Sverker Sörlin: Swedish historians’ significance deficit – and possible remedies

 

When beginning to read history at university at the end of the 1970s, I had no plans to become a “historian”. The word was too big for me. I was actually thinking of becoming a forest officer, doctor or psychologist. But instead of saying yes to the offers of course places I received for these roads towards comprehensible professions, I instead chose, perhaps guided by some vague self-knowledge, to at least for a time flee to history. The time became long. Initially the history of ideas, then history, with the early modernist Kerstin Strömberg-Back as a captivating head tutor, and then to economic history, until returning to the history of ideas, with Ronny Ambjörnsson as the supervisor of my PhD, completed in 1988. More than ten years had passed since commencing these studies, and even if I did a lot in between – a folk high school course, travels in Africa, as well as working with cultural journalism and exhibition projects – I had begun to accept that I was, perhaps, after all a historian. Not least, I think, because I had become aware that I could obtain an income as a researcher and lecturer in history, almost as if I had become a forest officer.

In order to think of myself as a historian, I needed, in other words, to gain an insight into the day-to-day activities of the profession. Initially, being a historian had no clear societal function, as far as I could see; nor did my studies during the first terms provide many insights regarding the question of what one could do with historical knowledge. What was a “historian”? Some of my studies were part of teacher training, another comprehensible profession. But deep within myself I doubted that I would become a high school teacher; increasingly, the study of history for its own sake came to dominate. It was, quite simply, ceaselessly interesting to study history, and the more I dedicated myself to it, the more interesting it became. Perhaps because it seemed that no area within history could be exhausted in terms of content but was added to continuously, the more I learned from other areas, including the subjects I read in parallel (ethnology, sociology, national economics, geography, political science).

This had a connection to the answer to a question I was asked irritatingly often by relatives and friends: “What will become of you?” That is, after I had finished my studies. I could not say “historian”, and so instead said I was “searching for a context”. I wanted to understand society and the world we live in, and to me historical knowledge seemed particularly suited for this purpose, perhaps economic history most of all. It was also completely sincere; I gave this answer as much to myself as to others, as I was in acute need of an incentive for my time-demanding studies. Here was a genuine driving force, but interestingly enough this was not acceptable, even to myself. Neither did it fit the few historians I had met, those who had taught me in school, or had written important historical works that even I knew of: Erik Gustaf Geijer, Herodotus, Carl Grimberg, Marx (whose works I read most). It did not seem to me that the Swedish society of which I was a part included any important historians. I certainly could not name one; they were probably working behind the scenes. However, I was still wholly convinced that historical knowledge was central for understanding society and developing it further. Since then, this conviction has never left me.

All of this contained a paradox, but I was perhaps not untypical. Historical knowledge seemed for most Swedes who a few decades ago were in the transitional position between secondary and tertiary education anonymous and diffuse. Yes, it might be fundamental, rather like mathematics or chemistry, but at the same time marginal, in the sense that one was not expected to know anything about current historiography. This was not the case in regard to politics, music, literature, sport, entertainment, art; there, lots of things were happening all the time, and I could name any number of people active within each and every one of these fields. But no historian (except Hans “Hatte” Furuhagen, a television profile, but he was perhaps an archaeologist?). I did not even actually care who had written the few historical works I had read; I did not perceive them as a form of qualified prose  or expressing a certain author’s interpretation, or a new perspective, but instead as information, for the most part self-evident.

The historians’ sins of omission

No longer is this the case. There are now Swedish historians who are celebrities, historically orientated authorship has gained a significant position, and historical books feature in abundance on booksellers’ and newsagents’ shelves. One can find popular history in journals and magazines. The book club Clio was founded in 1987. An answer to the question of why we are historians is thereby obvious: many have taken the history route to entertaining, interest-awakening and vivid authorship.

