Overcoming Hegemony in Historical Studies

By Layla Abdullah-Poulos, student, School for Graduate Studies

April 24, 2014

Humans consistently demonstrate an inclination to be dismissive of anything outside of their cultural realm. This includes how the history of another culture is interpreted. The dominant Western secular criteria arbitrarily determine what is valid history and produces a hegemony that negates historical sources of non-Western cultures. A primary example is the status of written text over oral transmissions following incorporation of scientific approaches into historical methodologies.

After the advent of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, a Western scientific model emerged and historians began the process of applying the attitudes contained in said model to the study, and interpretation of history. Enlightenment philosophers utilized Newtonian science formulated in Newton’s Principia to create a seemingly flawless model of pristine scientific thought and processes which deprecated the metaphysical and “encouraged hostility toward entrenched, unresponsive institutions in both church and state” (Appleby 23). Consequently, a cultural ideology in western societies, in which science is the antithesis of religion, prevails and any attempts to find an accord between the two is not generally tolerated.

Western historical methods were formulated in response to the distinctly Anglo-European schism between science and theology, and Western historians sought to apply them universally. Appleby et al. explain, “Over time, professional historians set up their own kinds of absolutism in the name of universal (synonymous with Western) science and progress, and they set out to incorporate the whole world into their schemas and interpretation” (77). As a result, there is westernized hegemony as to what history is and who is a historian. However, the schism between science and religion occurred in the Western construct and was not necessarily a part of every cultural paradigm, and there are cultural differences as to how history is approached, interpreted, and valued that are often dismissed by Western secular historical methodologies. Non-Western cultures with a different relationship between science and religion were expected to adopt the Western historical construct and consign their own cultural historical constructs to the mythical.

The way Western historians generally validate and interpret history tends to discredit historical evidences under the pretext of “objectivity” and the use of scientific historical processes. The purported objectivity serves as a veil for an imperialistically driven attempt to dominate the historical (and by extension cultural) arena and force the acquiescence of other cultures outside the specified construct. Historian Jose Barrera explains, “History is a domination discourse, although it doesn’t formulate itself like that…the subjective is hidden behind a supposedly objective mask” (191). Thus, under the guise of scientific neutrality and objectivity, historians foster the aforementioned hegemony to discredit cultural particulars dissimilar to their own. An example is consistent attempts to invalidate oral traditions, which serve as a historic staple for many non-Western cultures and Western subcultures.

Due to its apparent concrete nature, Europeans gave writing a power that afforded them (in their eyes) global authority; and the shift from orality to literacy played a vital role in the justification of European colonialism in other societies (Finkelstein and McCleery 38). Abandoning oral traditions provided a platform from which imperialistic Western societies exacted control, which was maintained by discrediting the main cultural mode of communication and dissemination of knowledge subjugated cultures utilized – oral transmission. Subsequently, Western (and Westernized) historians largely propagate the notion that written text is somehow more credible, and degrade the historical validity of oral transmissions, despite the existence of cultures that continue to value them.

It is increasingly important to know what a particular culture considers history. Western secularized historical protocols often dismiss as cultural myth things that, for the culture from which they stem, are considered concrete and historical. By doing this, historians create an atmosphere of cultural dejection and promulgate the message that the western, white, European, Anglo, male perspective is the only one that matters. Additionally, it upholds the oppressive standard that normalizes Western cultural components and relegates anything falling outside its parameters into the “other” category. The hegemonic broad application of Western conventions to cultures regardless of social, cultural, or historical relevance must cease to be the prevailing construct in historical studies.

Works Cited:

Appleby, Joyce O, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret C. Jacob. Telling the Truth About History. New York: Norton, 1994. Print.

Barrera, Jose C. "On History Considered as Epic Poetry." History and Theory (2005): 182-194. Print.

Finkelstein, David, and Alistair McCleery. An Introduction to Book History. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

MacMillan, Margaret. Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History. New York: Modern Library, 2009. Print.

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