Writing history as if people mattered

The editors Paolo Di Martino, Andrew Popp, and Peter Scott present the volume People, places and cultures. Essays in honour of Francesca Carnevali, Boydell & Brewer, 2017

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This edited book celebrates the career and the scholarly contribution of the historian Francesca Carnevali (1964-2013). During her unfortunately short career, Francesca ventured into a number of topics, explored different methodologies, and engaged with a variety of conceptual and theoretical frameworks. The aim of our book is to take on and develop these paths, to analyse the state-of-the art and Francesca’s contribution to it, and to try set an agenda for future research.

The book is divided into a thematic and a methodological section. In the former, various chapters analyse the main steps of Francesca’s intellectual journey covering key topics in business and economic history such as bank-industry relations, the functioning of industrial districts, consumerism, the development of “luxury” goods, and the “history of small things” (specifically the piano industry), the last research project Francesca started. In the latter methodological section, various chapters address theoretical issues and approaches Francesca engaged with, such as micro history, comparative history, and the dialogue between social, cultural, economic and business history.

Although individual chapters preserve their own identity and reflect the opinions of individual authors, the book aims at conveying a general message; one which emerges from Francesca’s work and, according to the editors and contributors, truly represents her intellectual legacy.

The first general point of this message is the necessity to go beyond artificial distinctions between sub-disciplines (and, one would argue, artificial attempts at establishing intellectual monopolies) and embrace history as a multi-faced challenge only addressable by creating bridges, rather than by establishing borders. If, as Francesca would put it, our aim is to understand “how things are made”, we have to understand technology and production, but also who finances such production, who buys it, who distributes and markets it. Thus economic history has to meet business, financial, social, and cultural history, meaning that history, sociology, economics and business studies should talk to each-other.

This dialogue, the volume argues, has to rotate around the study of human beings: history should be written “as if people mattered”. This, however, creates enormous challenges once real people, and not the idealised homo economicus, are put at the centre of the scene. Among many others, a key question that naturally arises is the extent to which economic incentives motivate and explain human behaviour in the economic arena as compared to the opportunity and limitations due to social norms, cultural habits and so on. This is a question that the book mainly applies to the functioning of specific local trading communities or “industrial districts”, but that can easily be transplanted into any other area of exchange or production. In fact, the book argues, looking at social and cultural elements as mere interference into rational economic behaviour is a mistake: culture and society might be part of the very construction of the economic action.

This point opens the door to another set of questions. Can generalisation be possible only under the rigid assumption of economic rationality? If so, does the explicit reference to culture and society force us to limit our perspective to specific events in time and space? The answer to both questions, the book argues, is No, and this is because we have methodological devices allowing us to generalise without necessarily being chained to strict assumptions. The first device is micro history and its ability to paint a general picture from a detail. The second one is comparative history, a way of obtaining a general picture by comparing the specific aspects of individual ones.

Big questions, probably leading to further questions rather than definitive answers, is what the book proposes to the reader. And this is what Francesca offered over the years, fighting intellectual conformism, easy answers, and convenient shortcuts.

 

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