Duelling narratives: historical knowledge mobilisation in the United States

Authors: Joel Malin and Dustin Hornbeck


This post was originally published by the Evidence & Policy blog on November 17, 2021.


We have re-issued the article that has already been published by the Evidence & Policy blog. We would like to express gratitude for the kind offer of the editorial board of the Evidence & Policy blog.

Original article URL: https://bit.ly/3oye1pO

This blog post is based on the Evidence & Policy article‘Historical knowledge mobilisation in a post-factual era in the United States


Public debates about history are nothing new, but in recent years – with the convergence of new media platforms and a tumultuous political atmosphere – we have noticed debates centred on duelling historical interpretations are becoming increasingly conspicuous and are engaging the public. In fact, both evidence-based and false, or misleading, historical claims are being brought forth all the time, apparently in efforts to influence key decisions and/or pushing for social change. This drive to mobilise historical knowledge, we also assume, reflects a shared understanding that our history and how we think about it matters – i.e. that different understandings of the past can help us navigate the present, pointing the way to different policies and, perhaps, a more just future.


We understand this strengthening phenomenon as historical knowledge mobilisation, and we set out to better understand its underpinnings, nature and impacts. We drew upon Ward’s (2017) ‘framework for knowledge mobilisers’ to analyse what and whose knowledge is being shared and how and why this is happening. Though we focused primarily on university-based mobilisers (academic historians and history-adjacent scholars), we also observed how non-academics actively inhabit this territory. Indeed, as we revealed, historians and non-historians alike are acting to mobilise the usable past in service of the present. Further, and on a partisan basis, we detect duelling preferences for ‘historical memories’ that either motivate progressive social change or favour policy inaction/reversal.


We identified three main themes to explain the historical knowledge mobilisation:


(a) correcting or countering a master narrative: The New York Times’ 1619 Project provides a prominent example


(b) real-time correction of historical claims: For example, when a historian such as Kevin Kruse corrects a media personality like Dinesh D’Souza via Twitter


(c) contextualising complicated political moments: for example, when academic historians contextualised ex-President Trump’s impeachment trial or publicly weighed in on whether he should be impeached or removed.


We also described new ways to disseminate/exchange such knowledge, which expand access both to carefully obtained historical knowledge claims but also to competing (and sometimes, outright false) claims.


Our findings provide insights into how historical knowledge is being used to justify political aims, and how some academics are using non-traditional means both to advance historical claims and to counter false and misleading ones. We see no end in sight here, especially given heated ongoing debates about our nation’s history and how it should be understood and taught. It is also clear that many citizens’ demand such information: many of us want to know our histories, how we got to where we now find ourselves, and we consider this information meaningful for navigating daily life.


Considering these findings’ implications, we point to fields/literatures (e.g. memory studies, digital media studies, misinformation studies) that provide useful information for those engaging in historical knowledge mobilisation. We also suggest the public would be well served by further infrastructural development to support academic/professional historical knowledge mobilisation – perhaps enabling, for instance, multi-pronged and multi-media dives into major, recurring topics (e.g. what is critical race theory? What caused the Civil War?). Meanwhile, we caution scholars and knowledge mobilisers that such topics are highly politicised at present. This fact, in turn, suggests historians might learn from scholars in other areas (e.g. climate science) who have operated in contentious spaces while aiming to communicate their/colleagues’ scholarship and its policy implications.


Broadly, we hope this study motivates scholars to pursue this complicated topic in different ways, historians to think differently about the activities they engage in, and funders and other intermediaries to consider if/how to support it. Overall, then, we hope this study will provide a solid start for further thinking and work.

Joel Malin is an Associate Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University. His research focuses on research-policy-practice connections, knowledge mobilisation and cross-sector collaboration.


Dustin Hornbeck is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Austin, Texas where he is working on a project funded by the Spencer Foundation about early college and dual enrollment in Texas. His research broadly focuses on how secondary school curricular options shape equity and democracy.

You can read the original research in Evidence & Policy:

Malin, J. R. and Hornbeck, D. (2021) Historical knowledge mobilisation in a post-factual era in the United States. Evidence & Policy, DOI: 10.1332/174426421X16328406523829.

Image credit: Pixaby

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Why, whose, what and how? A framework for knowledge mobilisers [Open Access]

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