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History as an Academic Discipline 30 June 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, History, Modernity and Modernism, Philosophy & Social Theory, Postmodernity and Postmodernism.
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Last fall, a former student of mine, now in graduate school, asked me to give my impressions of the state of History in the academy. As a sociologist who’s first research project was historical (the book is almost done, damn it!), I see history as both an insider and an outsider. As I recently learned the hard way from a couple of brutal peer reviews on one of my articles, historians are often baffled by sociological methods of dealing with the past. Anyway, here are the five observations I made about History’s development over the past 35 years or so:

1. I think that the move to “social history” in the late 60s early 70s was a key development, as historians moved to write histories of populations, lifestyles, and cultures using some really creative applications of quantitative method. It was the culmination of a trend that had started in the 1950s (or earlier), but using the methods of sociology to answer historical questions broadened the scope of what we considered “history” in ways that, in my own bias, I find key to our understanding of how societies and cultures move through time.

2. The move to environmental history, seeing the environment as a historical actor, and as constraining the choices of historical actors transformed the possibilities for how we understand the ultimate and proximate reasons for cultural change.

3. I like that for the most part, during the 1980s, history avoided the most irritating parts of the “linguistic turn” (i.e., poststructural criticism/theory), but am irritated that in the history of sexuality, it was overly influenced by postmodernism (especially by Foucault) and has yet to extricate itself from the most problematic parts of postmodernism’s assumptions, which actually use historicism to make unhistorical claims.

4. I think the historical profession is doing the best of all the social sciences at reaching the public. But I find academically that, like many of the social sciences, the tightening of the job market for academic historians and the glut of PhDs has produced a lot of mediocre work, as new professors are under extreme pressure to publish at all costs (like I said, I think this is a problem in all the social sciences, not just history).

5. Despite what I just said in No. 3 above, I’d like to see historians engaging more in sociological and anthropological theory and methods (again my own bias), because although I love historical method, I often find basic mistakes in historical analysis of cultural and social phenomena, given what other social scientists have been researching about how societies and cultures function. [To be fair, I likewise think that sociologists and anthropologists should be required to understand the basics of historical method and especially the researched history of their areas of research, as I often find astounding historical ignorance in social scientific research. I’m not a believer in interdisciplinary utopias, but I deifnitely think that overlapping disciplines need to be aware of the research in the other social sciences.]

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Comments

1. C. L. Hanson - 1 July 2007

I didn’t realize you were a sociologist and social historian.

Just the other day I read the book The Great Cat Massacre by Robert Darnton. Have you heard of that one? It’s a book of social history that attempts to uncover the mindset of the average person during “the Enlightenment.”

I found the book fascinating, and I also really enjoyed his other book The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France. Of course I’m far from being an expert on social history. Do you have an opinion on his work?

2. Todd - 1 July 2007

I wouldn’t actually call myself a “social historian”. My first book (which is killing me!) is about the 1960s, but it’s much more focused than an actual “history” would be, looking at one particular phenomenon in the past, whereas social history generally takes the tack of history in general: “change over time.” In sociology, it’s called “Historical-Comparative Sociology”, which means that I’m looking at the particular phenomenon in the past (in my case, the birth of a subculture) in order to understand why the descendants of that subculture are like they are today. (Other kinds of H-C sociology do contemporary cross-cultural comparisons, which will probably be the direction of my next project). If you could read the peer reviews I got on this article that I just had rejected, you’d understand how different historical sociology is from social history. But because of my interdisciplinary background, I do have a great deal of respect for history as a discipline, and I rely on it a great deal in my research and my teaching.

I was trained in multiple disciplines in graduate school, but by the time I was into my Ph.D. program, I had started gravitating toward sociology because I needed someplace to do the research I wanted and I had come to believe that research methods are actually important. In the interdisciplinary model, I found that too often it meant no methodological rigor and therefore faulty claims (or more accurately put, claims made without evidence or warrant).

