Klas-Göran Karlsson: The post-historian

By using the title “The post-historian” my intention is not to claim that the professional historian is gradually disappearing as an occupational category, or that the historian’s specific competence is devoid of relevance in our society. Neither do I wish to reflect over why many historians nowadays seem to spend far more time sending e-mails than writing books, even if this – taking into account the continuing bureaucratization of our universities and our profession – would undoubtedly be an important matter for consideration. Nor do I wish to focus on a situation whereby  our theoretical formations so often seem to contain the prefix “post-“ to indicate a sceptical attitude towards old scientific approaches, while our empirical work far more seldom bears witness to our having departed from a traditional view of history as a science.

I would, however, like to take the opportunity here to claim that we professional historians need to reflect more often, more explicitly and in a more nuanced manner on our societal roles and tasks, and that we should develop our self-understanding and activities in accordance with this, in a “post-historical” direction.

The plural forms are thus important. Within the three tasks we as university employees are expected to perform – research, teaching, and the outward orientated work called the third task – we can undertake numerous activities, and society has without doubt a great need for them all. It is important to reflect on these societal tasks and the relation between them, despite the obvious risk that we, when talking about our professional identity, describe it in high-flown terms and somewhat pathetically; or, alternatively, push at open doors or incur the fury of colleagues. We have, to be sure, conducted self-reflective work even earlier in history. An American colleague, Howard Beale, claimed as far back as sixty years ago, in the early post-war era, when he felt that historical science was rapidly losing importance in relation to instrumentally more useful social sciences:

If we historians are going to perform effectively our function of presenting the past to the present for the sake of the future and not become futile pedants, we must undertake a searching self-examination of the value of our own teaching and writing.[1]

The threat today looks different. In this article I will, however, be arguing that the present age brings with it an implicit demand that we particularly engage ourselves in questions concerning our identity and function as professional historians. This we should heed.


When is one allowed to call oneself a historian? It hardly needs saying that we have no “patented” occupational qualification, and the historian thereby lacks the doctor’s and the accountant’s way of asserting their authority by means of the epithet “registered” and “certified” respectively. The doctor’s registration means that he or she is allowed to prescribe medicines to keep people healthy, while the accountant’s certification is a prerequisite for being elected to this position at the shareholders’ meeting and maintain the company’s health. When, then, as historians do we reach the equivalent exclusive societal and professional position? A traditional answer is: when awarded a PhD. Thereafter, one can be appointed to a tenured position within tertiary education, and there conduct research and teaching. But what can a “registered” historian do that no-one else can, and which is useful to society? What kind of healthcare do we provide? Do we possess general or specialist competence, or both? Considering the increasingly narrow postgraduate training we provide in relation to content, whereby an ever-expanding amount of the course literature appears in the theses’ references section, I would place certain question marks regarding the latter. If we become historians only when appointed to a lectureship, there is an obvious risk that we are particularly ill-equipped when assigned to teach broad chronological courses. Are we researching and teaching history based on the idea that our activity will be useful for contemporary and future society, or following the conviction that history should have an independent existence, as undisturbed by the present’s needs and interests as possible? Such fundamental questions regarding the discipline’s means and goals can be multiplied, and we seldom reach much agreement on the answers.

During one of the first lectures I attended at the History Department of Lund University at the end of the 1970s, a lecture far-sightedly concerning the historian’s role in society, the lecturer Lars-Arne Norborg – the best I ever had – emphatically maintained that the historian is not only a teacher, researcher and intellectual, but also a civil servant. His declaration has guided my career. This is probably related to the fact that I myself and many colleagues of my generation had been trained as history teachers for the state education system before commencing our PhD studies; a natural consequence of there then being at the Department two professors, two lecturers in history, but few others with tenure. Universities at the time were unable to offer further such secure jobs. Since my initial meeting with Lars-Arne, the number of professional historians has increased dramatically, and thereby the number of monographs, project applications and academic courses. I am uncertain, however, whether the number of civil servants has increased, at least not if judged according to the self-understanding of historians. There are, moreover, only a few younger historians who have school- teacher-training in history behind them.

