Historiography in the Twentieth Century:
From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge

Georg G. Iggers

Wesleyan University Press 2005
A book review by Danny Yee © 2005 http://dannyreviews.com/
In Historiography in the Twentieth Century Iggers offers a broad account of trends and changes in modern approaches to history. One hundred and sixty pages doesn't allow room for systematic exposition or analysis, but he achieves some depth by highlighting key schools and prominent individuals.

The story begins with classical historicism, Ranke, and the professionalisation of historical studies.

"Ranke ultimately became the model for professionalized historical scholarship in the nineteenth century. Before 1848, however, he was not at all typical of German, and even less so of international, historiography."
Around the end of the century, criticisms came in Germany from Karl Lamprecht, targeting a narrow emphasis on the state, people and events, and in the United States from the "New Historians" set out to write progressive history for a democratic society.

One of the major themes of twentieth century history has been the influence of the social sciences. Iggers devotes chapters to economic and social history in Germany (Weber and historical sociology), American traditions of social history, the Annales in France, "historical social science" in post-war Germany, and Marxist historical science in the Soviet bloc and in Britain.

"many historians in the Annales circle were fascinated by social science approaches that promised firm, objective knowledge. Braudel's emphasis on long enduring structures and on the material foundations of culture were not free of this scientism. Yet there was a firmly established tradition, extending from Bloch and Febvre to Le Goff, Duby, and to the present, that relied heavily on sources such as art, folklore, and customs and therefore encouraged more subtle, qualitative ways of thinking."

"The place of History Workshop in the historiography of the past two decades should not be overstated. It was one of a number of journals internationally that took a similar direction. It recognised its debt to Past and Present but from the beginning went further in the direction of popular history and culture and attempted, even if with limited success, to recruit common people."

Turning to the challenge of postmodernism, Iggers first covers the increasing focus on the history of everyday life. Here he highlights Carlo Ginzburg and the Italian microstoria tradition, work done in Germany, and connections with and differences from Geertzian interpretative anthropology.

A chapter on "the linguistic turn" focuses on North America, looking at Hayden White, Clifford Geertz, Thomas Childers, and work on the history of political thought, the French Revolution, and the role of symbols and social language. Iggers argues that the emphasis of postmodernism on "the impact of language, rhetoric, and symbolic behavior" has to be taken seriously, but that it lends itself more to literary criticism than history, with the more extreme "only language exists" position shared by few historians.

This 2005 edition adds an epilogue to the original 1997 work, in which Iggers considers some of the macrohistorical ideas associated with the end of the Cold War and aspects of historical studies in the non-Western world.

Iggers clearly has his biases: his presentation sometimes seems slanted and others might have chosen to emphasise different historians and different works. But he is straight-forward and transparent, he covers the most obvious topics, and he makes no pretence that he's being comprehensive.

When it's possible to major in history at a leading university and never have heard of Ranke or the Annales, a short, accessible survey of modern historiography demands a place in undergraduate teaching. Historiography in the Twentieth Century is also an obvious choice for anyone else wanting to understand how approaches to history have changed over the last century and a half.

March 2005

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%T Historiography in the Twentieth Century
%S From Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge
%A Iggers, Georg G.
%I Wesleyan University Press
%D 2005 [1997]
%O paperback, notes, index
%G ISBN 0819567663
%P 198pp