Cultural History is Dead (Long Live the Hydra)

John R Hall. Handbook of Historical Sociology. Editor: Gerard Delanty & Engin F Isin. Sage Publication. 2003.

Unlike the birth of postmodernity at 3: 32 p.m. on 15 July 1972, during the dynamiting of the Pruit-Igoe housing project in St Louis, Missouri, the exact date and time of cultural history’s death cannot be pinpointed with any degree of accuracy. It was a quiet passing, so quiet indeed that many people did not hear about it for years, and some continue on as though cultural history lives. The present obituary takes the death of cultural history as an occasion not for grief but for celebration. For cultural history is like Hydra: all the heads of the serpent have been chopped off and killed, but twice as many grow in their place. It isn’t the same serpent. There are now many heads. And whether they connect to a common body remains in question. But they live!

The historical analysis of culture has a long and distinguished history, some would like to say. For others, because of the ‘cultural turn’ itself, any such account is suspect. Thus, questions concerning culture have not only their substantive side; they also have fuelled debates about logics of inquiry. For historians during the 1980s, there was good reason to chart the cultural turn from within their discipline, in relation to other disciplines, by noting that the interdisciplinary alliances of history began in the 1970s to shift away from sociology, political science and economics, and towards anthropology and the humanities (Hunt, 1989: 10). But this view later required revision. On the one hand, inquiries in the humanities have received inspiration from social theory for decades, while increasingly their concerns have been formulated in relation to history (for example, in the New Historicism) and social processes (such as citizenship, identity formation and nationalism). On the other hand, a wide range of disciplines and research programmes, from economics to English, from rational choice theory to cultural studies, have been affected by deconstructive, Foucauldian and other critical interventions. The upshot is that history is no longer contained within its core discipline, any more than sociologists can monopolize sociology. Instead, in the human sciences, ideas and agendas transcending any given discipline have become broadly influential. Now the question of how to proceed under those conditions confronts an emerging generation of scholars who, whatever their institutional homes, forge connections beyond disciplines.

‘History’ and ‘culture’ are the paramount issues in this post-disciplinary milieu, for different but interconnected reasons. History, because a diverse array of domains—from social theory to literature—have become historicized in their concerns, while, simultaneously, the ‘craft’ of historical method has become subject to critical doubt. Culture, because despite (or, perhaps, because of) the ‘cultural turn,’—there is no broadly engaged debate about how to theorize culture in its own terms, and in relation to agency and unfolding history. The intersection of problematics concerning ‘culture’ and ‘history’ thus defines a potential Archimedean point that will be contested by scholars who wish to move the human sciences toward legitimation of one or another programmatic resolution to the dialectic of modernism and postmodernism.

To take up the ‘social epistemology’ of the cultural turn in historical analysis, it would be important to consider diverse intellectual movements—of feminist theory, poststructuralism, cultural studies, queer theory, subaltern studies, postcolonial theory and the New Historicism, to invoke some of the most influential developments. Efforts to trace the significance of those developments for history (Iggers, 1997; Poster, 1997) demonstrate that the analysis of culture has become highly contested just when it has become thematic. Today, ‘cultural history’ seems a little like ‘ragtime’ when it was all the rage at the beginning of the twentieth century: performers and audiences flocked to the musical genre, but perhaps for them, and certainly retrospectively, the task of identifying any definitive characteristics of this captivating music can prove difficult (Berlin, 1980). Similarly, today there is no single subject for a discussion of inquiries that seek to draw both culture and history within their orbs. To consider the many heads of the Hydra, in this chapter I survey cultural history in light of: (1) an archaeology of its practices; (2) the return to culture as a subject; (3) what I will call the ‘full’ cultural turn; and (4), paradoxically, the ‘social turn’ that has come before and through the cultural turn.

Pasts that Endure in Memory and Practice

Today, any smooth narrative about cultural-historical inquiry that proceeded by the magic of connecting disparate intellectual events in a temporal series would be suspect. As an alternative, Foucault’s idea of archaeology suggests the project of theorizing appropriations of artifacts that have survived their times to live anew in the collective memories and imaginations of our times. For the contemporary era, mostly these survivals come from Europe, even if recent critiques have emerged in countering responses to Western hegemony, and even if it would be possible to find much of significance for cultural analysis in non-Western thought, for example in Confucianist philosophy, Hindu theology, African wisdom traditions and the work of early socio-historical analysts such as Ibn Khaldoun. As Donald Kelley (1996) shows, the ‘early modern’ European concern with culture (and sometimes ‘civilization’) grew out of binary contrasts: initially, between the cultivated societies of Europe and the ‘barbarous’ societies peopled by ‘savages,’ and, with the rise of the anthropological sense of culture in the nineteenth century, between everyday popular culture and the capital-C Culture of elites. Cultural history in this tradition was a party to contested (typically nationalist) self-narrations of progress in modernizing Europe, narrations that with the rise of social theory and social Darwinism in the nineteenth century began to invoke stage models and evolutionism. The enterprise took strongest root in Germany. Though, as Kelley recounts, some scholars now look like real embarrassments for their soil-and-blood nationalism, others broke important new ground. In the late eighteenth century, for example, Johann Herder anticipated contemporary cultural critiques of epistemology by arguing that reason could not occur outside of historically embedded language. ‘For Herder,’ Kelley notes, ‘cultural history aspired not only to criticize but even to replace philosophy as the foundational discipline of human understanding’ (1996: 104).

Most German cultural history was not so epistemologically inflected. During the nineteenth century, practitioners followed Leopold von Ranke in creating the object of analysis as an analytic whole. Ranke, of course, located his analytic object in the histories of elites, whereas the cultural historians were reduced to employing ‘cultural abstractions and organic and spiritualist metaphors’ (Kelley, 1996: 107). But to their credit, cultural historians did challenge Ranke’s narrower elite political and religious history by depicting a complex social fabric woven of customs and daily life.