That said, should the fact that the overwhelming majority of us are in the state’s employ signify anything other than being economically supported by it? The term civil servant signals for many that we belong to a power structure, and decline the independent analysis and critical examination task which is the raison d’être for many historians. [If things are as bad as this, perhaps it could be said that the historian-as-civil-servant is categorically in the employ of authorities such as the “Forum for living history”?

For me, the civil servant role does not indicate a servile position vis-à-vis the state authorities, the government in power at the time, or a dominant ideology. Many years studying Soviet historians’ intimate connection to the political and ideological power has inoculated me against such a view. Obviously, the historian should not use their knowledge to justify the unjustifiable or the opposite; but the historian should not only make an ethical assessment of his or her relation to the state and its institutions, but also to trade unions, the media, and any others requesting the historian’s services. It is not difficult to add one’s name to those of a number of well-known international colleagues’ programmatic stance: “All historians have, in effect, a duty of discontent.”[2]

On the other hand, this role involves a programmatic openness towards society. The critical role needs a constructive opponent. History is a communicative subject, and in my view lacks value if the subject is not used and conveyed in both a scientific and non-scientific context. Building walls between these contexts is extremely unsuitable. This means that historians need to take seriously their duties of teaching students and working together with interested parties outside the universities. As a specialist, one realizes quite soon that most people still perceive teaching as a secondary task, which, whether regarding quality development or documentation, does not require the same dedication as research. It should in no way be assumed from this that I am arguing that the research task should be secondary; there must, of course, be a history to convey, well-suited and interesting for diverse audiences, but not thereby devoid of scientific qualities.

Two aspects of research’s openness towards society are particularly worth highlighting. Firstly, every historian should make sure to explain the value of their research for society, and this as early as in their doctoral theses. We need to train ourselves to formulate sensible answers to questions on the applicability, usefulness and relevance of research and history as a science; because, according to my starting points, these are as important as theory and methodology. It is not a question of introducing simplified background sketches explaining our current problems, as we see in the media. Rather, we should demonstrate the subject’s great potential, regardless of whether we, in the spirit of the social sciences and with an applied perspective, discuss history as an explanation for current conflicts; as a critical analysis of power structures, or as a search for general development patterns. To this can be added, whether we from a humanistic, almost existential, platform justify history from the need to understand the diversity and variation of societal development; as tools for respect and tolerance towards that perceived as different; the wish to lift up those groups previously oppressed and rendered invisible, and allow their voices to be heard; or for reasons connected to diverse expressions of learning, communication and the creation of meaning. The latter reasons have, without doubt, gained ground during recent years. A chairperson of the Organization of American Historians, in the context of explaining the professional historians’ crisis, has formulated the matter in terms of “the necessity of history”.[3] For her, history as a science is closely related to our human needs of immortality, continuity and tradition; to the necessity of being included within something larger than our allotted human lives. A beautiful thought, undeniably, but one offering very little of the precision needed if we need to convince others than ourselves of the excellence of history as a science. In successful cases, history and society meet when the researcher skilfully manages to problematize his or her subject, both internally and externally.

The other aspect of the openness of research I wish to draw attention to is that the researcher’s dialogue with society should include making their voice heard in broader societal debate; not with a sharp and hierarchical conviction that his or her own historical truth or interpretation will sweep away society’s myths and settle matters, but at the same time with the conviction that the researcher is an indispensable participant in the public discussion about history. A dialogue of this kind should by no means be limited to those occasions when the debate concerns our own specialities, but also larger questions, when the historian’s assessment of their composition and analytical ability to grasp larger historical processes and weigh the meaning of diverse phenomena should more often be acknowledged. It is important that we also venture to write synthesis-based works and do not hesitate in our work to touch upon the larger questions in life and overriding societal problems. I would agree with Maria Ågren, who, in a Historisk tidskrift article (2003), pointed out that synthesis-based presentations are necessary when composing research overviews and textbooks, as well as participating in popular contexts. However, her intimation in the examples she provides that they do not constitute proper research, I find more difficult to accept. To produce what she calls “summing-up and interpretative holistic views” is, in my opinion, a research task which places high demands in terms of scientific quality on the author and lecturer, and which furthermore often relates to great societal demand.[4]     

