“In the Absence of Grand Narratives”

European Social Science History Conference 2018: “In the Absence of Grand Narratives: Contemporary Challenges for a Historical Theory of Global Capitalism”
April 4-7, 2018, Belfast


  • International Institute of Social History (IISH), Amsterdam
  • Queen’s University, Belfast

We invite contributions for a session at the upcoming ESSHC in Belfast, Northern Ireland on “The Absence of Grand Narratives: Contemporary Challenges for a Historical Theory of Global Capitalism.”

Almost four decades have passed since Jean-François Lyotard proclaimed the end of “grand narratives” as a central feature of the postmodern condition. Since then, the collapse of state socialism further accelerated the de-legitimization and, consequently, the rapid decline of Marxism as one of the “grandest” narrative in both academia and beyond. At the same time, non-Marxist meta-narratives that drew on patterns of modernization and development likewise vanished from debate. This withering of grand narratives had a profound impact on the historiography of global capitalism: It has given voice to a myriad of neglected actors and their narratives; it has sharpened our understanding of spatial and temporal particularities; it has heralded new methodological approaches interested in transfer and mobility; and it has fueled a general skepticism about the usefulness of totalizing models. While these are undoubtedly welcome trends, they pose serious challenges for a history of capitalism. In particular, the turn away from synthesis bereft the field of its potential to offer conceptual coherence and analytic generalization.

Today historians of labor, for instance, tend to stress the diversity and fluidity of various historical forms of free and unfree work that contradict the notion that free wage labor ever constituted the defining experience of the unpropertied masses. As a case in point, the acclaimed turn towards Global Labor History has done much to integrate non-Western forms of labor and working-class life. Yet it left us with the insight that free wage labor was just one form in a broad continuum of work under historical capitalism. How this global continuum might have been structurally organized and reproduced, whether the various forms of labor were mutually dependent, or to what extent global regimes of labor were subject to political steering and regulation – considerations like these have so far been largely neglected in the field. Similarly, historians of capital are presently drawing attention to the range of factors influencing the creation, appropriation, and distribution of wealth. Opposing the primacy of production in existing theory, they highlight the sphere of exchange (markets, finance, etc.) as an intrinsic yet often neglected site in the history of global capitalism. But here, too, the structural nexus between production and consumption or accumulation and regulation has not been a prime concern for most historians.

Researchers in the fields of political economy and sociology, however, have been less reluctant in this respect. Embracing the mission of ESSHC, this session is an invitation to review recent contributions from the social sciences and explore possibilities for historical synthesis. In so doing, this session will provide a forum for discussions about what a contemporary theory of historical capitalism could look like.

Questions to be addressed in the papers might include but are not limited to:

  • What are the “do’s and don’ts” for a contemporary theory of historical capitalism? Which contributions from the social sciences do we consider helpful in this respect?
  • What “grand theories” might be productive to revisit? How do we integrate them without pursuing dead ends or falling back on past dogmatisms?
  • How can empirical observation be brought to a higher level of abstraction? What can historians of capitalism learn from middle-range theorization in sociology?
  • Is the lack of theoretical abstraction not in fact a main strength in contemporary research on historical capitalism? Do we actually require theoretical synthesis?

The extended deadline for abstracts (c. 300 words) was April 23, 2017.

This text is a copy of the announcement made by Philipp Reick on April 4th, 2017 on networks.h-net.org.

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