Not all historians have been pleased by this. When the entertainment historians – if I may use that expression, authors such as Herman Lindqvist and Jan Guillou – became widely known, the professional historians were predictably sceptical. But the criticism was superficial, in the sense that it mainly concerned deficiencies of the craft, and the methodological poverty of these historical narratives. The professional historians may have won the factual debate using quite simple points derived from the influential Weibull tradition of Quellenkritik, but perhaps concurrently lost the wider debate about what society and the public could actually expect historians to provide: just more entertainment, though with correct facts? The actual situation was that the historians had many sins of omission to answer to. Perhaps the greatest one of all was that they had allowed the expansive social sciences to assume the role as society’s commentator and contributor of relevant knowledge. Economists, sociologists, political scientists and pedagogues filled the pages of the post-war decades’ public inquiries, and appeared as advisors and experts within public agencies and institutes. Typically enough, they also gained their own separate faculty at the universities in 1964. Historians and others within the humanities had to accept a relatively decreasing status and space, a kind of “residual arts and humanities”, and defined their societal role in terms of a negative contrast to the other faculty areas; over time increasingly defensively. The textbooks on historical theory and methodology during the second half of the twentieth century were one-sidedly focused on method. They hardly dealt at all with the societal tasks of historical science, or what kind of figure a historian could be, over and above an academic professor or upper-secondary school teacher. They seldom posed the absolutely crucial question “Why history?” – or not until very recently, in a fine booklet by Klas Åmark.[1]

The self-perception that was evident in older, for that matter rather few, texts concerning the character and aims of history as a subject can be interpreted as a variant of the natural sciences’ view: historians work to incrementally expanding  knowledge by research. And when not doing so, they justify their existence by a quite vague and undemanding rhetoric about education, a richer life, diversity and cultural understanding: all excellent ideals, of course, but almost always tamely defined when compared to the precision usually deployed in relation to, for example, methodological questions. The reasons for this are many. The historian of ideas Victoria Höög has linked this tendency – visible among not only among Swedish but also Nordic humanists generally – to a neo-humanistic educational tradition, through which its participants have actively situated themselves outside the ideal of social usefulness , and thereby experienced more difficulties in defending their positions to politicians and the commercial sector. Humanists, including historians, have “been unwilling to assert that they have a societal role”.[2]

This comment may be somewhat exaggerated, but not unreasonably. It may also be that the differences between the Nordic countries have been greater than Höög suggests. The national identity-building roles in young nation-states with liberation processes in their past, such as Norway and Finland, differ from those pertaining to the old Nordic empires, Denmark and Sweden. The societal role for historians in the latter, and particularly Sweden, I think, can be described as more centralist and close to the state (the historian as an ultra-correct civil servant), while their Norwegian and Finnish counterparts have been more committed and nationally oriented. In the latter countries, there are also more visible and for the public identifiable historians, with a role as learned interpreters of their nations’ essence and direction. Particularly in Norway, moreover, local history has functioned as a large-scale arena for aspiring mid-career professional historians.

In Sweden, the question of what historical knowledge can achieve in society has not had the same role. Perhaps, the most radical Leftist period, from the mid-1960s to the 1980s, can be seen as an exception. At that time, many people bestowed history with an instrumental societal role; one absent since the patriotic era around the turn of the century 1900, the days of Harald Hjärne and other leading conservative historians. The neo-instrumentalist viewpoint was far too simple and ideologically determined to function in the long term, but perhaps contained a positive ingredient in terms of clearing the path for a somewhat healthier discussion on the aim of historical research. However, this debate was not followed through in the professional journals. Our scientific in-house journals, Historisk tidskrift, Scandia, Lychnos and others, have very seldom raised the question of our usefulness, but rather implicitly assumed a consensus.

Who is a historian, and what do historians do?

A consensus of this kind no longer exists, however. What a historian is or does is no longer as self-evident; and those embarking upon this route today know even less of what lies ahead than I did thirty-five years ago. The reasons are mostly positive, and are not primarily connected to a lack of resources within the humanities, but rather fundamental structural changes in the interplay between academia and society. A contemporary historian can be so much, and do so much, in so many different contexts – and, despite this, it seems as if this great development has failed to engage us as it should.

