1.6 Using a historical approach
By adopting a historical approach we gain some distance from the present and everyday, viewing more clearly our taken-for-granted assumptions. Today's formations of parenthood and sexualities did not suddenly appear fully formed, but are the results of centuries of change. By looking at a particular historical phenomenon, fertility decline in Britain, we can explore some of the tensions and contradictions between deeply embedded and newer ideas and practices emerging at that time. These struggles are still with us, embedded in constructions of parenthood and sexuality, and reflected in a whole range of debates about social policy today. As Weeks put it: ‘The aim is to understand “the present” as a particular constellation of historical forces, to find out how our current political dilemmas have arisen, to see, in a word, the present as historical’ (Weeks, 1991, p. 159).
The starting point for historical study is to look at the research evidence and the analysis produced by other historians. This is called the historiography of a subject or topic; the history of that topic's interpretations. The phenomenon of fertility decline is particularly rich in historical interpretations and we will draw upon this historiography to see what it can tell us about parenthood, sexuality, personal lives and social policy. History is constantly being rewritten as popular and academic interpretations about particular topics ebb and flow. Events in the past are often seen differently at different times and it is important to recognise that historical interpretations are never definitive but are always open to reinterpretation.