History of History Workshop

What is History For?

To mark the official launch of the History Workshop Online website, Jorma Kalela, the author of a new book entitled Making History: The Historian and Uses of the Past, gives his thoughts on how History Workshop ideals might be relevant in the 21st century.

History Workshop was born in the 1960s, when ’the cultural revolution … was seemingly carrying all before it’, as its ‘father’ Raphael Samuel wrote on the 25th anniversary in 1991.  As exemplified by Ruskin College, the initiative was in the first place an attempt ‘to replace the hierarchical relationship of tutor and pupil by one of comradeship in which each became, in some sort, co-learners’.  The times of its ‘homeland’, adult education, were characterized by the establishment of the Open University (1966).  Politically, History Workshop was ‘shaped by a series of left-wing stirrings’, among them the student revolt of 1968, and a new phase in the women’s movement[1].

The times of the middle-aged History Workshop are different.  The present situation is characterized, on one hand, by a strong and hopeful tendency that has not been given the attention it deserves, and on the other, by a gloomy perspective that reached its starkest appearance, so far, in the riotous summer of 2011.  The former is close to History Workshop’s original homeland, the latter is about politics.

The hopeful tendency refers to a specific part of the ‘history boom’ of the last decades: the dramatic increase of research into the past done outside the academic world.  The contrast to what the academic investigates is clear as the end result is usually quite different; the knowledge created may be used to reconstruct engines or to explain old photographs, for instance.  At the beginning of the twenty-first century these kinds of pursuits have become so commonplace, that they do not any longer attract public attention in the same way as they did a couple of decades ago [2].

The practitioners of non-professional research define themselves by their own judgement of what history is and what it is for.  This is not surprising if one takes note of a feature of humanness which scholars have virtually bypassed: people need knowledge of the past, and everybody uses this cognition in his or her own way.  Accounting for the past, or creating histories as American historian David Thelen puts it, is “as natural a part of life as eating or breathing” [3].  Giving up the prevailing tendency to think about all history in disciplinary terms is therefore a well-founded idea.  From the angle of adult education, a new feature of history-in-society at the turn of the 21st century is significant: thousands of people have transformed the everyday, casual habit of referring to the past into the purposeful creation of histories in practically all industrial countries.

Raphael Samuel’s way of seeing the relevance of history is equally significant: ‘The past that inspires genealogists, local historians and collectors is not random’ but connected to what for them is important [4].  It is the usefulness of the past that drives people to create histories, and it is paramount that scholarly historians keep this in mind.  University training gives them a mandate to judge whether everyday accounts of the past are sound and fair, but this mandate does not give them a privileged position when the relevance of past matters is assessed.  Soundness and meaningfulness are  different (albeit inseparable) sides of knowledge.

The existence of the historical profession is justified by the underlying idea that meaningful knowledge is sustainable only if its foundation is sound.  This is the idea embedded in the 19th century rationale of the founding fathers of the discipline; the specialists on the past are there to produce sound knowledge; not to convey moral stories or political lessons, for instance.  In the mainstream historians’ view this idea has meant keeping non-academic histories at arm’s length, but the situation may alter after the paradigmatic change of the discipline at the end of the 20th century [5].  A positive interpretation of the founding fathers’ rationale would be to uphold history-making as a basic social practice; in banal terms, to demonstrate how to use and how not to use the past.

This argument ends up in the idea of participatory historical culture that is based on a democratized social division of labour in history-making [6].  Decisions about what will be studied and the relevance of past matters will result from collective deliberation and discussion, while the main role of professionals is to ensure that the knowledge produced is sound.  This kind of collaborative approach to the past offers the participants the possibility of tackling their own present concerns as well as thinking over how to make a better future for themselves.  At the same time the participants not only empower themselves to get to grips with the conditions of their living but  can also learn that the implied strings attached to the social and political engagement advocated by the governing elite ‘from above’ are not inevitable [7].

