Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


The history of others, or: The historian as a privileged outsider

Christoph Kalter

In recent years, the combined influence of global history and decolonial movements has reinforced the demand that historians must reflect upon their positionality, including, of course, their relationship with the histories of those they study. But what if there is no clear relationship to reflect on, at least initially? What if, as a German historian, I write about Portugal? About an abrupt migration and attendant sense of loss that are far removed from my own experience? Is the relative detachment we feel when studying the history of others helping, or is it hindering our research? Can there actually be detachment—or is the notion itself a historicist self-deception, or worse: an objectifying gesture that ultimately is doing violence to the history of others?

These are big questions for a short blog post, and my experience will only serve to hint at some patchy answers. When I decided to write a study of Portuguese “returnees”— over half a million colonial settlers who, following the 1974 Carnation Revolution, reluctantly “returned” from Angola, Mozambique, and other parts of Portugal’s crumbling overseas empire to their country of origin and citizenship — I was completely ignorant of the Portuguese and their history, be it in Africa or in Europe. I had not even traveled to the country, or consciously met any Portuguese person. As the “subject” of my research, I had no prior connection to, or knowledge of, my “object” of study.

How has this non-connectedness played out in the research process? On balance, I believe it has been beneficial — mostly because for me as an outsider, nothing seemed self-evident, and everything worth questioning. Was the returnees’ integration into metropolitan society really the unmitigated success story told by politicians and journalists, I wondered? (Spoiler: not really.) Why were my conversations with Portuguese from all walks of life often turning from pleasant to awkward when I mentioned my research topic? (It took me years to get to the bottom of that problem which is intuitive for anyone who has grown up in Portugal.) Were the returnees really the victims of a forced migration from the colonies around independence, as everyone assumed very naturally? (It’s more complex than that, I found out.) In short, being on the outside can generate questions that do not get asked on the inside. It can make the familiar look unfamiliar, which is a good starting point for an inquiry into history, especially the very contemporary one.

It was not all plain sailing, however, and there are serious drawbacks to being an outsider. Initially, I had no academic network to fall back on. For all the effort I made, my Portuguese, good enough after some years to converse with colleagues and conduct interviews with eyewitnesses, never reached the level of fluency or subtlety I strove for. A lack of intimate knowledge not only impaired my language, but extended to the entire web of intellectual, social, and political references that constitute a national culture. Such knowledge cannot be acquired in just a couple of years, with research stays that never extended beyond two months on end. Awareness of this lack dictates a particular modesty on the part of the researcher. I had to remember that I might be getting even the most basic things wrong, at least in the beginning.

But there is more to the outsider problem than this combination of productive curiosity and inevitable shortsightedness. The central issue is historical representation. As Roger Chartier reminds us, the historian’s text, rather than mirroring past reality, stands in for it. And even as historians integrate the voices of historical actors through the primary sources they quote, they basically speak about, and also for, the people they study, with an authority bestowed on them via education credentials, genre conventions, and publication channels. Representation is inseparable from power and plays out in specific ways when the historian is an outsider to the community they study.

In my case, what were the effects? Pushback was one of them. On rare occasions, my work was treated as an unhelpful intrusion—for example when a high-ranking diplomat told me that I, as an armchair historian, (comparatively) youngster, and foreigner could not possibly understand what had been at stake in the 1970s. More often, however, people told me that the fact that I had no personal connection to this “complicated history” was giving me the impartiality required to investigate it—an impartiality, they thought, that most Portuguese people lacked. Others still, conversely, wished to subvert the power dynamics in place by using them for their own agenda: They attempted to influence the way I would represent the returnees for an international audience.

Context also mattered: Most of my research was conducted between 2011 and 2016, years marked by a dramatic economic crisis in Portugal. The austerity policies imposed by the abhorred ”troika” (European Commission, European Central Bank, and International Monetary Fund), with Germany taking a leading role, brought Portugal bankruptcies, pension cuts, unemployment, massive emigration, and cuts to an already underfunded academic system. In other words: My privilege was flying into everybody’s face, including my own. Salaried by a Berlin university that also covered my travel expenses, I came to a country where researchers wanting to work on the same topic as I did could not get funding, and where a skilled architect, who soon became a friend, had to rent out a room to me to make ends meet, since her boss could not pay her salary for months. What’s more, for reasons of economy, geopolitics, demography, and historical path dependency, Germany tends to be placed at the center of European history and historiography, while Portugal is often relegated to the semi-periphery. Such geographies of power have been criticized, but not overcome by global history. It is upsetting but telling that colleagues in global history circles frequently advised me to tone down the “Portuguese” core of my research and highlight its “transnational” dimensions when pitching my work to a “global” – that is, Anglo-Saxon– audience. Add to this that I publish in English, the lingua franca of Anglocentric academia, while many experts in my field, for various reasons, write predominantly or exclusively in Portuguese.

How to conclude? The privileged outsider’s glance can bring significant advances—for a classical example in the field of European history, think of the impetus Robert Paxton’s book on Vichy gave to research on France under German occupation. At the same time, writing the history of others means lacking the intimate knowledge of the culture we study, and comes with considerable downsides. It also means entering a particularly power-ridden set of relations that we typically cannot change, but must do our best to be mindful of, and honest about.

Postcolonial People By Christoph Kalter
Postcolonial People By Christoph Kalter

About The Author

Christoph Kalter

Christoph Kalter is Professor of History at the University of Agder, where he specializes in the modern history of Western Europe in its global contexts. He is the author of The Di...

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