Maria Ågren: Why I am a historian

A long time ago I read a newspaper interview with one of Uppsala Council’s immigrant interpreters. This was a man often tasked with interpreting between a newly-arrived refugee and a council official. If I remember correctly, the refugees at this juncture came from the Balkans, where they had experienced traumatic events. Naturally, they spoke no Swedish, nor English, but needed to be able to communicate with a representative of official Sweden prior to being moved to the next stage in the immigration process. The interpreter’s job consisted of facilitating dialogue. What struck me about this interview was the interpreter’s intensive awareness that the fate of the refugee at this decisive moment was his responsibility. He knew that he alone had a duty to convey the refugee’s words correctly. The interpreter also knew that it was he, with his insights into the refugee’s home culture, who needed to provide additional explanations and contexts in order for the council official to gain a full understanding of the rendered account. The official had the power to make decisions of crucial importance for the refugee, and what he chose to decide was determined by the interpreter’s contribution. The latter’s responsibility was considerable.

While reading the interview, I immediately thought of how the historian’s work has very much in common with that of the refugee interpreter’s. Just like the interpreter, our job is to facilitate understanding between people who belong to different cultures: people today and people in the past. The fact that it is not a question of actual dialogue – in that the one party is often dead, in the case of the historian’s work – does not mean very much. Just as in the situation regarding the refugees, we can assume with good reason that people in the past would wish to be portrayed in a correct way. (We need only think of how we ourselves would want to be portrayed by future historians.) Just as in the case of the council official, there are those in contemporary society who lack knowledge of the past and, moreover, are perhaps not particularly interested in what historical people have to relate. In exactly the same way as the refugee interpreter, the historian has a strong feeling of responsibility, stemming from our comprehension that the transmission of knowledge between people over time is dependent on us. The image of historical people and the knowledge about their society depends on how well we perform our work.

The historian’s fundamental task can be described as facilitating the transmission of knowledge and experiences between people over time. It can also be formulated as creating new knowledge with the aid of information about the past. By using this latter, alternative formulation, I wish to emphasize that the historian is not restricted to only transmitting that which humans in the past were conscious of and, presumably, would have wanted to highlight. It is incumbent on the historian to also engender knowledge relating to contexts and processes about which people of the past were perhaps unaware, in many cases. But irrespective of how it is formulated, we historians have a great responsibility for presenting people and societies in a correct manner. It is this responsibility which determines the rules governing our discipline. [1]

From what has hitherto been stated, the reader is perhaps asking his- or herself whether I believe that present-day people can and must learn from history. The answer is yes: the ultimate objective and justification for our work is learning about and from people’s lives in past societies.[2]

But it is difficult to learn from the past. Difficult, because the past no longer exists and cannot therefore be turned into an object for direct empirical observations in the manner carried out in many social-science disciplines. It is difficult because we humans are bound to our contemporary cultural frames of understanding, and easily misunderstand or fall into anachronistic reasoning. We all do this sometimes. We therefore need to learn to learn from history. What conclusions can we draw from the outbreak of the First World War? What conclusions can we draw from the division of work between the sexes in the seventeenth century? The answers to these questions are not self-evident. One can quite simply reach incorrect conclusions and thereby distort the image of the past as well as the present.

The professional historian’s societal task is therefore twofold:  increasing knowledge in society about conclusions that can be drawn in regard to the past, and increasing awareness about conclusions that, lacking scientific evidence, are invalid. This does not, of course, mean that there is only one acceptable conclusion regarding every event or process upon which the historian stamps his or her hallmark. As a rule, one can reach several different conclusions about matters in the past. This situation is the actual engine propelling history as a science. However – and of primary importance – there is no infinite number of conclusions that can be defended by referring to the ground rules within the discipline of history. This is an insight that should be emphasized more. To be sure, there is uncertainty in historians’ results. These always contain weaknesses of one kind or another, but this does not mean that we need hesitate to defend our results as the best to date.

