In recent years the political and cultural historian David Cannadine has taken a number of quite original sidelong glances at the way in which we think about history and put it to work. I came across this video today (with thanks to Alan Hayes) summarising his most recent – an exploration of the potential of a history of common humanity which transcends the tendency for historians to divide people (according to class, religion, nationhood, civilisation, gender and race amongst others). Historians, he suggests, have found it profitable to use such major divisions of identity, but have too often neglected attempts to talk about a common humanity, and as such have underplayed commonalities within their accounts. I suspect (and I haven’t read the book) that his account is rather more subtle than a 20 minute talk can deal with, and clearly there’s a balance between sameness/otherness, unity and diversity which it is perenially difficult to achieve (although some would argue – with some justification – that the idea of ‘balance’ in history is itself a chimera). However, given the predominant tendency in historiography to drill down to more and more specific sub-groups, and to emphasise diversity within any of those conventional social divisions, it’s an interesting turn towards an emphasis on commonality (although not a surprising one given current public and political rhetoric on the need to find common ground in the face of extremism, and (arguably?) some signs of the emergence of some new lines of consensus within British public opinion. Will be particularly interested to read what he says about religious history…

Advertisements