Publication Date

May 1, 2011



Traditional political history is dead and is still dying. Over two decades ago, Lynn Hunt observed, “Social history has overtaken political history as the most important area of research in history.”1The proponents of the new social history called for a broader, bottom-up, and more sociological account of the past. These scholars turned to historical sociology, social theory, as well as new empirical, social-science methodologies in creating a fresh approach to history. More recently, of course, cultural history has overtaken social history as the historical subdiscipline in which most doctoral research is conducted. While literary theory has played an important role in shaping the ways in which cultural historians think about language, the most influential discipline directly or indirectly for the innovations of these scholars has been cultural anthropology.2Practitioners of both the new social history and the new cultural history have been at one in denouncing (and moving speedily past) the traditional techniques, narratives, and perspectives of the old political history. Tony Judt, certainly not an uncritical advocate of either the new social or the new cultural history, captured a widespread contempt for political history after the social-cultural turn. “Traditional political history continues on its untroubled way,” he observed, “describing in detail the behaviour of ruling classes and the transformations which took place within them. Divorced from social history, this remains, as ever, a form of historical writing adapted to the preservation of the status quo; it concerns itself with activities peculiar to the ruling group, activities of an apparently rational and self-justifying nature.”3Whatever their internecine differences, practitioners of most new historical subdisciplines have come to view traditional political history as an essentially conservative and crabbed way of approaching an increasingly rich and diverse range of historical material.

But while it is evident that traditional political history techniques and narratives have been on the defensive for more than a generation, it is equally obvious that questions of politics per se and the concept of “the political”—read as a noun rather than as an adjective—have never been more alive in historical and social-scientific inquiry. Politics, of course, has always been a central part of the social and cultural history projects. E. P. Thompson famously openedThe Making of the English Working Class with the official rule of the London Corresponding Society (1792) “that the number of our members be unlimited”—a rule he described “as one of the hinges upon which history turns” signifying “the end to any notion of exclusiveness, of politics as the preserve of any hereditary elite or property group.”4 This end to the notion of exclusiveness in politics has become something of a mantra in a veritable legion of works of social and cultural history.

But even more important than the local, sociocultural politics ubiquitously depicted in new monographs and microhistories is the resurgence of theoretical and historical interest in the concept of the political more generally—from the recent revival of interest in the political and constitutional ideas of theorists like Carl Schmitt, Giorgio Agamben, and Norberto Bobbio to the return of a philosophical history of the political in France. Pierre Rosanvallon captured something of the sweeping historical potential of the latter when he noted that to speak of “the political” rather than “politics” was to speak of “power and law, state and nation, equality and justice, identity and difference, citizenship and civility.”5 Although traditional political history might indeed be dead or dying, subjects like power, law, state, nation, identity, and citizenship are very much in the process of an exciting intellectual rebirth. And the stakes involved in such debates have never been higher.

We endorse the possibilities for a synthetic and integrative history attuned to such a broadly reconceived concept of “the political.” Such a history would need to move well beyond a focus on politics as conventionally understood—beyond the traditional emphasis on elections, political elites, administration, and the endless, routine competition for political power (whether viewed from the bottom-up or from the top-down). Rather, the history we envision would engage the political precisely through some of its most synthetic themes and biggest problems—the foundations of which are already established in a burgeoning historical and social science literature: for example, the development of the modern state, the nature of contemporary democracy, the role of the rule of law, internationalism and the problem of sovereignty, and the relationship of nationalism and modern conceptions of citizenship. One particularly good place to see the possibility and necessity of this kind of integrative approach to the political is the revival of interest in the history of the state and its all-important interconnections with civil society.

Scholars working in both the social and cultural history paradigms have not in recent years shied away from analyzing this central concern of political history. Unsurprisingly, given their methodological orientations, social and cultural historians have insisted upon viewing the state not as something imposed on subjects or citizens from above. Instead, they insist, the state was and is socially and culturally constructed. Instead of holding a monopoly on the use of force, the state in the hands of social and cultural historians has become a negotiated space, a space in which power comes from below and is constantly being re-described and re-negotiated. These scholars, then, have shifted the discussion of the state away from structures towards networks, away from politics towards political culture. The implications of this interpretative strategy are twofold. First, cultural and social historians now acknowledge the difficulty of writing any historical account without the state. They have risen to the challenge by developing a sophisticated non-Weberian and non-Marxist account of state formation. Second, because state power is always negotiated, they have succeeded in shifting attention from state actors, to other, previously less noticed, parties to the negotiation. They have shifted attention from the state itself to society.

Now, state power is certainly negotiated. When we pay our taxes, we do not do so because there is a soldier at our door threatening us if we do not pay. But such negotiations and bargainings always take place in the shadow of the ultimate coercive powers and capabilities of law and statecraft. Negotiation and bargaining take place ineluctably in an institutional context. Some states in some places and in some times needed to negotiate more, while others in other places and times have had more overt coercive authority and capacity. In early 17th-century England, the state depended heavily on self-assessments of the worth of the land and on locals gathering revenue from their neighbors. There was a very small state bureaucracy and no standing army that could coerce compliance. The 21st-century United States, by contrast, has developed much more effective techniques to secure compliance.

