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Social Responsibility of the Historian

The Annales’ Agenda in Perspective

Arundhati Virmani ( is a historian who teaches at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, Norbert Elias Centre, Marseille.

Recent conflicts in India over what constitutes historical facts or "truths" have forced historians out of their ivory towers and into the public arena, adding urgency to reflections on the historian's social responsibility. Is it the historian's responsibility to expose manipulations of the historical past, point to social dysfunctions, and identify remedies? Or should the citizen historian nourish public debate on sensitive topics without taking a clear-cut position on them? This paper explains how the French journal, the Annales d'Histoire Economique et Sociale, established in 1929, has interpreted these questions, attempting to deal with problems of contemporary concern, but without making the shift from debate to polemics. Annales has been in favour of a non-emotional history, inviting historians to work with data, and reminding them that their primary role is to strengthen the citizen's understanding of the social mechanisms of change, not to take ideological positions themselves.

Earlier versions of this paper were presented at the conference titled "The Politics of History and the History of Politics," at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, in November 2014, and at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, in July 2016. My thanks to Bhagwan Josh, Chetan Singh and the IIAS fellows, to Sunil Kumar and to the EPW referee for their remarks and suggestions.

Updated On : 15th Sep, 2017


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