Let me return to the point that people need to learn to learn from the past. The past is, as stated, not directly accessible to us. We deceive ourselves, if we sometimes think it is. Our society is full of superficial and rapidly produced images of the past, which invite this kind of self-deception. But reaching a deeper understanding of how past societies “hung together” and how people in them thought and acted is a time-consuming and difficult process, demanding training and more training. For those wishing to learn about and from the past, it is training of this nature, rather than force-feeding of facts, which is demanded. This has been described in an insightful way by J.M. Coetzee in his excellent novel Youth. The protagonist (the author’s alter ego) has become interested in his country’s past and wishes to write its history:

He will have to school himself to write from within the 1820s. Before he

can bring that off he will need to know less than he knows now; he will

need to forget things. Yet before he can forget he will have to know what

to forget; before he can know less he will have to know more.[3]

In order to mentally live in another age, it is necessary to free oneself from knowledge and insights that are devoid of relevance for the period in question. But in order to accomplish this, one initially needs to be clear about what the irrelevant knowledge and insights actually are. Understanding the past and drawing reasonable conclusions from it involves obtaining a clearer picture of ourselves, our pre-understanding and our present time, in order to comprehend differences and similarities between the past and the present. This is what I usually term the double knowledge attainment in history as a subject. Studying history properly engenders the acquisition of knowledge of the past and the present. Studying history the incorrect way leads to learning neither about the past nor the present.


Is it not difficult to answer the question as to the historical sciences’ overall aim; nor is it difficult to point out the societal tasks of historians. Our fundamental task is to engender new knowledge about societies and cultures with the assistance of information about the past. To a certain extent, even amateur historians (such as those researching  family and local history) can do this. The special task of professional historians is, however, to moreover increase societal insights about specific conclusions that can be drawn from the past, as opposed to those without scientific basis. This can be expressed as follows: we have a specific responsibility for teaching people about history, and how one can learn from it.

How, then, should professional historians act in order to accomplish their societal task? Should we appear in the media more than we do at present; should we be more engaged in public debates; should we more frequently criticize bad and superficial history usage? It would be beneficial if historians did all of this. At the same time I am very doubtful about the value of the expended time and energy if all historians focused solely on such activities. The media are governed by a particular logic, and questions highlighted therein are not always those meriting engagement. It is just as important – more important, actually – that historians get involved in the matter of how history teaching outside universities is carried out. Historians are needed within teacher training and other further education, just as in the production of teaching materials.

Swedish historians also need to engage themselves in the diffusion of their concrete research results. In this context, it is not enough to ensure a distribution within the Swedish media and Swedish schools. We must also actively work to promote our results being internationally diffused, so that historians throughout the world can access them. History is namely, in my opinion, an inherently global or transnational subject. There are exceedingly few historical structures and processes that reach no further than today’s national borders. To write good history, one must consequently place one’s topics and questions in a much larger context than the nation. To the extent that this ambition is realized, it follows that one’s results have implications for historians working with the history of other countries. They need to be able to access and absorb our results, and vice versa. If we historians could develop our ability to cooperate and our comparative competence, we would thereby be able to produce far more powerful “narratives” about, or “models” of, historical courses of events, their causes and effects.

It follows from these points that I believe Swedish historians have no need whatsoever to be ashamed for conducting  research on Sweden or Northern Europe. It is a part of the world with an important history; one needing better integration into general world history depictions. It is no more myopic to research an area today called Sweden than researching those areas today called England, Pakistan or Bolivia. It only becomes myopic if a dialogue with those colleagues dealing with England, Pakistan and Bolivia is absent. However, dialogue presupposes a shared language. Today, the shared world language is English, whether one likes it or not, and I therefore think that we Swedish historians should write more in English. This is a very important part of our societal task.[4] “Society” means not only Sweden but the whole world.

When discussing and defending history as a subject, its critical role is not uncommonly highlighted. The historian’s job is to act as salt in debates and contribute to unmasking official “truths”, collective “life lies” and politicized history usage. I agree with this: it is important that historians utilize the grounding in critical thought they  have received, and allow this to function as precisely salt in society. That said, it would be wrong to think that historians alone can have this function. All those who have received higher education and can be regarded as intellectuals have, it seems reasonable to think, both the capacity to act as critical voices in societal debates and a responsibility to take on this role. Historians cannot claim that they have a monopoly on this. We belong to the intellectuals of society, and consequently have a responsibility to provide critical input. The specific contribution we can make must, however, consist of something else; namely, well-founded statements regarding the past. With this, I return to the interpreter image: a person who makes possible more experiences being voiced.


