Some Incomplete Thoughts on the Scale of History – Part 1

‘The Scale of History’ is the theme of this year’s Australian Historical Association conference which is taking place this week in Canberra. It was the theme of the conference which enticed me to take time off work to come to chilly Canberra. Half-way through the conference it is time to take time to consider what I have heard about the ‘scale of history’ this week.

I have deliberately titled this post ‘some incomplete thoughts’ as what follows is merely a glimpse of a couple of keynote presentations. In this post I have selected a very small portion of the ideas presented and added my own personal reflections. Thus what follows cannot be said to be a report of the presentations as it does not present the fully formed and meticulously argued views of the presenters.

All good conference themes can be explored in myriad ways. ‘Scale’ in history does not just refer to time. President of the Australian Historical Association, Lynette Russell started the conference by raising a variety of questions regarding scale, such as the interdisciplinary reach of historians and the diversity of historians practising in Australia today. On both counts, she pointed to the need for improvement by the profession. You can read a more in-depth overview of her talk in an earlier post I wrote about the conference.

‘The Right Scale for Our Times’ was the keynote panel the next morning. The chair of the panel, ANU’s Professor Ann McGrath framed the topic.

“To address living in the Anthropocene and to ensure the discipline’s future relevance various historians have called for a history that is grand in scale – whether this be wide, big or deep.”

Yet it is not that simple. McGrath asked how we are going to ensure that gender, culture and individuals will not be smothered by a broad brush stroke form of history. “Can micro and macro ever join hands?”, she asked.

Dr Laurie Bamblett is a Wiradjuri man and an historian at ANU. He spoke of his desire to teach the Wiradjuri history he learned from the elders to a broader audience. Now he has come to an appreciation of the importance of telling history through biographies. “History has its biggest impact at a personal level”, he observed

“Wiradjuri history is about the teller and the listener”, said Bamblett. As a boy he had learned Wiradjuri history by spending a lot of time sitting with the elders. This intimate scale was an effective way for him to learn. As another panellist, Professor Philippa Levine from the University of Texas noted, scale in history is about both space and time.

Melanie Burkett noted on Twitter another comment made by Levine.

“Philippa Levine poses an interesting question: do we as historians overly privilege “change over time” without paying due attention to continuity over time?”

It is a tricky balance to remain alert to the dangers of reading history with a 21st-century sensibility, but at the same time be open to seeing continuities that are subtle to our eyes because they are so familiar.

Professor Glenda Sluga from the University of Sydney started her contribution to the panel discussion by referring the Annales historians. By introducing the concepts of the longue durée, medium durée, and l’histoire événementielle (ephemeral history, ie on a very short time scale), the Annales historians introduced powerful tools for us to understand history. I have explained these concepts in my post, ‘Introducing the Annales Approach to History’. Perhaps these concepts can help us address the issue that Levine raised?

Sluga noted that attention to scale in history is not new.  In 1953 UNESCO started publishing the journal, Cahiers d’histoire mondiale (Journal of World History) which was edited by the renowned Annales historian, Lucien Febvre. I made a note to check out the book, On the Origins of Global History by Sanjay Subrahmanyam she referred to. The work of Professor Francesca Trivellato was also recommended by Sluga.

Dr Shirleene Robinson from Macquarie University considered the questions put to the panel from the point of view of LGBTIQ history. “When we expand our historical scale, how do we maintain our empathy, what happens to the scales of justice?”, she asked. She prefers to examine the minorities and marginalised who are obscured by a bigger scale of history. She noted the perils of big data while noting that if the right questions are asked, this can be a useful tool.

This is a personal reflection on a challenging keynote panel. When I had started to write this post, I had intended to write about other sessions as well, but this is enough for one post.

Writing these posts helps me to reflect on the sessions and test what I have gleaned from them. Reading back over this post, I realise that many questions were raised and I have not written a definitive conclusion. The panel did not provide one. But as Robinson highlighted, asking the right questions is a very important step in historical research.

Related Posts

This is the fourth post in a series I have written about the 2018 Australian Historical Association conference:

3 thoughts on “Some Incomplete Thoughts on the Scale of History – Part 1

  1. This is fascinating… so much to think about when we read any work of history, and particularly pertinent for us here in Australia when we (belatedly) try to acknowledge the way the ancient history of our country has been omitted for so long.

    You may be interested in a book review that I have scheduled for Indigenous Literature week on July 11th. It’s called Yijarni, True Stories from Gurindji Country, edited by Erika Charola and Felicity Meakins, and it’s a bilingual book that IMO breaks new ground. This is an excerpt from my review:

    “The Gurindji people of the Victoria River District in the Northern Territory are mostly known because of the Gurindji Walk-Off in 1966, which led to the landmark pastoral industry equal wages case and the historic Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. But this book is about Black History prior to the 1960s, which for the Gurindji people is divided into Puwarraja, the Dreamtime, and Yijarni, true stories, and these true stories are not filtered by other voices such as historians, activists, police journals, life stories of cattlemen or other locals. Nor are the stories first-hand accounts rendered in broken English restricting their scope. Recorded in the Gurindji language and translated, they are authentic oral accounts recounting shared knowledge, as known or as told to the storyteller, each with an elder as ‘witness’ to monitor and confirm the details. These histories are augmented with archival material from police records, newspapers, biographies of early settlers and other published oral histories of the Victoria River District.”

    So you can see that it ticks the boxes for long, short and ephemeral duration and it does so in a respectful way.
    However, it’s more than valid to also consider those lost/suppressed voices of minorities. I personally think that thoughtful fiction is the best way to handle this, but I never give up on the creativity of authors to find new ways to do things!

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    • Thank you for sharing that excerpt from your book review. That does sound like a great way of making sure that we hear Aboriginal histories from Aboriginal peoples. We had a session on migration histories where the issue of language in the production of history was raised. The way this Gurindji history has been produced would be a way that the histories of other cultural groups could be produced.

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      • I think so yes. I think the idea of translation is critical because it means that the translator can convey the sophistication and complexity of ideas whereas a pidgin version often gives the wrong impression of simplicity.

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