- Zoom In, Zoom Out, Change Lens:New directions in the historiography of decolonisation
Historical research on decolonisation has long been plagued by a particular problem of scale. Broad syntheses and overarching conceptual frameworks are desirable, it is generally agreed, as long as they do not obscure local specificities. The problem is that those historians working on the macro scale are considered to be writing histories of decolonisation (and to be well-placed to comment on its historiography), while those carrying out research on the local specificities are considered to be writing, say, a history of mid-twentieth-century Buganda. The former can choose to incorporate the latter, but the latter can only choose whether to enter into dialogue with the grander narratives—which may or may not take heed of their potential contributions. Of course, like many of the traits that the history of decolonisation shares with colonial and imperial historiography more broadly, this is not only a methodological question, but a highly political one, laden with echoes of the power structures it seeks to understand. That is not to say, however, that it cannot have methodological solutions—to some extent at least—a fact to which some excellent publications during the last decade attest.1 These interventions have taken the shape of, firstly, studies of specific decolonisation processes, reread to challenge broad assumptions, and, secondly, histories that centre on other processes or turning points into which decolonisation enters from the margins. Their implications spill beyond their own specificities to the extent that they cannot be ignored by any historian embarking on a "global" synthesis of decolonisation.
The four books under review can be understood as being part of a valuable flurry of literature produced in the wake of this intervention. As such, they share a broad interest in questions of scale and analytical lens, an interest that serves to structure the following assessment of these authors' contributions to a rapidly evolving historiographical field. Of course, each book has its own distinct historiographical agenda and explicitly responds to a range of other concerns, but this overarching interest encompasses several common questions and productive tensions that illuminate the state of the field. Some of these are now recognisable from an older literature: a problematisation of the actors and institutions (including the state) of decolonisation, and an exploration of comparisons and connections between colonising powers and between colonies. Others reflect wider disciplinary imperatives: the global and transnational turns materialise here both in the refusal to treat the empire to nation-state "shift" as historical inevitability, and in the insistence on looking outwards in order to tie decolonisation to other twentieth-century narrative threads, such as development and human rights. Others still have long scholarly roots but are now assuming renewed impetus: the unendingly contentious role of, variously, the discursive, symbolic, psychological and non-material in decolonisation. To all of these, we shall return.
Of the four books under review, two are edited collections, a format intrinsically suited to the pairing of conceptual threads and specific case studies. Craggs and Wintle's volume Cultures of Decolonisation came out of a conference of the same name at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, London, in May 2012. The volume is explicitly interdisciplinary, including contributions from curators, architects and art historians, and seeks to consider from a transnational perspective "how culture was interwoven with imperial collapse." Smith and Jeppesen's volume Britain, France and the Decolonization of Africa is the output of a 2014 conference at UCL, and is framed around the concept of the future imperfect tense in order to emphasise possibility and conditionality and in bringing to light the specificities of the late colonial shift in the entangled imperial withdrawals of two...