Blogs > Cliopatria > Political History Or Not?

Jan 20, 2006 4:21 pm

Political History Or Not?

Richard White, The Middle Ground

Gordon Wood, The Radicalism of the American Revolution

John Pocock, The Machiavellian Moment

Kenneth Greenberg, Masters and Statesmen

Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds

David Laitin, Hegemony and Culture: Politics and Change Among the Yoruba

Alan Taylor, William Cooper’s Town

Jack Rakove, Original Meanings

James McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom

Matthew Frye Jacobsen, Barbarian Virtues

Mary Ryan, Civic Wars

I offer this list as an illustration of how hard it is to clearly categorize much of what historians write as social history, political history and so on. There's no question that many titles on this list come more from the "social history" side, but are also informed in various ways by the traditional concerns, interests and methodology of political, legal and diplomatic history.

White's The Middle Ground or Taylor's William Cooper's Town, for example, seem to me to deserve a place in the canon of antebellum American political history even though their predominant methodological orientation is towards social and cultural history.

McPherson, on the other hand, offers a model of even-handed integration of different specializations.

I mention the Laitin (sneaking in an Africanist work into a largely Americanist discussion) to observe also that new directions in political history are sometimes spurred by political scientists: Laitin's book I think was an important touchstone for a new wave of work on law, ethnicity and the state by historians and anthropologists.

The Jacobsen is also an interesting book to discuss, because I think one thing that confuses debates over canons is that participants in those debates sometimes confuse disagreement with the substantive argument of a book or article and identifying the place of such a book or article in a canon. The Jacobsen seems to me to belong broadly within the canon of diplomatic history, but I can well see that some practicioners of diplomatic history might disagree with its arguments and see it as an ideological work. It's important to distinguish between the two. Some political history resembles social history because its author disagrees about what the substance of "politics" really is--this doesn't mean you can just discount it as not being political history with one sweep of the canonical pen. That's a battle that has to be fought out in the substantive rather than organizational arena. You can't just say, "The subject of political history is formal politics as I define it" without explaining what you mean by formal politics, and why you think that formal politics are more determinant of political outcomes and important study as such.

This goes for almost any field of specialized inquiry in history or other disciplines. It's obvious that military history should involve the study of war, armies, and so on, sure. But that clearly can or ought to include studying the homefront in time of war, studying the social history of military officers or soldiers, studying the economic history of arms production, studying the cultural history of war propaganda. There is no necessary reason why "military history" should equal "battlefield maneuvers and accompanying decisions by generals and officers" now and forever, even if once upon a time that's what military history was defined by as a specialization.

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David J Merkowitz - 1/22/2006

Don't take this too harshly, but the threads of the last couple days have a very tired feel to them - of battles long fought, rehashed again and again. Unfortunately, I do not have an easy way out, but I'll throw my two cents worth in.
On the broader issue, I agree with K.C. that the long term developments in hiring and such have worked against the maintenance of valuable historiographical schools as expressed through the teaching of classes and the training of grad students. However, UCLA seems to have become a proxy for such a range of issues that its value to the discussion seems to decrease with each posting.

As urban/religious American historian, I certainly would be a little dumb to attack the presence of lines on a faculty that I would some day like to fill, however, my experience around academia (or at the western half of Ohio version) is that a number of professor have used 'traditional' classes as a Trojan horses for a pointed indoctrination of their students. I've seen it as a student and as a T.A. This generally supports K.C.'s perspective that even traditional classes aren't what they would seem. Most of the fellow students in those classes have expressed a strong degree of buyer's remorse.
This is not to say that we didn't learn anything, but I certainly did not learn as much about the nuts and bolts of American Foreign Policy in the twentieth century as someone taking such a class would logically be expected to acquire.
Hopefully this has added something to discussion (though it may not have).