The political dimension of participatory historical culture should be thought of in relation to a contemporary ‘movement’ also originating ‘from below’; the British riots of summer 2011.  What took place on the streets of many English towns were ‘Zero-Degree protests’, as the Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek has it.  It was violent action demanding nothing; since ‘opposition to the system’ cannot, in the present society, ‘articulate itself in the form of a realistic alternative, or even as a utopian project’.  The significance of participatory historical culture doesn’t lie in conveying a political programme; the question is rather of an approach or method.  But the new kind of approach to history shows that ‘meaningless outburst’ is not the only alternative [8].

The first, absolutely essential step towards ‘collaborative, radical history’ advocated by History Workshop Online is that university-trained historians give up their traditional stance on everyday history-making.  The ways laypeople use the past must be taken seriously; there is no room for patronage, not to speak of arrogance.  Showing respect is to take a large step towards the second essential requirement: winning the other party’s trust.  Actually, scholars face a similar challenge to politicians who have not yet convinced the citizens that policies based on the idea of ‘Whitehall knows best’ belong to a foregone era [9].

Jorma Kalela (jorkal@utu.fi) is Professor Emeritus of Contemporary History at University of Turku, Finland. In 1976-1976 He was Senior Associate Member of St Antony’s College and 1993-1994 Visiting Professor at the Institute of Historical Research, London. He has published extensively on the history of Finnish politics as well ashistorical theory and methodology. His new book, Making History. The Historian and Uses of the Past will be published by Palgrave Macmillan at the end of the month (November 2011).  This is an updated version of a paper given in September 2009 at the Ruskin conference on the History Workshop and radical education, ‘The Role of Historians in Breaking the Present Impasse of Western Democracies’.

[1]Quotations from Samuel’s Editorial Introduction to History Workshop. A Collectanea 1967 – 1991 edited by him.
[2]A study of the nature and spread of these pursuit would be politically fruitful; a comprehensive study of this subject does not seem to exist for any country.
[3]”A Participatory Historical Culture”, in Roy Rosenzweig & David Thelen: The Presence of the Past. Popular Uses of History in American Life, Columbia University Press; New York, 1998, 190.
[4]For more about Samuel’s ideas here, see Hilda Kean ‘”Public history” and Raphael Samuel: A forgotten radical pedagogy?’. Public History Review, vol. 11 (2994).
[5]More about the paradigmatic change, see Jorma Kalela, Making History. The Historian and Uses of the Past (Palgrave Macmillan; Basingstoke 2011) Chapter 1, ‘Introduction: Second Thoughts about History’.
[6]The terms has been coined by David Thelen, see his ‘A Participatory Historical Culture’ in Rosenzweig & Thelen, The Presence of the Past.
[7]For more about this, see Kalela Making History, (the final) section ‘The potentials of a participatory historical culture’; it is preceded by section ‘Impact assessment by funders’. These sections deal with the inner contradiction of present-day ‘impact’.
[8]Quotations from Zizek’s ‘Zero-Degree Protests’, London Review of Books, 8 September 2011.
[9]Quotation from Jackie Ashley’s ‘In Liverpool you can feel the change in Labour’s chemistry’, The Guardian 28 September 2011.


  1. Whilst I agree with the general sentiments of this post, I find some of the concrete suggestions put forward questionable. Firstly, I share your point that academics ought to be more aware of non-professional historical research conducted outside the discipline, but why should we stop here? There are a huge variety of historical practices, genres and other forms of cultural engagement with the “historical” that exist outside the academy and are not limited to the arenas of heritage or public history (as demonstrated in Jerome de Groot’s book, Consuming History
    (Routledge, 2009)). They indicate a wider cultural sphere, often in popular, entertainment-based and commodified forms, in which senses of the past circulate. Furthermore, they are often participatory themselves (re-enactment, living history, the role of web 2.0) and are often interactive and packaged in different mediums. Whatever one’s view of their utility, meaningfulness or authenticity, they do offer an indication of how a popular consciousness of history is structured; an understanding of which, I’d suggest, is vital for any progressive historical endeavour. I am
    also not sure I agree with your assertion that the way “thousands of people have transformed the everyday, casual habit of referring to the past into the purposeful creation of histories” is a 21st Century phenomenon. What about the work of, for example, People’s Autobiography groups in Britain in the 1970s or the barefoot historians of Scandinavia and Germany in the 1980s?