An important driving force comprises the quantitative expansion of the community of historians. In a book about the future for humanistic knowledge, Alltings mått (2012), Anders Ekström and I emphasized this as absolutely fundamental. History is one of our core examples: there are ten times as many academically active historians today as there were in 1950, and this expansion is doubtless identical in regard to those who have read history at university but are not professional historians.[3] It is actually this expansion which makes the issue more acute: the expanding profession (as I here wish to term it) cannot reasonably be solely occupied with “incrementally expanding knowledge by research”. By “this is why we are historians”, we must mean something more – for more people. We should rather, by the term “historian”, refer to all of us who use our professional historian’s knowledge in diverse daily tasks. Neither is it a simple matter to categorize us, hierarchically or otherwise. Those of us who are academic researchers are concurrently, wholly or partly, authors, critics, advisors, debaters, teachers, experts. Many of those we have taught, but do not work within tertiary education, have the same functions, though with different blends of activities.

In other words: historians already have, by virtue of their increasing numbers, an all the more expanded societal role. This is not so easily seen, however; it is a role that does not appear under its proper name, as “history”. Or, as I would prefer to put it: it lacks clear articulation. This is partly connected to the exclusive and sometimes introverted self-perception of historians; that we, in contrast to almost all other social scientists, deal with the past and not the present or future (which is of course a misunderstanding: knowledge of the past is an issue of the present and the future).

For a long time, historians placed themselves in a separate sphere, by a wide margin, on the back side of what geographer Torsten Hägerstrand called “the thin isthmus of the present.” To be sure, this isthmus has been increasingly crossed by far-sighted historians. Birgitta Odén has explained how she went about this, in a study for the government’s Science Advisory Board as early as 1972.[4] Within the profession, a contemporary orientation is nowadays common, even institutionalized at Södertörn University College, though methodologically and theoretically underdeveloped and far from universally accepted. That said, the historian conception, and attendant expectations, have not changed significantly. The social stereotype of a historian is an academically active person who seldom leaves his or her archive or office. A historian who, for example, works for a public agency or as a journalist, is seldom perceived as a historian primarily, nor addressed as such.

This is also to do with the situation that the many functions of historical knowledge are seldom expressed in terms of a cohesive conception of what historians can achieve, now or in the future. This is to a certain extent a knowledge problem. We have a very incomplete picture of what Swedish historians have been occupied with outside academe. There are all too few surveys on this. This applies to humanists generally, something we also discussed in our book Alltings mått. Compared to distinct professions such as lawyers, doctors, engineers, whose labour markets are recognized and clearly defined, historians comprise an amorphous group; and this, of course, even when taking into account that schools and museums are major employers, and the media and public authorities two others. The truth is probably that historians infiltrate and can be found here and there in the societal fabric. Should it not be important to know where and how this occurs?

When I observe historians being useful publicly, this is often in the role of providing an unexpected perspective, rather than presenting a historical comparison or “clues” trying to “explain” an issue in the present. This is liberating. Expertise in its conventional sense almost always means the privileging of a fixed, pre-determined way of perceiving a question or a problem. One seldom needs to listen more than a few seconds to an economist, political scientist, ecologist or doctor to understand which expertise they possess. The historian, regardless of speciality, can in this respect feel frustrated that he or she is seldom asked about their main expertise. But why would Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war have any relevance to the Greek crisis of today?

This frustration can be turned into an advantage. The historian’s contribution neither can nor should be to identify specific parallels to contemporary events, but quite the opposite: to use their broad, often extremely varied and diverse, selection of knowledge for other types of analyses and assessments than those of specialists whose starting point is a narrower discipline, often privileging a particular theoretical frame of reference or object of study. This concerns something one could call the historian’s “non-privileging” view. Certainly, specialization is far advanced among historians, because we need empirical depth. History is rarely about itself only. It is a history about something: politics, crises, demography, social justice, social conditions, war, economy, environment, infrastructure, gender, sport, labour, cities – the list is just about endless, and nowadays there are historians for almost any topic. But regardless of specialization, the historian is forced to present a synthesis of many knowledge areas in order to say anything meaningful, beyond the individual facts. The historian does not privilege a certain kind of explanations, and thereby takes greater responsibility for seeking that which is essential to understand any complex issue.

