dr. Sigurður

The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology

(Reykjavik: Center for Microhistorical Research, 2007). – Sögustríð: Greinar og frásagnir um hugmyndafræði (Reykjavík: Miðstöð einsögurannsókna, 2007).


There has been a ‘history war’ going on in Iceland since the year 2000. The origins of this ‘war’ lie in the publication of two very different collections of essays. One of these was the centenary issue of the journal Saga, which contained a number of articles by leading historians in the country – most of them fully paid-up members of the Icelandic ‘history establishment’ – assessing the state of history in Iceland in the light of the experience of the 20th century.

The other, published the same year, was a volume co-authored by Carlo Ginzburg, Davíð Ólafsson and myself entitled Pieces and Molds: About Microhistory and Lost Time (Incidence 5). Among the essays in this book was a piece by myself in which I discuss certain new ideas I was working on at the time under the general label of ‘the Singularization of History’; included in this was a broad critique of what I termed ‘the concept of general approach’ and which I considered characteristic of the Icelandic history establishment. The main thrust of my criticism was directed at the overriding importance that this establishment accorded to general history or synthesis as a way of approaching historical issues. Another article in the volume, by Davíð Ólafsson, dealt with the connections between Icelandic historiography and postmodernism. These two articles, together with Carlo Ginzburg’s comments on the prehistory of microhistory, had the desired effect: many saw them as an assault on the basis of history as an academic discipline and the epistemological foundations on which it rests. My article put forward the view that the connecting of smaller units to greater wholes should by no means be taken for granted, as something to be carried out as a matter of course; on the contrary, there were great dangers inherent in this approach, since it involved an ever-present danger of the findings being determined by a preconceived grand narrative.  In other words, I was presenting ideas that drew on the ideologies of postmodernism and poststructuralism, neither of which had previously achieved much prominence in academic circles in Iceland.

From their opposing directions, these two works – Saga 2000 and Pieces and Molds – sparked off a large-scale dispute on historical method that I have chosen to designate ‘the History War’.

The History War: Essays and Narratives on Ideology presents a view of how matters stand within the academic community in Iceland during the 1990s and up to today, as they appear to my eyes. I moved home to Iceland in 1994 after almost ten years in the USA, having just completed my doctorate there. Soon after this microhistory came to play an ever larger part in my research and I had the benefit of being able to work on its methods and adapt them to Icelandic conditions with the aid of a three-year grant from the Icelandic Council of Science. In collaboration with a group of other scholars and my students, I looked closely into the ideology of microhistory, attempting to weight up its strengths and weaknesses. This discussion attracted considerable attention and within a few years produced rich dividends. This period saw the publication of a number of books produced in this spirit, including my monograph Education, Love and Grief: Microhistorical Research into Icelandic Rural Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries (1997) and a collection of essays I co-edited called Microhistory: Different Paths (1998). A vigorous group of scholars built up in connection with this activity, working extensively with first-person sources and using the ideology of microhistory as their reference point. Together with a group of scholars, and in collaboration with the University of Iceland Press, I also initiated a series dedicated to the publication of original sources (and, later, studies and monographs) relating to the lives of ordinary people in former centuries and entitled An Anthology of Icelandic Popular Culture. So far the series has produced 12 volumes and more are expected over the coming years.

Around the time these books were coming out there was a marked change of direction in my own life. Firstly, I was appointed chairman of the Icelandic Historical Association for the final years of the 1990s. This was a period of considerable reconstruction and development within the society as a result of the fundamentally changed conditions affecting history in a variety of ways. I was closely associated with the Association for three years. This was an interesting time, in part because of the new communications possibilities made available with the spread of the internet. The Association developed rapidly and was instrumental in opening up the discussion of history to a much wider audience, a discussion that had hitherto been very one-dimensional and restricted, by setting out deliberately to bring in the views of younger, highly-trained historians. For this the Icelandic history establishment was ill-prepared, and it came under frequent attack on the bulletin board of the Association’s mailing list, known as Gammabrekka, from independent scholars, many of whom had received first-class educations in Scandinavia, Europe or the USA. During my time as chairman I worked deliberately to make the Association an open forum for the exchange of views in a number of ways.  Changed social conditions in the academic world were creating a situation where ever more well-qualified historians were having difficulties finding appointed positions within university institutions and I considered it important to do what I could towards building up the Historical Association so that it could act as a forum for this group, both socially and academically. I think I can safely claim some success in this, and the Association’s chairmen who have carried on strengthening the way it operates, making it today a powerful and independent forum for historical discussion.

