History, Policy and Public Purpose Historians and Historical Thinking in Government | History and Policy

JacketReblogging here my post from History and Policy #HistoriansBooks section – and please see details of a mini symposium and book launch on 24th June below…

The use, mis-use and neglect of the past by policymakers is an irresistible target.  Whether it’s Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on the dangers of German reunification, Tony Blair’s disregard for the complexities of Iraqi history or Boris Johnson’s comparison of the EU’s aims with Hitler’s, political leaders have drawn historians’ ire.  The privileging of quantitative evidence, with its illusory assurance of ‘what works’, and the dominance of the short-term over the long view have further widened the perceived ‘history gap’ in politics.  At least, so the caricature goes. But what happens if we pause to check our assumptions?

Most historians would now hesitate to use the word ‘truth’ to describe what emerges from our work, at least to academic audiences.  Even those determined to present a particular account as definitive must acknowledge the provisional nature of any historical interpretation and the existence of multiple perspectives and approaches.  And yet we seem comfortable with the notion of ‘speaking truth to power’, and the implied entitlement to inform, correct and admonish those charged with political decision-making.  The emerging field of public history has been championing co-production and shared authority with museums, heritage organisations and community groups, and yet collaboration with policymakers remains beyond the pale.

It’s no great insight to observe that how we define a problem is important – it influences our approach and what options we consider.  If we think, for example, that the problem of the ‘history gap’ in government is one of cultural difference from academe – exacerbated by tight timescales, electoral pressures and a preference for the apparent certainty of numbers – then a certain range of solutions present themselves.  We would need to package the ‘truth’ in accessible language and succinct formats – policy papers and consultation responses rather than journal articles and books.  We would seek to build bridges with policy communities, holding workshops and expert seminars to connect the two tribes and territories.

But can we define the history gap as just an issue of communication and translation?  Historians are master debunkers when it comes to myths and assumptions, or so we like to tell ourselves.  So it should perhaps give us pause for thought that ‘speaking truth to power’ (even in policy-friendly briefing notes) is a rather neat and convenient notion – at least for us.  It’s only used, of course, by those who believe themselves to be in possession of the truth and under a moral obligation to share it.  But can we content ourselves with a sermonising model – instructing policymakers, otherwise liable to neglect or distort the past – without at least some critical reflection on our own scholarly attitudes, values and practices?

History, Policy and Public Purpose emerged from a recognition that connecting history and policy was as much about ‘historianship’ – why, how, where and for whom we ‘do’ history – as about policymaking.  Perhaps counter-intuitively, I had become much more conscious of my historical habits of mind while working in policy roles in government and higher education.  At the same time, I developed an appreciation of the constraints and pressures with which civil servants, advisers, MPs, committees and ministers have to operate.  The book engages with the intellectual and methodological issues related to historical thinking and practice, while taking the contextual realities of policymaking seriously.  Critiques from the ‘outside’, however well-founded, timely and judicious, are unlikely on their own to exert an on-going influence on political decision-making.

The book revolves around the second chapter, in which I explore how history could work effectively within those cultural and structural realities, and contribute to the processes of policy formulation.  The key manoeuvre I propose is a shift in emphasis from historical ‘content’ (what we produce) to ‘process’ (how we work).  Historians certainly have much to offer as expert mediators with the past, seen as a repository of potentially illuminating perspectives or an archive of analogies and long views.  The ‘pitch’ for history’s relevance to policy usually rests on such claims, and the History and Policy archive of over a decade’s worth of policy papers is a unique collection that shows how pertinent and powerful such insights can be.

Without undermining the value of these interventions, we can recognise that they form only part of the solution.  A focus on ‘content’ requires historians to establish policy relevance on a case-by-case basis. The process by which historians think and work, the conceptual tools and what educational psychologists have called ‘cognitive moves’ of disciplinary-history, are not so constrained.  I suggest that historians have something important to offer as part of the ‘collective puzzling’ at the heart of policymaking.  We may be ‘content’ experts – in foreign relations, health or welfare policy, for example – but we also bring distinctive habits of mind as historians, ways of questioning, seeking and reading evidence, checking assumptions and building arguments.  So my sense is that we need to move to a model of thinking with history in policy, rather than one focused only on bringing historical perspectives to the notice of policymakers.

