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HISTORY WATCH

February 24, 2015

WHAT IS CRITICAL APPLIED HISTORY? *
Audra A. Diptee, PhD
about the way in which history is
embedded in human rights discourse.
It is not about the history of
development but about understanding
the ways in which development
initiatives are grounded in historical
assumptions. It is not about the history
of humanitarianism, but about the
selective remembrances that guide the
humanitarian sector.

Critical Applied History is a framework
of analysis that assumes history has
practical relevance and that historical
methods can be applied in a manner
which fruitfully addresses contemporary
problems and concerns. It necessitates
interdisciplinary dialogue with
anthropologists, economists and other
specialists. It also requires engagement
with discourses produced by
practitioners who work in policy,
development, human rights,
humanitarianism as well as other areas.
Critical Applied History stands distinct
from “public history” which tends to
focus on representations of the past that
are produced for public consumption
(such as museums and heritage sites).
Instead, Critical Applied History explores
the ways in which historical assumptions
are embedded in the present day
perceptions that shape policy and
practice. To use the words of Ravi
Kanbur, “perception is reality.”
Assumptions about the past, even if they
are terribly flawed and never stated
explicitly, shape discourses around
development, progress, policy,
humanitarianism, and human rights.
Critical Applied History, then, is not
about writing history but about the “use
and abuse of history.” Historical context
and chronology may be necessary, but
they are certainly not sufficient.
Perceptions of the past (historical
consciousness) is at the core of Critical
Applied History. In other words, it is not
about the history of human rights but

 

Critical Applied History recognizes,
emphasizes, and addresses the power
of ideas and ideologies. Furthermore, it
explores much more than the ways in
which perceptions of the past influence
the formation of policy and the
implementation of practice. The very
efficacy of such initiatives depend on
how communities understand their own
historical trajectory. Put another way,
the historical consciousness of an
individual, or the collective
consciousness of a community, will
influence societal responses to policy
interventions and other initiatives.
Critical Applied History considers how
the often decontextualized knowledge
from practitioners is contextualized in
the societies in which they work.

* I was introduced to the concept of
“applied history” in John Tosh’s work
Why History Matters, (2008). My thinking
on Critical Applied History has been
strongly influenced by a number of
studies and essays. The most influential
of these are listed in the references.

References
Bayly, C.A., V. Rao, S. Sreter, and M.
Woolcock (eds.). History, Historians &
Development Policy, (University of
Manchester, 2011).
Cooper, Frederick, Allen F. Isaacman,
Florencia C. Mallon, William Roseberry,
and Steve J. Stern. Confronting
Historical Paradigms: Peasants, Labor,
and the Capitalist World System in Africa
and Latin America, (University of
Wisconsin Press, 1993).
Kanbur, Ravi. “Commentary: Why Might
History Matter for Development Policy,”
in Bayly, C.A., V. Rao, S. Sreter, and M.
Woolcock (eds.), History, Historians &
Development Policy, (University of
Manchester, 2011).
MacMillan, Margaret. The Uses and
Abues of History, (Penguin Group, 2008)
Tosh, John. Why History Matters,
(Palgrave MacMillan, 2008).
Tosh, John. “In Defense of Applied
History: The History and Policy
Website,” History & Policy, February,
2006.
Zinn, Howard. The Politics of History,
(University of Illinois Press, 1990 [1970]).

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