    Secondly, and more disturbing perhaps, is the way in which you posit a “democratized social division of labour in history-making” whilst at the same time making a separation between those qualified to ensure that knowledge produced is “sound and fair”, i.e. the professionals, and presumably those who are not (non-professionals?). In my view, this is an ultimately elitist and anti-egalitarian move, and one that ought to be avoided as I think it would undermine trust and mutual respect. The issue of epistemology is a thorny one, but I’m not entirely sure what you mean by “sound” (truth?), how soundness is to be judged (by the standards of the discipline?), and, as you suggest, if soundness and meaningfulness are inseparable, surely then any criterion decided upon should have the full collaborative backing of the participatory historical culture – and new social conventions would need to be established? Another issue here is power and the power of the discipline to determine what does and doesn’t constitute knowledge (incidentally, one of the most interesting arguments in de Groot’s book is how the democratisation of historical knowledge via new technological forms has encouraged the waning of the academic historian’s influence in the public sphere and a bypassing of such gatekeeping roles). As you mention, History Workshop stood for the democratising of historical practice, but in doing so it challenged academic hierarchies. I get the impression here that your proposal may only serve to reinforce them. 

    Finally, in seeking to build a participatory historical culture, I agree that “the ways laypeople use the past must be taken seriously” is a crucial step in gaining a deeper appreciation of the workings of history in contemporary culture as a way of giving potentially progressive or radical interventions more traction. Here, it might be useful to consider whether these cultural activities and practices have genuinely “democratising” and “enfranchising” effects (as de Groot argues) and whether they disrupt conventional ways of knowing and experiencing the past. It might also be profitable to explore how they are situated within the broader processes of consumption and commodification characteristic of consumer culture. In this respect, I also think we need to examine how non-academic practices are conditioned by particular forms of power and authority that help to reinforce “official” ideas of history as well as thinking about how spaces of dissent can be established in which these ideas can be contested or “unofficial” sources of knowledge produced. However, this is not a one-way street, and such an analysis could equally be directed at the culture of the historical discipline itself.

    It seems to me that academic world needs to be critically explored as rigorously as the world outside it. This seems implicit in your proposal for a “collaborative, radical history”. I believe this would require a redefinition of the meaning of history and most importantly a critique of academic power and how it is embedded in the production of knowledge: in the routines of lectures, conferences and publications, plus the powerful influences of institutional processes like assessment exercises and funding awards, as well as the identities and intellectual preoccupations they help to foster. Such an approach might lead historians to rethink the usefulness of these disciplinary practices and how they may reinforce prevailing power structures, hindering the coming to fruition of radical openings in representing, performing or engaging the past.

    If history is – in Samuel’s phrase – “a social form of knowledge; the work, in any given instance of a thousand different hands”, then professional historians are but one group among many in the academy, in the public sphere, and in popular culture and everyday life who are able to shift our historical vision towards an alternative past and a more humane future. This doesn’t mean abandoning the university, but it does suggest that outlets for creating new encounters between past and present that have capacities for dissent are more polymorphous and contingent than can be covered by the idea of research. I think a participatory historical culture ought to be capacious enough to involve many more aspects of the so-called “history boom” and be less willing to endorse the view that academic practices are inevitably superior in collaborative endeavours.


  2. Dear Ian
    Had you had the opportunity to read my Making History. The Historian and Uses of the Past (due to be in bookshops by the last week of November) you would not have found so many of my suggestions questionable. On the other hand, you have now provided me with an opportunity to expand ideas which had to be presented in quite contracted form. Making History is, as I state in the Preface, about redefining the meaning of history, a critique of prevailing academic patterns of thought. “To measure the variety of non-academic accounts against disciplinary standards has been for scholars virtually the only way of thinking about them. More importantly still, professionals have ignored the purposes and social function of non-academic histories. The reverse side of this condescending stance on history-making outside the university world has been a parochial, inward-looking scholarly self-awareness with, as will be demonstrated repeatedly in the following pages, many unfortunate, self-defeating tendencies.”

