Constructing history as a scientific discipline in the eyes of re-formed states


Development of history as a scientific discipline started in nineteenth-century. Historians were studying on official records only, looking on political leaders, bureaucrats, searching for their uniqueness, not as agents of history, as reality itself. This concept of history changed in time deeply. It effected from Marxist ideologies, French historians and so forth. Besides, there were some other things also changing, likely, statehoods, borders, ideas of political unities in the world. People witnessed collapsing of centuries-old empires such as Austro-Hungarian Empire, Ottoman Empire and Russian Empire. In this paper, I would like to discuss mainly around this parallelism between history writing and states, and confront discussions in this time of re-forming.


The time range that I want to speak generally includes nineteenth and twentieth-centuries. Earlier times only mentioned in the proto-nations and nation-states section. In this case, what I mainly used as primarily sources were Anderson’s Imagined Communities, Hobsbawm’s Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Turkish version also were used), and Suny’s study on 1915 cases in Ottoman Empire, namely, They Can Live in the Desert but Nowhere Else. Adding to this, some of the main articles from the field, such as Beissinger’s, “The Persisting Ambiguity of Empire,” and Huntington’s, “Class of Civilizations?” have also turn to account. I need to remark that most of my opinions are wise up by Professor Ronald G. Suny from his lectures in İstanbul Bilgi University.

Empire States and History

Historians got consensus in the basis of construction of empires. They say, it based on hierarchical differences. Basically, these differences include well-educated, money and power holder royalties, and plebs who was “other” for that royal creation. High society developed their own language, bodily expressions, dresses, in short, culture. They were able to go to the grammar schools while others cannot, and learn reading and writing. Going onto top of them, royal families, dynasties and so others, legitimised their claim with the word of god. So that, they got right to govern. These explanations would seem class centred, one can think of aristocrats as a class but it would be a mistake. People will develop class sensation in later time. People mostly identify themselves as religious groups before modern times. There were local religious leaders in Ottoman Empire, like derviş (dervishes) or şeyh (sheikh). People would follow them, watch their steps or identify themselves in their communities. One can think that derviş’s and şeyh’s also got their legitimate power from god. As we speak, this was the one of the main concept of legitimisation of power.

However, historians before modern times, usually wrote political history. They were interested in political leaders, emperors, pashas, because people were believing that actually those people were shaping the history. They were visible when ordinary people were not. Because of people sense of belonging, identification, made them agents. It reminds me an old relief: there was an Egyptian pharaoh who conquest a castle against his enemies, engraved in the stone of the size of a huge giant in front of the castle and there was a small soldier, holding the leg of pharaoh. If a king conquest a castle, then it was his success, not soldiers. These were same for official history narratives which survives today. It was not challenged until rising modern historiography. In nineteenth-century, Ranke started to systemise historical studies according to official records. In the beginning of the next century, Marxist ideas effected history writing and historicism become one of the main issue. Thanks to historicism, Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch made a huge impact on history writing in 1930s. Interests of the École des Annales were to discover changes in certain places, to write longue durée, and of the striking feature was to write the history of “ordinary people”. With this contribution, historians started to work on social history with the help of another supporting materials beside official records. In 1970s this trend turned to cultural studies and continued rapidly. The times of powerful emperors declined, other types of historical materials have been used, eventually historians started to revise their understanding of the past. But history was not the one field which was influenced by contemporary ideas. At the same time, centuries-old empires been collapsed, people witnessed two world war, and governments re-defined.

In the Ottoman Empire, the idea of belonging began to change in the time of Tanzimat. Tanzimat was based on people rights, who were living in hierarchal diversity. Hane (home, house) and identity of people become interest of the state. Very first demographic statistic and hane counting was started in 1831 during the reign of Mahmud II. It was a perfect tool for the state which wants to impose power on individuals. This concept of individual’s rights, help the emerges the idea of “civil society”. As individuals embedded in the political structure, the state redefined: power of the state started to be shared, the legitimacy of state begins to be based on individual’s participation. From then, unit of reference were individuals rather than social groups (Fatma Muge Gocek, 1993).

