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What Is Cultural History?  
By Peter Burke
176 pp.
Polity. US$19.95
ISBN-10: 0745630758 / ISBN-13: 978-0745630755

When asking the question, what is cultural history, it is useful to first answer the question, what is culture? A simple definition might be that culture is a set of learned beliefs, values and behaviors the way of life shared by the members of a society.

Culture, then, is as old as human society, but the field known as cultural history is relatively new. It has been around for just over 200 years, Peter Burke tells us in his fascinating new work, What Is Cultural History? This book is the story of the 200 years of cultural history, or, the history of cultural history. Burke helps the reader understand cultural history in the context of its many related disciplines, such as social history, anthropology, linguistics, and psychology.

In What Is Cultural History?, Burke divides the development of cultural history into four phases. He starts with what he calls the "classic phase," which covers the period from about 1800 to 1930. Cultural historians in this time period concerned themselves with the connections between other fields in the arts, such as literature, art, and philosophy. In the second phase, which he calls the social history of art, began in the 1930s and persisted until the 1960s when a new preoccupation with popular culture prevailed. This interest in popular culture persisted until the 1980s, when the phase he calls the "new cultural history" developed. Each phase is treated with the carefully constructed language and nuanced conceptualization that readers of Burke's previous works have come to expect.

The author develops each of these phases in a cohesive thesis. He focuses on the main scholars in each time period. Although What Is Cultural History? does not include every thinker and idea in cultural history, it is an excellent introductory overview of the field. The reader comes away from the book with a much fuller understanding of this difficult-to-define discipline. In addition to clear language and thoughtful explanations, the author fleshes out his topic by examining the confluence of cultural history and other fields by including sections such as "The Cultural History of Politics" and "The Cultural History of Violence."

Peter Burke is a renowned history of culture and society. Educated at Oxford, he is Professor Emeritus of Cultural History at Cambridge University. Some of his other works include Varieties of Cultural History, A Social History of Knowledge, and Eyewitnessing.

Sylvia Breau, for Notable Book Reviews
Notable Book Reviews received one or more copies of this book in exchange for this review.
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