Archive for the ‘practice of history’ Category



April 14, 2006

What does [national] exceptionalism mean?

Is it a measure of degree? There’s distinctive, and then there’s even more distinctive: exceptional.

Agree/Disagree (please choose one): If you come up with a list of countries and compare them with each other, and it turns out that Country A is very distinctive, I suppose that makes Country A exceptional, except at the same time the act of making a list of comparable countries means that on another level Country A is not so exceptional as to be incomparable.

Statement (please mark only one blank per pair):


the question of American exceptionalism

_variation on a theme?

seems to produce scholarship that is


interesting for what it has to say about American history in general and


satisfying for the answer it gives to the the question: Is American history exceptional?

Update: Eric has a measured response here.


foci of history

February 2, 2006

Eric Rauchway has responded to my call for someone to make a case for an “increased focus on political history” with a nice post on the development of a synthetic understanding of the past that demonstrates both the relevance of political to social and cultural history, and the relevance of social and cultural to political history: “history from below — and above, and below”. Who knew you could say so much about Wyoming? (I kid, I kid.)

I don’t have anything to add to Rauchway’s main points – I’m not yet ready to jump into the “debate over political history” fray to that extent – but I do want to respond to the initial way he frames his response to my post by talking about the focus of history (if there be any) and presentism.

Foci of history

Here’s what I wrote (which he quotes):

I would like to see someone lay out, post by post, a case for an increased focus on political history, one that makes no reference to current political representation or affiliation, partisan or otherwise, but which demonstrates the continued and future relevancy of the subject no matter which way the electorate turns.

On the question of focus, Rauchway writes:

Let me note two things: first, I see that this is about an increased focus on political history, which is to say increased presumably over the present focus of the profession (stipulating that the profession has a focus, which I doubt, but anyway, let’s stipulate! it’s fun to say); second that it is about an increased focus, which is to say we’re not talking about increased quantity of political history being done, but about a sharper synthetic focus on the political in the broader view of the profession.

This may seem like a minor point at first, but it is an important one: I don’t think the profession has a focus. It has foci: political, social, cultural, geographical, etc. A good synthetic understanding of history will be built around these various foci.

(Incidentally, no, I didn’t have this particular image in mind when I used the word “focus” in my earlier post; however, as it expresses something I’ve been thinking about for quite some time with respect to historical synthesis, and which is relevant to this discussion, I’m employing it now. In retrospect, I should have been more careful with the word “focus”, as I do not intend for one to be imposed upon the profession.)

So by “a case for an increased focus on political history” I don’t mean a case that says, or implies, or is taken to mean, “Hey everybody! Stop what you’re doing and go focus on something else!” This is a danger that I’m hoping to avoid: I want to get away from the “x approach is tired and stale, let’s all try something completely new” rhetorical strategy. Rauchway is correct to note that I am thinking in synthetic terms.

At the same time, I do in fact also mean: an “increased quantity of political history being done.” This does not, I should emphasize, mean “political history for political history’s sake”; it simply means that if we’re going to move towards a broader, newer synthetic understanding of the past we’re going to have to know more about political history – and that’s going to require a fair amount of specialized work. Just as it will require continued work in social history, cultural history, and other specializations that are sometimes placed in opposition to political history. I hope that’s not controversial, but it may well be.

(How important one thinks this is may depend on whether or not one thinks that the shapes of our historical syntheses have taken on the correct forms relative to the various historical foci, so to speak. Is the history profession well-rounded enough? Is this image too elliptical? Sorry, most of what I remember of geometry has been obscured by bad puns. But I prefer this image to ones that refer to changes in scholarship in terms of cycles or fashions. Such images imply huge swings over time; I’m trying to think in terms of a shape that can endure over time.)

In other words, I’d like to see a case for political history that appeals to the broader profession, but which does not entail the precipitous decline or marginalization of other specializations. It may not be possible to create an increased focus on political history without leading to the kind of heavy institutionalization that came along with social history, for example, but one can hope for balance, even if the history of the profession suggests otherwise.

Partisan politics is not presentism

After discussing the meaning of focus, Rauchway writes:

Also, one has to argue for this without invoking what we usually call “presentist” concerns.

