Historiography: Annales Approaches

The Annales approaches attempt a fuller more whole and complex (total) ways to doing history, with a stress on society, and a dissolving of boundaries between disciplines. The idea is that by broadly giving away the narrowness of the discipline (compared certainly with empiricism) the discipline grows in importance as a perspective on reality. History rises compared with other disciplines. Areas looked at include culture, economics, political elites certainly but lower classes apparently giving legitimacy to elites, folk-understanding, geography, perception in the mind and even quantitative matters. (Green, Troup, 1999, 87-88)
We might look at the history of Jesus, for example. As well as seeking out the Christian and non-Christian documents, an Annales approach would seek what to know and by how in a holistic fashion. So it would need to examine the boundaries of believing at the time. It would look at the supernaturalist, expectant culture of foreign occupation at the edge of the Roman Empire, one which drew a mythic history from well known texts. Context is vital to any looking at documents. What might have been the inner state of Jesus' mind, those of his followers and the early institutions, that derives from the environment and specifically the geography? These enquiries would be vital to look into Paul's motivations, for example, and connect his inner understanding with the environment around. It would also be interested in the social-economy of the time and trends.
Another approach might be to understand India as a place of heat and weather extremes, and therefore the religions and organisations that match: where coming back to live again in rebirth is about suffering. Caste is ordering society in terms of the difficulty of living, so there is the pollution purity polarity. In this framework can be understood Indian events, and later with Empire there is the British layer on top and much is understood in part by the shrinking of time and space by its transforming railways. An example would be the motivations of Gandhi and the Salt Protest. These might be seen as important contributive determinants of events.
This then is the history of the cultural environment in a time, without and within, of searching out many more clues to develop a rounded picture. If we think of time not as objective but experienced, then it is the experience that matters. Geography is about experience. Annales includes an understanding that time moves at different rates depending on what is being researched. History has generally looked at fast moving events in the political sphere, but other explanatory changes move at slower paces, for example economic cycles cover longer periods and geographical change is very slow. These latter areas add crucial explanation and a total view to the traditional concerns of history. (Green, Troup, 1999, 88-89). The same is true with space, e.g. the Global Village. After all, history is about recalling its actual understanding, which means experience. Thus there is a link between culture and the mind, and working out the processes by which events move on and change.
The more-than-suspicion for some is that these areas of outcomes are manifestations of a deeper logic at work, thus of the deep structuralism which is claimed to be in the mind, in language and in culture. A key idea is the binary opposite, a fundamental of contrast as objectively grounded (language and mathematics meet), but another is the directly related fundamental ability (hard wiring) to use language and its condition, whatever the actual spoken tongues (hot opposing cold, to get contrasted meaning, is available in any tongue). Here again history links with social science, and additionally linguistics and philosophy, whereas Annales has also linked with geography and social anthropology.
There seem to be different strands here and there are. The examples above are imaginary applications in an attempt to elucidate method. It is important, however, to recognise that the Annales School is very much a French perspective, a history in itself and one of trends itself, where the movement switched emphasis and had its own twists and turns. To describe the Annales movement with accuracy is to describe what it did at any one time.
The movement shifted from opposing positivism and Empiricism and the political history of great men and wars (late 1920s to World War 2) starting with geography, culture with social anthropology, social relations and belief to becoming focussed (after World War 2 to 1960s revolutions) on geography and the different appreciations on time which included the middle speed time of social and economic structures and long term changes and trends drawing in quantitative elements. Economic and structural trends soon became a narrower focus in this period, and thus history became linear, positivist to detail and problem solving rather than seeking a loftier grander overview. whilst historical data was always important it had come to the fore. Then there was a shift away from such close objectivity to culture and meaning like Durkheim, Marx and psychology and symbolisms (1970s to the present) with a new turn into mentalities and anthropology. People at their level and their own ideas became important again over systems. So the Annales school had softened and broadened, bringing to the fore perceptions. Mentalities and their understanding bridges between the objective culture and subjective mind - with huge parallels here between this and the social sciences (the human within society, society within the human, or rational and non-rational individual action inside the market economy system). Historical events windowed on to wider themes, while surrounding matters like climate added understanding to events. The most recent trend in Annales might be a great diversity of themes and approaches.
These trends differ and connect back. They do show an attitude of totality which has meant the movement evolving over time itself according to how academic trends are going. First there was a radicalism attacking the likes of Ranke's method; then a more collectivist rational systematic approach took place rather like the mass society of the time and structuralism; and then came something more cultural, linguistic and individualistic that is more like plural liberalism and with poststructuralism and postmodern society of material specialisations it seems like Annales history is going to become stretched and varied.
It is quite a theoretical approach typical of France (compare with philosophy) and seems continental European. The British, in contrast, have tended to be more empirical.

Some Personalities

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 87-97.