Historiography: Narrative

The question of narrative is whether it constrains and dominates historical discourse, forcing into preset paths, or whether it is nothing but a matter of style within a dominant history scheme.
The issue is of concern to all communication: the change from apparent external reality into the means of perception and communication to represent that reality to another (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 41). It even starts with biological feelings and their internal inconsistency and the communicability of a grunt that must be facilitated into ordered, recognisable, followable communication (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 49). That communication actually first is, as such, sent to the self because we need to own the symbolic communication used in order to present a confident self to ourself and to others. As regards the communicating, the baby just cries, with indeed a lack of self and lack of self-consciousness, but even with the adult and self-confidence and words no one can be sure on their own whether the subjectivity of experience will be recognised by another.
The way they become recognised, at least in collective general terms of understanding, is through codes. Codes are the carriers and to communicate parties need to know the codes in their system up front. Codes are like packets indicating what the information is inside, who they are for, and what will happen to them (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 42). A metaphorical equivalent might be the Transmission Control Protocol of the Internet: packets that safely deliver sections of a message. Codes intend to impress as if a glass surface to the external reality, but the problem is that they do have a life of their own in terms of them as a sub-system of language and culture and being successful communicants. The sense of glass is their illusion: it turns out more to be a painting following rules of representation and then of a reality behind the canvas, if that is a place of reality at all. The need for understood rules is because the receiver needs to be ahead of the game, to be set up to receive, and anticipate forms of the message, and be able to give response. So there are cues and clues. Inevitably this means constraint: channelling. The benefit is modes of discourse for an impersonal (as well as personal) speech community. One such is the academic history community, meaning styles and standards of performance in the communication used, which is a sub-community of the many sub-communities sharing and differing in codes of communication, and these are the data for the historian.
It gets more complex in that history (like cultural and social anthropology) has to deal in translating codes of their subjects into the codes of the discipline. This means perhaps official documents and how they say what they say; or arguably more interesting the ways of communication and speech however deposited of ordinary communities and their own textured meanings (see White in Green, Troup, 2000, 229). So there is a task of producing a historical narrative away from the narrative rules of the source data, and the issue must be how well one community (historians) can do this task of translation.
Further complication is that many individuals in the wider community transfer between types and rules of speech, in the home, workplace, friends and in methods of writing. We do not write emails like we write letters to friends, and these are certainly unlike academic essays. Web pages seem to be more informal than the academic, but several styles are emerging there too from the short newsy focussed to personal-private (yet public) meanderings to the near academic in development and rigour. One person, and several in a community, can follow different speech rules. One feature of class is the fewer modes of discourse available lower down the class hierarchy due to restricted codes, a matter of acute interest to middle class educated teachers trying to communicate with children from every home (See Bernstein, 1974, in Halsey et al., 1997). The class analysis asks fundamental questions of what is a good education, standards of writing - whose standards - and how to measure results of cognition. The double paged spread pictures and effectively bullet points of information are also of restricted codes and over summarised narrative within contemporary school history textbooks.
Communication in codes works through tropes. A trope is a means of extension - this is like another - in order to enhance understanding and do so by connecting a simple expression with a world of meaning. Speech acts so lead into the wider culture. Tropes are also a proof that language is not like a sheet of glass through to reality but constructs reality by associations across our world views. The irreducible four are metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche and irony. If they are so basic then the question arises whether they do not govern the basic way the mind thinks. This is a form of linguistic phenomenology in the mind structure (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 50). It is useful to summarise tropes in general at this point.
  • Metaphor is extension by connecting the otherwise apparently unrelated, a similarity forced despite a difference (language is not like a sheet of glass, a flavour of French)
  • Metonymy is relationship through direct association, some attribute, cause or effect of the thing for the thing itself (who wears the trousers here)
  • Synecdoche is a form of metonymy (some argue there is no difference) showing relationship through categorical hierarchy of the same (She moved to the Silver Screen, i.e. cinema)
  • Irony is use of a binary opposite which adolescents use for a sophistication display, adults use occasionally for humour or more frequently for detachment or scepticism, and constantly for nihilism and relativism. Irony is not a lie, because it has true intent. You only know when irony is being displayed by some sort of after reflection.
(See Green, Troup, 1999, 208)
Particular tropes can be linked to historical periods like epistemological guidelines for the way people think in a time period. They are also about historiographical genres (Hayden White). It all seems entirely speculative, unreliable and therefore open to contention. Historians may use several tropes (Green, Troup, 1999, 207).
What is more important is the implication of having narrative. Documentary sources do not provide their own starting point, or finishing point. All history is part of a bigger history and histories. Somewhere the historian has to make a start and may be tempted to provide a neat conclusion (See Green, Troup, 1999, 209). The in between has to be the substantive middle and lead from the start to the finish.
The question is whether this is any different from an historical novel (Green, Troup, 2000, 206; see White in Green, Troup, 2000, 215). One may be based in fiction and one in fact, but in terms of their literary structure there may be no difference between them. Perhaps academic history has to make itself dryer and keep referring to sources, but many a popular history in the library is just a good read. The reader is not aware of the historiographical nature of the work, but if the narrative reads like a good story then it probably is one. History is made neat and tidy, running like a good plot, when perhaps instead it charts people doing things as they turn up on the table.
Harold MacMillan, the 1950's British leader, said politics is "Events, dear, Events" and this may be all there is to politics, but historians of it find strands and themes and from this may come a good narrative. A biography and autobiography produce a narrative looking back from the point of writing or death. Inevitably narrative is selective in content and linkage. History like social and cultural anthropology produces a faction of a result, and readers should beware.
This is even more so when historians produce academic or literate or good story material which connects up the lives of ordinary people who speak and think in their ways. The translations of symbolic codes from one mileau to another are even more tested, and when the historical narrative is created then one narrative has replaced another. Perhaps, though, against this, there are emes, basic units of information and behaviour (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 135), that can be passed on and represented through time.
The historian then is not simply a teller of their tales but an analyst of historical forces, deterministic or otherwise, and the forces may exist nowhere else than in the word constructions of the historian's tale. The translation is successful when the historian through time, like the anthropologist in space, has learnt the tropes being used by the source community.
However, the likelihood is something created within the translation, the forming of new tropes that are part of the ever expanding subtlety of language, so that an act of translation is an act of creation. (see Rapport, Overing, 2000, 50)
If all this is so, then it raises the question of relativism (Green, Troup, 1999, 209). If an historical essay can be like an historical novel just by looking, and the processes that are involved in creating an historical essay are such to make something fictive, then where is the truth? It might be a question of trust, but this is in the writer not the material, and gets the reader little further, but trust means the writer declaring the rhetorical devices this particular author displays. This means declaring the interest, the starting point, the finishing point, the methodologies, the construction as technique, and accepting the particularity of the result. The result falls within a language game that legitimises history, and the community of historians adds its own relativity. Historians within that choose (Green, Troup, 1999, 211)
This is the argument that makes history one of the arts than a science (Green, Troup, 1999, 206). The opposing case is simply that a fictive process is not dominant, and that tropes are subservient not dominant to the transmission of reality, and discourse does not govern the reporting of experiences (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 123). Historians can stay close to their sources, and they can expand the narrative breadth to take in analyses whilst pushing the consistency of a story to its boundaries (Green, Troup, 1999, 211). This is like the anthropologist's interpretive pluralism (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 290). Awareness and exposing of the narrative form helps in a return to simpler history.
A good example of narrative is Michael Wood's BBC series In Search of Shakespeare in 2003 described as a "historical detective story" (BBC 2003a). It is commonly accepted that little solid is known about Shakespeare especially in his early years (Wood, 2003a) and how his plays and poetry came to be written, and much is suspicious due to Shakespeare's humble background, and although he certainly looked at historical resources Wood took an orthodox view of Shakespeare as the origin of the plays, and followed in his apparent footsteps. But these fragments and possibilties were presented as a solid narrative. It was good television with a sense of walking through time and space, and anticipating the next stage and the issues and themes taken. As soon as the narrative is exposed the community of writers and their political edge comes forward further. This was indeed a dangerous group of some Catholic sympathies, concerned to communicate the richness of life at several levels of society including the political, to entertain and inform, and to expand the language of the day newly bursting in its possibilities. In the end the plays and poetry are just what they are, and perhaps Michael Wood's history was a prime pump to the heritage industry to the so called Shakespeare country (Warwickshire, but properly extended to London).
In the end there is a central point about narrative, and its inescapable presence at the very beginning of doing history. It is that each one of us self-mediates a narrative history of ourselves (Rapport, Overing, 2000, 286), a fluid changing identity and self-determination. This is despite intertextuality at a collective level (Green, Troup, 2000, 289). The historian just continues putting the product of their narrative making - what they do and who the are - into a historical narrative.
Here is the rub: if at one time historians wondered just how valid are historical novels in producing reliable history, now it is as if the historian when producing an essay is doing little other than producing another historical novel!