Ralph E. Luker - 1/21/2006

Tim, I agree with KC that the latitude in course offerings that you have at Swarthmore may be unusual. I've taught at research universities and high to mediocre colleges. I've never experienced a situation in which there were no review channels for a new course offering. I _believe_ that, in the case of Lal's 1 credit course, we are talking about a one-time only offering in which there was no peer review.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/21/2006

I don't know the rules at Swarthmore, so it might be different there. At Brooklyn, any time any professor (in any department) proposes a new course, he/she must submit that course, with a description, syllabus, and bibliography, to the dept. curriculum committee for a vote, and then to the whole dept. for a vote. (Of course, a prof. could submit a bogus proposal, get it approved, and then change the syllabus, but that would be unethical.) If I were a member of the UCLA history department, I would have had no problem at all in voting against approving Lal's course as a departmental offering.

Re the post, I was indeed identifying Lal as part of a broader problem: that, in winter 2004 term, if a student wanted to take a course in political, diplomatic, military, or legal history at UCLA, they could take a course from a non-dept. member, Prof. Dubois (which looked like a perfectly fine class, but it was a gender studies course, not a diplomatic history class) or Lal's embarrassing offering. I have a long piece in a forthcoming Historically Speaking raising this issue--connecting the hiring patterns to their effect on course offerings. This, as you know, is my major concern--it's not that there aren't a sufficient number of books published in diplomatic, political, legal, or military history (these are popular enough topics that the books will be published by law profs., independent scholars, or even journalists), it's that the courses aren't being taught, and so students are being deptived the opportunity to learn this material even if they wanted.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2006

Tell me which of your colleagues doesn't like your History of the Future course -- name names. I will come up there and correct their view of things.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/20/2006

Once again, though, let's go back to the hiring issue: there are virtually no jobs in military history (or constitutional history).

I'm not (by any stretch of the imagination) a military historian. And I agree with David's point that military history has integrated social history elements into it--lots of good work in particular, it seems to me, on colonial and revolutionary US military history fits this description. But some military history is, in fact, battlefield maneuvers, or military theory, or the sorts of topics more associated with a traditional conception of military history.

Timothy James Burke - 1/20/2006

So when you raised Lal's syllabus in an entry on intellectual diversity that discusses your feeling that UCLA's history department lacks intellectual diversity, you didn't mean Lal's syllabus to exemplify any aspect of your larger argument or to relate in any fashion to the rest of your critique of UCLA. Discussing Lal was just a kind of random coda to that entry? Certainly it reads to me like you are seeing him as exemplifying some kind of larger problem.

Ralph infers that it is some specific climate of ideological tolerance for Lal's syllabus that allows him to teach it, and thus Lal's syllabus is evidence of that climate. For one, a kind of tautological claim, but more importantly, it just seems at odds with the typical administrative logics that govern how courses get constructed and taught in many universities.

Nobody here looks over my syllabi and approves them. There isn't any specific departmental "atmosphere" that I need to go ahead and teach what I teach. There's some rough rules about the balance between surveys, Honors seminars, and mid-level topical courses, and that's about it. Frankly, I strongly suspect that at least some of my disciplinary colleagues dislike a number of the classes I teach, including the History of the Future course I'm teaching now. I think that's more typical than not: faculty in many universities, especially selective ones, tend to be strongly autonomous in constructing their courses. I would never assume, seeing a syllabus that I dislike, that the course is strongly endorsed by an entire department or a whole institution. It might be that many people even in a given department dislike a given course--but that they're professionally constrained from doing anything about it. In many institutions, a course really has to become pretty seriously goofball or outrageous before any steps are taken to rein it in. Now that might raise a completely different kind of question about academics and quality control, I agree--but I certainly would never use, as Ralph suggests, the existence of a course to infer a general ideological or intellectual predisposition towards that course.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/20/2006

Forgot in the post above to also note that I provided a link to Ellen Dubois' syllabus--which superficially could be considered diplomatic history but upon looking at the syllabus was more a gender history course.

Again, my intent was to point out that the courses taught by f-t department members that might seem to be on a more traditional topic (political or diplomatic history)--the survey, Dubois', and Lal's--were, in fact, far from a "traditional" approach.

As far as I can tell, though my arguments have come under attack, this is the first time that it's been said I was arguing that Lal's course was typical of the UCLA History Department.

