Distanciation and Approximation in Politically Engaged Western Historiography

Bowen Ran MA, PhD Project
Distanciation and Approximation in Politically Engaged Western Historiography

This PhD project examines the configuration of historical distance and its implications for progressive Western historical representations. The primary concern of this project is how progressive Western historians, such as Eric Hobsbawm (1917 - 2012), E. P. Thompson (1924 - 1993), and Natalie Zemon Davis (1928 -), in their attempt to mediate between past and present, nurture a cognitive and emotionalized attachment with past characters/events while preserving historiography as a critical force towards the present. To answer this question, three sub-questions are formulated:

  1. How precisely do they construct distance in their academic writings?
  2. What are the implications (epistemic, moral, political, etc.) underlying these acts?
  3. How can we understand the tension between distanciation and approximation in the works of progressive anglophone historians between the 1970s and 1990s?


To address these issues, recent discussions on historical distance or distance-making in historical theory/philosophy of history and beyond will be analyzed, studying the presuppositions they hold, literary devices they employ and research paradigms they borrow from other disciplines through a discursive reading of their historiographies, (auto)biographies, correspondence, interviews and talks, that will also identify the sociopolitical context in which these politically active historians operated. Distanciation and approximation, can be an effective way to explore how politically-committed historians have mediated between the concerns of the present and the study of the past, how they have been politically active while achieving recognized historical achievements, and how they have henceforth assumed double responsibilities, namely, to the time-honored academic tradition as well as to the wider public.

The project runs from 2022-2026 and is financed by the China Scholarship Council (CSC).


PhD candidate:


  • Prof.dr. Maria Grever
  • Prof.dr. Paul van de Laar
  • Dr. Robbert-Jan Adriaansen (daily supervision)

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