Political vs. Social: A Brief Overview of the ‘History Wars’

Traditional narrative histories of Canada were highly political and economic in focus. Historians writing in the first-half of the twentieth century were generally preoccupied with exploring the role of white, Anglo-Saxon male elites in a grand nation-building context. Men appeared in national histories as universal and almost genderless subjects, whereas women, children, non-white Europeans, and Indigenous peoples were often marginalized or completely overlooked. In the 1960s, many historians in Canada turned away from political and economic narratives to investigate the past using methods of inquiry that were first developed in Europe. The rise of ‘new social history’ provided scholars the tools to revisit the past in an attempt to return a measure of agency and voice to peoples and groups that had gone ignored, but there were those who preferred to maintain the status quo. In today’s post we examine the emergence of social inquiry to the professional historical scene in Canada, and the so-called ‘History Wars’ that broke out as a result.

Professional history as practiced by Canadian scholars in the early twentieth century used political and economic narratives to create a past that was accessible to a wide variety of readers. Creating a version of Canadian history that was easy to interpret and appreciate meant focusing on stories that explained how European settlers to northern North America were able to establish, grow and maintain the Dominion of Canada. The formation of a nation was the primary focus of such history, and subsequently certain peoples and groups were highlighted over others. White male elites who figured predominantly in government and economic life became the central figures in Canadian history. It was this basic deficiency that social historians began to challenge in the 1960s, when a movement towards inclusiveness attempted to move away from top-down, elitist narratives that focused primarily on privileged white European settlers. Social historians sought to revisit the past rather than re-write the past, attempting to return agency and voice to those peoples and groups that had been marginalized and ignored in favour of the dominant European, nation-building settler.

Between the 1960s and 1990s, social historians in Canada began to challenge the assumptions of their predecessors. Incorporating theoretical perspectives into their histories, such as feminism, Marxism, literary theory, and postcolonial theory, social historians were able to illuminate stories and issues in Canadian history that had long been ignored. Gary Kinsman’s The Regulation of Desire: Sexuality in Canada (1987) was a ground-breaking study that introduced scholars to the concept of social construction. Taken up by post-modernists, social construction was used as a means of understanding societal hierarchies, where identifying categories were understood by historians to have been actively 'made' by dominant social groups employing moral regulation to sustain control and retain their 'place' in a societal hierarchy that was not 'real'. We have previously examined post-modernist theory on Clio’s Current, but for our purposes today it’s important to understand that social historians borrowed interdisciplinary analytical tools to improve the investigative techniques of their study. Using theory as a means to examine the past, social historians became better equipped to challenge both the work of political and economic historians as well as their methods of historical inquiry.

One of the most influential theorists to make a mark on professional history in addition to Kinsman was Michel Foucault, who emphasized the material body and the discourses of power. His work was extremely influential on histories written during the 1990s. Historians who employed Foucauldian theory, placed power at the centre of private relations. Using Foucault’s 'heterosexual power matrix,' historians further deconstructed the “made” societal hierarchies that were isolated by Kinsman’s work. Societal categories such as class, gender and race were thus accepted by many historians as categories that were not “real,” but were nonetheless used by certain societal factions to enforce elite and non-elites roles. In this light, childhood, adolescence, marriage, and parenthood were also understood to be fluid rather than universal concepts.  

Theory is used by social historians as a means to uncover individuality, but so too is more traditional modes of historical investigation. Thanks to oral history and memory reconstitution, the hushed voices of the past became more audible. By the turn of the twentieth century, historians had begun to collect and use memories of people who were born and who lived in the early to mid-1900s to infer patterns about familial living and societal life. Memory histories often emphasized the material, class-delineated boundaries that were isolated by social construction and power theory, but they also debunked the myth of a universal class, gender and ethnic experience.

Various modes of historical inquiry that allowed social historians to explore avenues ignored by others, were not welcomed by all. Many historians in Canada preferred grand nation-building narratives that favoured the collective experience over the individual, and argued that political and economic histories are better suited to explain Canadian history in the mainstream. Thus, from the 1960s to the 1990s, professional historians in Canada fought over contested space, arguing in publication about modes of inquiry and investigation. This clash that initiated between political and social historians is commonly referred to as the ‘History Wars.’

To be clear, the ‘History Wars’ should not be dichotomized. Although social historians initiated the challenge against the dominant works produced by their political counterparts, professional history developed in late-twentieth century Canada to be practiced by a range of historians who employ various analyses that often use but extend beyond political and/or social methods of investigation. Today, many historians in Canada and elsewhere recognize and value the importance of diversity, where political, economic, social, and a range of other investigative methods are used explore and develop a more nuanced understanding of the past.

Contemporary Canadian historians construct narratives that are more inclusive and better representative of the peoples that they investigate, regardless of ethnic and sexual orientation. Political and economic histories remain relevant, but it is important to note that they no longer hold a monopoly on Canadian historical studies. Clio’s Current attempts to introduce readers to the value of historical perspective, and thanks to our predecessors we acknowledge that historical inquiry must continuously be challenged.