To a certain extent this anticipates the way I’d make my own case for political history: I’d probably steer away from particularly presentist arguments, not least because I’d want my case to be applicable to pre-20th century periods, as well as to histories written 20 or more years from now (one can dream). At the same time, I’m not against presentism and what I wrote:

one [a case for political history] that makes no reference to current political representation or affiliation, partisan or otherwise, but which demonstrates the continued and future relevancy of the subject no matter which way the electorate turns

does not rule out all presentist concerns. It mainly rules out ones that rely on arguments such as “We need to understand why party A keeps winning elections” or “why party B keeps losing elections”, as if the importance of political history depends on which party is in power: “Party B won? Then it’s back to politics, we need to understand this!” “Party A won? Cultural issues are key now!” These are caricatures, of course, but not entirely far-fetched. One could appeal to historians with Democratic affiliations by saying that a deeper historical understanding of politics could help them understand why the Democrats lost the last two presidential elections, but according to this logic a Democratic victory would make political history less important: this would not be a case for the enduring importance of political history.

On the other hand, a case for political history that said “we need to know more about the Constitution and executive power” or “about federalism” could easily be made according to presentist terms, but it would have an enduring relevance because the existence of the Constitution, the executive branch, and federalism do not depend on who won the last election (however tilted towards one party one’s current concerns may be). Presentist concerns will affect the nature of the political history being written but should have less of an influence over whether political history is written.

More specific to the context of the Cliopatria discussion* this is a way of trying to detach the debate over partisan diversity – generally referred to by the vague phrase “ideological diversity”, but often meaning “the distribution of faculty according to party registration data” – from the academic debate over methodological and pedagogical approaches to history. This is not to say that the two debates are unrelated, but the partisan debate has drawn so much attention already that it’s in danger of obscuring the academic one.

*I should note that the Timothy Burke comment I quoted in my first post is actually in reference to a different Cliopatria post, by Ralph Luker.


politics by other ends

January 24, 2006

I would like to see someone lay out, post by post, a case for an increased focus on political history, one that makes no reference to current political representation or affiliation, partisan or otherwise, but which demonstrates the continued and future relevancy of the subject no matter which way the electorate turns. Quite a strong case can be made for this, and indeed Timothy Burke even showed one way to do so during his recent comments at Cliopatria, but so far such a post or series of posts has not appeared.

Burke’s comment deserves to be highlighted, however, so I will excerpt it here:

If what you expect from political history is instead the antithesis of social history (as opposed to a new hybrid form) then I think you’re actually retarding the improvement of knowledge over time. I’m actually somewhat whiggish in this respect, that we know more and know better over time, that if you want to work on American constitutional history, yes, you also have to think about the social history which interrelates to it. What you’re right about is that the obligation has not been felt in the opposite direction by many of the orthodox figures of a certain generation of social and cultural historians–some of them felt safe writing out “dead white men”, and so on. But I think that’s changing, quite noticeably in many respects. The product of that change should not be a reversion to formal separations between rigidly maintained specializations, it should be a new hybrid practice which then generates new research projects and problems for discussion.

In that respect, if a given department (like UCLA) says, “We want to hire in cultural history”, I can well imagine that the person they hire might actually also end up being in a meaningful sense a political historian. For example, a historian who works on memoralization and public memory might well become someone interested in the state, in governance, in laws. A social historian might become someone interested in political elites, and from that interest increasingly move into sounding more and more like a traditional “political historian”. A cultural historian who researches the history of passports and cross-border travel in Europe might turn into a a scholar resembling diplomatic history, studying the formal relations between states and the inter-state institutions. And so on.

The pressure you need to bring to bear to allow those kinds of evolutions is not the kind you’ve conventionally hammered on, I think. It’s not, “Hire more formal specialists in a certain field”. It’s more in the cut-and-thrust of substantive criticism of what people actually write and teach. I think you affect scholars far more when you ask, “When you wrote about yeoman farmers, why did you rigorously leave out any discussion of gentry?” or “When you write about customary law in colonial Africa, why don’t you write about the political history of imperial governance?” When you complain about syllabi, I think the complaint is powerful only if you register it in tangibly canonical terms. Like, “How can you justify teaching a class on this subject without teaching X or Y book?”

Those are the complaints that sting scholars, and often spur them to change their pedagogy and their publication–or to feel a need to hire or solicit specialists who can address those oversights and absences. Or at the least, they spur the kinds of statements of refusal where you really can argue strongly against the close-mindedness and narrow ideological premises embodied in such refusals. That’s where you sort out people of good faith and people who really are out to reproduce a narrow orthodoxy: when you go to a specific point of exclusion in their work or their teaching and ask, “Is that deliberate? Why are you doing that?”

This is a case I may soon be making myself, if, contrary to what I thought I would do half a year ago, I decide to go back and write my dissertation.

The first task, however, will be to work out a viable plan for finishing the Ph. D. and then moving into a non-professorial position. It would be irresponsible for me to go back without preparing to make that transition – this is one of the many things I learned from reading the Invisible Adjunct’s archives – but if I can find a way, that’s what I hope to try to do. And if not, that’s okay, too; I’m ready to move on, if need be. Either way, I’ll know more in a few months.

