The Turn

Historical arguments are structured like stories.

This is true even for complex historiographical interventions. If you look at an academic piece that you consider historiographically innovative or important, you will find that these are often built with the structural blocks that creative writers use in plotting.

For instance, creative writers often talk of the importance of the ‘disturbance’ in Act One of a story. The advice holds that if you want readers to find your story compelling, then the universe your protagonist lives in must be disrupted by some calamitous change, very near the start of the narrative.[1] But the disturbance does not truly appear from nowhere: skilled writers lay breadcrumbs which arouse the suspicions of readers. And writers use the short time they have before the disturbance to bring the reader into the world, coaxing them into an identification with the protagonist.

What does this have to do with writing academic history?

All three techniques can be seen in a good historiographical introduction – the breadcrumbs, the identification, and, most importantly of all, the disturbance, or what we could call the Turn.

Near the start of Oedipus and the Devil, a book of academic essays about witchcraft, honour, subjectivity, and psychoanalysis, Lyndal Roper has a short section about ‘the problem of subjectivity in the past’.[2] In less than two pages, Roper manages to summarize the ideas of two influential writers – Max Weber and Norbert Elias.

But she is already laying breadcrumbs. Although her tone is respectful and sympathetic, there are small clues that all is not right with how Weber and Elias have addressed the academic problem she is discussing. Weber’s book The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, she tells her reader, ‘still shapes the way we see the early modern period, even as historians dispute its empirical detail’.

The book is important and influential, but a careful reader notes that it might not be entirely right. Our ears prick up.

Less than a page later, having considered Elias, and the philosopher Charles Taylor in similar ways, Roper gets to the Turn. The Turn is the moment in every historiographical narrative when the author introduces the disturbance: their own argument. Roper, like many other academics, signals this by the appearance of the word ‘However’, before going on to show what it is that troubles her about Elias and Weber, and what it is that should trouble us. This move is absolutely explicit: as the Turn happens on the second page, Roper writes ‘I want to argue…’

The ‘I’ here matters, too.

Roper’s Turn effects the same change in a keen reader that a disturbance does in Act One of a piece creative writing. Where this section on Elias and Weber begins with a distant, or depersonalized subject – ‘historians’ – it slowly constructs an identification between the reader and Roper. By the end of the next page, she can declare that the history of witchcraft that she is discussing ‘belongs to our own era’.

This basic narrative structure, I would suggest, is crucial to how many of the greatest historians write convincing arguments in the historiographical sections of their work.

The good news is that it is relatively simple to imitate.

[1] See, for instance, Bell, Plot and Structure, p.27.

[2] Pp. 4-5, from which all of the following quotations are taken.

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