Blogs > Cliopatria > The Fading Sounds of Battle

Aug 28, 2006 11:53 am

The Fading Sounds of Battle

I have the vague impression that intellectual conflicts within the discipline of history have become more muted than they once were. But any historian knows to mistrust impressionistic views of the past...

Rummaging through my office library this summer, I've become reacquainted with some of the titanic methodological battles that shaped the practice of scholarly history in the 1970s and 1980s, many of them occasioned by the rise of social history.

While these debates were often tied to general changes or conflicts in the academy over identity politics, multiculturalism, qualitative and quantitative methods, studies of society "from below" and so on, they also often took on a very particular localized character within history. Lots of scholars had a share of the debate over Time on the Cross, for example, but the intensity of the debate reverberated within history departments and historical scholarship.

It seems to me that the major controversies of the last six to ten years that have involved works of scholarly history have either concerned questions of intellectual honesty and scholarly craft (Bellesiles, Ambrose, Goodwin), or have concerned works of history which are at the borders of the discipline, such as Guns, Germs and Steel.

I suppose I feel this with particular intensity about my own sub-discipline of African history, which seems to me to be both very productive (e.g., many good new monographs being produced) and somewhat placid (e.g., not that much to debate or discuss, a high degree of methodological consensus coupled with a certain kind of conformism to perceived goals or postures).

So my questions for readers is this:

1) What's going on in your own fields of specialty in terms of controversies? Are there major books in the last five to eight years which have successfully sparked a satisfyingly rollicking intellectual debate about the field and the discipline itself?

2) Am I right that the discipline in general seems to operate with much more methdological consensus or mutual toleration than in the 1970s and 1980s? Yes, I know, here comes the 'groupthink' argument--consensus doesn't necessarily mean groupthink, it could just be that strong debates over method or argument have become trans-disiciplinary in some fashion. But any answer will be interesting to me.

3) Is it a bad thing if major debates about the basic nature, methodologies, and insights of a discipline move to other areas of study like economics, political science, sociology or literary criticism? E.g., if I'm right that things are calmer now, is that a sign of relative sanity and maturity, or of a kind of disciplinary senescence?

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David Lion Salmanson - 8/29/2006

Actually, Ralph, I think you are off base here. When I was Swat, I worked with mostly older established scholars whose courses stuck closely to defined boundaries. Thus I took American Social History, American Political History and American Diplomatic History. The last was taught by the labor historian but was fairly traditional. When i got to Michigan, I largely worked with people whose methodologies were hybrids along the old models. While I wouldn't call Susan Lee Johnson a political historian, she had a whole chapter on John C. Fremont in her book on the California Gold Rush. Likewise Maria Montoya isn't esactly a legal historian, but her history of the Maxwell Land Grant is suffused with legal history. Neither of these scholars fits with any easy label methodologically. I have often argued that the shift at Michigan among Amreicanists isn't a shift towards "Race" but rather a shift towards regional studies, Atlantic World, West, South and away from methodological concerns (ie: social, political, cultural) per se. I stand by that.

Timothy James Burke - 8/28/2006

Yes, I think that's part of it--many people simply decamped for institutes, area studies programs, sub-departments, or in some cases, other disciplines. I've observed before in these discussions that one mode of doing economic and political history just shifted over to economics and political science departments, in fact.

Thomas Brown - 8/28/2006

Perhaps in some debates, the warring factions simply divided their domains. For example, there are methodological distinctions between ethnic historians who work in history departments at research universities, and ethnic historians who work in ethnic studies departments. Having thus segregated themselves, there is less to fight about.

Timothy James Burke - 8/28/2006

No, the confusion is about the difference between what we publish as historians and about the labels we put on our positions. KC is rightly interested in how we advertise and label our specializations when we compose history departments. What I'm talking about in this post is what we write as historians. And here I think you could make an argument that the discipline has moved to a relative degree of methodological eclecticism, that there still is plenty of diplomatic, constitutional or political history, merely that it doesn't come in the pure and specialized form that KC seems to unproblematically regard as the natural norm.

When it comes to what we write, I think you have to make an argument that there is a virtue to both specialization and to strong definitions of exclusive methodologies that would justify a complaint against the current state of the discipline's published content. E.g., that we lost something precious that must be regained in largely pure form when we stopped writing a particular kind of political, diplomatic or constitutional history.

I'll give you an example that's fresh in my mind. I asked people at my blog for pointers to scholarly work on the intellectual history of constitutionalism, common law and liberalism in the popular or general imagination in 19th Century Britain.

I got three kinds of suggestions, broadly speaking. One was to older-style works on constitutionalism in England, another was to more recent works that combine intellectual, political, social and cultural history to talk about liberalism, politics and popular consciousness in 19th Century England, and to what I think I would view as primary texts or sources such as Burke's writing on Hastings or Churchill's history.

All good, all wonderfully useful. But if someone were to come along to me and say, "The discipline of history today needs someone who writes JUST LIKE WILLIAM STUBBS" (who wrote in the late 19th Century) or who wrote very "traditional" intellectual or political history, I'd ask, "Why?" Why do we need political history which is written in a way where it's strictly about politics? Why can't we have scholarly work on American politics that is also about American society and American culture?

This is what fueled past conflicts OVER PUBLICATIONS, which is what I'm asking about in this post--giant fights about historians who wrote scholarship that argued for their methodological approach as an absolute disciplinary commandment. Who said, for example, that we need to pay little attention to individuals, or who scorned narrative, or who demanded that all historical writing be quantitatively rigorous. It's this that now seems curious to me, as I don't feel that the major historical works of the past decade have had this quality of methodological absolutism.