I remember why I once upon a time specifically chose to become a historian. I was (and still am) extremely interested in languages, particularly grammar – how language can be described analytically – as well as the origins and development of words. I had just about started postgraduate studies in a linguistic subject, but changed my mind at the last moment. A reason for this decision was that I thought that the advanced-level seminars in history (at that time led by Eva Österberg and Rolf Torstendahl) were so much more stimulating. Another reason was, in fact, that history felt more “useful”. During the years that have subsequently passed, the utility of the humanities has been intermittently debated and questioned. At such times, I have often reflected on the reasons for my choice. Speaking plainly, I have sometimes doubted the extent to which it is actually useful to work with history. This has usually occurred in situations where I have been overwhelmed by the responsibility of constantly having to defend the subject to non-historians, at the same time that it has felt as if we lack direction and common aims within the subject. That said, the dominant feeling through the years has, however, been that historical knowledge is useful and applicable, and that my job as a historian is meaningful. It has felt particularly meaningful when I have come into contact with undergraduates and postgraduates from cultures in which much of what we take for granted is absent: the possibility of freely choosing topics and perspectives; the possibility of discussing and questioning standard answers regarding societal development hitherto and in the future.

Has, then, my feeling that history is a meaningful and useful occupation anything to do with the question of the extent to which we historians are involved in a collective knowledge project with a common aim that can be defined? Yes, that is almost certainly the case. I would like to conclude this article by developing a few thoughts about the collective knowledge project, and in addition the potential within history itself and history as an academic discipline.

Since the 1960s (roughly speaking), history as a subject has increasingly been characterized by diversity, in regard to applied perspectives and methodologies. Nowadays, it is difficult to argue that one topic/theme or theoretical starting point is more important than another theme or another theory. No longer is it the case that state-centred political history has automatic priority within the discipline, but at the same time nothing else has replaced the state’s role as the self-evident core of the discipline. This development could be perceived as confirmation that there are no common professional norms regarding what is fruitful and rewarding to study, and thereby the absence of any common, collective knowledge project. Another way of looking at the matter is that, on a higher level, there exists an “optimum norm” concerning the value of pluralism. One can justify pluralism as a way of attaining a broad illumination of people’s lives over time. If one thinks that part of the historians’ job is to engender as broad and at the same time complex picture of the past as possible, then I think pluralism is an appropriate optimum norm. This means that one perceives the variety and diversity encountered in the field as a resource rather than a problem.[5]

As I see the matter, there are no theoretical problems in a knowledge project intended to illuminate breadth and complexity, and which therefore has pluralism as a starting point. On the other hand, there are practical problems. Quite simply, it is difficult, if not impossible, to find the time to read everything written by professional historians within different specialities. I myself have a chronically bad conscience for not being able to read enough. The inability to obtain a comprehensive overview can in turn lead to difficulties in producing new syntheses. Simplifying things somewhat, one can say that the intention of pluralism – creating a broader and more multi-faceted picture of past societies – is obstructed by pluralism’s effects: so much more new knowledge is produced that no-one can digest and integrate it into their work. This is a problem. However, I feel it important to emphasize that the problem is practical and should be dealt with as such. I would imagine there are similar practical difficulties within many other scientific disciplines. The positive aspect – that we have a large and expanding wealth of knowledge – begins to appear as something negative, as we have difficulties managing the sheer amount of material.

My opinion is that we have reached a stage at which historians should be discussing such practical problems more. How can we accomplish a better system for obtaining an advantageous overview of available results? How can we cooperate more, both within and outside Sweden; for example, when concerning data collection, the sharing of data, summarizing research findings, and so on? How can we stimulate comparison as well as the construction of syntheses and their writing? This is actually all to do with practical questions. The answers are related to, inter alia, how journal editors act; about access to research infrastructure; about initiatives to improve knowledge of other languages; about how qualifications are evaluated when appointing academics to positions. By solving the practical problems, we will improve the possibilities of harvesting the fruit of pluralism, and will additionally strengthen our own feeling of being part of a collective knowledge project.

