‘Recourse to history is meaningful to the extent that history serves to show how that which is has not always been; that is, the things which seem most evident to us are always formed in the confluence of encounters and chances, during the course of a precarious and fragile history. What reason perceives as its necessity, or rather what different forms of rationality offer as their necessary being, can perfectly well be shown to have a history; and the network of contingencies from which it emerges can be traced. Which is not to say that these forms of rationality were irrational, it means that they reside on a base of human practice and human history and that since these things have been made, they can be unmade, as long as we know how it was that they were made.’
The Annales d’histoire économique et sociale was founded by Marc Bloch and Lucien Febvre in 1928. Its main innovation was to shift the focus on writing problem-oriented analytical history and looking at human activity comprehensively. Peter Burke divides the movement in three phases or generations:
‘1920-1945: the movement is very radical and subversive and strongly opposes the tradition of political history. [Bloch and Febvre];
1945-1968: the movement becomes a school of thought, with its main concepts (structure-conjuncture) and method (serial history of changes over the long term) [Braudel and Labrousse];
1968-1989: the school becomes more fragmented and shifts its concern from the socio-economic to the socio-cultural. [Ariel, Bourdieu, Goffman]’
The movement was also defined as a form of structural situationism, in its first phase these historians criticised the positivist school which concentrated on the analysis of short periods, adopted a traditional narrative of events and analysed history almost exclusively from the political-military point of view. The founding fathers of the Annales school mainly comprised of economic historians who rebelled against traditional historians’ idola, identified by François Simiand as: political idol: their obsession with wars and states; individual idol: their obsession with great men; chronological idol: their obsession with looking at development as linear. [François Simiand was a philosopher and economist who greatly inspired the historians of the Annales School.
The Annales School historians programmatically examined social phenomena and their underlying causes in depth with a particular attention to immobile stretches of time.
Marc Bloch begins to study what he calls ‘collective illusions’ and uses a regressive method (lire l’histoire a rebours). He believes that it is better to proceed from the known to the unknown, hence he reads history backwards. His study on feudal society examines the culture of feudalism, its sense of time, forms of collective memory and the structures of feeling and thought. In The Royal Touch, for instance, he looks at the belief that the King’s touch could cure people from diseases. He compares France and England on a long term scale and analyses how collective illusions such as this survived after the Middle Ages. His aim was to problematise the fact that people believed such improbable things for a prolonged period in time and to point to possible causes of such a phenomenon. A survey of this kind could be regarded as a psychological history, and Bloch partly applies Durkheim’s ideas on collective beliefs and mentalities. Bloch critiques the idol of origins arguing that historical phenomena ought to be explained in terms of their own time, rather than of earlier periods.
Far from being an attempt at searching for ‘authenticity’ in history – which was still prevailing in the positivist historiography of pure facts (histoire historisante)-, the School launched a method that underlines the specificity of the emergence of events and philosophically outlines conditions of possibility in the light of an unrepeatability of the past as well as an intervention in the present. This method was to find fertile soil in French radical thought: when accused of having murdered history, Foucault replies that the philosophical myth of History had already been destroyed by Bloch, Febvre and the English historians, who freed history from its subjugation to philosophy and the imposition of narrative on the ordering of past events. [Michel Foucault ‘The Discourse of History’ in Foucault Live. Collected Interviews, 1961-1984, New York: Autonomedia, 1996, p. 19.]
Braudel is the main figure of the movement, his most famous work, La Méditerranée, is divided in three parts. As Bloch with social psychology and Febvre with linguistics, Braudel’s work heavily relies on a different discipline: geography. Each section of his work proposes a different mode of periodisation and time scale. The first part is in fact a geohistory and had much popularity both as a historical geography and a history of the environment. In the second part, he looks at the general trends of the Mediterranean people, writing a kind of history of structures, the economic, the geographical, the technological and so forth. In the third part Braudel is concerned with undermining the primacy of events in historical writing. He places individuals and events in their context and, as Burke writes, ‘makes them intelligible at the price of revealing their fundamental unimportance’. In this he is trying to show how a history of individual events can only provide a superficial reading of society’s development, as well as building a grille of intelligibility that is heterogeneous enough for multiple points of entry into understanding a period.