There is, then, still a history to be written of the growth of the coercive as opposed to the negotiated power of the state. That history need not be unidirectional—the coercive power of the state changed substantively over time. Nor is the history of the coercive power of the state identical with the history of the nation-state. Local governments, infrastructures, semi-private but state-sanctioned groups all exercise coercive power. And, of course empires, international actors—the United Nations, the European Union, the International Monetary Fund—coerce as well. This multidimensional history of the coercive state necessitates political history.

The coercive state, as we are describing it, is not a neutral adjudicatory state. Nor is it autonomous from social contest or social action. We are describing a state people actively fought to control precisely because they knew and know that the state is not neutral with respect to the good life. The political stakes are high precisely because people disagree about important things: whether the state should provide health insurance to its citizens, whether it should sanction abortion, whether going to war is necessary to guarantee the way of life of its citizens. Almost every element of everyday life is potentially contested, and subjects and citizens themselves turn to the state precisely because its coercive power can aid in implementing particular social and ideological visions of those contests. Unlike many who have come to study the state from social or cultural perspectives, we believe that the shaping of the state is always a source of social, cultural and necessarily political conflict.

Recent events have made the importance of “the political” even more manifest. Post 9/11, no one can seriously doubt any longer that state activities—domestic as well as international—deeply affect our everyday lives. The ways in which states choose to counter terrorist threats abroad manifestly transforms the nature of the civil liberties we enjoy at home. More pointedly, the financial crisis of recent years has shocked many into accepting that how the state regulates economic activity transforms the state of our economy, our culture, our lives. Indeed, many economists who long insisted on the marginal impact that states can have on finance, are now developing a much more intense interest in state regulatory activity.

What we are calling for, then, is not a return to a political history of elites making decisions which affect other elites. The last generation of social and cultural history has successfully cut off the king’s head, and the future history of the political refuses to be confined to the conventional terms of critical elections, high-profile politicians, and official action. The political history that we would like to see elevated in the next generation of historical scholarship is precisely a place of constant interaction and interconnection between state and society—a space where issues of national identity and belonging, democratic participation and exclusion, state-building and state-resistance, discrimination and equal protection, and competing visions of the good life are ceaselessly brought into focus, debate, and often coercive resolution. The political does not constitute itself independent of and external to society—but is a place of almost continuous sociopolitical interaction and conflict. It marks a distinctive site of collective action where the terms of the life in common—whether local, regional, national, or international—receive a particularly comprehensive (and not infrequently coercive) form of articulation (for better or for worse). Here, historians should study not only the coercive practices of the state, but also the strategies and rhetoric that individuals and groups use to resist or seize state power. They should also seek to explain why some groups win and others lose at particular moments in time. Such an enlarged concept of the political insists on the centrality of agency, ideology, conflct, and contingency and refocuses issues of the state, democracy, nationalism, empire, and citizenship.It also allows for a more comprehensive engagement with themes like modernity.

We are pursuing then, in the spirit of Tony Judt, Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, a more synthetic, integrative, and problem-centered history; a history that asks big causal questions about change over time.6 Historians should be free to choose the problems that interest them—provided they can persuade the nonspecialist that the question is one worth answering. But we reject the tendency of political historians, economic historians, social historians, or cultural historians to assume that their chosen area of inquiry can be studied abstracted from the other elements of historical experience. Specialized, sectoral history should become a thing of the past. Historians interested in cultural change should entertain the possibility that “political” actions of the state and its citizens could be generating the very transformations they are interested in studying. Similarly those interested in why a state goes to war, or why an election is won or lost, should accept that the answers are as likely to lie in the areas of demography, economy, or culture as in the high political maneuvers of elite policymakers.

Our call for a new integrative history is inspired, in part, by recent developments in those social sciences that historians sometimes treat as cognate disciplines. Political science, sociology, and (institutional) economics are not, unfortunately, the disciplines that historians frequently embrace. Yet, such social scientists write frequently and in sophisticated ways about contingency, contestation and agency. In seeking answers to large causal questions, historians should read in and borrow from the widest range of social science disciplines. Above all, historians in the 21st century should not be afraid to assert that political choices were of consequence to a wide range of people at all times. And that those political choices were the product of a complex mix of social, cultural, and economic developments. The everyday consequences of the political are omnipresent today. Historians must do a better job at explaining how this came to be.


1. Lynn Hunt, “History, Culture, and Text,” in Lynn Hunt ed., The New Cultural History (Berkeley, 1989), 1.

2. Tony Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple,”History Workshop, 7 (Spring 1989), 85, 87–88; Hunt, “History, Culture, and Text,” 10–11.

3. Judt, “A Clown in Regal Purple,” 87.

4. E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), 21.

5. Carl Schmitt, The Concept of the Political (first published in 1932 in German; English editions in 1976 and 1996); Pierre Rosanvallon, Democracy: Past and Future, ed. Samuel Moyne (New York, 2006), 36.

6. Geoff Eley and Keith Nield, “Why does social history ignore politics?”Social History 5 No. 2 (May, 1980), 249–271.

Steven Pincus is the Bradford Durfee Professor of History at Yale University.

William Novak is professor in the Law School at University of Michigan.

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