More than one observer of crisis symptoms within the science of history has during the latest decades pointed to a gulf between academic historical research and broader society, with its major demand for history. Here it is appropriate to return to and adjust the American chairperson’s analysis: whilst the broader history interest is probably connected precisely to a need to invest the past with meaning, and orientate oneself in the flow of time, history as a science is to a great degree generated by mechanisms that, conversely, contribute to making the past meaningless for people today. It is emphasized that the past is another country than our own; the choice of topic stems from a logic which does not often correspond to that of broader society; the theorization is highly advanced, and the language all too often an obstacle to people outside the scientific community being able to understand texts. For safety’s sake, it should be emphasized that this gloomy characterization is far from applicable to all historians and historical works. That said, reading through a copy of this or that history journal all too often confirms the point, I think.

From historiographical to historico-cultural context

The historian’s ideal self-comprehension has for a long time been historiographically orientated. By that I mean that he or she has seen their important task as working to produce history, most of all that usually termed new knowledge. The qualitative criteria that have been established, and around which is found a reasonable consensus, concern this historical product, most often a monograph. The line between the use and abuse of history has not been difficult to draw. While the historian personifies the scientific usage as the only legitimate kind, the non-scientific is portrayed as damaging, dangerous and “irresponsible”.[5] Experiences and memories are untrustworthy: from the standpoint of historical science, completely different historical phenomena of “popular” origin which, like memoirs, cannot be used for scientific reconstruction work before having been subjected to critical assessment. The professional historian is, in terms of their work content, highly specialized; has a “hyphenated identity”, as a Russian expert, gender historian, sport historian or eighteenth-century specialist. The first “geographical” hyphen is, however, quite rare, as history in Sweden and elsewhere is still essentially a national project.

This self-understanding has also led to questions concerning the transmission of history being relegated to secondary status, while those about the reception of history have almost never been paid any attention. Questions in regard to the quality of history transmission have, since the 1980s, been forwarded to representatives of history didactics, who have for a considerable time been perceived with significant suspicion by representatives of the production category.  Behind this lies what has been called the trickle-down theory: the thought that the scientifically produced new historical knowledge has a generally beneficial influence on the individual and society, when this, after suitable stylistic and pedagogic adjustment, trickles down in a one-way communication chain with the historian at its apex.[6] This idealistic theory has, however, never been tested. Included in the historiographical self-comprehension is consequently the ideal situation that historians’ works are the result of a purely intellectual process of idea and theory influence. The result is best if the outside society and its possible interested parties are kept at a distance, except – naturally – when it comes to salaries and research funds.

A self-understanding and analytical frame with far more influence in the twenty-first century and on the post-historian comprises the historico-cultural one. If the historiographical understanding was best suited for the era of modernity, with its faith in scientific knowledge generally, and social history especially, as the power driving society forward, in a cumulative, evolutionary or revolutionary way, the framework of history culture is better suited to a time of those multi-temporal perspectives which are included in what is usually called the cultural turn. Life no longer goes unambiguously forward, other than in a trivial, chronological sense. Variation and diversity gain more territory. Experience, memory, narrative, discourse and history usage are concepts illustrating that history has both a prospective and a retrospective side, which mutually presuppose and influence each other. Texts and other historical artefacts change the world by influencing our conceptions and actions, but we are at the same time anchored to or culturally disposed towards certain historical interpretation patterns which have preceded the artefacts. By this duality, historical processes become informed by us both being and having a history, regardless of whether we want this or not; and we also make history by more or less consciously turning ourselves towards and invoking history in the search for meaning and future orientation as we progress through life.[7]