The dilemma of cultural history in Germany can be charted in relation to its greatest nineteenth-century practitioner, Jacob Burckhardt. As Felix Gilbert (1990) demonstrates, Burckhardt retreated from politics into culture, nevertheless working to identify how key cultural transformations contributed to unfolding developments of universal history by which the modern world was born. Burckhardt was a student of Ranke (and, at one point, a colleague of Nietzsche), and despite substantial differences, Burckhardt shared Ranke’s sense of elites as the key actors in forming the social world. Thus, his famous study of the Renaissance in Italy (1954 [1860]) gave its due to the mores of common folk, but emphasized the distinctive civilizational accomplishments of high culture. Burckhardt also shared with Ranke the key ontological problem that Gilbert describes as ‘the problem of historical continuity’ (1990: 102). Both of them consolidated ‘history’ as a quasi-empirical reality that could be referenced without explicit recourse to theory. Ranke’s history was bound together by the deeds of elites over time, Burckhardt’s by the elites’ ‘timeless’ cultural achievements (to be found, for example, in literature), periodized in relation to political transformations. Either way, history as a naturalized entity is subjected to an objective practice of inquiry that constitutes its subject by fiat, and in isolation from self-conscious theory and methodology.

‘Objectivity’ has its own history in history. Georg Iggers (1975) has identified two appropriations of Ranke’s credo—to tell ‘what actually happened.’ In the United States, it became associated with a scientific concern with facts, whereas in Germany, the enterprise sought comprehension of history’s essence. However, American histories (Gordon Wood’s political histories come to mind) are hardly mere accumulations of fact; they often seek out the essence of the story as much as German ones. Thus, although historians often parse idealism versus science, the two approaches are best seen as two sides of an overall practice of historicism, tied together by the shared interest in consolidating a topic beyond the intentionalities of individuals, but without resorting to thoroughgoing social theoretical constructionism (Hall, 1999: 220-8).

Yet an archaeology of cultural history during the twentieth century, and especially the genesis of the ‘cultural turn,’ cannot be reduced to mapping the two faces of historicism, scientific and spiritualist. A richer understanding can be framed via alternatives that precipitate out of the late-nineteenth-century conflict over methodology in Germany. The Methodenstreit brought to the fore a bundle of epistemological questions left unresolved since Kant—whether historical science could be objective; what its relation to values might be; whether science requires a unity of method or special methods appropriate to the domain of human affairs; and what the prospects for generalization might be in the face of the uniquenesses of history. Here, issues of culture, meaning and agency loom large. How are they to be incorporated into historical analysis? Three alternative approaches can be identified.

First, as I have already suggested, a bipolar historicism of science and idealism eschews any explicit theorization in relation to historical analysis, and so meaning has to be understood in relation to its particular moment and context, as unique. As in anthropology’s ‘emic’ analysis, culture has its own internal frames of meaning, and these are not to be subjected to any external analytic frame of reference.

Second, an attempt can be made to theorize culture in its basic structures and forms, and their dynamics. This structuralist approach, of course, is anathema to historicism. Nevertheless, historicism and structuralism the logical inverses of one another that share a common premise: subjective meaning is to be excluded from the frame of structuralist theory, in a way exemplified by the formal sociology of Georg Simmel (Hall, 1999: 121-29). This division of cultural content from structural form leaves the content to historicist cultural analysis, while reserving for structuralist theory the task of delineating relationships and processes—both in matters of culture and in general. The two influential versions of structuralism in the twentieth century—social and linguistic—both connected with culture, but in different ways. In social structuralism, exemplified by the work of ‘mile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss,’ the task is to identify social structures emergent from the operation of basic cultural processes that can be theorized independently of meaningful content—in Durkheim’s case, the elementary forms of religion, and for Lévi-Strauss, alternative rules of patriarchal bride-giving that give rise to distinctive patterns of interfamilial social relations. Linguistic structuralism—that is, in Ferdinand de Saussure and his followers—uses a parallel structural logic, but maps structures of meaning on the basis of binary oppositions in symbolic codes. Despite their analytic power, both structuralisms have faced the challenge of how to recoup historicity from the analytic separation embodied in the structure/content divide that occludes a theorization of contingent action in relation to culture.

Third, and in contrast to the structuralist/ historicist partition that isolates the (historicist) analysis of meaning from (structuralist) theorization, it is possible to incorporate cultural content within theoretical concepts, and, indeed, to base construction of concepts on this precept. This, of course, is the approach championed by Max Weber, with his deployment of socio-historical models, conventionally called ideal-types (Burger, 1976; Hekman, 1983; Holton, this volume). In contrast to structuralists, Weber treated meaning in its historical specificities, and explored cultural meanings not as simple binary oppositions, but as richer, more complex assemblages that shade off from any theorized type or binary pole. Most famously, in his classic and ever-controversial analysis of elective affinities between the Protestant ethic and the ‘spirit of capitalism,’ Weber (1990 [1904-5]) contrasted the traditionalism of lay Catholicism with monastic asceticism, and then monastic with ‘inner worldly’ asceticism, exploring the approximations to this socio-historical idea complex of Protestant doctrines from Lutheranism through Calvinism, Methodism, the Baptist sects and the Quakers.

Through the twentieth century prior to the cultural turn, historians’ disciplinary practices of cultural history were mostly contained within the cultural logic of historicism, even though both topic and scope of inquiry varied widely. Debates among historians tended to focus on which story should be addressed, rather than challenging the basic historicist assumptions by which the subject of any such story is constituted. Political history and metanarratives of modernity were ascendant, and cultural history qua history was on the wane. One notable exception, Perry Miller’s Errand into the Wilderness (1956), described subtle interactions between the course of historical events of New England colonization and transformations of the originally European ‘errand’ (Hall, 1991). But for most scholars, historicist practice made it difficult to escape holism and metanarrative. Under these conditions, some notable exemplars of cultural history were written outside the discipline of history, by historical sociologists who had developed ideas about how to theorize culture. The strongest vein can be found in currents informed by the legacies of Weber. Karl Mannheim (1953) traced the origins of ‘conservative thought’ and its transmission through concrete social carrier groups, and Norbert Elias—Mannheim’s friend and influenced by Weber—pursued his magistral The Civilizing Process (1978 [1939], 1982 [1939]), which charted transformations in the construction of selfhood in Europe of the Middle Ages and beyond, and their relation to the social organization of power (Chartier, 1988: Ch. 12; Mennell, 1992).

The Weberian legacy is to be found on a separate page from the initial reinvigoration of cultural history during the latter part of the twentieth century. Yet in tandem those developments burst the boundaries of historicism and structuralism and eliminated barriers to more richly theorized, broadly Weberian and hermeneutic, approaches to culture.

