Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Lucy Riall

Research in Dialogue - Dialogue in Research: Interview with Professor Lucy Riall

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Europäisches Hochschulinstitut, Florenz ()
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From - Until
01.06.2015 -
Brixius, Dorit

Dieser Beitrag ist hervorgegangen aus der Initiative von Doktoranden des Seminars für ‚History and Civilization' (HEC) am Europäischen Hochschulinstitut in Florenz. Ihr Projekt ‚Research in Dialogue – Dialogue in Research' wird herausgeben von Tilmann Kulke, Dorit Brixius, Ievgen Khvalkov, Florian Wagner und James White.
geschichte.transnational veröffentlicht in loser Folge Interviews, Literaturberichte und Forschungsergebnisse aus dem Bereich transnationaler und globaler Studien.

Interview with Professor Lucy Riall
by Dónal Hassett and Miquel de la Rosa, 23 June 2014*

Professor Lucy Riall is Chair of Comparative European History at the European University in Florence. She has previously held positions as Professor of History at Birkbeck College and Lecturer in Modern European History at the University of Essex. She holds a degree in Government and History and a Masters in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics while she gained her PhD from the History Department of the University of Cambridge. Her principal research interests include the history of nationalism in Europe, the Mediterranean cultural space, the unification of Italy and cultural and political biography. Among her many publications are the monographs “Garibaldi. Invention of a Hero” (New Haven & London, Yale University Press, 2007) and “Under the Volcano: Revolution in a Sicilian Town” (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2013).

Perhaps your most successful and controversial work is your study of Garibaldi, the man and the symbol. Do you consider it a biography and if so, what role do you think biographies can play in a historiographical context increasingly hostiles to narratives centred on Great Men?
LR: The book certainly contains biographical elements but I did not set out to write a traditional biography. I wanted to analyse how a man’s life could be (re)constructed for political purposes and to examine the process whereby the life lived became the life imagined. This was what I meant by the controversial subtitle ‘invention of a hero’ and, in the course of examining this ‘invention’, I became very interested in the use, and indeed misuse, of biography. As to the question about Great Men, I am not convinced that such people exist! But Garibaldi was undeniably an impressive political leader: he showed great bravery in many respects and had a real talent for political communication. Moreover, I think that we have recently seen a return to history that is centred on individuals, and where it does not really matter whether they are ‘great’ or ‘humble’. Biography has a very important role in this new kind of history.

Another central concern of your work has been the attempt to reconcile the local with not just the national but also the regional, the imperial and even the global scales of history. To what extent does blending the macro and the micro require reshaping individuals’ senses of their place in history and fitting them into wider narratives?
LR: The short answer is that it does! But ‘to what extent’ is more difficult to answer … There is some really interesting work being done at the moment but here early-modernists are ahead of modern and contemporary historians. Having said that I have recently read two very interesting pieces on the 19th and 20th century that do just what you describe – Jan Rueger’s 2014 article on Heligoland in the “American Historical Review” and Andrew Zimmerman’s 2010 mongraph “Alabama in Africa”. The former takes a small island in the North Sea as a microcosm for the Anglo-German relationship and the latter looks at attempts to transfer economic lessons from the American South to the German colony in Togo. In both cases, it is striking the extent to which the success of the study is dependent both on careful and extensive research using a great variety of primary and secondary sources and on the narrative skill of the historian.

Your academic training is grounded in the social sciences. How do you think this informs your practice of history? Furthermore, how does your political science background sit with what could be considered to be a strongly cultural and even anthropological approach to history?
LR: I have always thought that history is a very eclectic discipline that depends heavily on advances in other fields in social sciences and the humanities. In my case, my training in political science and sociology coincided with the rise of cultural history but I never felt constrained by either or saw much of a contradiction in using the insights of all these different approaches. I suppose that in a lot of my work, and particularly in my last two major books on Garibaldi and Bronte and in related publications, I maintained a strong interest in problems of political authority and leadership while trying to use a cultural approach to ask new questions and find different answers that would be elusive if one was just to rely on the methods of social science. Then, as is clear from my answers to the previous two questions, I am interested in focusing on individuals while also placing them in a broader context, and that makes me much more of a historian than a social scientist.