At the same time I was able to put these ideas into practice in another setting. In 1997 I became involved in the creation of an independent research institute that came to be known as the Reykjavík Academy and finished up as its first chairman. The colorful saga of the Reykjavík Academy attracted considerable outside attention, from its humble beginnings as a forum for ten independent scholars to its eventually finding a home for 80 researchers from all areas of the humanities and social sciences. The Academy immediately turned into a melting pot for ideas of all kinds and the community spirit within it clearly had an enervating effect on how those associated with it thought and pursued their studies. My place there was as a working scholar. The members of the Academy worked consciously in a variety of ways to influence the academic community in Iceland, which many considered rather closed and unresponsive to the international intellectual environment. The way things worked seemed to get a grip on people and during the first years provided a shot in the arm to our thinking and occupations. The Academy proved to be a highly influential forum for creative scholarship and new ideas seemed to find a ready welcome into the conceptual worlds of participating scholars.  We had the feeling we were doing something new and exciting. As a consequence there was a burst of activity among the group behind the institution, as comes out, for instance, in the steady stream of new academic material that emanated from it.

The introductory chapter of the present book discusses these ideological upheavals, as well as acting as a sort of personal stocktaking. These writings are all based on the analytical model of the academic community developed by Pierre Bourdieu in his book Homo Academicus. I attempt to assess the effectiveness and current state of this academic community as it appears to me as an indirect participant – a scholar standing on its margins. I use Bourdieu to define my own position within the academic community and structure my own autobiography in accordance with these ideas. This approach provides me with a means to assess my own position within the unit of society to which I am related and to ask critical questions on the basis of this ideology.

In the year 2000 I published the first of a series of articles developing my ideas on the current state of the academic community. During the time I was involved in the formation of the RA and acting as chairman of the IHA, I was also deeply immersed in reading, listening to, thinking about and discussing matters relating to new ideas within the world of scholarship. Though I continued to write and publish material, my overriding preoccupation lay in preparing a systematic articulation of the criticism I had of social history and the academic community. This criticism centered on a number of key issues. Firstly, I was dissatisfied with the practices of existing microhistorians and their connections with cultural and social history; secondly, I was deeply uneasy about the institutional position that social history come to occupy in the world today; and thirdly, I wished to subject the Icelandic history establishment to particular scrutiny.  These articles were published in Iceland, Europe and the USA and had in common the intention of serving as critical input into the defining of the epistemological status of history in particular and the humanities in general. I think I can safely say that this criticism was both radical and challenging, especially as regards my own intellectual life and thought. It also appeared to have some influence on my colleagues; at the very least, a number of scholars saw reason to put pen to paper and express their views on what I was saying.

As many as 13 historians have come back to me with comments on my criticism, many of them people closely associated with the establishment – and with good reason, since these articles were directed very specifically against the ideological footing on which this establishment stands. By my reckoning, there are well over a hundred citation that one might take as having reference to ‘the History War’ in Iceland, material that has appeared in journals, books and on the net over the last five years. The book includes five academic articles previously published elsewhere, interspersed with commentaries on the reactions these articles received from individual scholars. I attempt to describe as precisely as possible the content of the discussion and the emphases that come out in the cases put forward by different scholars. These chapters continue the autobiographical element in the book and I bring in various matters that I feel have had an influence on my own studies, both directly and indirectly, as well as some of my reactions to the responses that came in following the articles.