Robert KC Johnson - 1/20/2006

Tim, I'm afraid that you've misread my posting in this instance. The post listed the 15 courses that UCLA offered that semester. I note that 10 of the courses are social or cultural history courses, one was a survey, and four, on surface, could be considered political, diplomatic, or legal--a percentage that, on surface, might seem fine. The post noted that the survey had a reading list, to which I provided a link, that was heavily weighted toward social history; 2 of the other 4 were quite mainstream but taught by non-departmental members; and finally Lal's--whose syllabus was so outrageous that I thought it worthy of quoting. Therefore, the two courses taught by full-time dept. members that superficially dealt with political or diplomatic history themes (those of Lal and Dubois) in fact weren't mainstream courses at all.

To be quite honest, I don't see any way this comment could be read as my claiming that Lal's course was typical of the offerings in the UCLA history department. If I had wanted to say that, I would have said that. I've posted about Lal's course on several other occasions as well, and have never said that.

I have said, repeatedly, that there's no way Lal's course could be considered a mainstream political history course, and that there's no way Lal's course, as written, ever should have been approved by a departmental curriculum committee.

With regard to your list, my point has never been that books in "political history" aren't being published. My point has been that departments, like UCLA's aren't hiring in political, diplomatic, constitutional, or military history. And in departments with 10+ Americanists, subfields are almost always specified.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2006

Thanks for the specific citation. I think that KC suggests here what I've called, elsewhere in this discussion, "a left comfort zone" in the UCLA department that tolerated this kind of indoctrination, when it might very well (and ought, in my view) refuse to accredit a course in rightist indoctrination.

Timothy James Burke - 1/20/2006

On February 12, 2004, KC Johnson wrote in a Cliopatria entry:

"For an exercise, I’d invite people to take a glance through the 15 courses in post-1865 US history being offered this term at UCLA. I pick UCLA not because it’s atypical—around 20% of its US history faculty have research interests in political, diplomatic, legal, and military history, about the average at large state universities—but because it, alone among departments I have encountered, posts most of its syllabi on the web. Two of the 15—offerings on 20th century American foreign relations and the historical effects of Watergate—address mainstream themes in diplomatic, political, or constitutional history; neither course, ironically, is taught by a full-time member of the department. The department’s survey has readings heavily weighted toward social history, while UCLA also features a gender history course masquerading as an offering in inter-American relations. Ten others are social or cultural history offerings: global feminism; recent African-American urban history; U.S. intellectual history; contemporary American Indian issues; history of the American West; American Indian history since the Civil War; popular culture and society in 20th century America; history of the Chicano peoples; monuments and national identity; and a course called “Introduction to Funk Studies.”

The last post-1865 US history course, entitled “Re-reading Politics in America: Democracy Before and After 9-11,” features a syllabus with language that many would consider propagandistic rather than academic: “Though many commentators have unthinkingly rehearsed the cliché that after 9/11 all is changed,” Professor Vinay Lal contends, “nothing has changed, insofar as the US remains on course in exercising its ruthless dominance over the rest of the world.” As a model for the required presentation, Lal suggests that students look into “what the election to California’s governorship of a movie star who has been charged by a dozen women with sexual molestation, drives perhaps the most environmentally unfriendly vehicle in the world, and appeared not to have a single idea about governance says about American ‘democracy.’” Other recommended topics include corporate ownership of the media, the rise of Fox News; the film “Bowling in Columbine”; the “assault on civil liberties”; the “indefinite detention of hundreds of Muslims without any accountability to notions of justice”; or “thousands of such phenomena.”'

He goes from talking about UCLA's offerings in general directly to Lal's syllabus, which is the only one he deals with in specific terms. Others he merely implies must have content that he finds questionable or biased. So I think it's my memory that's closer to the mark than yours: the intent in that entry in my view is very much to use Lal as a stand-in for the department. It's the entire argumentative point of the entry, as far as I can see.