However, Braudel’s main contribution lies in his insistence on writing total histories. Unlike Febvre and Bloch, Braudel says very little about the history of mentalities and moves away from the Durkheimian influence by shifting the accent on an analysis of geopolitical structures. His main priority was to show that time moves at different speeds, and he divides time into geographical, social and individual, respectively corresponding to the frameworks of structure, conjuncture and event. He examines long stretches of time, and transposing Bergson’s philosophical ideas onto the plane of historical analysis, he introduces into historiography the notion of la longue durée. In Civilisation matérielle et capitalisme, Braudel divides his object of study into: material civilisation (where production takes place, immobile); economic life (the place of trade and distribution) and capitalist mechanism (the realm of consumption, where change is more rapid). Here again in the first part, ‘The structures of everyday life’, he takes a global and long-term approach, his concern is with what sustains life as a whole, as well as habit. There is no reference to symbolic structures nor to history of meaning. The second, ‘Wheels of commerce’ is about the market economy and the ways it coexisted with the non-market economy in early modernity. In the third part, ‘perspective of the world’, he takes a systemic approach which was to heavily influence the world-system theory of Wallerstein.
Braudel reinforced the interdisciplinarity of the Annales School project by linking it tightly to the currents in anthropology and linguistics of the time. In fact, Barthes and Lévi-Strauss both took issue with his ideas. However, as Burke notes, he was dismissive of two important tools of the Annales school: quantitative history and the history of mentalities and his method was primarily structuralist.
In our view, Braudel’s work questions the philosophical presuppositions underlying historiography, in dispensing with the authority of a subject-centred view of historical change and causality and opening up the scope of historical investigations to other disciplines. To study the structures of everyday life of a given period entails looking into more than the chronological succession of what is recorded as an event. Braudel adopts the structuralist method in history against the event.
Labrousse, on the other hand, was an economic historian who largely used the quantitative method and further explored Braudel’s idea of conjuncture and adopted demographic models to write regional histories. By conjuncture Labrousse refers to the connection between diverse yet simultaneous phenomena. Conjuncture came to be contrasted with the idea of structure, in the sense that the former identified the short-medium as opposed to the long-term. They were however complementary to one another in Labrousse.
The third generation of the Annales school breaks with Braudel’s methodological structuralism and reaffirms the Durkheimian idea of history of mentalities. Aries for instance also rejects quantitative approaches, focusing on natural phenomena and their refraction in culture. Dupront examines unconscious attitudes but rather than to Durkheim, he returns to Marxist notions of ideology. Primarily concerned with culture, he writes a kind of psychological history of the social imagination and contrasts it to collective representations. In this he contrasts imaginary relations of individuals to their real conditions of existence.
The third generation moves away from quantitative history to reassert the anthropological realm, especially through cultural anthropology (Goffman, V. Turner, Bourdieu), to place the accent on politics proper, and to return to history as narrative. Bourdieu for instance replaces the notion of social rules with that of habit and strategy. Other studies in the 1960’s and 1970’s ceased to question the causal relationship between events and structures and opted for an understanding of them as mutually reflecting. Le Roy Ladurie recuperated the notion of event as primary in historical analysis, dividing it into three types: traumatic, catalyst and creative.
The method of the Annales School and the study of events as embedded as well as ramifying into the moment of their emergence is an example of how a theoretical stance, when practiced and actualised in research and writing, can itself be an event. The critique of the political, individual and chronological idols addresses the problem of explanations that rely on the categories of historical consciousness embedded in a historical moment: the latter is not sufficient to reconstruct and approximate to how it was nor can it be used to order the past in a line of progressive continuity. This is the attack on the History of Philosophy that had found its greatest expression in the guise of the Idealism of Hegel and Croce.