And now I really must step back a bit from the blogosphere.

Update (2/2): See Eric Rauchway’s response here. And now there’s more from me here.


specialization and its discontents (short version)

March 11, 2005

I’m putting together a longer post on the problem of specialization vs grand narrative in history, but with the end of the term coming up it may be a while before I finish it. In the meantime, I’ll just post a few thoughts here:

While I was trying to catch up with the discussion of Ross Douthat’s recent article about Harvard (and higher education in general) in The Atlantic, I came across this post by Kieran Healy from just about a year ago discussing Simon Schama’s criticisms of academic history (link via No Loss for Words). The discussion seems to have been started by Timothy Burke here, and then continued by the Invisible Adjunct here, before making its way over to Crooked Timber.

To sum up very briefly: Schama argues that academic history is too specialized and too obsessed with footnotes, and calls for a return to some golden age of narrative history-writing; Timothy Burke points out that broadly written histories aimed at the public could not be written without the detailed research that goes into monographs, but that historians indeed should nevertheless work on writing more “broadly communicative” histories; the Invisible Adjunct and Kieran Healy both point out the problems with idealizing some past “golden age”; the original posters and various commenters complain about the contraints created by the norms of graduate education and tenure and promotion committees; everything settles down after a while.

None of this is all that remarkable. The complaint is quite an old one: I could probably do a whole additional post on The Historian’s Craft summarizing what Marc Bloch had to say about specialization and synthesis. Indeed, Schama himself actually published a longer article on this very topic back in 1991. If you have access to the New York Times historical database you can read it here.

What is remarkable about this particular discussion, however, is that – though he was still critical of academic history – Simon Schama never actually said most of what the Independent attributed to him.

If you clicked on the link to the article, you probably noticed that it’s now available only to subscribers. As I am not one, I had to go back through Lexis-Nexis to look it up. (Sorry, Lexis-Nexis doesn’t seem to do permalinks. Update: Thanks to Sharon, you can find the article here.) While doing so, I happened to come across the following letter to the editor, dated one week after the original article (29 Feb 2004):



Contrary to the headline “History just isn’t what it used to be: Schama slams academic historians”, (22 February), I most certainly did not “slam” academic historians in the interview I gave on the three- part BBC4 series Historians of Genius for which I provide brief introductions. In fact, when egged on to say something of this sort, I was at pains to say what I believe, namely that we are now in something of a golden age of narrative writing and that more history which combines scholarship of the highest level with narrative craft is being written than ever before. Antony Beevor was just one of a long list of names – including Cannadine, Colley, Brewer, Tillyard, Jardine, Ferguson – whose work I want to celebrate. Nor (since a leader in your paper took me to task on this) did I say anything, or indeed have anything, against footnotes; and in the same interview I went out of my way to sing the praises of Gibbon’s footnotes, which are things of stunning erudition, elegance and mischievous wit.

Simon Schama

Columbia University, New York, USA


the historian’s craft

February 28, 2005

The grim esoterism, in which even the best of us sometimes fall, the preponderance, in our current writing, of those dreary textbooks which bad teaching-concepts have put in place of true synthesis, the curious modesty which, as soon as we are outside the study, seems to forbid us to expose the honest groping of our methods before a profane public – all these bad habits, derived from an accumulation of contradictory prejudices, compromise the essential nobility of our cause. They conspire to surrender the mass of defenseless readers to the false brilliance of a bogus history, in which lack of seriousness, picturesque rubbish, and political prejudices are supposed to be redeemed by shameless self-assurance…. A misunderstanding between historical inquiry, such as it is or hopes to be, and the reading public unquestionably does exist. The great debate about footnotes is not the least significant ground upon which the two parties are engaged in their absurd duel.

For a great many scholars, the lower margin of the page exerts a fascination bordering upon mania. It is surely absurd to overcrowd these margins, as they do, with bibliographical references which might largely have been spared by a list drawn up at the beginning of the volume; and worse still, through sheer laziness, to relegate to them long explanations whose proper place was indicated in the main body of the text, so that the most useful part of these works must be looked for in the cellar. But when certain readers complain that a single note, strutting along by itself at the foot of the page, makes their heads swim, or when certain publishers claim that their customers, doubtless less hypersensitive in reality than they would have us believe, are tortured by the mere sight of a page thus disfigured, these aesthetes merely prove their imperviousness to the most elementary maxims of an intellectual ethic. For, apart from the free play of imagination, we have no right to make any assertion which cannot be verified and a historian who in using a document indicates the sources as briefly as possible (that is, the means of finding it again) is only obeying a universal rule of honesty. Corrupted by dogma and myth, current opinion, even when it is least hostile to enlightenment, has lost the very taste for verification. On that day when, having first taken care not to discourage it with useless pedantry, we shall succeed in persuading the public to measure the value of a science in proportion to its willingness to make refutation easy, the forces of reason will achieve one of their most smashing victories. Our humble notes, our finicky little references, currently lampooned by many who do not understand them, are working toward that day.