The Turn to Culture as Object of Inquiry

The cultural turn is not just driven by a shift toward anthropology and discourse as theorized in linguistics and semiotics. It gains dynamism from the dialectical interchange among diverse approaches. Indeed, the debates that have emerged in the wake of the cultural turn shift the central problematics of cultural history towards broadly sociological approaches concerned with historically located institutionalized cultural structures of discourse, meaning and practice.

Whether a sharp break periodizes a transition from social to cultural history is a matter of debate seemingly about the past, but this debate also amounts to a conflict over the future, specifically concerned with whether and how the cultural turn repositions the practice of history in relation to ‘facts’ and ‘texts’ (Iggers, 1997; Poster, 1997). The past threads come from diverse sources. A number of observers note the tendencies of social historians and scholars allied with the Annales school tradition to shift toward cultural histories concerned with discourses and texts as early as the 1950s. And beginning in the 1960s, it became increasingly difficult to ignore the implications for history of the broad intellectual breakdown of structuralism in the face of poststructuralist challenges mounted by Foucault, Derrida and Bourdieu, and the even broader challenges to modernist objectivity posed for science by Thomas Kuhn, and specifically for history by Hayden White, Michel Foucault and Michel de Certeau. Yet the upshot of these developments, both for the question of how to practise cultural history and for the relation of cultural history to historical inquiry more generally, remains very much in play.

The initial shifts among social historians and the Annales school can be sketched in relation to the historicism-structuralism binary. Social history emerged concertedly the 1960s, at the time when historians and sociologists alike had high hopes for interdisciplinary projects of historical sociology and social science history. Yet the distinctive hybrids that emerged over the next quarter-century did not cross-fertilize very well. On the one hand, historical sociologists like Reinhard Bendix, Barrington Moore and Theda Skocpol typically sought to fuse sociological models of explanation with comparative analysis of institutionally decisive events such as revolutions or long-term macro-historical changes. In so far as these models were structural, they tended either to ignore culture or simply to incorporate it as a ‘causal factor.’2 On the other hand, historians continued to seek out ways to paint history on broader canvases than those framed by political history. But they were caught up in the modernist binary between structuralism and historicism.

On one front, social historians shifted history beyond politics, as Burckhardt had done, but with a Marxian twist, producing social and labour histories ‘from below.’ Yet most social historians remained within the historicist frame, and they regarded any dialectical theorization of history as simplistic. History could not be construed simply as a structural process of class conflict that produced change, and, thus, questions of agency and culture came to the fore. Most famously, in The Making of the English Working Class (1963), E.P. Thompson considered the role that cultural traditions and moral outlooks played in how class was ‘made’ by living, breathing nineteenth-century English people. Thompson’s book has been enormously important, and not only for social and labour history: one entire lineage of the cultural turn could be traced in extensions of his argument—such as Gareth Stedman Jones’s (1983) even stronger turn to the analysis of language in the study of class formation, and critical engagements of Thompson’s approach (for example, Biernacki, 1995, 1997; Rose, 1997; Somers, 1997). For sociologists perhaps the most striking feature of Thompson’s approach is the one that would seem obvious to many historians—his steadfast resistance to theorizing class. At the outset, Thompson emphasized that ‘class is a relationship, and not a thing,’ describing it as ‘defined by men as they live their own history’ (1963: 9-11). In short, Thompson is a historicist, in the specific sense of the term. Following the tradition initiated by Ranke (and, for culture, Burckhardt), he rejected either any suprahistorical framework or any theoretical modelling of generic social processes.

The alternative side of the binary—structuralism—has its own variants, one leaning back toward historicism, and the other more concertedly theoretical. The historicist side of structuralism is exemplified most famously by the French Annales school (see Burke, this volume). Beginning early in the twentieth century, the founding scholars—Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre—researched enduring social complexes (such as feudalism) and long-term civilizational transformations (such as agrarian development) that exceeded the frames of political and religious history. In effect, Kant’s and Ranke’s projects of a universal history were amended to incorporate structural analysis. In the 1960s, Fernand Braudel consolidated these innovations in an ontological theorization that proposed to integrate different temporal ‘levels’ of history (long-term or ecological, institutional, and event history) into a structural history of the totality. To solve the enduring (historicist) problem of temporal continuity, Braudel invoked an orchestral metaphor in which multiple historical temporalities compose a grand symphony of History that could be mapped on the grid of objective historical time (Hall, 1980: 114-16).

Lynn Hunt rightly suggests that the Annales is better understood as a school than a paradigm (1989: 2-3), because Annales scholars have operated under the banner of an interdisciplinary eclecticism—toward geography, economics, sociology, anthropology and indeed the whole range of the human sciences. Nevertheless, persisting presuppositions can be identified. As Georg Iggers observes, although Annalistes avoided the term ‘system,’ they borrowed from French structuralism, foundationally in the work of ‘mile Durkheim,’ and more broadly in anthropological and linguistic structuralisms centred on systems of meaning founded on binary oppositions (Iggers, 1997: 53-5). Thus, the intellectual openness of the Annales transpired within a cognitive frame of structuralism, albeit a historicist structuralism that struggled against reification, and largely succeeded, by looking to structures as enduring arrangements in history rather than uploading history into a theoretical structuralism.

Historicist structuralism is a characteristic feature of Annales scholarship through the end of the 1970s. History was not so much a matter of great and transformative deeds as an oceanic flow of tides and currents. Fitting easily within such an orientation, cultural topics abounded. Mentalité was an Annales topos from Febvre’s (1982) study of religious thought published in 1942, and one that received continuing attention in such studies as Le Roy Ladurie’s famous local history of a Pyrenees peasant village, Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error (1979 [1975]). Febvre artfully turned a question concerning whether Rabelais was an atheist into a question about what unbelief would signify as a mentalité in sixteenth-century Europe. In Montaillou, Ladurie used Inquisition records to piece together a fascinating cultural inventory of Pyrenees village life in the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries. As for material culture, Fernand Braudel (1973 [1967]) offered a synthetic discussion of social routines that employ and produce it in the whole range of human endeavours—from food and shelter to technological innovations in printing and the production of metals. Material culture, Braudel affirmed, constituted the ‘ground floor’ of history, upon which capitalism was built.

