So What Is the Story – Canadian History Round Table


So What IS the Story?

Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography


The idea for this forum arose from a discussion between Ruth Sandwell and Lyle Dick during the Canadian Historical Association Annual General Meeting in 2009, at which time we observed that historians tended to attend conference sessions relating only to their own sub-specialties, with the result (we complained) that environmental historians often only talked to environmental historians, gender historians to gender historians, military historians to military historians, and so on. We hatched a plan to bring Canadian historians of different kinds together in a single roundtable session in the next 2010 CHA meeting, inviting them to discuss the relations, if any, amongst their various kinds of historical work. After some discussion, we decided that we would follow along with the CHA conference theme of Storytelling and ask panellists to approach this question by focusing their comments in a session entitled “So What IS the Story? Exploring Fragmentation and Synthesis in Current Canadian Historiography.”

Session organizers Lyle Dick (speaking about critical studies in history) and Ruth Sandwell (history as taught to undergraduates) succeeded in persuading four other Canadian historians to participate: Peter Baskerville speaking on quantitative history, Steven High on oral history, Alan MacEachern on environmental history, and Adele Perry on gender and colonial history. The Roundtable proposal we submitted was accepted for the 2010 CHA conference. After what turned out to be the lively and well attended session in Montreal, four panellists agreed to publish contribute their comments with Active History, and Steven High’s paper appeared separately on the Active History website.What follows is a short introduction, followed by four panellists’ essays, only slightly revised in most cases from the presentations they gave at our CHA roundtable.

Fragmentation and Synthesis in Canadian History – Introduction

Lyle Dick and Ruth Sandwell

Amidst the ferment in the discipline of history over the last generation, Canadian historians, like their counterparts in other countries, have wrestled with questions of fragmentation and synthesis.For more than two decades significant concerns were raised regarding a perceived lack of coherence in the field of Canadian history, yet few new ideas were advanced to help the discipline address these concerns beyond general appeals for a return to “national history.” Nevertheless, in the current context of increasing diversity of sub-fields and research concerns, many practitioners continue to express a desire to find forms and methods that could help bridge these great divides, that is, that might enable the innovative and important work of specialists to both find its way into and influence the crafting of large-scale treatments of Canada, its regions, or indeed, regions transcending national boundaries.

Questions or concerns over fragmentation and synthesis have been present for decades.In the 1980s and 1990s American historians wrestled with problems ofhistorical synthesis in light of advancing multiculturalism, feminism, postmodernism,and the emergence of an array of interpretive lenses and rubrics, withoutany clear consensus emerging as to whether or how national syntheses couldbe developed.[1] In Canada we witnessed a similar proliferation of specializations, including gender studies,quantitative history, environmental history, post-colonial studies, critical and cultural studies, public history and oral history, each withits own methodologies and interpretive concerns. These various specializations and approaches generated valuable new knowledge but Canadian historians confronted much the same challenge as their American counterparts – determining whether or not it is feasible to integrate this specialized work into nationalsyntheses and if so, how to do it.

It seems timely to take a closer look at this long-standing conundrum and assess to what degree synthesis might still be a relevant or methodologically sound form and strategy for responding to fragmentation, and under what conditions it might continue to serve as the organizing principle for academic or public histories in Canada. Regarding fragmentation, we need a clear-sighted assessment as to whether it indeed generates the problems attributed to it, or conversely whether even more such diversity might be desirable.We need to assess whether the form and content of specialized studies can appropriately be integrated within synthetic representations, or indeed whether the forms of both synthetic and specialized histories might warrant revisiting, perhaps to be replaced by something different.

Some definitions are in order.The term “synthesis” derives from a Greek term, meaning “to put together.” The Oxford Dictionary defines synthesis as “the process of building up separate elements, especially ideas, into a connected whole, especially into a theory or system.[2] Historical synthesis – an intertwining of representations of historical events and causal explanations – has been practised at least since the time of Herodotus.While historical writing has certainly changed over the course of its history, in the last two centuries it has displayed a remarkable resiliency in its most basic formal characteristics. These include a commitment to universal history and a preference for organicist strategies of representation oriented to integration of individual events within larger narratives – “strands of cable being wound in a rope yard,” as the late W.L. Morton characterized his approach to the Canadian Centenary Series.[3] Practitioners have applied synthetic techniques across the field, from macrohistory to microhistory and most other scales in between.Most often, the term “historical synthesis” has been applied to grand narratives, comprising efforts to integrate a wide range of scholarship into large-scale histories of regions, countries, continents, or the world.[4]

