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18 September 2014
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Talking About History: From the Greeks to Marx

By Dave MacLeod
The changing face of history

Image of Thomas Carlyle
Thomas Carlyle, Victorian historian  
The scope of the historian's endeavours is also shaped in fundamental ways by cultural attitudes.

The broadening of the discipline and the increased number of participants, as well as the burgeoning of university-based scholarship since the 1960s, have led historians to concentrate on smaller and more fragmentary pieces of the past. Whereas Lord Acton, the most famous of the Victorian historians, claimed to pursue 'ultimate' (meaning universal) history - a history requiring no subsequent revision on account of its perfectibility - the past has since become an arena for interpretation and reinterpretation.

'No history of Britain today would be complete without reference to ... its current multiculturalism ...'

History today is demarcated by chronological divisions, national distinctions, by thematic or subject-based identifications and by methodological differentiation. Moreover, the importance of changing mores must not be ignored. No history of Britain today would be complete without reference to the history of its current multi-culturalism and the important human legacy of its once-dominant global empire.

History changes over time

One of the vital elements in historical enquiry is an appreciation of change over time. While it is not correct to say that societies improve - for this suggests that the past is inferior - it is important to note the importance of change.

The same point can be made about the study of history. The way historians do their work, the assumptions they make about what's important and what not, and the research methods they use, have varied widely over time.

The passage of time also impacts on our ability to check a historian's work. We can verify the accuracy of a 20th-century scholar's work by going back to the same sources - something that's just not possible with a Greek historian of the fifth century BCE.

Published: 2005-01-31

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