With achievements such as these, the Annalistes established themselves virtually without rivals in the detailed, almost archaeological, documentation of symbolic forms and material practices. Yet an enduring shortcoming of the Annales tradition is especially salient for cultural inquiry. The Annales programme for correcting previous preoccupations with the history of events succeeded perhaps too well (Iggers, 1997: 56). As Hexter suggests specifically for Braudel’s The Mediterranean, structuralist presuppositions overwhelmed analysis of the linkages between structures and events, leaving a narrative of political history to be tacked on at the end (1972: 533). More generally, in Annales studies, cultures typically were treated as enduring or slowly shifting structures in their own right, largely without reference to their interplay with the concrete lives of human beings.

These criticisms of Annales work begin to lose their force in the 1970s, first because Annales researchers increasingly participated in an international dialogue of scholars who were shifting the agenda of cultural history in relation to a range of histories from below, including social history and what Italian historians began to call microhistoria, and, second, because poststructuralist arguments drew into question the basic historicist and Enlightenment assumptions that undergirded both social history and the Annales.

The broad movement toward cultural analysis probably has its origins in social upheavals and generational, countercultural and anti-hegemonic social movements that swept North America, Europe and parts of what was then called the Third World during the 1960s. The generational rebellion produced critiques of bourgeois modernism and what came to be called the ‘Old Left’ (Iggers, 1997: 98). In the realm of scholarship the shifts that emerged in affinity with wider developments surfaced only gradually, as a new generation of scholars came forward in the 1970s. As the records of feminist scholarship and subaltern studies would suggest, the currents are complex. But in the social sciences and history, culture was a watchword. In sociology, both popular culture (Gans, 1974) and the counterculture (Hall, 1978) received growing attention in the 1960s and 1970s, and the sociology of culture took off, most notably in the work of Richard Peterson (1976) on the production of culture, Howard S. Becker, Jr (1982) on art worlds and Raymond Williams’s (1982) overview from a Birmingham school perspective. The result is that sociology now theorizes and researches a wide range of cultural phenomena open to historical analysis (Chaney, 1994; Hall, Neitz, and Battani, 2003). Meanwhile, the work of anthropologists such as Clifford Geertz (1973) and Marshall Sahlins (1985) received broader attention outside their own discipline-Geertz because his emphasis on a verstehende ‘deep reading’ and ‘thick description’ tended to be appropriated over and against (or sometimes ignoring or embracing) his allusions to a systems theorization of culture (cf. Biernacki, 1999; Chartier, 1988: Ch. 4; Iggers, 1997: 126); Sahlins, because he began to explore intercultural relations in ways that emphasized historicity and contingency.

History took the cultural turn with as much force as most any discipline. From E.P. Thompson onward, social historians investigated the collectively meaningful (which is to say cultural) circumstances of social life and movement mobilization among the popular classes, and, increasingly, among dominated groups such as blacks and women. The Annales emphasis on mentalités and local history has its parallel in Carlo Ginzburg’s microhistory The Cheese and the Worms (1980 [1976]). And these studies share a broader palette of cultural history that emerged in the 1970s. Notably, Peter Burke (1978) linked social life and cultural repertoires by exploring topics such as the emergence of popular practices of consumption in early modern Europe, while Robert Darnton (1984) began to explore relationships between popular and high culture by looking at topics like the links established by seventeenth- and eighteenth-century servants and wet nurses as intermediaries among social strata. By the end of the decade, Lawrence Stone (1979) was announcing a ‘revival of narrative,’ which, mutatis mutandis, encompassed a greater sensitivity to issues of meaning, and therefore culture, than the structuralized social science history that had made its appearance in the 1960s. The following year, in the course of reviewing the seeming stagnation of intellectual history over and against the rise of social history, Darnton (1980) acknowledged (and statistically documented) the growing importance from the 1940s to the 1970s of a third force, cultural history, albeit as a genre of intellectual history (on the latter, see Wagner, this volume). This, however, was not quite what I will call the full cultural turn. It was a turn (or return) to culture as a theme of investigation, but framed within a practice that remained effectively historicist, and antagonistic to any philosophical reflection on history and its culture of inquiry.

The Full Cultural Turn

The full cultural turn had diverse roots beyond history—in linguistics, deconstruction, and phenomenological and poststructuralist critiques of structuralism. These intellectual developments consolidated new critiques of historical inquiry, but their significance remains open to debate. In some quarters, the 11 September 2001 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in the US are taken to signal an end to postmodern and postcolonial criticism. But to dismiss major currents of thought on the basis of events that call out for concerted public discussion would seem vaguely McCarthyesque and decidedly anti-intellectual. Debates about the significance of the full cultural turn for historical investigation will continue to fuel the cascade of cultural-historical studies.

Four interrelated points sketch the full cultural turn itself. Even if they cannot be reconciled with one another, all emerge in critical reaction to structuralism.6 First, the symbolic structuralist thesis that meaning is generated on the basis of binary oppositions becomes complicated by a more hermeneutic recognition that some oppositions (and meanings) are blurred. Second, Lévi-Strauss’s (1966 [1962]) structuralist opposition between diachrony and synchrony falls prey to phenomenological and deconstructionist consideratons of temporality (Hall, 1980; Wood, 1989), and to Bourdieu’s (1977) consideration of how agents play off of, and thereby destabilize, structures in the course of everyday life. Third, on the historicist side, the vaunted individual, as author and actor, dies (probably it is a case of murder), and in her place are inserted the discourses in which individuals partake. Fourth, the modernist assumption about specifiable relations between textual symbols and their relatively stable referents falls prey to rhetorical and deconstructionist critiques; in history, the narrative is held to lose its capacity to be ‘about’ any coherent object that exists outside its own textual structures (Cohen, 1986).