In this era, there were such good samples that shows us the idea of nation in the process of creation. One of the main example could be Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). His studies were going on the origins of people, their historical development and the diversity of communities. At this point, one can see that the idea of nation was shaping as well as history.[1] Furthermore, the emergence of the new form of nationalism were happening while the crisis of state building in Germany and other countries. But the case of Germany is important here because there was another thing that actually happened there. The academic history writing took shape mainly in Germany in the early nineteenth-century. The academic chairs of history founded in Berlin in 1810 and continued with France in 1812. Suny explains this relation with the connection between post-revolutionary nationalism and state politics of Germany and France. And either of historical scope were focused on to collect and publish historical documents about its national identity.

Proto-Nations and Nation-States

Modern historians talk about nation as it was constructed or invented, in another word, it is not actually existed in reality and therefore had to be discovered. But rather it was actually being created by people in modern times. For the Marxist historians like Hobsbawm, historicism would be one of the main element of writing history. So, what is historicism? Basically, historicism is being sensitive and noticing time and place. Things happen in particular place and particular time. And if one can understand the concept of phenomenon then can understand why it happen. Then what is history itself? Basically, history is a human creation. We can say that it is a fiction; every history has its own narrative. With this in mind, Hobsbawm have looked for the word “nation”, and searched for where it comes from. According to him, the definition of nation got variety of meaning in the past. It meant something for one but something else for another one at the same time. It makes hard to think one pure definition. Before 1884 the term nación means simply ‘other’ or a group of people who lives in a province or region. After 1884, it meant that a state or political unit that recognizes a superior administrative centre of all. Besides it gives meaning that the territories that this state and the people who live in these lands has formed as a whole.

One of the striking features is that social engineering needs connectivity between provinces and nation-wide education. Before printing press or national education, we cannot expect modern nation ideology. With the help of national education, language of royal court or high culture became national language. And, these technological improvements helped nationalities developing process. With these arguments, Hobsbawm strengthen his hands and claims that nationalities actually created from above. It stands to reason that nationalities developed its own territory, mixed with collective memory and depend on people. In other words, nations do not bless by god, it is not organic, instead it is unnatural, invented, and socially engineered (Hobsbawm, 1992).

Anderson agrees with Hobsbawm, and adds variety of facts in his arguments from around the world. He was also telling that it “is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives in the image of their communion.” (p. 6). He summarises modern nation-states with three elements. (1) The nation imagined as limited, there was no community who thinks that all human beings would be under the dominion of one nation. (2) It is imagined sovereign, they imagine themselves as “independent”. (3) And imagined as a community, which makes easier to fought and die for nation (Anderson, Imagined communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, 1991). Anderson criticise Hobsbawm for saying that the times of nations have past, because he sees the idea of nation-states still feeding from many things, for instance “invented” nation re-creates nation-states as well as its own intention. We can think that it is reciprocal fact, but we will see how long it will continue to refreshing.


Anderson, B. (1991). Imagined communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London, New York: Verso Books (Revised Edition).

Anderson, B. (2015). Hayali Cemaatler: Milliyetçiliğin Kökenleri ve Yayılması. (İ. Savaşır, Trans.) İstanbul: Metin Yayınları.

Barkey, K. (2008). Empire of difference: The Ottomans in comparative perspective. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Beissinger, M. R. (1995). The persisting ambiguity of empire. Post-Soviet Affairs, 11(2), 149-184.

Fatma Muge Gocek, M. S. (1993). Western Knowledge, Imperial Control, and the Use of Statistics in the Ottoman Empire. Center for Research on Social Organization Working Paper Series(500).

Hobsbawm, E. J. (1992). 1780’den Günümüze Milliyetler ve Milliyetçilik: Program, Mit, Gerçeklik (Revised ed.). (O. Akınhay, Trans.) İstanbul: Ayrıntı Yayınları.

Huntington, S. P. (1993). The clash of civilizations? Foreign affairs, 22-49.

Suny, R. G. (2001). History. (A. J. Motyl, Ed.) Encyclopedia of Nationalism, vol. I, Fundamental Themes, 335-358.

[1] Professor Suny, argues this concept widely. According to him, Herder was applying Liebnitz’s concept of development to peoples, and in substance saying that “all human values and understandings were historical and national. Herder emphasized transformation and change through time but always with a sense of an overall order.” (Suny, 2001, p. 18).