Expertise – contributory and interactional

This task, always difficult and sometimes as heavy as a millstone hung around the historian’s neck, is at the same time a possible basis for the formulation of a societal role. The historian’s synthesis-based societal understanding, broadly anchored to empiricism and theory from a wide range of disciplines (sociology, economics, political science, geography, ecology; historians are the kleptomaniacs of knowledge society, surpassed perhaps only by novelists in their enthusiasm for limitless searching) is not only important in itself. It is also far more applicable than most people are aware of; and historians themselves have been far less active than they should in making this known, to our students and the wider world. This societal understanding brings with it scepticism, an invaluable resource for all who are involved in evaluation and assessment. It gives the insight that everything takes time, that the past remains in the present, however drastic and thunderous the changes. Moreover, it is future-directed, with a quality very difficult to capture, but which can be summarized by the word discernment.

Discernment is a quality that disappears easily when expertise is formed, and particularly so when expertise is strongly specialized. During recent years it has appeared a wealth of analyses of what expertise is, and how it has been shaped historically by diverse social and political conditions. Some of this literature attempts to group and categorize experts based on their roles, from “consequence-neutral” advisors to agenda-setting experts-cum-activists.[5] Another part of this literature has successfully been able to demonstrate how expertise over the course of the latest century, and especially during the past fifty years, the computer age, has been connected to the possibility of making quantitative predictions. Numbers have created both credibility and legitimacy; what Theodore Porter has called Trust in Numbers (1995).[6] This sort of expertise can be, and has been, utilized in relation to the environment and climate, just as well as demography, economics, the labour market, health, and technology.[7]

Here, we are not only dealing with predictions for guidance, but technologies for societal steering;  perhaps mainly pointed out by sociologists of science and STS (Science and Technology Studies) researchers, but at the same time something that should be highly relevant for historians. In Norway, for instance,  Kristin Asdal has shown how an analysis of such “technologies of numbers” (tall-teknologier in Norwegian) can be utilized for reinterpreting industrial history, farming development, the functions of bureaucracy, and methods for state governance; in other words, central components of Norwegian post-war history.[8] Concurrently with this, it appears that the quantitative predictions and follow-up systems have drawn increasing criticism, which may create new openings for historical expertise.

An interesting part of the expertise literature deals with how different professional groups place themselves in a kind of knowledge ecology. The sociologists of science Harry Collins and Robert Evans distinguish between those experts who have a recognized role in the production of new knowledge, contributory expertise, and those who, although they might be very knowledgeable, lack this recognition and instead work with transmission, synthesis or reflection. These qualified users of knowledge, what Collins and Evans call interactional expertise, interact between the producers of the original knowledge, who by definition are few, and a larger societal arena in which knowledge is sought for other reasons than it being an incremental shifting of a knowledge baseline or frontier. The first, “contributory”, group comprises primarily researching specialists; the other, “interactional”, contains advisors, bureaucrats and journalists, for example. Many researchers also belong to this group, as researchers are as a rule “contributory” only in relation to small areas. However, at the same time, in order to endow their presentation with context and relevance, they must often and quite necessarily insert their newly acquired special knowledge, and by such means constitute “interactional” expertise.[9]

For historians, Collins and Evans’ analysis should be particularly relevant. More than most researchers, historians are dependent on simultaneously being contributory and interactional. One can perhaps say that the scientistic ideals that were very popular during the cliometric-focused period, say from the 1960s to the 1980s, tempted historians to divert from the interactional knowledge, and model products of history writing on the context-deficient articles within the natural sciences, technology and medicine. This characterized some of the attempts to cross over “the narrow isthmus of the present”. But these attempts, contrary to the intention, hardly provided the foundation for a strengthened societal role for historians. Historical knowledge could not be used productively in this manner. The scientistic parenthesis, on the contrary, coincided with what was probably the period in Sweden when historians had their lowest status, and it doubtless contributed to my inability to name a contemporary Swedish historian upon completion of upper-secondary school.