What is your interpretation of the role of narrative in history-writing? Should history be narrative-driven or is the historian’s task to bring to light empirical data from the past? Are these two modes of historical writing necessarily opposed or can they, indeed must they be, complementary?
LR: I think this is a slightly false question that derives perhaps from the notion that narrative history is popular history, and therefore less serious than a more analytical approach. Narrative is absolutely essential to good history-writing but one always has to ask what its purpose is: narrative can hide an argument and/or an interpretation while simultaneously promoting both. So we should always aks what the narrative is telling us and why. I do not think that the two modes of writing are opposed at all. Narrative should be driven by empirical findings, or at least the two should exist in a constant dialogue with each other.

Throughout your life as an academic you have shown a commitment to engaging with the wider public whether through the media or through public talks. How does this reflect your understanding of the role of the historian in society and how has this changed over the course of your career?
LR: One reason why I like engaging with the wider public is because it is great fun. The past doesn’t just belong to historians, it belongs to everyone and it can be really exciting to talk to the public about their understanding of history. Then, it is also challenging – trying to condense a complex historical narrative into something that non experts can understand and engage with is extremely difficult and can help clarify what matters and what does not in a particular historical controversy. I have always found this exercise very useful. Moreover, if historians will not engage with the public over the past, somebody else will and may well make political use of it. I have always thought that the role of the historian is not so much to entertain (although he or she can choose to do so) but to be critical, and produce a more sophisticated, complex sense of past societies as the basis for a different understanding of the present.

Recent elections have shown that across much of Europe a populist nationalism hostile towards the EU and globalisation is on the rise. In contrast, the romantic nationalists that you have studied often embraced the idea of Europe as fundamentally emancipatory. What, in your view, are the commonalities and contrasts between these two radically different forms of that always complex structure of thought which we call nationalism?
LR: Nationalism is of course a form of collective identity and as such draws much of its strength from its emotional appeal. It is not an ideology as such but rather can be attached to different political ideologies, on the left and on the right. Towards the end of the nineteenth century in Europe, nationalism became ‘official’ and was harnessed by regimes to give themselves popular legitimary, whereas before that nationalism was a movement of political opposition promoted by democrats. How and why the democrats lost control of a movement that they had done so much to develop is a question that to my mind requires further study, but I continue to believe that there is nothing wrong with nationalism per se, it is its political use that is more problematic.

Your work has sought to integrate Italy into wider European, imperial and global spaces. Do what extent does Italian historiography remain introspective and what is the connection between this paroachalism and a sense of Italian exceptionalism in narratives of European history?
LR: Italian historiography has remained nationally-centred for a long time and this sense of exceptionalism that you mention does depend on the reluctance to compare. But this is changing and there is a new generation of historians who are far less parochial than their teachers. The real problem here is giving them a voice and, above all, a career – there are not nearly enough academic jobs for young Italian historians and some of the best and brightest are forced to go abroad to seek careers.

*Dónal Hassett is a Third-Year doctoral researcher at the History Department at the European University Institute in Florence. He holds a degree and an M. Phil in European studies from Trinity College Dublin, where he also holds a non-Foundation Scholarship. His thesis focuses on the place of the Great War in the language of claims-making of political actors in interwar Algeria. His principal research interests include colonial and imperial history, legacies of the Great War, the rise of the Welfare State and the extreme-right in France.
Miquel de la Rosa is a Third-Year doctoral researcher at the Department of History and Civilisation at the European University Institute in Florence. He holds a degree in Modern History (University of Valladolid) and Journalism (Pompeu Fabra University), and a MA in World History (PFU). He gained professional experience as editor and speechwriter at IESE Business School and the Institute for Catalan Studies. His thesis focuses on the interplay between liberalism and imperialism in 1860s France, with especial attention to liberal attitude(s) towards the Second Empire’s expansionist project in Algeria, Cochinchina and Mexico.

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