“Fragmentation,” meaning “the process or an instance of breaking into fragments,”[5] is a term of relatively recent provenance in historiography. Its application to historical debates largely dates from the so-called History Wars in Europe, North America, and Australia in the 1990s, when traditional historians, led by J.L. Granatstein and others, expressed their unhappiness with a perceived disorder and loss of coherence following the advent of such sub-fields as social, women’s, and environmental history.[6] The term “fragmentation” is problematic, as it implies the shattering of a pre-existing whole into little pieces, which does not seem an accurate characterization of what has been happening in the field of Canadian history over the last generation. Rather than the shattering of a whole, we have witnessed an expansion of historical enquiry into numerous areas that were never part of the traditional canon. History and other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have necessarily become more diverse because Canadian society has become more diverse.Today the complaints about fragmentation seem rather dated and off the mark, perhaps only the most recent expression of what Henri Berr, a forerunner of the Annales School approach taken by French historians, termed “the terrible craving for synthesis.”[7] The more pressing question appears not to be whether History has become too fragmented, but rather whether long-standing forms such as historical synthesis are up to the task of representing the actual diversity of Canada’s past and perspectives bearing upon it.

It is not as if synthesis has disappeared from the scene. In public history, over the last decade it was the dominant form in such major public history offerings as CBC Television’s series Canada: A People’s History and the permanent exhibition at the Canadian War Museum.[8] Driven by nationalistic imperatives, the storylines of these productions involved the harmonization or omission of historical material at variance with their overarching syntheses, raising further questions about the capacity of this form to represent the diverse experience of the many individuals, peoples and perspectives bearing upon Canadian history. In academic history, historical syntheses have continued to be a preferred form of representation for survey national and regional histories right up to the present, although some observers have noted that these works often do not incorporate the specialized studies that do not readily tie in with their overarching rubrics.[9]

We do not intend to revisit the overheated debates of the History Wars, which were often loaded with the baggage of intradisciplinary rivalries and an unwillingness to engage the other.However, other scholars more sympathetic to diversity have also expressed a desire for a revival of national syntheses.[10] Their cogent commentaries warrant serious consideration although we still lack detailed road maps that could guide the development of stronger interconnections between the disciplinary sub-fields.To this end, the authors of this collection offer their essays to encourage historians to continue searching for ways of bringing the diverse strands of Canadian history into common frames of reference.We understand that such frames will necessarily be plural and acknowledge that this process may or may not lead to future syntheses. These issues will likely continue to be debated but the large and engaged audience at our CHA panel suggests a widely-shared feeling that more dialogue on such important historiographical issues is desirable.

In this collection, Peter Baskerville renews the call of quantitative historians for greater attention to counting.In this account, microdata offer the potential to reframe many of the debates of Canadian historiography, organized not around the nation-state but rather around different spatial, literary and quantitative categories as revealed in the Canadian Century Research Infrastructure Project (CCRI) analysis of the Census of Canada between 1911 and 1951.( )In his paper on the Active History website Stephen High elaborates the role of oral history and the concept of “shared authority” as alternative means of moving beyond our preoccupations with the nation-state toward a deeper understanding of history connected at once to both the local and the international.Lyle Dick suggests that a greater engagement with critical theory might help us develop historical forms more sensitive to difference, open-endedness and democratic practice.Adele Perry further recommends expanding the frame of reference beyond the traditional nation-state to incorporate transnational perspectives and topics, bringing to light “how history is lived both outside and between national borders.” For her essay, Ruth Sandwell argues that concerns over historical synthesis extend to the classroom, where more attention to specialist disciplinary knowledge, rather than less, is warranted.She views the enhancement of critical tools in history education relating to historical sources and methods as essential to advancing Canadian citizenship and democracy. In the spirit of renewed enquiry then, these essays are offered, hopefully to generate further discussion and debate as to how we might begin again to address these long-standing concerns in Canadian historiography.

Peter Baskerville, “Undetermined by Borders: The Commonality of Counting.”
Lyle Dick, “Fragmentation and Synthesis from the Standpoint of Critical History.”
Adele Perry, “Synthesizing or Fragmenting What? Nation, Race, and the Writing of Canadian History in English.”
Ruth Sandwell, “Synthesis and Fragmentation: the Case of Historians as Undergraduate Teachers.”