There are also three new, previously unpublished, articles, that together form an indirect reply to the arguments put forward by other scholars. The first of these is directed at the establishment, especially in so far as how it appears when viewed in the light of movements and institutions elsewhere in the word. In other words, I turn the spotlight on the attitudes and ways of thinking prevalent among those who are members of the establishment and analyze their major points of emphasis. A marked characteristic of the writings of this group is that its members appear to have difficulties coming to terms with the main concepts I am using – these concepts appear simply to be too alien to them for any worthwhile discussion to be possible around them. This article was prepared in the summer of 2004 but I decided to hold back and save it rather for publication in the present volume. In the second new article I turn to the comments of scholars who operate outside the establishment, either independent historians or those who are doing work not connected with a university environment.  This group is both more responsive in its entire approach to the material and appears to take a greater interest in all matters relating to the underlying principles of the new academic ideas. To a man, these scholars all disagree with me, though to unequal degrees, and their contributions are both constructive and shed new light on many aspects of the matter in question.

The third article, which is in English, is based on a wide-ranging review of developments within social history in the USA as evidenced from the pages of the Journal of Social History. This article is due to appear next year in the spring issue of JSH and deals with the institutionalization of social history and the consequences this has had for the discipline. The version published here is more detailed, and about a third longer, than the article to be published in the JSH but in all major respects covers the same ground.

These three articles are intended as a constructive contribution to the ongoing debate on the state of the discipline. The long final chapter of the book deals with a large number of other factors relating to the academic community and its position within the Icelandic environment in the last years. The discussion ranges widely and takes in a criticism of the working methods of historians who hold positions of power and influence. As in the introductory chapter, there is also an autobiographical element through which I attempt to assess my own position in the scholarly community within the progress of the humanities in general.

Finally, I was able to persuade two of the leading modern influences in the field of social history to offer their views on the development of history in the world today, as well as offer their comments on my ideas on microhistory. Both these men have had a great influence on me through their work and friendship, however much we may often have taken different courses academically. These are Peter N. Stearns, who was my doctoral supervisor at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and the distinguished academic and ‘history of literacy’ specialist Harvey J. Graff, professor in English and history at Ohio State University, who I came to know after I had finished my studies as a result of shared emphases in our research.

At the time I was studying under Peter Stearns at Carnegie Mellon he consistently stressed on his students the need to take a critical stance on all ideas, arguments and works that came up for discussion. In this he did not except his own works, and Stearns has been one of the most prolific social historians of recent times, generally producing a new book each year as well as numerous other publications aimed specifically at academic readerships. I have vivid memories from the nine years I lived in America of meetings and seminars held under Peter Stearns where we set out to analyze the arguments of particular scholars and ideology in general, and I recall straining every sinew to wring up from the depths of my mind some kind of rational criticism of the works we were considering, including his own. Peter Stearns always had time to take this criticism seriously and come back with cogent responses, and he has since consistently accorded the same treatment to my own work, such as my doctoral thesis: everything I have done has been subjected to erudite and constructive criticism, and this dialogue has inevitably had a highly beneficial effect on my development and thinking. I remain forever in debt to the training I received at his hands.

Towards the end of my time in America I came to realize that I was moving in a rather different direction from many of my colleagues. It took me several years to find a way to articulate my criticism in a form that I felt ready to put forward before a public audience.  But once my own ideas had taken shape, it became more or less inevitable that I would need to include the ideas of scholars like Peter Stearns in the discussion. Stearns’s theories have had an enormous impact on the development of social history in the world over the last 40 years and how social historians express their ideas about their subject.  The most obvious way, therefore, to initiate this critical discussion was through the forum he himself had created and directed over the course of several decades, the Journal of Social History. As a result, two long and detailed articles have appeared in the JSH recently in which I lay into the ideological basis currently underpinning the practice of social history. This criticism has been taken by Peter Stearns with his customary composure and the scholarly drive that all who have met him know so well. I shall acknowledge that I felt distinctly uneasy when attending the conference that the Journal organized at George Mason University in October 2004 on the state of social history in the modern world, and at which I was highly and vocally critical of social history and its leading ideologists, including Peter Stearns himself: he, however, remained affability itself and the conference was particularly memorable for the fruitful discussions that went on at it on the current state of our discipline.

In view of our longstanding association and friendship I wanted to give my old benefactor the opportunity of answering me back here in this book. And this he has done without fear or favor. Peter Stearns’s criticism is direct and incisive and will inevitably give scholars substantial food for thought on several highly important matters relating to the way social history is developing in the world today. I am absolutely certain that it will prove of immense value to me in my continuing consideration of the current state of history.

