As promised, here is an example of my work that I want to share with you. Click the link above if you are interested in checking it out. When historians speak of “historiography,” they are talking about the ways that other historians have written about a given subject in the past. For example, whereas early histories of the American Civil War might have focused on Abraham Lincoln’s desire to free the southern slaves because slavery was wrong, later histories have highlighted longer-term cultural trends that gradually led the north and the south in different, antagonistic directions. An historiographical essay studies the changes in how historians portray their subject matter. Smaller versions of these studies are also called “literature reviews.”
The link above is to a literature review studying the ways that historians and anthropologists have written about the subject of the Egyptian Peasant. When I was first sharing this topic with some of my friends in the Economics and Sociology Departments over a couple drinks, they laughed and asked: “Do peasants still exist?” They associated peasants with feudal times (think HBO’s “Game of Thrones”), and assumed that way of life was a thing of the past.
As a household unit that is at once a site of the production of agricultural/durable goods and a site of the consumption of these goods, the “peasant” or “rural small-farmer” mode of social organization is still quite prominent in the parts of the world which were once European colonies, referred to by some as the “third world.” Why would my friends–very intelligent people, some of whom worked on issues of International Development–conceive of this way of life as a thing of the past? What does this say about our common conceptions of history and the modern age?
For much of the past three hundred or so years, history has been conceived of by the great thinkers in the Anglo-American and Continental European traditions as a universal history. Influential thinkers like the German Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel assumed that history progressed in such a way as to make humans more enlightened, and less repressed and alienated from themselves, over time. And so the barbarians gave way to the feudal lords, who gave way to cultivated bourgeois democrats.
As Europeans came into more frequent and proximate contact with people in other parts of the world (through advancements in naval technology and the development of a mercantile economy), they saw versions of themselves–only past versions that had yet to progress through the “natural” stages of history. The cultural justification of the imperial enterprise (the period from the 1600s to the early 1900s during which European empires dictated political decisions in most of the major ports and cities of the world) was the “white man’s burden” to advance these foreign people through the stages of history into the modern era.
Universal history–and therefore universal modernity–was a fundamental assumption of the colonial paradigm. But trying to study a subject like the rural small-farmers of Egypt on their own terms requires that we abandon the concept of universal history or else risk re-producing the kind of violence that marked the colonial era. Instead of speaking about “modernity” or “the modern age,” I find it more helpful to think about plural “modernities” to accommodate the experiences and consciousness of people like the Egyptian peasants.
What are the implications of a shift from talking about “modernity” to talking about “modernities?” Whenever we are talking about concepts that are associated with western modernity as distinct from the pre-modern era–for example, “Capitalism,” “Secularism,” and “Democracy”–we must located these concepts and their historical and geographic specificity; namely, by recognizing them as relevant for Anglo-America and Continental Europe. People with different histories, in different geographical locations and speaking a different language, will have to translate these concepts into the words, organizations, and institutions that they understand.
Taking this pluralistic approach to modernity explains a lot about developments we see in the world around us. In Iran, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, religious knowledge has become the basis for political deliberation in the public space, complicating the relationship between Secularism and Democracy. In China and Japan, business and state actors collude to monopolize markets and create economic advantage, complicating the relationship between Democracy and Capitalism. These are the realities of the modern age for people in these countries.