Uplifting Quotes for the Uninspired Historian #18

June Philipp was a historian at La Trobe University during the 1980s.  I’ve heard her spoken of on several occasions, linked with Greg Dening, Rhys Isaac and Inga Clendinnen of the ‘Melbourne School’ of ethnographic history that appeals to me so much.   I was interested in a methodological paper that she wrote in Historical Studies in 1983.

Human action is generated within a social and cultural context whose forms- relations, roles, rules, values, rituals, symbols- shape its logic and project its meanings… Social actions from the past have been preserved in a piecemeal way by having been written down in the form of action descriptions- glimpses of people in the past doing things…. Action has an external dimension, and past action may be observed (though indirectly) as behaviour, as a sequence of physical movements, but its import is not immediately accessible to observers in the present who happen to look back.  It is the ‘inside’ of action that matters most and which the historian must seek to discover…  (p. 350)

Action-oriented history is an empirical study and, in one of its aspects, it is descriptive.  The first aim of the historian is to divest the account of what happened, as much as possible, of interpretation: of the interpretative overtones in which it is clothed by its past recital and by the historian in its re-telling.  The intent is to rehearse and display the actions.  The facts are then construed: actions are scrutinised and analysed patiently in search of clusters or patterns which signify institutionalised forms.  The historian then tries to grasp the meaning being expressed through those forms by the historical actors…  (p.351)

Getting inside actions or episodes in a means of reconstructing the experience and the meanings expressed by people in the past who were conversing in public, amongst themselves.  Getting inside episodes assumes that the primary aim of historical analysis is the recovery, partial although it must be, of the lived reality of people in their past.  To discount that reality is, in all likelihood, to fabricate a history which will try to breathe life into our concepts, models and categories so that they may pass for actuality… (p.352)

June Philipp ‘Traditional historical narrative and action-oriented (or ethnographic) history.’ Historical Studies, 1983, Vol 20, No. 80 pp.339-352

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