Contesting the Master Narrative

Contesting the Master Narrative

Essays in Social History

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“Consistently strong essays, unified and interesting.”—Dave Roediger

“The fascinating and wide-ranging essays in this collection will restore your faith in the continuing power of social history even as they reinforce the alternatives to traditional narrative. Taken together, they develop the argument that a multiplicity of narratives is more important than a search for synthesis. I recommend this collection to everyone who has ever doubted the future of social history.”—Alice Kessler-Harris

Social historians today are calling into question the persuasiveness of the master narratives that have dominated our stories about the past. Motivated now by personal and professional commitments to solving problems by telling stories, not by epistemological and ontological certitude, social historians are constructing alternative narratives relevant to an expanded, more inclusive audience. The essays in this thoughtful volume reflect an explicit self-consciousness about historians' choices of narrative strategies, a new skepticism of the rhetorical strategies embedded in all scholarly arguments, and a recognition that every historian has a point of view.

Critically examining past master narratives in light of emerging alternatives, these essayists ask us to reevaluate the stories we tell, the narrative traditions within which they are situated, and the audiences they are designed to persuade. The first essays explore the gendered character of social history rhetoric by exposing alternative, feminist traditions of social scientific and social historical writing. The second section focuses on alternative narrative traditions of historical writing in non-European contexts, specifically India, Japan, and China. And the third group spotlights the rhetorical uses of synthesis in the writings of social historians.

The essays feature the range of narrative possibilities available to historians who have become self-critical about the pervasive use of unexamined master narratives; they show how limited that tradition can be compared with the diverse alternatives derived from, for example, gendered traditions of Latin American travel writers of the nineteenth century, Victorian women's historical writing, or the lively subaltern tradition in Indian social history. Together they argue not for the abandonment of historical materialism or the elimination of all master narratives but for the reinvigoration of social history through the use of new and more persuasive arguments based on alternative narratives.