There is a collective knowledge project in history. The project consists of producing well-founded images of people’s lives in past societies. Today, an enormous number of images are being produced, and they relate to different questions and historiographies in a sometimes confusing way, but it is not fundamentally impossible to connect the images to produce a whole picture, or at least a few larger ones.

The potential of history as a discipline consists of us gaining access to information about how people have lived in times far removed from those demarcating our own lives. In the final analysis, what we are after is new and unexpected perspectives on how life and society can be organized. In precisely the same way as cultural anthropology, history provides present-day humans with a concrete illustration of how everything does not have to be as it is here and now. Everything can be different. In this specific context there are significant parallels between these two disciplines and fiction. In fiction we are also confronted with concrete human lives and by societies undergoing change. The difference lies in how the presented images have been generated. The historian follows completely different rules than the author of fiction.

Over time, I have become increasingly influenced by the micro-historical perspective, with its emphasis on the importance of recognizing and utilizing the value embodied in that which is specific and concrete.[6] I have become increasingly convinced that a more offensive historical science presupposes that we fully exploit the potential contained in empirical, historical information. Our task is not to defensively react towards theories developed with an eye to the near future, but rather to challenge these with the assistance of thoroughly analysed historical information. Such information is accessible to us and to us only. Therefore, it is we   and we only who have a responsibility for making the most of this knowledge. It is our task to make the refugee’s narrative comprehensible.[7]

Why I am a historian by Maria Ågren was originally published in Scandia 2013:2 with the title "Därför är jag historiker". It has now been translated by Charlotte Merton.

[1] When speaking of rules applying to our discipline, I mean the professional set of these described by Rolf Torstendahl (in several works).  He writes of minimum demands and optimum norms. See, for example Rolf Torstendahl, ”History-writing as professional production of knowledge”, Storia della Storiografia 2005, vol. 48, pp. 73–88; Rolf Torstendahl, ”Reglerade minimikrav och optimumnormer”, i Den kritiske analyse. Festskrift til Ottar Dahl, S. Langholm et al. (red.), Oslo 1974, pp. 43–62. Se även Ian Hacking, ”’Style’ for historians and philosophers”, i Ian Hacking, Historical Ontology, Cambridge, Mass. 2002, pp. 178–199.

[2] The idea of history as “magister vitae” is treated in, for example, Reinhart Koselleck ”Historia Magistra Vitae. Om föreställningens gradvisa upplösning under den nya tiden”, In: Reinhart Koselleck, Erfarenhet, tid och historia. Om historiska tiders semantik, Göteborg 2004.

[3] J. M. Coetzee, Youth, London 2002, pp. 138–139.

[4] I have written about this on several occasions. See, for example, Maria Ågren, ”Svensk humaniora på engelska – en svår men nödvändig kombination”, Tvärsnitt 2005; Thomas Lavelle & Maria Ågren, ”Academic writing in English – pedagogical answers to strategic challenges”, in Att undervisa med vetenskaplig förankring i praktiken! Universitetspedagogisk utvecklingskonferens 8 oktober 2009 PU-Rapport nr 8, Britt-Inger Johansson (red.), Uppsala 2010.


[5] Eva Österberg, ”Historikern och vår kulturella mångfald”, i Den mångfaldiga historien. Tio historiker om forskningen inför framtiden, Roger Qvarsell & Bengt Sandin (red.), Lund 2000, pp. 11–30.


[6] See, inter alia, Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press, Berkeley 1984; Carlo Ginzburg, Ledtrådar. Essäer om konst, förbjuden kunskap och dold historia, Häften för Kritiska Studier, Stockholm 1989; Matti Peltonen, ”Ledtrådar, marginaler och monader. Förhållandet mellan mikro- och makronivå i historieforskningen”, Historisk Tidskrift för Finland 2000, nr 3, pp. 251–264; John Brewer, ”Microhistories and the histories of everyday life”, Cultural and Social History 2010, vol. 7, nr 1, pp. 87–110.

[7] See Sherry B. Ortner, ”Resistance and the problem of ethnographic refusal”, Comparative Studies in Society and History 1995, vol. 37, nr 1, pp. 173–193.