Postmodernism and Historical Research

by Linda Hutcheon

The nature of historical knowledge, historical research and history writing have been challenged and questioned by postmodernism.
A much-debated term, postmodernism has been described as a cultural phenomenon that involves a critical revisiting or rethinking of the past. Postmodernism does not deny "our dominant, liberal, humanist culture", writes Linda Hutcheon, indeed it works within it, but challenges its assumptions from within. Postmodernism challenges social and political institutions, ideas of continuity and structure, the nature of historical research and knowledge, history writing, narratives and identities.


Postmodernism and History

By challenging structure, continuity, meaning and language, postmodernism has affected the way historical research is conducted as well as history writing itself. Postmodernism questions the traditional view that there is an objective truth of the past which historians have to simply recover or uncover and present to the world.
Postmodernism asks: How do we know the past? What do we know of the past? What establishes a past “event” as a historical “fact”? The past did exist but we only know its existence through texts.

Postmodernism and Historical Research

Postmodernist thinkers have questioned the traditional assumptions of history as a discipline, of historical research itself, and of the methods historians employ to collect and record evidence. The historians' search for the “real” is problematic in postmodernist thinking. In question is not only the existence of the “real” but the ability of the historian to capture this “real” through “historical research”, through the collection of “historical evidence” and the creation of a narrative.
For the postmodernist, historical documents, records, archives, eyewitness accounts are texts – discourses, systems of signification by which we understand the past. History is a human construct (just like literature), another text by which we make sense of the past and the present.
The postmodern historian is aware that historical facts do not merely exist in archives awaiting to be discovered by the keen researcher of the past. In postmodernist thinking it is the historian who names events as historical facts and places them into a narrative that makes sense in the present. Historical documents are texts that rework “reality” not “mere sources that divulge facts about reality”, writes Hutcheon.

Postmodernism and History Writing

The postmodernist historian is aware that ultimately history writing (far from revealing “the truth” about the past) imposes meaning upon the past. History writing creates new narratives with a beginning/origin and an end/conclusion. It is at this point that history meets literature.
Postmodernist history writing is averse to the idea of history as a continuous chain of events, a development or an evolution. Instead the postmodernist history looks at discontinuities and irregularities; to the local and particular as opposed to the universal. Under the influence of thinkers such as Foucault and Derrida, postmodernist historians are not asking “what were the facts” but “what were the forces that made certain events the focus of a whole configuration or discussion”.
Hutcheon writes: “History now perceives its work as exploration, testing, creation of new meaning rather than disclosure or revelation of meaning already in some sense “there” but not immediately perceptible. … The world is not meaningless but meaning is our own creation”.
Linda Hutcheon, A Poetics of Postmodernism, Routledge 1988