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​Visiting researcher at the ACRPS.

The ACRPS weekly seminar of Wednesday 10 October 2018 was led by the Algerian professor of modern history Dr. Nasreddine Saidouni, a visiting researcher at the ACRPS. Dr. Saidouni presented a lecture titled The French Annales School.

The lecture covered the early historical development of the Annales school, which is concerned with human activity, and laid out the theses of its most prominent pioneers. The school emerged in reaction to the positivist school hegemonic in historical writing in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, which delimited history narrowly, focusing on history of events and restricting it to dealing with documents through criticism and analysis separate from the economic, cultural and intellectual developments that Annales history concentrates on. Dr. Saidouni pointed to the importance of the critical historical articles published by Mark Bloch and Lucien Febvre in their journal Annales d’histoire économique et sociale from its first edition in 1929 to the emergence of the Annales school. He stated that Bloch and Febvre, in establishing the journal that came to be known as Annales for short, hoped to open up new horizons for a socioeconomic history that would critique the positivist historiography inherited by the historians of Berlin and the Sorbonne, who had been unable to move beyond the narrow scope of political and diplomatic history. The school itself soon came to be ascribed to this journal, one of its major vehicles.

Dr. Saidouni believes that the Annales school moved beyond the fixed view of the positivist school, transcending simple critique of documents to analysis of historical data connected to various aspects of human life. Likewise, it did not adopt the styles of the ‘engaged’ schools and the liberal and leftist trends dominated by an ideological standpoint. In this sense, the Annales school was a successful response to the crisis experienced by historical studies in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century in its methodology, its style and its treatment of events. The broad project overseen by Bloch and Febvre moved the focus of history from political events to the study of economic and social aspects, and brought about real development in the history of politics and events, i.e. narrative history of events and individuals. Febvre opined that ‘diplomatic’ history was nothing but ‘enigmas’ because of the absence of deeper events, and as such it was necessary to move beyond it to a ‘social’ history beginning from the premise of life as a comprehensive whole. This is the same inclination expressed by the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur when he said that the Annales school was characterized by comprehensive social realism.

In the second part of the lecture, Dr. Saidouni raised the important question of the effect of the Annales school on the development of historical studies in the Arab World. Did it have an effect on the renewal of method and the asking of questions about Arab history? Or was its effect limited to the interest and attention paid to its work by some Arab historians? Dr. Saidouni leans towards the latter proposal, with the exception of certain dissertations produced in France and in some Arab universities.

The lecture concluded with the point that the Arab World today is experiencing a double crisis: both in terms of methodology and in terms of fields and content of study. This has been noted by some Arab historians, including Constantin Zureiq, who criticized the use of Bloch’s methods somewhat implicitly in work. Some later academic historians like Wajih Kawtharani and Walid Noueihed have tried to define the method of the Annales school, while the Arab historical contribution has overall remained unaffected by their propositions. Dr. Saidouni attributes this to the difficulty of communication between the studies of the older generation and the studies of the new emergent generation – if not its total absence. The older generation adopted a historical method borrowed from the positivist school, whose prominence is clear in a number of methodological works directed at university students in the Arab countries, while the new generation have attempted to learn more about the state of historiography in the West without successfully making use of this to renew their approaches and methods. This leads Dr. Saidouni to suggest that those working on history in the Arab World have remained detached from productive interaction and constructive dialogue, with the exception of certain historians whose circumstances have allowed them to practice their craft in European academic environments or to produce dissertations under supervisors influenced by the Annales school ad its standpoint.