A historico-cultural perspective focuses above all on two aspects of this duality. The first is the situation that we do not turn spontaneously and arbitrarily back to history, but rather, based on where we stand and who we are – positions changing over time – decides which history is worth researching, learning and debating, and which history should be passed over in silence and consigned to oblivion. There are in historical culture some historico-archaeological layers which, when we excavate and examine them with the help of historical research, appear more significant than others. In other words, it is not the case that we in the course of self-reflection and subjectivism freely choose from history’s larder, but neither is it so that everything in the larder is always attractive to all people. History comprises, so to speak, both perishable goods and deep cultural patterns. The other aspect is the communicative one that has already been referred to: the history perceived as worth preserving does not have one single producer. Transmission and reception are central aspects of every analysis of history’s position in a society, regardless of whether we choose to apply processual, structural or functional perspectives.

“New” perspectives

What, then, does the framework of history culture mean for the professional historian, beyond the challenge that this cultural turn has involved for the actual research process? It means, firstly, that we need to understand that even the professional historian is positioned in a historico-cultural context and neither can nor should stand outside it. Secondly, it means that the historian and monograph today face competition. History is geared to an increasing general interest in the subject. Other professional groups and historical products position multi-temporality at a high level, skilfully judging which history is of importance for many people, and valuing transmission and reception aspects in a way that is foreign to the great majority of historians. Some of them deal with historical themes within film and novels, some with other historico-cultural artefacts. If we wish to take this competition seriously, we need to start discussing whether all the historical subjects lying alongside the chronological line are equally important to research, and if it is worth the effort to try to expand the circle of addressees of our products. Where does the border go between, on the one hand, history as a science and, on the other, fiction and film? What is our position, fundamentally, in relation to the fact that it is not so much ourselves, but rather representatives of these cultural expressions, who steer people’s conceptions of the past? Behind this are, of course, even more fundamental questions about what history as a science is good for – if not just difficultly defined entities such as new knowledge, subject development or collective memory.

It is obvious that the historico-cultural orientated post-historian, far more than his modern colleague, deals with questions of selection and reception aspects in the process of history scholarship. They are difficult to avoid. The conception of “new” knowledge becomes, through a cultural analytical approach, subordinated to the question of how knowledge production in history relates to broader and deeper meaning-creating processes and practices in a society, which carries with it the situation that spheres of knowledge are not simple or even interesting to categorize time-wise as “new”. The recipient of history is not a tabula rasa to fill with new material the historian has presented, but instead an individual or collective with what a hermeneutic practitioner would call pre-understanding and prejudices, which emerge in our narratives, experiences and memories, and influence the reception. The recipient perspective contains, moreover, a number of interesting though methodologically difficult research matters. One concerns the reception and consumption of history by girls and boys, women and men; something no Swedish historian has felt challenged to examine, as far as I am aware.

