Book Review: John Tosh's Pursuit of History

The Pursuit of History is a general overview of what history is, the specific fields of history, and the various methods used by historians in studying in those fields. John Tosh's purpose in writing the book is to show that “the most accurate history possible is a social necessity” (xv). The book “concludes by asserting that historians will continue to merit the support of the societies in which they work as long as they acknowledge the validity of relevant history” (xv). To further explain that he states in the conclusion:

“If society looks to historians for 'answers' in the sense of firm prediction and unequivocal generalizations, it will be disappointed. What will emerge from the pursuit of 'relevance' is something less tangible but in the long run more valuable – a surer sense of the possibilities latent in our present condition. For as long as historians hold that end in view, their subject will retain its vitality and its claim on the support of the society in which they work” (343).

John Tosh comes out and states exactly what his biases are; however, I think that he does a good job at discussing all of the elements of historical research in an unbiased manner. His own research experience is “in the fields of African history and gender in modern Britain” (xix). Here is his statement of his opinion on the role of history and how history should be conducted:

“History is a subject of practical and social relevance; that the proper performance of its function depends on a receptive and discriminating attitude to other disciplines, especially the social sciences; and that all historical enquiry, whatever the source of its inspiration, must be conducted in accordance with the rigorous critical method which is the hallmark of modern academic history” (xix)

Tosh clearly conveys that history will remain relevant only as long as historians keep researching areas that are relevant to society at large. He seems to have a slant towards theory guiding what one researches. Despite believing in topical research, he also shows a great appreciation and sees a need for well written surveys of periods of history. The overriding theme throughout the book is that historians need to make an attempt to connect with the masses in writing and delivering their historical studies.

Tosh wrote, “Almost any theory can be 'proved' by marshalling an impressive collection of individual instances to fit the desired pattern” (218). In regards to this concern with using theory as a basis for what to probe, I was struck with a concept of biblical hermeneutics. One approach in biblical studies, which I adhere to, is that when studying the Bible we must try to empty ourselves of any preconceived notions. This allows the the Bible to speak for itself rather than making it say what we want it to say. This is not as easily done as said, but it is a worthy aspiration. It seems that the same approach should be taken in regards to history. When studying a specific period, event, or person (an idea Tosh appears to be against (119-122)) in history with an already conceived theory would always taint one's research. One aspect I deeply appreciate about the historical community is that they are quick to admit their bias; however, it does seem that the quickness to admit one's bias has led to an almost indifferent approach to bias.

One aspect of the book that peeked my interest was the section on oral history. Living in a country town where there really is no credible written history, it is depressing to see the past of this town die off with every dying generation. Oral history would be the only way to keep the story of the people residing in this working class town alive. Tosh mentions an aversion to oral history by historians as a result of “contemporaneity is the prime requirement of historical sources” and an “aversion to any radical change in the habits of work required for historical research” (312). I would add that historians have misgivings about oral history because they overvalue the credibility and accuracy of written history. Unless we have a collection of videos with audio covering all angles of an event, we have a filtered view of history. Even if we have that accurate of a view of all history, we would still benefit from an oral history in which we tapped into what people who were there, watching it live on television, and hearing about it second or even third-hand felt happened and attempt to discern what the results of that event caused and what caused that event. No written record or video can truly express the thoughts and feelings of the people or attempt to study causes and effects. Perception might not be reality, but one's perception is their reality.

John Tosh with Sean Lang, The Pursuit of History, 4th edn, Longman, 2006.