That’s not to say that historical thinking is somehow the key to ‘better’ policymaking (tempting as that claim may be).  History is no more the master discipline than economics.  In the context of highly complex policy problems, I emphasise the centrality of collaboration – rather than competition – between different specialisms. If we want scholarship and informed debate to exert a greater influence on policy, we will all surely need to be advocates not just for the merits of our own disciplines, but for a genuinely rich ecosystem of expert advice.

An obvious line of criticism of the proposals in the book is that they’re idealistic.  So, it’s all very well to place historians as ‘insiders’ in government, but ministers would never listen.  Or, mixed policy teams that bring together economists and historians or philosophers make sense in theory, but in practice they would never exert the same level of influence.  Such criticisms are valid, but my response would be ‘yes, and?’.  If we want to be heard, to be part of the most important conversations about policy, critique is not enough.  We can recognise the scale of the challenge, while pursuing a policy of pragmatic persistence – policy is surely too important for historians to take any other course.  Indeed, the injunction made in 1984 by Oxford historian, Avner Offer, is perhaps even more pressing today: ‘neither detachment nor defiance will do.’


On 24th June 2016, there will be a symposium on ‘Connecting History, Policy and the Public’ and book launch, 2-8pm. All welcome but please register your interest!

It’s in room 349, Senate House, University of London, Malet Street, London WC1E 7HU.

Confirmed contributors: Andrew Blick (King’s College London), Justin Champion (Royal Holloway), Owen Davies (University of Hertfordshire) Alix Green (University of Central Lancashire), Paul Lay (History Today), Edward Madigan (Royal Holloway), Steve Poole (University of the West of England), Graham Smith (Royal Holloway), John Tosh (Roehampton), Anna Whitelock (Royal Holloway)

Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future

I first pitched my forthcoming book, History, Policy and Public Purpose: Historians and Historical Thinking in Government as a full-length monograph in the standard post-PhD manner.It was Jen McCall (now Global Head of Humanities, Scholarly Division and Publisher, Theatre & Performance at Palgrave Macmillan) who suggested I rework the proposal as a Pivot.  Having resolved initial (and unfounded) anxieties about REF-ability and appeal for the job market, I took on the challenge.

Jen’s discussion of the Pivot format, reblogged here, explains Palgrave’s rationale for the short-form monograph.  I would certainly agree about the benefits of a fast, efficient process for getting timely scholarship ‘out there’.  For me, however, three other reasons have come to the fore and may be worth considering for other authors.

Introducing chapter abstracts clearly identifies the composite parts of your broader research.  Each abstract is another chance to reach potential readers, who may not otherwise have seen the relevance of your book to their interests from the title or a cursory look at the jacket.  For me this was important as the book doesn’t sit neatly in a particular historical specialism, but occupies a space at the intersection of political history, historiography, policy and government, sociology and organisation studies (with a smattering of anthropology, philosophy and even astrophysics!).  If a few political scientists venture in on seeing there’s a chapter on the policy process, then I’ll consider that a win.  The chapter abstracts make that more likely.

The e-book format is also attractive, and not just for the price (£35.99, significantly less than many monographs).  It also ensures that the book can ‘travel’, available in a range of countries without the need for appointed distributors.  The United States and Canada were important markets for me, with institutional historians employed in federal and state government and a debate about the connection between public policy and public history that is due a revival.  The option of immediate download makes sharing and discussing scholarly content on a global basis as easy as it has become for other types of writing.

My book’s at the top end, size-wise, of what’s possible for a Pivot.  The manuscript came in only just under 50,000 words, but having an absolute word limit is a helpful discipline.  Don’t see it as a standard book stripped down (a ‘monograph minus’), but almost as a genre in its own right.  You have to think carefully about structure and make hard decisions about content, but I think this helps rather than hinders (admittedly I did have a little last-minute editing to do to sneak under the barrier).  Maybe it’s that it focuses your mind on your key audiences and what they need to know, consider and understand in order to follow your argument.  But it also gives you a certain license. It’s a format that probably lends itself to work that takes a line, that aims to provoke, encourage debate, set out a new field of enquiry or reframe a problem.

