Cultures of communication: new historical perspectives

Richard McMahon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


This contribution locates the current collection of papers by young European historians in the historical context of historical and social scientific study of culture, and especially the historical turn, which reconciles poststructuralist culture scholarship with older concerns of cultural history. The contributors are all influenced by linguistic turn deconstruction of discourse, studying culture and identity as systems of shared meaning, which are highly unstable, heavily gendered and susceptible to renegotiation, reinterpretation and political instrumentalisation. Authors problematise and undermine the essentialist, nationalist, conservative, functionalist model of timeless, separate, coherent territorial cultures. They discuss competing and contested criteria for defining nations or describe cultural communication between ideological or social groups within national societies. Most also engage intensely with power differences, including Foucault's ‘microphysics’ of subtle and complex power–knowledge interrelationships, examining state cultural policies or how individuals or weaker groups transform, appropriate or reject hegemonic state or intellectual discourses. However eclectic history's theoretical borrowing, focus on contingent, negotiable change and traditional emphasis on empirical complexity over ‘rigorous’ theory have inspired a broad ‘historical turn’ in scholarship of chaotic, multifaceted, tenticular and contradictory culture. This significant revision of the linguistic turn anchors deconstructed discourse and identity in a material context of social structures, institutional infrastructures and power relations and uses the concrete practice of individuals to restore agency to historical subjects. Contributors therefore accept sociologically and geographically defined cultures such as classes, ethnic groups and nations as historically important units of cultural commonality and connectivity. Several contributors examine the relationship between sites, negotiations and impositions of local and cosmopolitan identity, transfers of ideas and specific technologies or mechanisms and institutions of connectivity within international scholarly networks. Connectivity anchors symbolic culture in the concrete sociopolitical realm, and reconciles the paradoxical continuity and fluidity of culture by avoiding the distinct bounded cultures implied by commonality.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-14
JournalEuropean Review of History
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 2009


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