Barbara Weinstein: Says historians outside European and US history still often feel like outliers





Back in the early 1970s, while an undergraduate at an unmistakably "elite" university, I announced to a group of fellow history majors that I had decided to make Latin America my area of concentration. You would have thought I had announced to a group of aspiring brain surgeons that I had resolved to become a nurse. There was no mistaking their surprise and disdain. I knew some of them had precociously absorbed the prejudices of a historical profession that, in those days, had a firm geographical status hierarchy, with European intellectual history the reigning area in terms of prestige. Even so, I was taken aback when one of my classmates derisively responded to my enthusiasm for gaining fluency in Spanish and Portuguese by insisting that I first needed to improve my French if I intended to become a "serious" scholar....

Despite all the talk about decentering history, and the undeniable signs of change in the historical profession with regard to "other" fields, there are ways in which historians of less represented areas still feel, and still are, less central to the discipline. At the risk of crossing the thin, wavy line between justified complaint and unwarranted whining, I can testify that, even now, historians of Latin America, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East often feel like outliers in their own profession.

To understand why this might be the case, we need to take a look at the current composition of the historical profession. I suspect that most historians, if asked about trends in the field with regard to area of concentration, would answer that European history is in sharp decline, U.S. history is holding its own, and that the "other" fields are booming. But for some questions nothing beats numbers, and the statistical evidence reveals a far different pattern. In his article in the January 2007 issue of Perspectives, Robert B. Townsend explored changes over three decades both in topical specialization (cultural, diplomatic, social, and so on) and in area of concentration (United States, Europe, Africa, and so on). Whereas topical shifts were, in some cases, quite dramatic, "among the geographic field specializations the most notable trend seems to be continuity," according to Townsend. To the extent that there has been any change at all, the pace has been positively glacial. Indeed, there has been a decline in the percentage (not the total number) of historians who work on Europe, but even that decline—from 39 to 33.7 percent—has been relatively modest, and may reflect the smaller number of adjuncts employed in European history compared to other fields. U.S. history, after a dip in the mid-1980s, has seen a slight increase in its percentage of the field over the last 20 years. World history, statistically insignificant until about 15 years ago, has seen a sharp rise in the last 5 years, though it is still only 3.6 percent of the total. But what really caught my attention in these statistics are the very small changes that have occurred in fields most academics would likely describe as booming. Latin America, far from expanding its share, has actually declined since 1975 (though, again, only in relative, not absolute, numbers), going from 7.6 percent (in 1975) to 6.4 percent (in 2005)—the sharpest proportional decline of any field. And the numbers would have been even grimmer (5.8 percent in 1990) if it were not for the slight upward trend in the last 15 years. Asian history and Middle Eastern history are flatliners—their respective percentages are virtually unchanged over a thirty-year period. The one piece of good news for the "other" areas is African history, which has increased from 3.3 percent to 4.1 percent of listed faculty, proportionally a big leap, but one that also reflects the field's very small share at the outset of the period under discussion....

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