For cultural history, these shifts could be traced in relation to the third rail of modern historiography’s combinatory bipolar of historicism and (Annales style) structuralism, namely the hidden resistance of both to social theory. The appropriate version of theory to thematize here, I submit, is structuralist Marxism, most strongly advanced by Louis Althusser, with ‘tienne Balibar’ (1970 [1968]). Their work marks a radical break with historicism, with the conventional Marxist base-superstructure model that treats culture as epiphenomenal, and with atheoretical Annales historicist structuralism. Arguing that there is no single historical ‘present’ and no continuous historical time, Althusser rejects objective temporality as an ideological construction that obstructs the possibility of a scientific history. In its place, he theorizes a ‘totality’ comprised of diverse ‘levels’ (economic, political, scientific, and so on), each with its own historical time, its own historical ‘punctuations’ (transitions, breaks, revolutions), intersecting unevenly with other spheres, each thus developing on a relatively autonomous basis (Hall, 1980: 119-25). In Althusser’s formulation, there can be no ‘cultural history’ in any conventional sense, because there can be no history, at least as understood in conventional Enlightenment approaches that posit a temporal continuity of History as an object. The alternative that Althusser proposes presumably would locate culture in particular forms, for example ‘the historical forms of existence of individuality,’ but in keeping with Althusser’s general crusade against all things Hegelian, these forms could not be the subjects of history over chronological time, because they could not be posited as enduring transcendent ‘spirits.’

Althusser’s structuralist history profoundly challenges conventional practices, but the challenge is never really taken up. Quite to the contrary, the caricature of a structuralist clockwork animates ‘The Poverty of Theory or an Orrery of Errors’ (1978), E.P. Thompson’s intemperate and immensely entertaining savaging of Althusser. Yet Althusser arguably created the spectral ur-text that still haunts history by its radical theorizing of historicity. No longer is ‘the new’ in history circumscribed by the taking up of new topics, or the redefinition of history’s ontological subject. These sorts of revolutions merely constitute the ‘turning around’ of a durable historicism one that can absorb intellectual movements like the new social history or Annales structural history while retaining a basic resistance to either explicit theorizing or reflexive attention to the epistemology of the historian.

‘But what, really, is Althusser’s legacy?’ it may be asked. At the least, there is a lineage of ideas to be traced from Althusser to his student Michel Foucault (1970 [1966], 1972 [1969]), and to Michel de Certeau (1988 [1975]) even if neither Foucault nor de Certeau is a structuralist. Obviously, Foucault is important for the substantive genealogies he offered—of madness, prisons, sexuality, and for the theoretical underpinnings provided by the construct of discipline as power and knowledge, and their relation to what has come to be called govern mentality. And de Certeau both appreciates the substance of Foucault’s work and builds upon it, seeking to push beyond the knowledge disciplines by which the social is conventionally known to explore the historicity of everyday world events that elude the categories of knowledge designed to contain them (1984 [1980]; see also Frijhoff, 1999). Yet behind the substantive topics, and more fundamentally, both Foucault and de Certeau contributed to the full cultural turn, whereby history is destabilized as a rationally coherent story. In Certeau’s analysis, historical discourse is an intermediary that lies somewhere between narration and logical discourse, mixing the problems of ‘temporal sequence’ and ‘truth’ (1988 [1975]: 92-9). Foucault moves behind historical study that uses texts found in the archives to the study of how texts are themselves constitutive discourses that frame the world. In both Foucault and de Certeau, the deep basis of historicism—history as an evolving totality (whether of agents or structures)—evaporates (on Foucault, see Grumley, 1989: 186-7). History is displaced by an archival archaeology of discourses and found fragments, arranged in patterns by acts of the historian.

Of course the cultural turn cannot be encompassed by Foucault and de Certeau as tokens of it. The changes are as radical, but of much wider scope. Marshall Sahlins argues, for example, that no conventionalized generic model of historicity is adequate, for ‘different cultural orders have their own modes of historical action, consciousness, and determination their own historical practice’ (1985: 34). Facing a flood of such formulations, historians wonder how far to follow the full cultural turn. Thus, Georg Iggers observes, ‘although many historians have taken contemporary linguistic, semi-otic, and literary theory seriously, they have in practice not accepted the idea that the texts with which they work have no reference to reality’ (1997: 145). Yet this construction of the controversy seems like a red herring. Historians from Ranke onwards have hardly been naïve about the complex relations between artifacts and the analysis of history and Shiner (1969) has provided an acute formulation of the problem in phenomenological terms. How to establish ‘facts’ on the basis of artifacts is an enduring problem, but it ought not be construed as the central problem of the full cultural turn. Rather, as Hayden White (1973) emphasized already three decades ago, even if facts can be stipulated, even when texts are not quarantined from the spatio-temporal world, multiple rhetorical, analytic and narratological possibilities offer radically alternative ways of making sense of them.

Under the guiding star of Enlightenment historicism, it was a relatively straightforward matter to tend the garden of history by replacing old quadrants or adding new sections now demographic history, social history, the history of mentalités, and so forth. With the full cultural turn, hordes of gardeners are planting exotics and hybrids in squatter claim plots that used to belong to the larger garden of history. The gardening has become undisciplined, and there is no end in sight.

The Social Turn: Thousands of Flowers Bloom

Certainly the linguistic turn and the infusion of anthropological approaches have fed what Peter Burke (1997: Ch. 12) called the ‘varieties of cultural history.’ However, they are also a testament to a development often overlooked or misconstrued—a ‘social turn.’ Although the infusion of sociological approaches in history is often periodized in relation to the emergence of social history this narrative masks a longer-term process. In effect, though not always explicitly, the drift of historical analysis since the inception of social science disciplines in the nineteenth century has been toward increasing ‘sociological’ differentiation in the analysis of events and structures—involving love, work, entertainment, conflict, religious life, crime, manifold groups and organizations, in short, the social in its broadest dimensions and most robust processes. This longue-durée social turn is not evenly represented in all recent historical work on culture, but it has shaped historico-cultural studies along at least three dimensions—topical, methodological and theoretical. The topical shifts largely follow the trail of social history, while the methodological and theoretical changes are the paradoxical consequences of the full cultural turn. Considered as a whole, these developments mark out a new situation in which the term ‘cultural history’ no longer captures the diversity of historical analysis concerned with matters of culture.

Scholars like Tocqueville, Marx, Weber and the early members of the Annales brought history to a broader ‘sociological’ vision of the social qua subject of history. Later, although E.P. Thompson was averse to theorizing history, he and other social historians further opened history to what C. Wright Mills famously called the ‘sociological imagination’ that would explore relationships among people’s biographic trajectories, their social locations, their identities and their fortunes in relation to broad societal transformations centred in developments such as economic transformations, war and political upheaval. History construed in this way faced an archival challenge—that the record tended to be more robust for elites than for the popular classes. But social historians became quite creative in finding materials that cast new light on hitherto obscured social worlds.