Some Personalities

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

Adrian Worsfold


BBC (2003a), In Search of Shakespeare [Online], BBCi, Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/programmes/shakespeare/ [Accessed September 1, 2003, 21:40].

Bernstein, B. (1975), Class, Codes and Control, Vol. 3, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 116-156, in Halsey, A. H. et al. (1997), 59-79.

Green, A., Troup, K. (eds.) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 204-213.

Halsey, A. H., Lauder, H., Brown, P., Wells, A. S. (eds.) (1997), Education: Culture, Economy and Society, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McCullagh, C. B. (1998), The Truth of History, London: Routledge.

Rapport, N., Overing, J. (2000), Social and Cultural Anthropology: The Key Concepts, London: Routledge, 41-51, 236-245, 283-290.

White, H. (1973), Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth Century Europe, Baltimore, cited in Green, Troup, 2000.

White, H. (1976), 'The Fictions of Factual Representation' in Fletcher, A. (ed.) (1976), The Literature of Fact, Columbia University Press, 21-44, in Green, Troup, 2000, 214-229.

Wood, M. (2003a), The Shakespeare Paper Trail: Documenting the Early Years, Looking for Clues, Page 1 of 5, BBCi [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/art/shakespeare_early_01.shtml [Accessed Septermber 1, 2003, 21:55].

Wood, M (2003b), The Shakespeare Paper Trail: Documenting the Early Years: Find out more, Page 5 of 5, BBCi [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/society_culture/art/shakespeare_early_05.shtml [Accessed Septermber 1, 2003, 21:50].