My grad work focused on the United States, and it’s only been since I became a professor that I’ve started focusing on global issues. I used to teach an intro to globalization course; and this fall I’m teaching a course on anti-americanism. All that to say I’ve never had occasion to read any Darnton. I’ll add it to my neverending list of must-reads. 🙂

3. C. L. Hanson - 1 July 2007

Considering what you’ve said here, I think it’s likely you’d appreciate Darnton. His books describe his primary sources in detail, and while he draws conclusions from them, he’s very careful to talk about the limitations of what one can conclusively state given the evidence. I like that sort of work a lot better than people who make broad claims without backing them up. 😉 And the primary sources he describes are quite fascinating.

Also, you’re making me wonder what your own work is about: ”looking at the particular phenomenon in the past (in my case, the birth of a subculture) in order to understand why the descendants of that subculture are like they are today” That sounds like an interesting paper and/or book as well….

4. Todd - 1 July 2007

Oh sorry, didn’t mean to be evasive. It’s about gay male culture, which in its move to become public and form a community transformed in content and structure during the 1960s. The book describes what those changes were and the social interactions among gay men that resulted from the changes (namely, lots and lots of conflict).

5. C. L. Hanson - 1 July 2007

I kind of suspected that might be what your book was about. 😉

I’m curious about the conflict you’ve researched. For me — looking at the gay community from the outside — I see exactly the same types of internal conflict that one would expect from a subgroub that reaches a certain size and momentum.

The main conflict I’ve observed (and perhaps you’re talking about something else entirely…) is between people who’d like to show that gay people are essentially just like everyone else vs. the people who would prefer to embrace queerness and don’t think the gay community should be pressuring them to fit into the straight-inspired “white picket fence” model.

Honestly, it looks to me like a case of different people having different personal preferences for their own lives and behavior, and each one (naturally) wanting the larger movement to represent him.

I might just be projecting my own experience with the Feminist movement onto the gay community here. But from my own experience — on a meta-strategy level — I don’t like activists who are myopic enough to say “I want my movement to affirm my choices as the right ones (and other peoples’ choices as wrong)” I’d rather fight for the idea that being part of a less-privileged group shouldn’t limit one’s choices.

I’ve talked about this with respect to feminism here and here and with respect to the gay community here.

Anyway, I don’t know if that’s what you’re talking about, but it’s potential food for discussion… 😉

6. MagicCicero - 10 July 2007

Todd, speaking as a historian and not as a prophet :), I think you’re pretty much on target with your analysis of history in academia. There is some attention paid to sociological work, social theory, etc., but we tend to be a bit blinkered, admittedly, by our focus on specific time/place questions. Interestingly, I think that same focus is probably what helped keep history from falling for the worst in postmodernism (as you mention in #3).

However, I would add a #6, which comes out of my experience as an Americanist. There has been a concerted effort among historians of different places, particularly, to reach across and look more at the interconnectedness among spatial and temporal frameworks. The buzzword these days is “transnational,” which admittedly tends to work itself out mainly as a Within History phenomenon. But I think that, conceptually anyway, it’s showing a lot of potential to spark exactly the kind of cross-disciplinary fertilization you’re encouraging (in this case, between history and the other social sciences) — in that it tends to militate against the kind of spatial/temporal exceptionalism that keeps history isolated from other fields.

My god, did I just lapse into two paragraphs of pure, unadulterated jargon? Oy gewalt.

7. Todd O. - 10 July 2007

It wasn’t *pure* jargon. There was an mingling of common tongue, as well. lol.

Funny you mention transnationalism. In sociology, there’s a growing push for “comparative” sociology, which is both to compare across time (historical) and space (between-group). A few years ago I started studying World Systems and globalization, and it has radically changed the way I view the United States (and even the way I think about gayness in my own research, although it’s more a subtle background, not really a foregrounded idea).

The move to interconnection among humans as a whole I think is a natural evolution of our academic mindsets, when we live in a world that, for good and ill, is completely interdependent through economy, trade, politics, mass media, migration, war and violence, and global enviornmental problems.


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