Many recent historical studies retain this rich analytic exploration of the social, but in relation to a diverse range of cultural topics. To reckon this diversity, matters would be simpler if there were some straightforward, unambiguous definition of culture (Eley 1995; Sewell, 1999). In the rush to culture, however, the challenge is to avoid formulating a new irreducible construct that reifies and essentializes its object, rather than opening up more nuanced analysis (Biernacki, 1997). In this light, I invoke an open-ended definition that includes the high and low, the material and symbolic, by designating

culture as (1) ideas, knowledge (correct, wrong, or unverifiable belief) and recipes for doing things, (2) humanly fabricated tools (such as shovels, sewing machines, and computers), and (3) the products of social action that may be drawn upon in the further conduct of social life (an apple pie, a television set, or an interstate highway, for example). (Hall, Neitz, and Battani, 2003)

This definition is open to the possibility that culture is not unified, but, rather, clumpish, and differentially drawn into bricolages of ideas, tools and products by people in the course of their lives.

The New Topics

Understandably, once culture as coherent, systemic totality is deconstructed, the historical study of culture becomes a growth industry. To carry forward Darnton’s (1980) quantitative analysis a bit, we can employ the admittedly arbitrary criterion of whether book titles use the term ‘cultural history’—that is, how many authors have gravitated to the label—as a crude indicator of the expansion of cultural history as a genre. Basically, the number of such books increased by approximately 50 per cent from the 1970s to the 1980s, and another 50 per cent from the 1980s to the 1990s.7

In many of the recent studies, cultural history continues to provide the durable historicist basis for a metanarrative concerning a region, people or era. Sometimes authors cover all bets by offering a triumvirate of ‘political, social and cultural history.’ But there also has been explosive growth in very different topics. To name a few, we now have cultural histories of trees, publishing, destroyed buildings, science fiction, women writers, opera, horror movies, literary realism, sports, audiences, advertising, travel, memory, hallucinations (by Timothy Leary), hysteria, the philosophical concept of dualism, rumours, fashion, trade, war, race, menstruation, manhood, consumer credit, smell, law and jurisprudence, lipstick, ageing, gesture, disease, engineering, aesthetic surgery, love, stock-car racing, plastic, museums, tattooing, curiosity, bureaucracy and a number of these topics not in themselves but as treated in literature.

The range of topics stands as a reminder that culture can no longer be regarded as a coherent ‘system’—though questions remain of where and when cultures have been more coherent or less (Sewell, 1999). Just as social historians concerned themselves with groups and movements that tended to get left out of elite political history, now, especially given the sociological differentiation of strata, groups and publics, cultural histories explore a remarkable range of matters that go far beyond the summary charting of developments in art or literature or popular culture. Indeed, because culture is socially pervasive, there has been a shift from cultural history as the history of culture to the infusion of histories more generally with cultural analysis. Under these conditions, the possible investigations far exceed the available cadre of scholars to carry them out, and choices of topic depend on some criterion of selection. As Hunt warns, citing Franéois Furet and Robert Darnton, ‘a cultural history defined topically could degenerate into an endless search for new cultural practices to describe, whether carnivals, cat massacres, or impotence trials’ (1989: 9). Thus, without gainsaying the importance of other topics, it is worth identifying research agendas in the rising tide of publications that hold particular potential to yield important new historical understandings. I will briefly note three such agendas.

One particularly fruitful cluster of topics concerns cognitive culture—encompassing cultural studies of science, reason, knowledge, morality, religion and art. Margaret Somers… 1996) advances this agenda by pursuing a ‘historical epistemology’ to demonstrate that a fundamental category by which scholars make sense of the world—citizenship—is freighted with historical baggage that occludes embracing deeper and more communal possibilities of citizenship. In a similar vein, Mary Poovey (1998) explores how a basic category of modern knowledge—the numerical ‘fact’ became privileged over direct experience. Painting a broader canvas, Randall Collins (1998) employs a comparative approach to the problem of how knowledge is socially constructed; for a wide range of cases from ancient China and India to the present, he identifies how patterns of social interaction yield networks of philosophy. In other studies, Halttunen, Perry and their colleagues (1998) explore moral problems in American life; Guthke (1999) charts gendered personifications of death; and Dooley (1999) traces the rise of scepticism in seventeenth-century Europe. Overall, studies in the broad cognitive-culture agenda begin to unveil structures and habits by which knowledge and meaning themselves are historically constituted.

A second broad agenda concerns inequality. Of course class conflict is a staple of social histories. And much recent research studies class, race and gender in order to gain a sense of people’s lived experiences. In the study of inequality and experiences of it, historical studies of culture have a great deal to contribute. For example, by employing ‘contract’ as a metaphor for the structuration of social relations, Carol Pateman (1988) investigates patriarchy in relation to other social forms indentured servant, slave and worker—to yield a powerful basis for unmasking fundamental cultural features of the social order. Joan Scott (1988) and Sonya Rose (1997) explore gender by way of historical cultural analysis, especially in relation to class, work and identity. On a different front, subaltern studies scholars and others have focused on the cultural aspects of domination and the configurations of modernity wrought of the colonial encounter (Chakrabarty, 2000; Prakash, 2001). In these and other studies, power and domination are no longer solely material relations; they are inscribed by their cultural manifestations.

This brings us to a third emergent subject, public culture, which connects a rich array of themes, from eroticism, cultural performance and display to the public sphere and citizenship. On the first front, Lynn Hunt (1991) and her collaborators have brought the human body and the body politic into conjunction via investigations of reproduction, caricature and pornography. In The Place of the Stage, Steven Mullaney (1988) explores a genealogy of performance that moves from the public spaces at the margins of Elizabethan England to consider cultural practices such as parades and displays. This Foucauldian theme is brought forward in different ways by Tony Bennett (1994), Donna Haraway (1994) and Barbara Benedict (2001). Yet public display is not only a matter of power-disciplined exhibition. By comparing centennials and bicentennial celebrations, historical sociologist Lyn Spillman (1997) exposes cultural invocations of national identity. Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi (1997) uses Walter Benjamin’s analysis of the aestheticization of politics under fascism to explore the cultural framing of power under Mussolini in Italy. As these studies emphasize, public culture is imposed, contested and negotiated. Here, the legacy of critical theory is obvious. Already, in 1962 Jürgen Habermas (1989) had argued in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere that the public enactment of political dialogue is historically contingent. Whatever one makes of Habermas’s thesis, it has been a rich inspiration for subsequent critiques (Eley, 1994) and historical research (for example, Zaret, 2000).

