Cultural history

From Academic Kids

Cultural history, at least in its common definition since the 1970s, often combines the approaches of anthropology and history to look at popular cultural traditions and cultural interpretations of historical experience.

Most often the focus is on phenomena shared by non-elite groups in a society, such as: carnival, festival, and public rituals; performance traditions of tale, epic, and other verbal forms; cultural evolutions in human relations (ideas, sciences, arts, techniques); and cultural expressions of social movements such as nationalism. Also examines main historical concepts as power, ideology, class, culture, identity, attitude, race, perception and new historical methods as narration of body. Many studies consider adaptations of traditional culture to mass media (tv, radio, newspapers, magazines, posters, etc.), from print to film and, now, to the Internet (culture of capitalism). Its modern approaches come from art history, annales, marxist school, microhistory and new cultural history.

Common theoretical touchstones for recent cultural history have included: Jrgen Habermas's formulation of the public sphere in The Structural Transformation of the Bourgeois Public Sphere; Clifford Geertz's notion of 'thick description' (expounded in, for example, The Interpretation of Cultures); and the idea of memory as a cultural-historical category, as discussed in Paul Connerton's How Societies Remember.

A Vague Example: Historiography and the French Revolution

An area where new-style cultural history is often pointed to as being almost a paradigm is the 'revisionist' history of the French Revolution, dated somewhere since Franois Furet's massively-influential 1978 essay Interpreting the French Revolution. The 'revisionist interpretation' is often characterised as replacing the allegedly dominant, allegedly Marxist, 'social interpretation' which say the causes of the Revolution in class dynamics. The revisionist approach has tended to put more emphasis on 'political culture', and through this the cultural historians have come! Reading ideas of political culture through Habermas' conception of the public sphere, historians of the Revolution in the past few decades have looked at the role and position of cultural themes such as gender, ritual, and ideology in the context of pre-revolutionary French political culture.

Historians who might be grouped under this umbrella are Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Patrice Higonnet, Lynn Hunt, Keith Jenkins and Sarah Maza. Of course, these scholars all pursure fairly diverse interests, and perhaps too much emphasis has been placed on the paradigmatic nature of the new history of the French Revolution. Colin Jones, for example, is no stranger to cultural history, Habermas, or Marxism, and has persistently argued that the Marxist interpretation is not dead, but can be revivified; after all, Habermas' logic was heavily indebted to a Marxist understanding. Meanwhile, Rebecca Spang has also recently argued that for all its emphasis on difference and newness, the 'revisionist' approach retains the idea of the French Revolution as a watershed in the history of (so-called) modernity, and that the problematic notion of 'modernity' has itself attracted scant attention.


See also: cultural studies.

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