Re-Directions 1: The Historical Configurations of Space: Keith Robbins Considers the British Case

Re-Directions: Articles of Interest from History Compass

With the following we launch a new series of posts under the subtitle “Re-Directions” that will point to noteworthy articles published in History Compass, the online journal published by Blackwell Publishing. Under the chief editorship of AHA member Felice Lifshitz (Florida International Univ.), who served as the chair of the AHA Program Committee for the 2009 annual meeting, History Compass publishes commissioned and peer-reviewed essays that provide “surveys of the most important research and current thinking from across the entire discipline.”

The objective of this series of blog posts is not only to draw attention to History Compass articles that seem—to AHA staff members—particularly interesting, but also to create an opportunity to foster and facilitate discussion—through the comments feature of this blog—of the article referred to in the blog post.

All readers of this blog will have free access to the article mentioned below until the discussion is closed at the discretion of the blog’s moderators.

Historians are usually concerned with time—either in diachronic narratives of the passage of events in the short run or as grander conceptualizations of the longue durée—and tend to take the space in which these passages occur mostly for granted. Of late, however, more and more historians are focusing on the spatial dimension, in Braudelian concepts such as the Atlantic World, in considerations of globalization of regional histories, or in mapping—literally and figuratively—the bodies politic of the past. To the growing historiographic literature in and of this genre comes a new addition—the magisterial and wide-ranging, but necessarily complicated, survey by Keith Robbins in History Compass, “The ‘British Space’: World-Empire-Continent-Nation-Region-Locality: A Historiographical Problem” (History Compass volume 7, number 1, 2009). In this essay, whose 82 endnotes (many of which contain multiple references and exegeses) and 162 bibliographic entries reflect an exhaustive comprehensiveness, Robbins considers the historiography of the changing notion of “British Space.” Robbins examines the notions of Britain (and “British”) both writ large, as situated in the world and empire, as well as in their tiniest iterations, as in county and local histories, while also considering at the same time, the many complex ways in which these notions are intertwined with national identities, especially those of England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (all of which, in turn, have their own nuanced layers of identities).

Not surprisingly, Robbins devotes a great deal of space to the examination of the ways in which these separate national identities (and their local incarnations) shaped and influenced the concepts of “Britain” and British space.

Taking, for example, the most contentious case of the relationship between England and Ireland, Robbins points out how the very terrain of historiography became contested, with the question of who owned Irish history looming as large in discussions as the question of what constituted Ireland as a national space. There could be no simple narrative—no single story line—about Ireland, and the fact of partition of Ireland made the narrative more fragmented and more complicated.

Such confusing and multilayered historiographic narratives were no less common, Robbins suggests, even in the case of England, Wales, and Scotland. In different degrees, all these regions (and nations) had similar problems with regard to the articulations of locality, province, and nation, and even with such seemingly simple developments as the creation of history departments and curricula at “national” universities.

Rather surprisingly, Robbins appears to marginalize the role of the imagined community in the making of the nation (although he does include in his bibliography some recent scholarship that follows that line of thought).

Another question that should have been addressed, but is not, or is merely hinted at in passing, is about the effects of decolonization on the idea of a greater Britain, especially in its global and imperial manifestations. There is a growing literature on the impact of a waning empire on the making (or unmaking) of the metropolitan psyche, and this particular discussion could have been further enriched by a more detailed examination of those effects, especially since Robbins acknowledges that in the formation of “Britain,” the expansion of the British empire played an important part, and also cites Catherine Hall’s book, Civilising Subjects: Metropole and Colony in the English Imagination.

All in all, the essay is a useful, helpful, and masterly survey of a complex problem that is pertinent not just to historians of those islands across the Atlantic, but to all who study the critical and complex constructions (and deconstructions) of nations everywhere.

Readers are invited to read the full Keith Robbins essay, “The ‘British Space’: World-Empire-Continent-Nation-Region-Locality: A Historiographical Problem” (to which History Compass is providing open access) and offer, using the comments feature here, their own thoughts, comments, suggestions, and critical questions on the essay in particular and on the historiography of nationhood and national identity in general.

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