The agendas concerned with cognitive culture, inequality and public culture do not exhaust the important synthetic directions (which would certainly include culture and economy, for example), but collectively, they suggest that the historico-cultural studies do more than catalogue the exotic, the quaint and the transgressive. By now, research concerned with culture has expanded into virtually every cranny of history’s mansion. Within and beyond the curiosity cabinet, it yields new insights about fundamental questions concerning who ‘we’ are and can be.


Traditionally, historians have shunned explicit methodological considerations in favour of construing their work as what Marc Bloch called a craft, centrally concerned with archival analysis and historiographic criticism. This stance fitted well within the practice of historicism, in which the spectre of methodology threatened a kind of formalism where important specificities might be lost simply because they did not come through the mesh imposed by a particular investigative regimen. The cultural turn both reinforced and challenged this anti-methodological position.

On the one hand, deconstruction of history in the hands of White, Cohen and de Certeau can be read as undermining any rationalist claims for historical knowledge, by revealing arbitrary bases of its construction. Moreover, hermeneutic and interpretative strands of cultural analysis have always been resistant to formalization, and this resistance tends to be reinforced by deconstructionist claims that every reading of a text is recursively subject to its own multiple readings. This leaves no firm ground on which to stand. Ironically, historicism is reinforced in its virtues. However, the historicist object of analysis is upgraded. Thus, Stephen Greenblatt (1982) champions ‘New Historicism’ as an approach that rejects both ahistorical (typically structuralist and post structuralist) textual criticism and the old historicism concerned with metanarratives of literature and their times. In their place, the New Historicism celebrates rich elaboration of the often serendipitous connections between historically embedded literature and the social milieux where given literary works circulate. Methodologically, Stephen Greenblatt and Catherine Gallagher (2000: 19) affirm, the New Historicism embraces deep interpretative engagement with their subjects, and they would deem any effort to formalize method as sign of failure.

Yet this claim seems too coy, for the New Historicism makes a methodological as well as a topical shift. One of the central dilemmas of cultural history concerns how to connect culture with historical processes while avoiding the temptation to essentialize a given cultural phenomenon as having a life of its own (Burke, 1997: 184-91; Hall, 1990). True virtuosi at cultural analysis have been able to come to a solution that avoids both metanarrative and formalization. How do they do so? By ferreting out enough evidence on a variety of fronts to portray broad cultural shifts convincingly, as a rich but not necessarily coherent tapestry. Thus, in Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (1998), Karen Halttunen charts a decisive cultural shift in American understandings of murder. In an eighteenth-century world where violence was a more central part of life, this most heinous of crimes was the occasion for sermons that treated it as the most visible and disturbing sign of the ultimate depravity and sinfulness of all human beings. But by the nineteenth century, public narratives about murder shifted from the genre of sermon to accounts of crime and its investigation. These accounts allowed their audiences both to sublimate pain, and to experience the horror and mystery of it vicariously, by obsessively consuming fictional detective novels and highly dramatized newspaper accounts of trials.Murder Most Foul achieves its compelling force on the basis of the far-flung details that Halttunen marshals to her thesis—points such as the change from eight-sided coffins to rectangular ones that obscured the shape of the human body. By drawing together diverse yet relevant observations, Halttunen convinces that she is pointing to a substantial cultural shift that resonates on multiple fronts of American life. This resolution to the dilemma of historicism, resistant though it may be to methodological formalization, involves a methodological innovation that effectively jettisons metanarrative as the study of a cultural object with a life of its own.

Though it is seldom acknowledged, the full cultural turn also has its explicit methodological side. Foucault’s proposal for an archaeology of knowledge was a methodological innovation that paved the way for the study of embedded discourses. In turn, once inquiry is construed as a cultural practice, it is problematic either to claim to inoculate any particular practice from methodological scrutiny or to privilege a given practice on the basis of its supposed methodological superiority. All inquiry proceeds under one form or another of ‘impure reason.’ Pursued to its conclusion, this view makes it possible to identify a series of alternative methodological approaches that can be directed to the historical study of culture (Hall, 1999). And indeed, sociological approaches provide alternatives to Halttunen’s post-historicist solution, by structuring historical inquiry via explicit methodology. Thus, Wendy Griswold (1986) charted the revival productions of Elizabethan plays over centuries, as a way of tapping into questions about the resonance of texts with audiences under changing historical circumstances. The opposite explicit strategy—of tracing back the sources of cultural forms—can be found in my study of the 1978 mass suicide of Jim Jones’s Peoples Temple. Gone from the Promised Land (1987) was subtitled ‘Jonestown in American cultural history.’ But the approach was not to fit Peoples Temple within a metanarrative about the ‘promised land’; rather, by use of ideal-types, I charted the cultural sources, genealogies, mutations and temporal and social conduits of Temple cultural motifs and practices, and the emergent construction of ‘revolutionary suicide.’ The methodological strategy of this study seeks to connect culture directly to the historically embedded social interactions by which it comes into play. Culture is traced in the situated invocations, revivals and improvisations by people who work on, and through, culture.

Theoretical Controversies

The full cultural turn disabuses scholars of the premise that they can engage in theory-free analysis. In the wake of this development, the social turn necessarily involves reconsideration and redeployment of theory. Thus, some scholars now seem more willing to invoke explicit models through which to consider relations between culture and historicities. In a particularly bold move, Lynn Hunt uses a Freudian metaphor to explore the French political unconscious at work in what she calls The Family Romance of the French Revolution (1992). Hunt is careful to distance her study from any universalistic application of Freudian theory; as she emphasizes, the romances played out in multiple ways. But Freud’s model sheds light on everything from the assassination of Louis XVI to the status of women in the revolutionary aftermath. On a different front, but also in France, Catherine Kudlick draws on Foucault’s analyses of disciplines and power to thematize her investigation, Cholera in Post Revolutionary Paris (1996). These studies, beyond their specifics, signal the possibilities of using theory explicitly. For culture, there are rich traditions upon which to draw, ranging from the work of Freud, Weber, Durkheim, Gramsci, Benjamin, the Frankfurt school and Bourdieu’s more recent sociological consolidation of a theory of cultural capital, to theories of texts, myth and narrative originating in the work of scholars such as Saussure, Bakhtin, Barthes and Ricoeur. All that is required is for scholars to overcome the cultural lag incumbent in the notion that theory is inherently totalizing—a view that might describe the work of Talcott Parsons in the 1960s or Louis Althusser in the 1970s, but which completely misses both the post-positivist turn in social theory and the increasingly nuanced ways that historical sociologists use ‘deep analogies’ to ferret out embedded social and cultural processes rather than subsuming whole cases under grand theories (Stinchcombe, 1978).