    The book originates in the views of Scandinavian “barefoot historians”, as you call them, whom I learned to know while working (1979-86) as the commissioned historian of the trade union of workers in the Finnish paper and pulp industry. In a project that lasted seven years I trained more than 200 members of the union to do research in what, I had to acknowledge after some time, in their view was their own history. Making History is a study of the implications of my key experience from those years: “the meaning of the past for ‘ordinary people’ was quite different from what it was for my profession”.

    “One strand of history, the discipline, has been elevated (by the historical profession) to a privileged position with the implicit purpose of ruling over other kinds of histories.” One consequence of this way of thinking is patronage (often even arrogance) and its various manifestations are systematically analyzed in the book. A more fatal outcome has been missing the core of history-making: scholarly historians have not discussed systematically the implications of the usefulness of the past as the drive to create histories, a rationale shared by both scholarly and other historians. Academics give priority to epistemology over their cultural objectives and thus relegate the fundamental issue ‘why history?’ to a secondary position; the scholarly credentials of the profession have been regarded more essential than making sense of the past.

    When outlining alternatives it is paramount to remember, as you emphasize, it is not “a one-way street”. Heritage provides a good example for the need of being careful. On one hand, the phrase is an umbrella term covering a multi faceted industry, and many leftist intellectuals have rightly criticized the commercial use of the past. On the other hand, as Raphael Samuel underlined, people are also genuinely interested in heritage. They do not travel to historic sites and reconstructions and witness re-enactments as just unthinking consumers of entertainment.

    It would absolutely be an “elitist and anti-egalitarian move” if I would think of a participatory historical culture as you think I do; it is here that the shortness of my text was most unfortunate. In the book I “question the demands to democratize scholarship because it leads easily to subordinating the activities of historians who work
    outside universities to academic conventions. Would it not be more reasonable to take the aspirations of the people involved, rather than scholarly requirements, as the starting point for thinking about the non-professional study of history? Is this not the place to democratize the existing social division of labour in history-making, that is, to concretize the professionals’ duty to uphold history-making as a basic social practice? To ask in which ways they can support people’s efforts to make more sense of the world and one’s place in it or their endeavours to fill gaps in family history, for instance?”

    The question is certainly not endorsing the superiority “academic practices” but rather of practical matters, first of all the scarcity of time. On the one hand, the basic demands on a historian are not alien to contemporary common sense: “what is required is taking seriously the thinking of past people and being fair to them, as well as learning to construct an account based on sound reasoning.  On the other hand, acquiring the necessary skills takes time without a trainer.” This line of thinking not only leads a participatory historical culture but also highlights one of the profession’s weaknesses, the failure to think about the relation of the two sides of knowledge, soundness and meaningfulness.

    “The professional historian’s training gives him or her a mandate to judge whether everyday accounts of the past are fair or not, whether past people’s actions have been presented on their own terms or whether an event has been situated in a justifiable past context, for instance. This mandate does not, however, include judging the significance of past phenomena in the present: the historian does not have any privileged position in determining their meaning and importance. When assessing the relevance of past matters for the present, the specialist must adjust to a situation where his or her arguments are on a par with the arguments of other history-makers.”

    As in all history-making, it is also in participatory historical culture that “the present concerns (of the people engaged) that lead the research to be initiated, but the end-result is worthless if it does not rest on sound foundations. It is the professional’s duty to keep an eye on the epistemology, but this does not entitle him or her to decide what past events or matters should be researched. Of course, the specialists take part in discussion about the significance of the past matters at hand but their prime role is to act as consultants who provide expert advice. Trained historians have useful competence, among other things, in deciding what is possible to achieve and which would be the most reasonable way to undertake the planned research. Their role resembles that of a university teacher instructing postgraduate students but the forms for this guidance depend on the nature of supporting network needed.”

    Best wishes
    Jorma Kalela

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