The Historian’s “Problem of Selectivity”

In “The Liberal Order Framework: A Prospectus for a Reconnaissance of Canadian History” (Canadian Historical Review, 2000), Ian McKay lays out a new interpretive narrative for Canadian historians. And if attendance at the recent session on “The Liberal Order Framework” at the Canadian Historical Association meetings is evidence, the historians are paying attention.

Note the term, “reconnaissance.” McKay’s offering a “reconnaissance of Canadian history.” He’s suggesting that the old Canadian narrative is dead or dying. But let’s not ask what it died of. The answer’s bound to be long. And contentious. Another day, perhaps.

Let’s ask whether historians need a framework.

There’s a huge literature on the subject. That frameworks, narratives, and paradigms are necessary or inevitable, almost everyone agrees. As one participant at the CHA session said, “The discrediting of Marxism and many of the other big theories left many historians without a theory with which to interpret the jumbled facts presented in the archive.” The “jumbled facts in the archive”! Good phrase! Archival materials aren’t like pieces of a jig-saw puzzle. There’s no one and only one way to assemble them. How do you know what facts to leave out? And how do you get the remainder lined up to make a manuscript? Philosophers speak of the “problem of selectivity.” Historians live it.

Undoubtedly a framework helps. If you know more or less what the picture’s supposed to be before you begin assembly, you’re ahead of the game. You’ll certainly feel more confident about tossing pieces that don’t fit.

But it’s been my experience that when a philosopher locates a “problem,” like the “problem of selectivity,” then you’ve got a Problem with a capital “p.”  Yes, the framework helps the historian to select the facts. But how does she select her framework? As Jack Granatstein likes to say: “whose history do you teach?”

Frameworks! One can’t do without them and one can’t do with them.

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2 Responses to “The Historian’s “Problem of Selectivity””


  1. 1 Jed June 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    How very true. Shocking how much influence Marxixm has had in Canadian history/political science.

  2. 2 Jed June 15, 2009 at 12:52 pm

    ha, Marxism, that is.


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