If history writing without exception concerns matters about which the historian can provide contributory expertise, and especially if it attempts to imitate some of the less interpretive social disciplines, it risks becoming pointless. A strikingly large number of the most prominent historians, those constituting role models within our profession, are, on the contrary, extremely well versed in interactional expertise, in Collins and Evans’ sense. I will provide just one example of this; one I have followed closely: Alfred Crosby’s pioneering, and much discussed, ecological and epidemiological interpretation of the West’s global hegemony, in his book Ecological Imperialism (1986). It builds upon an original basic idea, rooted in Crosby’s research on intercontinental interchange, which derives from his PhD work on the hemp trade between America and Russia,[10] but is essentially an eclectic summation of research from a wide range of fields undertaken by others. In most of the fields about which he writes, Crosby does not have the role of “contributory expertise”, but rather “interactional” in relation to all the knowledge he has studied from medicine, archaeology, ecology, plant- and animal geography. It is through his perspective that Crosby contributes revolutionary new knowledge.[11] One can observe in passing that the book constitutes a hitherto unsurpassed form of this type of presentation. Synthesis-based presentations are often sizable, and demand cooperation with publishers that wish to reach many readers with a new interpretation or important message. We can already from this draw a conclusion relating to our present predicament: we should continue to write books and insist on their importance. However, this is not to say that we Swedish historians shouldn’t be far more interested than we have so far been in publishing research articles in international journals. Even the most renowned among us (and this is as true for other Swedish humanists) are still strikingly invisible to an international readership.

 Even if writing is a central part of our identity and function, a societal role cannot, naturally, only concern types of publication. Our significance deficit is not first and foremost connected to this, but rather the very modest role we play in societal decision-making, and contributing a foundation for influencing public awareness and debate. Changing this is our foremost common interest.

Even here, the distinction between contributory and interactional expertise can be useful. Societal utilization of historical knowledge is only in a very marginal sense a matter of incorporating the very latest research findings. This notion is an ideological factoid from the linear model’s age. The thinking was that science would, in freedom and detachment, produce new knowledge, which would subsequently be absorbed and practically applied in diverse forms. This model primarily concerned technology, medicine and the natural sciences, where profitable innovations would grow on the foundation of new knowledge. But even among historians, the same conception was embraced: that the results of basic research would find their way to teachers, museums, teaching-aid producers, and in an ideal scenario gradually form a new synthesis.

However, in the same way extensive research has shown that this model gives an incorrect picture of innovation processes – they are far more interactive and “messy” – I would claim that this kind of logic is just as false and misleading in regard to how historical knowledge is deployed in society. In the terminology I here use, one could say that the contributory and the interactive, on the contrary, stand in a non-linear relation to each other. This relation should interest us more.

What we have done in Swedish academic history is to devote most of our attention to the contributory side of our profession, and to a far lesser degree problematized the interactive. This in itself, I believe, is an important explanation for why historical knowledge has such a weak position within the Swedish public sphere, including culture and politics. The subject’s decreasing presence in the curricula of secondary and upper-secondary schools over several decades would hardly have been possible had the history profession acted in a different way to assert its relevance and act in more interactive ways; to assert its right to be present in several arenas, in the same manner other professions have managed.[12]

What I am saying may seem unnecessarily negative. Are there not positive Swedish examples that contradict my claim? Yes, there are. There are nowadays growing numbers of historians out there who skilfully, neatly and wisely contribute with comments that are unexpected, and often in new areas. Here, we can really talk about progress. In relation to questions about Islam and the Middle East, we willingly listen to Mohammad Fazlhashemi, the historian of ideas, who has written several books on the subject. In regard to medicine, diagnoses and illness, Karin Johannisson speaks insightfully, and sometimes with a degree of irony concerning fashionable diagnoses. In regard to fiscal matters and administration, Gunnar Wetterberg has achieved a respected position; not only for his historical knowledge, but also his ability to use it to critique current practices and seek new solutions; sometimes radical, but always worthy of consideration.  Henrik Berggren left the university world for Dagens Nyheter, wrote for a while editorials in which the historical perspective was often present, after which his biography of Olof Palme arrived, which reached a large audience and influenced public discussion. Further names could be mentioned, all with strong profiles in the public sphere: Ann-Sofie Ohlander, Lars Magnusson, Yvonne Hirdman, and of course many others.

