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Modern Iranian History

May 4th, 2012

What Kind of Modern Iranian History We Can or Cannot Write?
A workshop organized by the Yale Iranian Studies Initiative

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Modern Iranian Historiography: A Report on the Proceedings of a Workshop

With the growth over the past half a century of available source material on modern Iranian history, issues of historiography and methodology deserve a fresh review. Historians of Iran can now draw on a vast body of primary sources, both published and unpublished (new archival resources, memoirs, diaries, collections of documents, private papers, travelogues, commercial and economic reports, local and provincial histories, diplomatic dispatches, official memoranda as well as journals and newspapers, collections of popular and folk literature, religious and literary sources, photographs, paintings and artifacts).

This workshop aims to gauge new potentials that this exponential growth in source availability undoubtedly harbors for the historiography of Modern Iran (1785-1989) while at the same time trying to identify potential pitfalls and limitations. Keeping in mind developments in Western, East Asian, South Asian and Ottoman historiography with new focus on local, transnational and cross-regional connections as well as emphasis on subaltern, gender, environmental, micro-historical and other, as it were, lateral approaches, the workshop intends to explore how these currents might be brought to bear onto the study of the Qajar and Pahlavi periods (and through to 1989, the first phase of the Islamic Revolution).

Can historians of Iran produce detailed provincial and local histories similar to historians of Europe and the Americas utilizing a wealth of new primary sources? Would it be possible to write institutional and legal histories with innovative approaches similar to those recently produced for the Ottoman Empire and Egypt? Can indigenous Iranian sources, especially for the Qajar era, supersede the Western sources, upon which much of the historical scholarship still relies? Are there new opportunities for the more ‘”conventional” fields of political, diplomatic and military history? What does the increasing availability of private papers and correspondence combined with the burgeoning record of oral history herald for the genre of historical biography? On a more practical level, what are the issues of accessibility, biases and agendas of the gatekeepers, and how do they relate to the quality of historical scholarship emerging in Iran and outside Iran?

These are some of the questions that the one-day workshop held at Yale (May 4th 2012)  addressed. The event is intended as a preliminary session in preparation of an international conference on today’s potentials and limits for writing the history of Modern Iran to be held at Yale in the spring of 2013. The workshop is aimed at formulating the conceptual framework for the forthcoming conference. Each participant provided an outline in the area of his or her interest and expertise, distributed in advance among the six participants. The workshop then discussed the papers alongside other pertinent themes.

The Iranian Studies Initiative is thankful to the American Institute of Iranian Studies for a grant for convening the workshop. Dr. Oliver Bast, Senior Lecturer in Middle Eastern History at the University of Manchester and currently Visiting Fellow in Iranian Studies at Yale, has kindly agreed to be the co-organizer. The Yale Council on Middle East Studies and the Department of History cosponsor the event.

Abbas Amanat
Oliver Bast