02-04-2007

No country is an historical island

in Icelandic

 

The aim of the project “Creating Links and Innovative Overviews for a New History Research Agenda for the Citizens of a Growing Europe” is to change the attitudes of researchers and the general public towards European history. This is one of the largest cooperative research projects in humanities in Europe. The European Union supports it with 4.5 million Euros over a period of five years. 180 researchers take part in the project from 31 countries. The project is coordinated by Italians and Icelanders.

Guðmundur HálfdanarsonGuðmundur Hálfdanarson, professor of history at the University of Iceland coordinates the project on Iceland’s behalf, but Ann Katherine Isaacs, professor in history at the University of Pisa, on the Italian side.
“This research project is called CLIOHRES; it started formally on June 1, 2005, and will take five years in total. The partner institutions are 45 universities and research institutes from 31 countries in Europe and South Africa. Each institution nominates four individuals to participate in the project, two senior researchers and two doctoral students,” says Guðmundur, but in addition to him, Anna Agnarsdóttir, professor of history at the University of Iceland, Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir and Ólafur Rastrick, both doctoral students in history, are active in the research in Iceland.

The aim is to change attitudes
The idea behind the research project was to encourage European researchers in various academic fields to develop new methods and practices in researching the European past. “We look at this as a platform for academics all over Europe to work together on rather broadly defined projects related to European history and the aim is to influence, and hopefully to change, research methods in European history and the attitudes towards the European past.”
Guðmundur points out that history was imperative in creating and constructing the European nation-states, but history is, for that reason, often closed inside the borders of each state. “Nevertheless, academics often deal with the same events but each from his or her national perspective. Academics in the larger countries often look at things from their own points of view, but it can be helpful to get acquainted with the attitudes of others in order to see things in a wider perspective; and this is, partly at least, the aim of this research project.”

A large data base is being created
All in all, 180 individuals all over Europe take part in the research, as was said before, and they are divided into six workgroups, each of which deals with a specific historical field. “One group studies states, legislation and institutions, another power and culture, the third religious and philosophical concepts, the fourth work, gender and society, the fifth frontiers and identities, and the sixth Europe and the world,” Guðmundur says.
Each group meets twice a year in seminars where people present papers, compare findings and debate specific issues. All the groups meet in a plenary conference once a year, and the last one was held in Reykjavík last December. In order to make the work more visible and effective, each group publishes one volume annually, and the whole network publishes together one volume on a transversal theme which unites the network. All the books are published in English and are accessible on the internet. “When the project is over, we intend to have published between 50–70 books. In the books we have already published, there is a great wealth of information which can be used in various ways in university teaching.”

International cooperation is important
Another important aim for this research, according to Guðmundur, is to involve doctoral students in the project. “In our view, it is imperative for doctoral students to be introduced at an early stage in their career to the international research community and to train them in cooperating on an international level. This is necessary for their future.”
Guðmundur points out that the same can be said for the teachers, and the main benefit for Iceland is that the project links the Icelandic research community with the European. “Through this cooperation, we realize that no country is, in itself, an island, and we experience that Icelandic history is not isolated, but a part of European history and the history of the world in general. With this we also want to influence how people write history and I think it is important to demonstrate that Iceland is a part of an international system of research and that Icelandic researchers can participate in international projects on equal footing with researchers from other nations.”

History is not a natural development
Guðmundur argues that history is a slowly moving process and it cannot be studied in the same manner as in many other scientific fields. “History is not identical to chemistry or physics, for example, where the scientist can make experiments to prove his hypothesis. In history, we cannot do experiments; we only have the existing sources to study.”
And as an example of the recent change in attitudes towards history he mentions that the tendency was to regard what happened as inevitable. “Now we know that the world is constantly changing and the development could have been very different from what happened. History is not a natural development, but is shaped by human decisions.”

The present in the light of the future
The coordinators of CLIOHRES are also very interested in making history more visible in the social debates in Europe today. Guðmundur mentions that many of the most important issues in the present are rooted in the past. “This year, our transversal theme is, for example, migration, which many people seem to think that is new in history. But people have always migrated; it is a part of human nature to move around.”
He points out that Icelandic society came about through migration; this was a process that took long time and it led to extensive amalgamation of population groups coming from many different places. “And now many people think that the world is falling apart because of migration. Of course, migration can lead to all kinds of problems, but it is not new that the world needs to deal with problems; this has always been the case, and if we had no problems to deal with, life would not be worth much,” concludes Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, professor of history.

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Università di Pisa