It is perhaps the case that historians are, relatively speaking, forging ahead. It seems to me that the kind of hegemony of academic voice  in the public sphere that once was reserved for  economists and political scientists is now over, particularly following the 2008 economic crash, which also brought with it a crisis for the idea of a social science expertise capable of prediction. The authoritative voice has become less unequivocal, which favours historians, who are seldom delighted with unambiguity.

However, even so, the historians remain relatively few in numbers, and those who are visible do not make public appearances very often, especially not in the mainstream media. And, if we leave aside the media, where historians despite this manage relatively well, and turn to expertise within organizations, public agencies, the trade and industry sector, or politics, we still only rarely find historians in prominent positions, and not always in their professional roles. I have myself experienced, when present in an advisory capacity or in public debate, how I have time after time been used as an expert on the subject of, for instance, universities, research policy, or the environment, and more seldom as a “historian”.   

There is of course nothing wrong with this; a chameleon-like trait is necessary in order able to function in diverse environments, and thereby be relevant. But why should, in an a priori way, the historical opinion be seen as unimportant? When it is precisely this which, I am convinced, is our greatest resource. There is a real problem within this. We should revive the historical opinion in such a way that its meaning and relevance are obvious. And this must be our task; we can hardly request this of others, for the task demands that one knows from within the nature and value of the historical “non-privileging gaze”. It is about making visible the meaning of something which is not clearly instrumental – in other words, not the typical vocational skills I for a short moment was attracted to as a nineteen-year-old, a kind of siren song – but something else: larger, vaguer and more important.

Post-disciplinary knowledge environments and generative criticism

What, then, is this phantom I discuss here, and which our society should have more of, and which the historians should therefore put far more emphasis on formulating and practising? In our book Alltings mått, we spoke of a generative critique; critique that not only concerns seeing weaknesses and pointing out defects (which is of course important), but also being able to define new ways of interpreting and understanding society and the world. To state an agenda for what is important, rooted in historical understanding. Historically, we associate such with prominent thinkers, social movements, of late with the natural sciences’ discoveries of global crisis phenomena within the climate and environment, but also now and again with academic groupings and initiatives.

So – why not with historians? The generative critique, as I understand it, presupposes new research; in other words, contributory expertise – and this it must, otherwise in the long run it will lose its scientific legitimacy. My thinking is that it has its home sites in dense and cleverly constructed academic environments, in which historians contribute crucial elements, but where they also collaborate with others. But this also presupposes a fruitful connection with the interactive expertise and should overlap with this in important areas.

I imagine that the knowledge ensuing and being a component of such an environment, is able to produce generative critique, has a number of characteristics.

Some of these are the following:

Firstly, this knowledge demands overview, breadth. The type of historical competence I believe engenders societal trust and makes us essential is based on a unique capacity to associate and formulate new connections. It follows that historians should embrace wide reading (almost everything they may encounter may count) and eclecticism. This has not been a scientific virtue in all subjects and in all eras, but has proud traditions in the humanities’ annals, from the age, not too long ago, when words such as dilettanti and amatori had a positive resonance.[13]

Secondly, a capacity for synthesis-based work is demanded. By this I mean the joining of separate knowledge elements to larger contexts in a form that makes knowledge both accessible and important. Narration is one of these forms; another is analytical argumentation: none can be ruled out and both can be very effective.

I would call the third characteristic translation. By this I mean the ability to make historical knowledge relevant for the conditions of our era. This is not a matter of chance or luck, but simply media logic, by which historians knowledgeable about witchcraft are always interviewed before Easter, or that an environmental historian is called in when a natural disaster has occurred. But in most cases the translation work is something we ourselves must do. I am convinced that this translation capacity can be systematically developed, prioritized in education and postgraduate studies, and rewarded when academic posts are being filled.

