What can the history of knowledge offer the uses of history – and vice versa?

by Andreas Granberg (Åbo Akademi University)

When I started my journey towards my PhD in 2015, the field of history of knowledge was completely unknown to me. In the beginning, I was mainly operating with different methods and theories related to different uses of history. It was quite early on, however, that I started to realize that this was not enough. I felt that cultural history and use of history had been watered out and needed revisiting. After all, how rewarding can it be to simply ascertain whether a certain use of the past is ideological or political?

I was not interested in whether a certain view of history was “right” or “wrong”. Neither did I want to fall into the trap of hierarchical thinking as often happens when studying topics that can be regarded as pseudohistory. Instead, I wanted to highlight the thoughts and ideas that circulated around and were conveyed about the settlement of Ostrobothnia and its earlier history. My approach also ensued from the fact that my focus was on actors outside the academia and on these actors’ attempts to present a different form of history writing from the one that was supported by professional researchers.

Studying the settlement question became quite cumbersome, as it became apparent how delicate of an issue it had been for people during the 1970s and 1980s. Also, there were a lot of preconceived notions about what I should write. Through a stroke of luck, I got the opportunity to attend a course on the history of knowledge, taught by Johan Östling and Kenneth Nyberg, that the National Graduate School of Historical Studies arranged in 2017. I immediately felt that I had stumbled upon an important piece in the puzzle that was to become my thesis. It cannot be stressed enough how important this kind of courses and meetings are for young researchers that have just embarked upon something that can sometimes be quite a solitaire task.

It felt refreshing to enter a field which was still searching for its boundaries. Although use of history and the history of knowledge can be said to represent two different directions within the field of history, I felt that the concept of circulation – as presented by Östling but also by Kapil Raj and James Secord, just to name a few scholars – could be used to illuminate the crossing of paths that took place between representatives of science and actors outside the academia.

I thus attempted to combine aspects from both history of knowledge and different uses of history. I presented my case study as a form of regional history that challenged the national historical narrative of Finland. First, it became clear that a certain view of history had a huge impact on both how knowledge circulated but also on the form that knowledge took. By focusing on how the settlement issue circulated, both within and outside the academia, and to observe in what arenas the question was discussed, I was able to paint a broader picture of the issue than what earlier research had been able to show.

Issues around questions of settlement are not something that are exclusive to Finland. The whole of Europe is filled with regions that in some way have trouble fitting into the mould attributed to them. There is a wealth of stories waiting to be heard. These stories have way too easily been disregarded as a form of regionalism or understood simply as a clash of different opinions.

My thesis goes to show how rewarding it can be to combine aspects from different fields of studies, whether we are talking about theories and methods from the same scientific discipline or from entirely different fields. In my case, it was possible to combine elements which at first did not seem to fit together but which together helped to highlight misrepresentations within the national narrative.

My study should not be read as a critique towards earlier representations, but the study reminds us that we are all sometimes in need of new perspectives. My study further goes to show that the history of knowledge can contribute to a greater understanding of the different uses of history, its possibilities, and limitations, and vice versa.

Andreas Granberg is a Doctor of Philosophy in Nordic history at Åbo Akademi University. His interests lie in regional history, uses of history, and the circulation of knowledge between actors within and outside the academia. He defended his thesis on the 14th of October 2022. The name of his study is Bosättningsfrågan som en del av Österbottens äldre historia: Kunskapscirkulation och fria forskare i kontrovers, 1978–2005.

Photo by Eugene Golovesov on Unsplash

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