Marc Bloch, The Historian’s Craft (87-8; emphasis added)

As part of my ongoing attempt to get a better perspective on the history of history – or rather, the history of the practice of history – I recently read Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (written during the 1940s, and translated into English in 1953). As I am neither a medievalist nor a historian of France I don’t know how Bloch’s research is currently regarded in those fields, but I have to say that as both a description of, and a guide to, how historians actually go about their work much of what Bloch says in this book still seems quite relevant today.

This is not to say that he was, as the saying goes, “ahead of his time”; indeed, at one point in the book he even explains why it is a mistake to say that any historical figure was not of that figure’s particular place and time. (Besides, Bloch’s faith in progress and the “forces of reason” quoted above clearly marks him as a man of his time.) But it does show that many of the ongoing debates about history and its various crises – too specialized! too disconnected from the public! too empirical! not empirical enough! – that are often treated as recent (usually meaning post-1950s) developments have actually been going on for a much longer period of time. The fact that many of us (myself included) have often forgotten about, or perhaps never even knew of, the earlier rounds of these debates does not mean that they never happened, or that they are no longer relevant today.

Take, for example, the problem of the division between professional, academic history, and the history most popular with the reading public. Considering the fact that Bloch was writing in France in the 1940s, does it really make sense to blame the current unpopularity – from a sales standpoint – of academic history in the US solely on recent changes in academic history writing? Are we really facing some kind of unprecedented situation here? Certainly some of the historians of the 1950s gained wider readerships than those now, but can we really be certain that that situation was the norm, rather than an exception?

On a related note, the question of epistemology and history was the cause of quite a discussion/debate/”furore” (follow the links and the links’ links to get the full picture) among history bloggers over the last couple of weeks. Often these debates over how historians can “truly” “know” (quotation marks required) anything of the past are cast as the result of the great theoretical advances of the past half-century or so. Before then, supposedly, historians unquestioningly applied naive empiricist methods to their research and were quite content simply to try to know the past as it actually was/happened, wie es eigentlich gewesen (German quotation required – but don’t we need the auxiliary “sein” for this to make sense gramatically?).

Bloch, however, does engage this issue (along with related questions) quite clearly in his book. His discussions of historical criticism and historical analysis are still worth reading today. While his conclusions can certainly be debated, and likely would not satisfy many philosophers, theorists, and perhaps even some historians, the fact is that he – like many historians of the past century – was not at all ignorant of the problems of attaining historical knowledge.

He also did not lack a sense of humor. Consider this passage about the problem of “certainty”:

To what extent, however, are we justified in mouthing this glorious word “certainty”? Mabillon, long ago, admitted that the criticism of charters could not attain ‘metaphysical’ certainty. He was quite right. It is only for the sake of simplification that we sometimes speak of evidence rather than of probabilities. But we are more aware today than in Mabillon’s time, that that convention is not peculiar to us. It is not ‘impossible,’ in the absolute sense of the term, that the Donation of Constantine is authentic, or – according to the whim of some scholars – that the Germania of Tacitus is a forgery. Nor is it, in the same sense, ‘impossible’ that a monkey might accidentally reconstruct either the Donation or the Germania, letter for letter, simply by striking the keys of a typewriter at random. ‘The impossible physical event,’ Cournot has said, ‘is nothing but an event whose probability is infinitely small.’ So far as it finds certainty only by estimating the probable and the improbable, historical criticism is like most other sciences of reality, except that it undoubtedly deals with a more subtle gradation of degrees. (133)

Now of course someone could step in here and argue that Bloch cannot justifiably, in a metaphysical sense, talk about degrees of probability any more than he can talk about absolute certainty: that point can be debated. But the broader accusation that gets thrown around – not always, but often enough to become annoying – that historians have been, until recently, largely ignorant of these kinds of problems simply does not match up with how many historians have gone about their work.

As Bloch writes:

“For there is one precaution which the ordinary detractors of history seem not to have heeded. Their words lack neither eloquence nor wit, but they have, for the most part, neglected to ask themselves exactly what it is they are discussing. The picture which they have formed for themselves of our studies has not been drawn in the workshop. It savors rather of the debating platform than of the study. Above all, it is out of date.” (11-12)