A fourth characteristic concerns what I, inspired by the British public policy researcher Andy Stirling, would call responsible judgment. Stirling himself uses the term “directionality”.[14] His point of departure comprises the idea within the innovation debate that all knowledge leading to economic growth is positive. His own conception is that this is not at all self-evident: only if the innovations move society in a sustainable direction should they be perceived as improvements and influence research and innovation policies. In the same manner, my point is that we as historians should feel a responsibility for the societal direction we analyse and explain. We will not agree on everything, but must empathize with those who have come to inhabit history’s darker sides. In approximately the same way that lawyers, journalists and doctors have ethical codes, so should we historians. This would garner respect from others and make us worth listening to when we use our knowledge to reach a meaningful judgement, which presupposes evaluation.

These comprehensive qualities of relevant knowledge also entail, I believe, the possession by individual historians of certain capabilities, in order to expand our societal role. While the former must be present in important knowledge environments, a different situation pertains in regard to the [qualities/capacities? required in individuals. They both can and must be more unevenly distributed. Here are a few.

 Understanding society in the present. The historian should, regardless of speciality, also address the present. Here, I am thinking of Marc Bloch’s account of when he and Henri Pirenne visited Stockholm. Pirenne, specializing in ancient history and the middle ages, wished to see the town hall, because it was newly-built: “If I were an antiquarian, I would have eyes only for old stuff, but I am a historian. Therefore, I love life”.[15] Life is that which happens now. Historians should be aware of contemporary problems, be able to see the essentials of today’s conflicts and tendencies. Without this interest in the here and now, properties such as examination, synthesis, translation and the sense of assuming responsibility will not characterize knowledge.  

Communicative skill. Historians are among our foremost authors, and important historical works are as a rule good reads. But our training is one-sidedly marked by the book/monograph as the desideratum. The media world we inhabit is characterized by diversity at the same time that the historian’s education scarcely includes writing in different genres and media, including visual media and hybrid types of presentation. Without such training it is more difficult to be innovative in the meeting with users, the public and students.

Embracing relevance. We must also want to play a role, possess a hunger and a thirst for ensuring that our knowledge has meaning. This is far from obvious, even if some have it as a strong motivational force. In order for it to be broadly practised, training to achieve this ability is necessary and must be argued for; for example, in the way I have discussed above. If historical knowledge is not meaningful for others than historians, it will come to damage the historians first and foremost, but in the long-term it will also impact negatively on society’s quality, and citizens’ lives and welfare. Whole continents of wise, critical judgement will remain in the academic cells.

Critical reflexivity. The interactional knowledge I recommend must apply the historian’s arsenal of methods and source-critical scepticism so that it questions the language of powers that be and their false disguises. An expertise against vested interests, rather than for them. More similar to a journalist’s or a public intellectual’s role than the conventional expert’s, but with a unique ability to contribute unexpected points of view and rooted in historical knowledge’s unique breadth.

These suggestions for a more ‘interactional’ historical profession would undeniably have consequences for how we perceive education, postgraduate training and research. We should upgrade interactive competence. We should ourselves engender a presence at the interface between history, policy and media, quite like in Great Britain, where the network History & Policy has in just a few years brought together hundreds of historians and already plays an important role in advice and debate.[16] We should think about how we design our academic environments; I do not believe much in individual discipline-based departments as a future basis for the multifaruous work which will become necessary. But I believe in environments where the historical perspective is strongly present and has a functioning autonomy. We should utilize the universities’ diversity for more creative communities of the type we touched upon in Alltings mått, and which I now, apropos to new, developing academic environments, discussed as “post-disciplinary”.[17]

We should have a more extensive dialogue with the numerous institutions and interests within society for which we wish to be regarded as important. We should obtain better knowledge about who and where the historians are, and their activities. We should understand our own societal role and its historical changes; in itself a historical knowledge project we should initiate. We should conduct a broad and deep debate on how we can increase our value. Not only is this important; it should moreover be quite exciting and make becoming a historian more attractive.        



[1] Klas Åmark, Varför historia?, Lund 2011.

