"...our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design." -Morris Bishop
To what extent is this true in history and one other area of knowledge?
When investigating both history and and the natural sciences, they often seem as if they are collections of numerous bits of information that come together to create a picture. In history different events and stories are built together to describe what happened; in the natural sciences different theories are built from hypotheses, which eventually build the scientific laws by which people live. These pictures that are made from the different stories or theories are known by historians like Dr. Molly McCullers as dominant narratives. A dominant narrative is exactly what the above quote describes, "...a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together into a pleasing design..."(Bishop). This narrative does not always take all the information into account, usually leaving out the unsavory bits in order to spare the reputation of a certain country of group of people. This was exactly the case for the people of Kenya, specifically those known as the Mau Mau.
In the podcast titled Mau Mau by Matty Kielty and Janice York at RadioLab, they tell two different stories about the time during Britain's colonization of Kenya: the dominant narrative of the Mau Mau, and the truth about them. The dominant narrative is that the Mau Mau were murderous rebels who ruthlessly killed others. However, when older women who were alive during this time were interviewed, they gave a different story. According to them, almost everyone, including themselves, considered themselves Mau Mau. The claim that the Mau Mau were these terrible people was false. This discovery led to further research, and eventually to a place called Hanslope Park. A building in this Hanslope Park is now known to house the most extensive collection of secret archives any nation has seen. These secret archives contained information pertaining to the numerous British colonies, including Kenya and the Mau Mau. Within these archives, information was discovered that described the terrible tortures the British had used on the Kenyan people. To hide these tragedies, the British government blamed the Mau Mau. They made them the monsters, hiding or burning all evidence proving otherwise. They had the power, therefore they had the ability to create the dominant narrative they desired.
History is not the only area of knowledge that contains dominant narratives; the natural sciences do as well. Think about the dominant narrative as a puzzle. Scientists gather different pieces of information and fit them together to form the puzzles of different scientific theories and laws. The cell theory is a great example of this. It began with the discovery of the cell by Robert Hooke, which promoted future research that lead to more discoveries regarding cells. This research all came together to create The Cell Theory that students are taught in Biology classes. Before the Robert Hooke discovered that these tiny cells existed, the dominant narrative did not include any mention of cells. However, this discovery completely altered that narrative. It's as if while working out one puzzle you suddenly find a piece that does not fit anywhere, and so you have to start a new puzzle and start finding those new pieces and fitting them together. These new discoveries helped build our current dominant narrative of the cell, which makes up organelles, then organs, then organ systems, until finally creating an animal. Other theories may still remain, but they are no longer dominant.
|Alexander Fleming discovering Penicillin|
Another example of dominant narratives in the natural sciences are with medical advancements. Before Alexander Fleming discovered Penicillin and its use, illnesses such as meningitis, gonorrhea, and syphilis were terminal. Once Penicillin was discovered, the way those illnesses were perceived changed drastically, and today they are almost never life-threatening. The dominant narrative where those illnesses ended with a body count has changed to one where Penicillin helps patients with these diseases get better. The same can be said for all scientific discoveries in the medical field and every other field. These scientific theories seem to feel both fragile and stable at the same time: fragile because they can be shattered with a single discovery, and stable because they have hard scientificevidence behind them.
When thinking about both History and the Natural Sciences, it often helps to look at them as narratives. They are stories that not only describe our world, but also transform it. No matter what dominant narrative there is, in either history or science, new information can completely alter the story. This can sometimes mean the rewriting of a countries history, or can lead to completely new scientific ideas. Every belief we hold could possibly be the dominant narrative, so people must always be prepared for the possibility of new information to change the story.