I would lastly like to mention two further aspects of the historian’s projects to date which the post-historian feels bound to counteract. It is no easy task, as strong power structures and socialization processes obstruct this. The first matter concerns the historian’s captivity in the nation and partiality for Swedish history; and, on a deeper level, the tendency to use “Swedish” history as a natural socialization background when conducting research on other countries. A Swedish historian, it would seem, should only write in Swedish about Swedish history. To the extent that Russia is allotted space in this project, it is in terms of “the image of Russia”, which is securely anchored in Swedish historical foundations. As Eva Österberg points out, it is primarily when we link up with diverse theoretical concepts and perspectives originating or having been developed outside Sweden that we go beyond the national frame.[8] The reason for this emphasis on the national is an interweaving of historical science and identity politics which, as far as Sweden is concerned, can be traced back to at least the 1800s. In this respect, and interestingly enough, there is no differentiation between the old territorial state, thereafter national-state Sweden, and “new” nations such as Norway, Finland and Ukraine. In this context, the Swedish civil servant discussed above stands out in a highly conspicuous way! One can also blame insufficient knowledge of foreign languages, but as we, as far as I am aware, do not have any historians dealing with Great Britain in Sweden, this argument would seem to fail. There are certain signs that a change is on the way, possibly influenced concretely by the evaluation of Norwegian historical science which resulted in criticism of what was described as “methodological nationalism”.[9] There is nothing to indicate that an equivalent analysis of Swedish history writing would have produced a different result. In a broader geographical view, however, national history is increasingly challenged by an interest in global, universal, European, transnational and transcultural history, with their ambition to, if not deconstruct, then at least question the national and state primacy in history writing. Up to now this ambition among us is mainly at a statement-of-intent level. Weaving together Sweden’s history with others, national or nation-transcending, would have the potential of raising many exciting questions; ones we perhaps could rally round, not least concerning the significance of comparison, the learning process and patterns of influence for and in history. Historical themes such as migration and diasporas, so conspicuous in international contemporary history, can further strengthen interest in cross-border perspectives.

With the foregoing, I have hinted at the other aspect I believe is important to counteract: the specialization and fragmentation of historical research which risks halting the scientific dialogue. This is a more difficult problem. As Richard Evans, among others, has pointed out, this fragmentation is a concrete expression of us finding it increasingly difficult to agree upon what manner of history is important.[10] This development obviously runs contrary to those hopes of becoming more interested in the overall historical contexts I earlier discussed. Today, with the exception of postgraduate seminars and my closest research circle, in the university environment I know best, in Lund, we have just about ceased discussing history with each other. Probably, only a few of my colleagues avoid speaking with me about work due to the fact that my research is highly specialized on the controversial theme of Soviet communist terror. Rather, they most probably feel that they quite simply have nothing to discuss with me professionally, as our research areas and theoretical sources of inspiration are so very distant from each other, and no longer appear to have any contact points in common. I should also admit that I do not either always feel a great appetite for immersing myself in their subject areas. Teaching and bureaucracy are matters that unite us, but not research and its conditions. This is nothing I am proud of. There is all reason to contemplate this development. A possible explanation for the difficulty of discussing history as a science could be the increasing influence of post-modern theory, with its dissociation from conceptions of history as a connected, fundamental totality we can all embrace and communicate, despite different interpretations of this. The goal of history writing, says Frank Ankersmit, is no longer integration, synthesis and totality. Without using the concept, he connects his reasoning to the historico-cultural perspective I have described above, and a shifting in scientific thinking, from the conception that we are and have a history to the idea that we culturally construct a history: “We must not shape ourselves according to or in conformity with the past, but learn to play our cultural game with it.”[11] All that remains for each historian, then, is to pick up and do something with what Ankersmit describes as historical scraps, historical fragments.[12]

I am not convinced that the cultural turn in itself has fragmented history research. On the contrary, I have a feeling that many researchers have become more aware of the need for and complexity in integrating reality and conceptions in history, though in another way than in the modern distinction between base and superstructure. Neither am I convinced that the ideas Ankersmit is a spokesman for have had any great impact on Swedish historians, particularly not in their practice of historical science.

