the first has to do with the fluctuating development of recognisable social entities in the round, and with their changing interrelationships usually over longer time scales. Instructive and fascinating as is undoubtedly the detailed thematic approach, and vital as it continues to be as the indispensable technical preliminary to the accurate reconstruction of the past in a multi-dimensional sense, it is hardly deniable that - as the Victorians recognised - it is the broader interdisciplinary approach which should represent the ultimate aspiration of the historical practitioner, simply because it is that which is most culturally relevant to the education of the citizen. It is equally clear, however, that few professional historians today are seeking either to construct their undergraduate syllabuses on such lines or to write connectedly for a wider public about such matters over periods much longer than a century or two.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1991

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