[2] Victoria Höög, ”Idéhistoria och den klassiska bildningstraditionen: Reflektioner över humanioras framtid i det senmoderna samhället”, i Hvor kommer idéhistorien fra? Tematiske og teoretiske brytninger i idéhistoriefaget, Sven Arntzén & Otto M. Christensen (red.), Kristiansand 2003, s. 124.

[3] Anders Ekström & Sverker Sörlin, Alltings mått. Humanistisk kunskap i framtidens samhälle, Stockholm 2012.

[4] Birgitta Odén, ”Historia och framtid: Föredrag vid Lunds universitetshistoriska sällskaps arsmöte” (1998), i Den mångfaldiga historien. Tio historiker om forskningen inför framtiden, Roger Qvarsell & Bengt Sandin (red.), Lund 2000.

[5] R.A. Pielke Jr, ., The Honest Broker. Making Sense of Science in Policy and Politics, Cambridge 2007.

[6] Theodore M. Porter, Trust in Numbers. The Pursuit of Objectivity in Science and Public Life, Princeton, NJ 1995. See also Henrik Höjer, Svenska siffror. Nationell integration och identifikation genom statistik 1800–1870, Hedemora 2001.

[7] Libby Robin, Sverker Sörlin, Paul Warde (red.), The Future of Nature. Documents of Global Change, New Haven, CT 2013.

[8] Kristin Asdal, Politikkens natur – naturens politikk, Oslo 2011.

[9] Harry Collins & Robert Evans, Rethinking Expertise, Chicago 2007.

[10]Alfred Crosby, America, Russia, Hemp, and Napoleon. American Trade with Russia and the Baltic, 1793–1812, Columbus, OH 1965; the same author’s, The Columbian Exchange. Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 (1972), new edn, New York 2003.

[11] Alfred Crosby, Den ekologiska imperialismen: Europas biologiska expansion, 900–1900 (1986), sv. övers. Margareta Eklöf och med inledning av Sverker Sörlin, Stockholm 1999.

[12] Hans-Albin Larsson,”Barnet kastades ut med badvattnet. Historien om hur skolans historieundervisning närmast blev historia”, Historielärarnas förenings årsskrift 2001; the same author’s Mot bättre vetande. En svensk skolhistoria, Stockholm 2011, s. 210–211.

[13] Marjorie Garber, Academic Instincts, Princeton, NJ 2001.

[14] See, for example, Andy Stirling, Direction, Distribution and Diversity! Pluralising Progress in Innovation, Sustainability and Development, STEPS Working Paper 32, Brighton: STEPS Centre, but also the same author’s ”Participation, precaution and reflexive governance for sustainable development”, i Governing Sustainability, A. Jordan & N. Adger (red.), Cambridge 2009.

[15] The conversation took place when Bloch and Pirenne, following the Oslo historians’ congress in 1928, together visited Stockholm. It was related by a clearly impressed Marc Bloch in the notes on the historian’s task he wrote in the concentration camp in 1941, subsequently published as Apologie pour l’histoire ou metier d’historien (Paris 1959).The quotation is on page 13 of the original. The anecdote is in a chapter with the significant title “Comprendre le passé par le présent”. The translation is found in Marc Bloch, The historian´s craft, 1992, p. 36.

[16] On the network’s homepage, one can access “History & Policy works for better public policy through an understanding of history by connecting historians, policy makers and the media. We believe study of the past can offer important lessons for the 21st century. We are the only project in the UK providing access to an international network of almost 400 historians with a broad range of expertise. H&P offers a range of resources for historians, policy makers and journalists.” Among the written works contributed to by the network’s historians, and thus mentioned, I wish to draw attention to one, because it clarifies the relevance/importance of history and historians for development and aid policies; an area in which both have been almost completely absent from Swedish debate and the exercise of public authority C.A. Bayly, Vijayendra Rao, Simon Szreter & Michael Woolcock (red.), History, Historians and Development Policy. A Necessary Dialogue, Manchester 2011.

[17] Sverker Sörlin, ”Postdisciplinär humanistisk kunskap”, Kulturella perspektiv 2013:1.