The difficulty in communicating I would instead relate to other developments within the historians’ society. If, like myself, interested in international contemporary history, one is, as stated, used to the existence of ideological differences between researchers. We have surely always been aware of a tension between, on the one hand, our ambition to maintain an objectivity-promoting distance and, on the other, the active ideological, political and social role that the subject has always involved, also in Sweden. Such differences can in many cases be fruitful, particularly as the ideological and the theoretical can often be difficult to distinguish between, but there is a risk that they instead work in an obstructing and paralysing manner. It is perhaps more important that history during the latest decades has developed into an identity subject. Our belonging to specific social categories, as an ethnic group, class, gender and sexuality, has a bearing on what we research and what we believe to be historically significant. We are what we research, it could be said. Alternatively, we tend to be strongly supportive towards groups we do not belong to, but are thought to have been forgotten, hidden or sacrificed in the grand historical narrative. This stance emphasizes not only matters of identity, but also moral ones, which no longer – if they ever did – are external to scientific history writing. This is by no means a thoroughly negative development, because history as a science demands from us not only distance, but also proximity. Neither are moral standpoints wrong, as long as we can avoid moralizing. But there is a conspicuous risk in this context that the combination of ideological, existential and moral standpoints at times mutually strengthening, draws knife-sharp boundaries between researchers and research groups.

It is necessary that we as post-historians find ways and subjects for conversation which can bridge these gulfs and reintroduce the scientific dialogue. One way, excellently represented by this particular journal issue, is attempting to identify themes which concern all historians. Another is returning to the fundamental perspectives of scientific history, which, like the oxygen we breathe, unites us historians. Our colleague Beale, whom I referred to introductorily, as far back as far back as half a century ago called for a discussion – stemming from his conviction of the historian’s interpretative precedence – about what one can learn from history:

We could devote more time to fundamentals... We could repudiate the feeling still strong in some quarters that to interpret or speculate on the lessons of history is unprofessional, to reach a large public indecent. We could remember that if we do not interpret and seek lessons from history out of our knowledge, journalists, commentators, and popularizers are going to do it for us out of their ignorance of history.[13]

My text has in an overall way had another such fundamental theme; namely, changeable conceptions of time and temporality. In a discussion of these, there is room not only for professional historians, but also representatives of historico-didactic and historico-philosophical ideas that far too seldom are allowed into the discussion.        

The post-historian by Klas-Göran Karlsson  was originally published in Scandia 2013:2  with the title "Post-historikern". It has now been translated by Charlotte Merton.

[1] Howard Beale,”The professional historian: His theory and his practice”, Pacific Historical Review 1953:3, p. 229.

[2] Keith Jenkins, Sue Morgan & Alun Munslow, ”Introduction: On fidelity and diversity”, i Manifestos for History, desamma (red.), London & New York 2007, p. 1.


[3] Gerda Lerner, ”The necessity of history and the professional historian”, The Journal of American History 1982:1, pp. 7–20.


[4] Maria Ågren, ”Några reflexioner om synteser”, Historisk tidskrift 2003:4, p. 575.

[5] This adjective is taken from Antoon De Baets, Responsible History, New York & Oxford 2009, p. 14.

[6] See Bernard Eric Jensen, Historiedidaktiske sonderinger. Bind 1, Köpenhamn 1994, pp. 62–64. 

[7] I have further developed these perspectives in Klas-Göran Karlsson, Europeiska möten med historien. Historiekulturella perspektiv på andra världskriget, förintelsen och den kommunistiska terrorn, Stockholm 2010.

[8] Eva Österberg, ”Kultur, genus och samtiden. Svensk historieforskning från senare delen av 1980-talet till 2010”, i Historieskrivningen i Sverige, Gunnar Artéus & Klas Åmark (red.), Lund 2012, p. 180.

[9] Bo Stråth et al., Evaluering av norsk historiefaglig forskning: bortenfor nasjonen i tid og rom. Fortidens makt og fremtidens muligheter i norsk historieforskning, Oslo 2008, pp. 152–157.

[10] Richard Evans, Till historiens försvar, Stockholm 2000, p. 179.

[11] Frank Ankersmit, ”Historiography and Postmodernism”, i History and Theory: Contemporary Readings, Brian Fay, Philip Pomper & Richard Vann (red.), Malden & Oxford 1998, p. 189.

[12] Ankersmit 1998, p. 187.

[13] Beale 1953, p. 230.