Theoretical work in historico-cultural inquiry is also driven by particular controversies. The broadest such controversy concerns the primacy of discourse versus practices, and the relations of culture in either conception to social processes. Bryan Palmer (1990) reacted with horror at the prospect of a discursive turn in which the very possibility of writing history would founder on a putative divide between texts and ‘reality.’ But in actual research, studying discourses in history has proven a rich way to link a narrower intellectual history with a broader cultural history, by identifying ‘thought worlds’ in which people at various times and places have participated. Even a cursory list is impressive. William Sewell (1980) explored the symbolic character of labourers’ political consciousness in late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century France. Gareth Stedman Jones (1983) studied how language shaped the working-class agenda in England during the Chartist movement. And Keith Baker (1990) investigated, among other matters, how the word ‘revolution’ came to have the political significance in France that would make a modern revolution a meaningful occurrence.

What is the relation between discourse and historical process? And indeed, is the discursive model an adequate basis for general cultural analysis? Taking up the former question, Robert Wuthnow (1989) has compared the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment and the socialist movement in Europe, to explore the structural conditions and social processes under which new ideas articulated with the broad audiences that embraced them. Zeroing in on such processes, Marc Steinberg (1999) proposes to bridge the analytic gap between materialist and discursive approaches by using a ‘dialogic perspective’ to analyse ‘discourses of contention’ among silk weavers and cotton spinners in early nineteenth-century England (see also Ansell, 1997; Kane, 2000). Yet for all the attention to discourse, neither its poststructuralist nor hermeneutic variant has received universal embrace as a general basis on which to model culture. To the contrary, it is easy enough to think of culture (for example, visu-ality) that cannot be reduced to discursive analysis. Even for kinds of culture in which symbolic meaning is obviously central, its relation to social action remains undertheorized, and its historicity opaque. For this reason, Bourdieu (1977 [1972]) emphasizes practice over discourse, and a broadly phenomenological approach thematizes the interplay between cultural structures and meaningful action (Hall, 1990, 2000). In turn, tracing the historicity of culture in concrete phenomena helps researchers overcome the false analytic divide between discourse and practice. Thus, Roger Chartier (1989) brings issues of text and reading into a dynamic understanding of circulation and appropriation of the printed word. And Richard Biernacki argues for analysing the pragmatic relations that emerge between discursive signs and practices, so as to move away from a purely discursive notion of culture without, however, counterposing ‘corporeal’ practice as a binary opposite that is inaccessible and essentially dissimilar to language (2000: 309).

Taken together, the proliferation of cultural topics, the anti-formalist as well as the more explicit methodological developments, and the emergent theoretical controversies suggest the contours of an emergent situation. ‘Cultural history’ as a genre no longer encompasses historical explorations of culture in their variety. After the full cultural turn, in the midst of the longue durée of the social turn, the historical study of culture becomes subject to a proliferation of research agendas, methodologies and theoretical approaches that construe culture no longer only as a temporally continuous totality or quasi-coherent ‘system,’ but in the most diverse moments and sites of lived activity.


Through the cultural turn has come a new phase of the long-wave social turn, where culture, no longer floating freely, no longer drifting across time, is connected to concrete episodes in which people create and deploy, disseminate and adopt or transform cultural products and meanings in their practices of life—from specialized culture worlds of theatre, art, philosophy, religion and ideology to the worlds of everyday life where, as Erving Goffman and Michel de Certeau remind us, different kinds of theatre, ritual and practice are carried out. Matters would be simpler if culture could somehow be contained within some narrow definition or theoretical framework, or if, in the old historicist fashion, it could be ‘naturalized’ as a self-evident topic of historical treatment. But these days, it cannot. Applying Randall Collins’s investigation of sequences in the historical development of knowledge to historico-cultural analysis itself suggests that we live in an era of reflexivity about the intellectual operations that create knowledge. Describing such circumstances, Collins observes, ‘The search for problems, for energizing points of attention and contention, which is the life of intellectual networks, has turned to exposing the inner truth claims of the various specialized branches to the alternative perspectives of different branches’ (1998: 876-7). This development is hardly the threat to scholarship sometimes proclaimed. As Bonnell and Hunt suggest, ‘Ironically,’ the anti-positivist cultural studies movement has revived one of the great dreams of nineteenth-century positivism: a grounds for making different branches of knowledge mutually intelligible, if not mutually transparent (1999: 25-6)

Studies of culture in recent years have broken down boundaries of disciplinary turf. Now, manifold approaches and fields vie with one another for intellectual capital and cultural significance. The discipline of history, like other modern fields, has been pulled apart by the reflexivity of cultural analysis. When the dust settles from the turf battles and the dismemberment, what remains? Historicity, as a basic ontological and phenomenological given, frames the problem of understanding culture. But once the unity of history is abandoned as a temporal object, ‘culture’ has no history. Instead, we are at the threshold of a far more promising era of inquiry. The entire range of problems in socio-historical inquiry from emotion and identity, household and community life, sociability and play, to religion, ethnic conflict, economic life, bureaucratic organization, state formation and social movements—are subject to synthetic analyses that treat cultural phenomena in social terms, and not just by incorporation of explanatory ‘factors’ or causal ‘variables’ that remain ‘unmusical’ concerning meaningful nuances of culture. Matters would be simpler if there were some single approach, theory, discipline or interdisciplinary venue within which the historical projects of this new era could be pursued. But we bear the fate of living in more interesting times, when the vitality of historico-cultural investigations will depend on intercultural communication among diverse practitioners, using methodologies often alien to one another, considering subjects that matter beyond disciplines.