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Feb 14, 2004 2:47 am

The Political and the Social ...

The interesting discussion of the tension between political and social narratives which began with KC Johnson's interesting commentary on intellectual diversity in academic communities, and history communities in particular, generated Cliopatria's most extensive exchange of views here (scroll down). Over at Invisible Adjunct, her invisibility posts a fascinating reminder to us that the tension has, well, a much longer history than we might have recalled. That raises all kinds of interesting questions, as Ed Cohn of Mildly Malevolent and Gnostical Turpitude points out in the discussion there, about why the social narratives seemed to gain the upper hand in the late twentieth century. As IA suggests, we may be so immersed in the causes of that shift that we haven't a very keen understanding of why it took place when it did.

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Robert KC Johnson - 2/14/2004

In the responses to my earlier posting, Tim Burke--correctly--pointed out that I seemed to be defending a somewhat firm line between both disciplines as a whole and the sub-disciplines of history.

In part, my opinion on the issue is a product of my employment environment--I teach at a school with an administration that promotes interdisciplinarity with a zealous aggressiveness. As an appropriate organizational model, our provost has cited Cal St-Monterey Bay, which has no History Department, instead opting for an interdisciplinary "globel studies" department.

In part, though, my opinion comes from what seems to me an assumption that approaches that cross either disciplinary boundaries or lines within the discipline are so obviously more enlightening that the proposition needs no defense.

It seems to me, however, that interdisciplinarity is outcome-neutral: in and of itself, it is neither good nor bad, and its usefulness depends on the question that the historian is asking. While in answering some questions, crossing either disciplinary lines or boundaries within the discipline can yield impressive scholarship, doing so can just as easily produce faddish or weakly argued work.

An example from my own field (diplomatic history) is the new emphasis on "gendered language" in US foreign policy. This approach certainly crosses bounds within the discipline--but as a tool for understanding US foreign policy, its value is minimal indeed. About the only good book I can think of that employs this approach is Elaine Tyler May's Homeward Bound, and that is essentially a women's history work that is useful in diplomatic history classes (I've used it at both the undergrad. and graduate levels). A good example of this approach's effects in teaching can be seen in one of the courses I linked to at UCLA, which examines inter-American relations through gendered language. This may be an interesting course--but as an approach to improving students' understanding of US relations with Latin America, it seems to me that the students would have been much better served with a straight diplomatic history class.

My point here is not that interdisciplinarity or (for lack of a better term) intradisciplinarity within history is dubious--just that its value, in either scholarship or teaching, cannot be taken as a given, and that too often, historians start with the methodology they will employ rather than beginning with their question, and then determining whether an inter- or intra-disciplinary research or intellectual approach is the wisest course of action.