Spotlight on...
Alix Green, author of History, Policy and Public Purpose

In this post, Green discusses the roles and responsibilities of scholarship in public life...

The Palgrave Macmillan Campaign for the Humanities is a response to the challenges faced by these fields, under pressure to prove their worth in a context in which increasingly narrow definitions of relevance and significance seem to prevail. What is the ‘return on investment’ of a student graduating with a philosophy degree, who may never pay back the full tuition fee debt, or of a historian receiving Research Council funding to explore the holdings of a little-known archive?

Humanities scholars and organisations have been critiquing the political agenda behind these questions for some time, and pointing not only to the rich intellectual and cultural life that humanities disciplines produce, but also to how vital humane knowledge is to addressing the most pressing issues facing the modern world – from climate change to conflict resolution to an aging society.

For historians, as for many of their colleagues in the humanities, ‘public engagement’ has been the language in which political expectations for a scholarly ROI have been framed. Such engagement has tended to leave conventional, linear models of knowledge production and dissemination intact. Scholars define and conduct the research and then share the findings with their chosen audiences. It is only recently that this logic has come under pressure, with the concept of co-production moving from periphery of practice to the mainstream of funding policy.

Historians have been relatively receptive to notions of co-production, drawing on the vital intellectual legacy of the History Workshop and the insights of Raphael Samuel on history as the ‘work of a thousand different hands’. But shared authority has some blindspots – to offer or withhold it has a clearly political dimension. Chris Clark’s observation – that a desire to correct the balance of power can render elites as anonymous and faceless as once subaltern actors were – is pertinent here. And so policymakers have been one constituency historians have generally still aimed to inform and enlighten, if not correct and admonish (another might be businesspeople).
Historians do have, of course, legitimate concerns about the risks of placing history in the service of the state. The question is surely not whether history has something distinctive and important to bring to the policymaking table – historians are always insisting it does – but how to make that conversation work with both efficacy and integrity?

History, Policy and Public Purpose is about describing a space in which a mix of different forms of expertise can contribute to a process of ‘collective puzzling’ over complex policy problems. The mix is important – it calls on those involved to advocate, not just the merits of their own fields, but how those forms of knowledge can productively interact. For the humanities, this is both an opportunity and a challenge. The prevailing mood is defensive, and many of us feel our disciplines have been undermined over recent years – not least by the creation of ill-informed and damaging divisions between the essential ‘hard’ evidence provided by the sciences and social sciences and the elective or ornamental value of the arts and humanities. In this context, an understandable response is to retreat into the silos of our specialisms and clusters. Yet if we only protest that ‘history matters’ (or philosophy, literature or languages) my sense is that we will serve neither our discipline, nor our fellow humanists, nor indeed wider publics, audiences or partners well.

In History, Policy and Public Purpose I offer not a blueprint for history in policy, but, I hope, a basis for a broader discussion about the roles and responsibilities of scholarship in public life.


* The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of Palgrave Macmillan

About the author 

Alix Green is Lecturer in Public History at the University of Central Lancashire, UK. She read history at the University of Cambridge and spent ten years in policy research and government relations before bringing her experience into academic research on the uses of history. She is particularly interested in historical thinking and the international and conceptual aspects of public history.