It’s too early to know if the format will work for me – I guess I’ll know soon enough.  But I would encourage authors to consider it – it might just shake up our preconceptions of what academic publishing ‘should’ look like, and why and for whom we write.

Source: Format, Flexibility, and Speed: Palgrave Pivot | The Academic Book of the Future

Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

My latest contribution to Public History Weekly, a playful (and rather tenuous) appropriation of Star Wars metaphors to make a point about the tendency to create artificial and insidious binaries: academic/public, rigour/relevance, pure/applied.  Historians are used to working ‘in many shades of grey that blend, merge and overlap to produce complex and provisional multi-tonal pictures’.  So let’s resist caricaturing ‘relevance’ as the Dark Side and define it with integrity and honesty for ourselves…

Please read and comment at: Reclaiming Relevance from the Dark Side – Public History Weekly – The Multilingual BlogJournal

Call for SHS conference panellists: public history & heritage in a global present

Jessica Moody (University of Portsmouth) and I are running a panel at the upcoming Social History Society conference (31/3-2/4) entitled Between public history and heritage: making, sharing and debating the past in a global present.

We’re looking for contributors for a broad conversation about the problematic and blurred boundary between ‘public history’ and ‘heritage’.  The panel runs over 90 minutes and the emphasis is on debate; each contributor would have around 10 minutes to talk, with plenty of time for conversation among the panel and with the audience.

We would welcome expressions of interest by 5.00 on Friday 13th February.  Please just give us a brief outline (100 words) of what you propose contributing to the conversation about the themes and questions we raise in our abstract (below) and a short biography.  Simply email us (jessica.moody@port.ac.uk and agreen15@uclan.ac.uk) or contact us through our blogs.  We are particularly looking for contributions which take fields that are often quite locally-focused into a global space.

We look forward to hearing from you!

‘Public history’ and ‘heritage’ are widely used interchangeably and without careful attention to the complex, contested and elusive – if not hidden – conceptual and practical difficulties they present. These terms matter. They affect how professionals in historical fields see themselves, their work, educational programmes – and each other; they therefore merit our serious attention. They also carry differing public understandings, images, symbolism – and power.

Public history is a field with an increasingly global reach. The International Federation for Public History held its first conference in 2014, and the International Congress of the Historical Sciences will host its first public history roundtable in Jinan next year. ‘Heritage’ has in some senses always been both paradoxically more ‘local’ and more ‘global’ in outlook. The provision of international codes of conduct as set out by UNESCO and transnational policy guidance at times sitting awkwardly against the various contested understandings of the term, its practice, policies and limitations, which are mediated by far more regional, national, and local cultural codes, and, indeed, history itself. Further, the academic field of Heritage Studies has developed immensely in the last few decades. It has developed globally, taking on a distinctly ‘critical’ tone in some spheres – the global Association of Critical Heritage Studies, which is now in its second year, holds an international conference every two years, this year in Canberra. Yet a global community of enquiry has yet to emerge to take on the debates about academic and professional identity, to engage with the blurring or elision of the conceptual space between public history and heritage, both academically and professionally.

Partly, this conceptual space is forged within and beside academic disciplines and their own boundaries. Whereas Public History can more easily be assigned lineage to History as a discipline – with roots in the historical method, albeit both inside and outside ‘the academy’, Heritage is academically a far more eclectic. However, in ‘western’ contexts, Heritage’s relationship with archaeology, has traditionally tied its study to materiality, especially in the UK. This is itself a relationship forged within the crucible of the western ‘discourse’ of heritage, which Laurajane Smith (2006) has argued foregrounds ‘heritage’ as largely tangible, old, elite, white and male.

Generally, historians – whether they label themselves as ‘public’ or otherwise – are not looking to the history of these concepts in a way which may help us explore their meaning in the present. Does the coining of ‘public history’ in the US, and its subsequent import by the UK and elsewhere obscure a longer lineage of ‘history in public’ in those countries? If historians have acquired ‘public history’ as a label for their work outside the academy, what claim to or involvement in ‘heritage’ should they have? To what extent are we acknowledging and exploring the historical, political and social ‘baggage’ that accompany these terms? These are issues which the authors, who both mediate the conceptual space public history and heritage in their professional lives, will scrutinize in this panel.