In the ongoing quest to give myself a bit of a broader theoretical perspective, I have enlisted a book I got in 2005 but not properly absorbed till now, Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke’s The New History, which is a collection of interviews with various luminaries of the field intended to give a less formal showcase of their interests and thinking.1 It’s good reading, because even the ones who are well out of my field have something to say that informs me about the way I am doing my own work, and I expect a few of these nuggets will make their way in here.
The first interview is with anthropologist and historian Jack Goody,2 mainly known to medievalists for stirring up all sorts of cynical trouble about the Church and its effect on families with his The Development of the Family and Marriage in Europe (Cambridge 1983). He’s worked on so many other things though that no-one else could do that with such a comparative perspective, even if he may not have fully understood the way we think the Church worked then. Anyway, that’s not what I’m picking out from it. The bit that may be useful to think with is where Dr Pallares-Burke asks him why his distinction between literate and non-literate societies is any more worthwhile than the old-fashioned one between civilised and ‘savage’.3 He says a number of things (and as the interview is online as a PDF you can read them yourself if you like) but the interesting one to me is that he is focussing on a change, on a process which gives not just a comparative perspective between places but a chronological one on the same place at different times, before and after. This means that it’s not eternal or innate; it can change and it probably will while you watch. This is both problematic and useful, but the problems obviously have to be faced because no society is actually static, so there is no innate or eternal quality to use anyway. Meanwhile, by setting a process of change as the dividing line, rather than a slowly-changing effect, you multiply massively the possibilities of an enquiry by giving it some experimental qualities, almost like a social experiment done by asking the right questions.
This is obviously harder to do when all your evidence is already generated, because of being in the past, but you can see how it interests me as someone who looks at a process of social change that we don’t fully understand. Though being monocausal is still a danger, it’s an approach I can see myself using to break questions open, and one that I wouldn’t have thought of like this without someone else putting it like that for me. This is the sort of thing I’m reading for.
1. M. L. Pallares-Burke, The New History: confessions and conversations (Cambridge 2002).
2. J. Goody, interviews with M. L. Pallares-Burke, October and November 1997, ed. Pallares-Burke as “Jack Goody” in eadem, New History, pp. 7-30. I’m open to suggestions for a more comfortable way to cite interviews, by the way…
3. Pallares-Burke, “Jack Goody”, pp. 25-26.