It is a *different* thing to talk about how we ought to label and compose our departments. A scholar who writes a methodologically eclectic monograph on the intellectual and social history of the American constitution may nevertheless be primarily expert in and able to teach the much more specialized historiography of constitutional history, and be hired to do so. Specialization in teaching is about the division of labor; scholarship doesn't necessarily have to be divided in the same way.

And again, as always, I would observe that even when we're talking about the division of labor within a discipline, you still have to make a *positive*, *affirmative* argument about the necessity of teaching particular subjects. I'd completely agree that most departments in research universities fail to make that argument about their current disposition of specializations, treating them as natural. But then, often, so do the critics. There is a huge array of potentially legitimate specializations, both topical and methodological, peering in the gates of the contemporary research university. It's not good enough to just say, "Where's the political history?" as if no argument need be had about why teaching political history qua political history is vitally necessary, or whether it's more necessary in some fields than others, and so on. What *do* you get from studying the election of 1960 as an election that you don't get from teaching the social history of 1960 with politics thrown in as a sidebar? I could make an argument about why the latter is missing something vital, but I'm struck that many of those who complain can't be troubled to make that argument.

That's one thing you could say about social history in its scholarly rather than pedagogical manifestations in the 1960s and 1970s: it was fairly clear about why it was important to move to social history BOTH as an empirical project (to study that which we did not know) and as a political project (to transform that which we should want transformed). I think especially the latter now looks incredibly dubious, but social history once upon a time made its case before it became a sort of implicit methodological common sense. Political history, at least in a "traditional" form, maybe needs to do that beyond the bunkum patriotism of Lynne Cheney. What do we not already know about the election of 1960, say, that can only *be* known by traditional forms of political historical writing?

Ralph E. Luker - 8/28/2006

One of the reasons that I've thought you and KC were often talking past each other is that I suspect that your model of higher education and a history department in it is a liberal arts college model, whereas KC's is a research university model. It is useful, even obligatory, at a Swarthmore for a historian to do a bit of this and a bit of that. But it isn't going to work that way in at Michigan, where a high degree of specialization of field and method is expected.

Timothy James Burke - 8/28/2006

As you know, I agree that there's a groupthink problem in general in academia, but I don't think it's "local" to history either in its manifestations OR in debates about it. Notice, in fact, in the link how quickly characterizations of the "state of history" as a discipline encompass satirically composed titles that could just as easily come from literary criticism, philosophy, anthropology, and so on.

Whereas certain big battles of the 1970s and 1980s over social history, methodology, and so on, struck me as being disciplinarily "native" to history. They may have had a parallel to similar debates ongoing in other disciplines, certainly.

In no way do I take the marginalization of political, diplomatic and so on lightly or cavalierly. I do think that some of those who complain of that marginalization have a weak sense of the history of the discipline (e.g., they don't seem terribly aware of the circumstances under which that marginalization took place), and that they may be insisting in on a largely implicit conception of what constitutes political, diplomatic, constitutional or military history which falsely excludes a lot of healthy "hybrid" practices. E.g., maybe political history in some respects was not so much marginalized as absorbed or incorporated. For example, there's been a big turn in the last decade in Africanist history towards writing about indirect rule, the colonial state, customary law, and so on--all topics originally treated in "political history" in its older forms.

It's not enough, as I've had to say before in these debates, to say that it is self-evident that some "pure" form of political, diplomatic, constitutional or military history MUST return to the academy simply because, well, because it ought to. One has to make a positive intellectual argument on their behalf in their "traditional" form--what does that sort of "pure" methodological practice bring to the study of history that has been missing from it? Why shouldn't we instead all try to be a little bit political, a little bit economic, a little bit social, a little bit cultural in our histories? Don't works like Alan Taylor's William Cooper's Town make a good case for multiple methodologies? (biography, political history, social history, in that case).

But this might be precisely why huge "single-methodology" books which used to fuel debates within the discipline have vanished, because many younger historians accept the value of methodological pluralism? I ask this honestly not knowing the answer.

Maybe it seems silly now to get all exercised about pitting Genovese vs. Engerman vs. Carlo Ginsberg vs. John Demos, etcetera. Maybe it seems silly to declare that one is in favor of "narrative" or "econometric history" or "history-from-below" or "materialist history" as if those are exclusive declarations?

Or maybe, as Richard White suggests, careerism just means that more people keep a low profile, tend their own gardens, avoid a fight. I don't know.

Ralph E. Luker - 8/28/2006

Perhaps I was so close to the popgun that I mistook it for a cannon. Seriously, Tim, if you dismiss the marginalization of constitutional, legal, military, and political history as cavalierly as you've been inclined to do, you may not acknowledge that there have been and are major controversies within the profession. At the same time, the new president of the OAH, Richard White, suggests in the current issue of its Newsletter that you may be right. The fear of major controversy's possible damage to one's career, he suggests, may have taught younger historians to shun it. I'd say that that's his way of acknowledging that the "groupthink" argument may be correct. I remember sitting in a plenary session of an OAH convention four or five years ago. There were four people speaking from the platform. You couldn't have found anything on which they would have acknowledged disagreement. And I wondered why several hundred reasonably intelligent human beings sit through four different versions of the same thing.