As previously mentioned, my relations with Harvey J. Graff have been on a quite different basis. I have long been deeply impressed by his wide-ranging research on literacy and the child upbringing and his writings have without doubt had a greater influence on my ideas in recent years than just about anybody else. It has been a great privilege and pleasure to get to know a man who has displayed enormous drive and energy in breaking new ground in his studies and been unafraid to apply new theories and ideas in his work. Even though Harvey Graff has aligned himself with the Social Science Historians, his writings have always had a great appeal for me and here in this book he turns his gaze on the concept of culture and how it has influenced social history in recent years, two matters that have also been major preoccupations of my own.

I feel greatly honored that Peter Stearns and Harvey Graff have been willing to contribute to this book and express their opinions on my ideas on the development of social history. I hope that these chapters will have a salutary effect on the discussion that is currently going on in this country, now and in the future.

The book also contains a number of pictures of Icelandic outsiders, familiar characters who lived outside conventional society in the first part of the 20th century. With each picture I include a text, generally in some way connected with the subject of the picture, sometimes with little or no context. At the end of the book I discuss what I call the ‘perceptual qualities of historical source material’. By ‘perceptual qualities’ I mean the emotional affects, i.e. associations and influences, that individuals come under, directly or indirectly, from their environment and carry through into the realm of experience. I posit a distinction between the perceptual and objectified features of sources, and it is the former that provide the main subject for discussion in final chapter, in particular the logical and discursive structure of particular categories of sources. 

It is possible to speak of photographs, texts or works of art as objects with a logical structure that it is important to identify and recognize. But it is equally possible to speak of the same things as esthetic artifacts that call for the active involvement of people’s emotional responses. In the latter case it becomes necessary to apply all the various organs of sense and perception if one is to bring out the emotional affects that the work demands or has to offer. So the approach of whoever handles the source needs to be personal and in many instances autobiographical. A photograph, say, of a group of people on the shore potentially calls up memories in people that evoke a sensory redolence of the shore and influence the way they perceive and interpret the picture.  How the contents and effect of the material are evaluated is intrinsically bound up with the personal experience of the user in question. The interpretation of any piece of source material or other object can be divided between two aspects: on the one hand there is the affect or emotional response working primarily on a sensory level within each individual, its power changing from time to time and variable from person to person; on the other there is the shaping effect of experience that is constrained and bound within language and as a result amenable to the discursive methods of science. In interpretation there is often an attempt to objectify the affect or emotional response by converting it into the realm of thought, which is then mediated as experience within different activities and functions of human life. But the emotional response can also remain outside of and separate from language, while still having an effect on the associated reality. This perceptual world has come to play an increasingly important part in the work of various scholars in recent years.

These ideas are discussed principally in relation to the pictures. In doing this my intention is to direct my discussion to the future of social history or, more precisely, to the kinds of academic study that will supersede it. The conclusion I arrive at in this book is in fact that at the present time we are seeing the last hurrah of social history. I look at The History War as an attempt to demonstrate that the discipline has passed a point of no return. The institutional structure of the discipline has, alas, sucked away all its strength and energy, leaving it moribund as a discrete field of scholarship and in all probability nearing the end of its natural life.

The primary objective of this book is to present a view of the ways in which history, and in particular social history, has developed in the last 15 years, at a time of major reassessment within the academic world manifested in the radical ideas grouped under the banner of postmodernism and/or poststructuralism. It has been of great interest to use this opportunity to analyze the reactions that have come to the fore in this ‘History War’ and view them in the light of the theories of Pierre Bourdieu as set out in his book Homo Academicus. It is my hope that this book will prove a worthwhile contribution to future ideas about the state and status of humanistic studies in the world at large.

Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson

Academic liturgy
From Re-evaluation to Disintegration
History War
Dreams of Things Past
Education, Love and Grief
Pieces and Molds
The Sound of Divine Revelation
Microhistory - Conflicting Paths
Brothers from the Stranda Commune
Modes of Living in Reykjavik, 1930-1940
Away. Faraway! - And to Another Continent
The Contours of Social History
Method facing a Dilemma
"I am 479 Days Younger than Nilli."...
Modern fairy tales...
Dissertation: The Continuity of Everyday Life
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon