Catherine Hall, 'On Being a Historian in 2012', plenary lecture

Catherine Hall gave the plenary lecture to the Social History Society annual conference at the University of Brighton on 4 April 2012.

I've done some brief lecture notes, which I repeat below. All interpretations of her argument are mine, not hers:

Hall began with a bold reminder that we are living in a critical time. Our work as historians is, and should be, always shaped by the world outside academia. The troubled times that we live in today suggest that we should rethink how we study the past. 

Hall then took us through her three major publications, explaining how the historical questions she asked had always been influenced by the moment in which she lived. History, she argues, is a living debate, always in context of the present world. In the 1960s, Marxism was a major influence. Then along came E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, which remains for Hall a foundational text. 

Women’s history disrupted the primary Marxist history of class from the late 1960s. Family Fortunes, her most well-known work with Leonore Davidoff, was preoccupied with gender and class. It was so because it was a product of those times. Nevertheless, Hall admitted a couple of faults in the book, but justified them. First, their narrative of gender and class worked within rather than challenged the classic touchstones and landmark political events of the 19th century. Second, they did not address questions of race and empire, because, at that time, feminism and the family were the main issues of debate. Sociologists, not historians, wrote about race.

In the 1990s, Hall turned to work on empire. With the military endeavours of the USA and the UK governments, the world saw a revival of the tropes of civilisation and freedom, which had been part of Western liberal discourse since the 19th century. Hall asked ‘whose civilisation, whose freedom?’ She wondered about the silences that framed narratives of progress and toleration. In the wake of 9/11, Hall began work on T. B. Macaulay. Hall’s new book on Macaulay reveals how empire is one of the fundamental but unstated assumptions in his work. Empire is not mentioned because it is what is. The Iraq war alerted her further to the language of moral rectitude that masked geo-political claims, which were essentially a reconfiguration of claims made by 19th century abolitionists and imperialists. The war confirmed her belief that this was a debate for historians too. Imperial thinking was far from dead in the West. 

Hall then boldly described ‘being a historian in 2012’. She argued that we should have a more integrated history. History should not be so segregated into political, cultural, social, economic, etc. The compartmentalisation of history was detrimental to our understanding. It should be History. She emphasised in particular the need to reintegrate the economic into our work as social and cultural historians. In the wake of the current financial crisis, she asked, are we training our students to think about the economy using the lessons from history? This did not mean a return to economic history prior to the cultural turn, but an integration of both, so that we understand for example consumption in relation to production. 

Hall finished by describing in depth her new project on the legacies of slave owning in 19th century Britain. She argues that slave owners continued to play an integral part in British economy and society after abolition in 1833. Her ESRC funded project involved multiple historians tracking how slave owners spent the money they received in compensation from the government in 1833. Partly this process is economic: tracking how vast sums were invested in land, the railways, businesses, art and museum collections. Partly this process involves less tangible consequences: memory, heritage, a wiping out of the history of slave owning in 19th century adventure literature. Memory, and forgetting, was as important as economics in shaping the legacy of slavery. 

Debate from the audience was lively, and almost at the point of being heated. The main discussion revolved around the employment of people from ethnic minority origin in History at higher education institutions. Are we as historians responsible for gatekeeping the profession? Are there few black and Asian historians because few study history at school and university, or is it our fault for not employing them? How should we teach issues of race and gender to our undergraduates? How do we examine race and gender in our own historical research?


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