The challenge of writing contemporary history

TL;DR Writing the very recent history of one’s own society is exceptionally difficult. If we fail to realise why this is, we’re likely to be bad at it. But if we do recognize why it’s difficult, we can also see how deeply exciting this endeavour can be.


In all human cultures, one of the most important distinctions is between things considered ‘normal’ and things considered ‘contingent’. This distinction is crucial for how human cultures write history.

‘Normal’ in this context means default, accepted, obvious, unquestioned; people generally don’t write histories about these topics, because they don’t seem historical: they seem just given. These topics sit in the silent subtext of the culture, ever-present but unarticulated.

Things considered ‘contingent’, by contrast, seem curious, unusual, comment-worthy; they cry out for an explanation; and they are therefore considered suitable topics for history-writing.

Non-trivial example: before the 1960s, very few works of western history considered western gender norms, because they seemed so natural; after the 1960s, once conventional western gender norms were redefined as ‘contingent’ rather than ‘normal’, there was an explosion of historical interest in this neglected topic.

All cultures have unacknowledged subtexts, because subtext is crucial for communication: cultures simply can’t function properly if there is no assumed subtext shared by a quorum of its members.

If you want to see what a culture’s silent assumptions are, think about what it doesn’t historicize. 


The vast majority of our assumptions about what is ‘normal’ are cultural. If we are western, we instinctively think that western culture is ‘normal’: we use it as the baseline with which to judge everything else.

But this is why writing the contemporary history of one’s own culture, and doing it well, is so difficult. Since its history is so close to us, we don’t recognize its exoticism and its weirdness. Our lens for deciding ‘normality’ is too close to its lens for deciding ‘normality’, and so we can end up uncritically accepting many of its assumptions, without even realizing it. Consequently, we end up analysing our own culture in a flawed and incomplete way.

These assumptions even exist at the very level of the categories we’re using. For half a century, my field has been using the terms ‘religious’, ‘secular’, and ‘secularization’ quite naively, without thinking deeply about the ideological assumptions that these terms imply. It’s only very lately, in the transition from ‘secular’ scholarship to ‘postsecular’ scholarship, that we can begin to unpick the ideological categories bequeathed to us by the 1960s secular revolution.

But this difficulty also points the way to writing excellent, groundbreaking contemporary history. If we can deconstruct familiar assumptions that everyone else assumes; if we can historicize concepts that everyone else takes for granted; if we can exoticize and provincialize a situation that everyone else thinks is normal; then we are truly engaged in the exciting task of analyzing our own culture. Deconstructing one’s own inherited cultural framework is deeply exciting, and deeply difficult. It may also, at times, be controversial. But if we are committed historians, then we will be committed to historicizing everything.

This is what I’m trying to do, at least, in my forthcoming book: I’m trying truly to historicize Britain’s Sixties, by revealing it as a cultural invention.