[1] See Theodore K. Rabb, “Coherence, Synthesis, and Quality in History,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12, 2 (Autumn 1981), 315-32; Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History”; George M. Fredrickson, “Commentary on Thomas Bender’s Call for Synthesis in American History,” Horst Dippel, “Commentary on Thomas Bender’s Call for Synthesis in American History”; Thomas Bender, “Response to the Commentary,” in Gunter H. Lenz , Harmut Keil, and Sabine Brock-Sallah, eds., Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies (New York: St. Martin’s Press / Frankfurt am main: Campus Verlag, 1990), 51-93; Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: Continuing the Conversation,” The Journal of American History 74, 1 (June 1987), 123-30; Thomas Bender, “‘Venturesome and Cautious’: American History in the 1990s,” The Journal of American History, Vol. 81, No. 3 (December 1994), 992-1003; Thomas Bender “Strategies of Narrative Synthesis in American History,” The American Historical Review 107, 1 (February 2002), 129-53; Roy Rosenzweig, “What Is the Matter with History?” The Journal of American History 74, 1 (June 1987), 117-22; Neil Irvin Painter, “Bias and Synthesis in History,” The Journal of American History. 74, 1 (June 1987), 109-112; Todd Estes, “Searching for Synthesis: The Fragmentation ofEarly American History and the Prospects forReunification – A Review Essay,” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 104, no. 1 (Winter 2006), 95-126; Richard Wightman Fox, “Public Culture and the Problem of Synthesis,” The Journal of American History 74, 1 (June 1987), 113-16; Eric H. Monkkonen, “The Dangers of Synthesis,” The American Historical Review. 91, 5 (December 1986), 1146-1157; John Kuo Wei Tchen, “Back to the Basics: Who is Researching and Interpreting for Whom?” The Journal of American History. 81, 3 (December 1994), 1004-10; Dorothy Ross, “Grand Narrative in American Historical Writing: From Romance to Uncertainty,” The American Historical Review 100, 3 (June 1995), 651-77; David J. Russo, “Problems in Historical Synthesizing,” in Clio Confused: Troubling Aspects of Historical Study from the Perspective of U.S. History (Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1995), 91-107; Mark G. Malvasi, “Kirk Among the Historians: Myth and Meaning in the Writing of American History,” The Political Science Reviewer 35, 1 (Fall, 2006), 132-58.

[2] R.E. Allen, The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 8th Edition (Oxford, United Kingdom: Clarendon Press, 1990), 1238.

[3] Quoted in Lyle Dick, “‘A Growing Necessity for Canada’: W.L. Morton’s Centenary Series and the Forms of National History, 1955-1980,” Canadian Historical Review. 82, 2 (June 2001), 233. See alsoHayden White, Metahistory (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1974), 15-16; and Keith Jenkins’discussion of White’s Metahistory in On “What is History” From E.H. Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (London and New York: Routledge, 1995), 159.

[4] Historians differ somewhat in the terminology applied to large-scale history.Alan Megill uses the term “grand narrative” to apply to the story of all humanity, while he uses “master narrative” to apply to one segment or nation. The historian Dorothy Ross has generally adopted Megill’s distinctions.Robert Berkhofer Jr. uses the term “great story” in much the same way that Megill refers to “grand narrative.” Alan Megill, “‘Grand Narrative’ and the Discipline of History,” Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 165-87; Dorothy Ross, “Grand Narrative in American Historical Writing: From Romance to Uncertainty,” The American Historical Review, Vol. 100, No.3 (June 1995),651, note 2;Robert Berkhofer Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard/Belknap, 1995), 30 ff.

[5] R.E. Allen, ed., The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), 466.

[6] J.L. Granatstein’s Who Killed Canadian History? (Toronto: HarperCollins, 1998).

[7] William R. Keylor, “Henri Berr and the ‘Terrible Craving for Synthesis,’” in Academy and Community: The Foundation of the French Historical Profession (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1975), Chapter 8.

[8] Lyle Dick, “Representing National History on Television: The Case of Canada: A People’s History,” in Zoe Druick and Patsy Kotsopoulos, eds.,Programming Reality: Perspectives on English Canadian Television (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2008), 31-49; “‘A New History for the New Millennium’: Canada: A People’s History,” “CHR Forum,” Canadian Historical Review 85, 1 (March 2004), 85-109; “Dialogue: Learning from Historical Controversies,” Canadian Historical Association Panel: Navigating Historical Controversies with Integrity, June 2008, Public History in Canada website:

and Dan Gallacher, “World of Museums: – The Bomber Command Controversy – A Promising New Method of Historical Interpretation,” Canadian Historical Association Bulletin. 34, 1 (2008), pp. 14-15.

[9] Christopher Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History,” in Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History, Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson, eds. (London: Institute for the Study of the Americas, 2009), 117. In a somewhat different vein, Cole Harris has recently asserted that because Canadians came from such varied backgrounds, and also because they settled in isolated and disparate rural places, our historians have exhibited a relatively high tolerance for difference and disagreement (and by implication fragmentation) regarding the country’s history. Cole Harris, “The Spaces of Early Canada,” Canadian Historical Review 91, 4 (December 2010), 725-59.

[10] See, for example: Gerald Friesen, Citizens and Nation: An Essay on History, Communication, and Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000); and Christopher Dummitt, “After Inclusiveness: The Future of Canadian History,” 98-122.


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