Louis Nelson Proyect - 1/20/2006

As everybody probably knows, there is no such thing as "impartial" historiography. Every historian imparts his own ideological agenda into yesterday's events, no matter the pains they take to conceal it under a veneer of scholarly dispassion. What about Gordon S. Wood himself?

As the author of "The Radicalism of the American Revolution," one might expect Wood to be Howard Zinn's second cousin. However, the radicalism he writes about is that of Thomas Jefferson than that of Crispus Attucks.

For Wood, as well as Wilentz, it is necessary to learn to appreciate the Greater Mission of American capitalism, even when they are getting short shrift:

"I do think that there were -- there are lots of historians who feel that we didn't do enough for these oppressed or -- oppressed people, particularly black slaves and -- and women. I mean, I -- my answer to that is, of course, that the Revolution did really substantially change the climate in which slavery had existed.

"For thousands of years, slavery had existed in the Western world without substantial criticism. And the Revolution marked a major turning point. It suddenly put slavery on the defensive. And I think that's the point that needs to be emphasized, not that Jefferson didn't free his slaves, but that as a man raised as a slave holder, in a world that was dominated by slavery, he criticized it. That's what's new. That's the point that I think needs to be made. Where did that come from? Why -- why did this generation suddenly become critics of slavery and put it on the defensive? That I think is an important point."


Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2006

You surprise me here. You're beginning to manifest the ungraciousness you've criticized KC for and the tone-deafness of the academic left in general. I remember the discussion of Vinay Lal's 1 credit course quite well. It exemplified the kind of political indoctrination that ought not be found in any classroom. KC did _not_ argue that it was characteristic of the whole department.

Timothy Burke - 1/20/2006

So he's guilty of that as well in some cases--say, when he infers Vinay Lal's syllabi are that of Professor Average Joe at UCLA. But I think this is perfectly fair: KC's critiques have on a number of occasions used titles of books, titles of syllabi, or even just declared specializations to infer the content of a scholar's teaching and writing. That's precisely why a number of us are continuing to object--that when you go one step deeper into many courses or monographs, the reading of the labelling is not a good guide to the actuality of the course or the scholarship.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2006

Tim, This is not fair to KC. When he has drilled down into this or that syllabi, you have accused him of attacking the cook or pointing out one unlaundered shirt on a line of freshly laundered clothes.

Timothy Burke - 1/20/2006

Right. I categorize myself as a cultural historian, though what I'm writing now touches very much on political history as well in many ways.

But I *teach* courses that have significant economic history in them (my history of consumerism course). I'm going to teach a class on the environmental history of Africa in the near-term future. My survey classes have works drawn from most methdological approaches on the syllabus. And so on. I've said this before many times in this long-running discussion, but I think KC is way too certain from names and labels about what the substantive content of a course actually is. You have to really drill down into a syllabus and know all the works on it to begin to really seriously claim that it has patterned inclusions or exclusions in it. Otherwise you're really not much different than Mr. Jones, reaching conclusions about the comprehensive professionalism of faculty based on whether the word "race" is part of what they study or some such.

Jonathan Rees - 1/20/2006

Excellent examples, Tim.

The related point would be why can't a historian whose research interests involve social history, teach political or military topics well? Seriously, do they think we all assign _The People's History of the United States_ as a survey textbook?

Thomas Bruscino - 1/20/2006

I recently wrote an essay in Reviews in American History on Deborah Dash Moore, GI Jews, that touches on many of the same issues that Tim brings up. A preview is here.

Ralph E. Luker - 1/20/2006

I agree with much of what Tim and David say here. That's why I mentioned Sean Wilentz's work earlier as a harbinger of things to come. Tim suggests that there are actually many more harbingers than that. That's also why, I think, many of us have been enthusiastic about the kind of work that Mark Grimsley does.
I agree that we need to think of "the political" in broader terms -- though it seems to me that the notion that "the personal is political" is highly problemmatic. So far as I can tell, there's no generally accepted agreement about whatever that phrase meant and some of its meanings it has assumed are just downright pernicious.

Timothy Burke - 1/20/2006

I completely agree with both of those assertions.

The reason that I really take KC's arguments seriously even when I disagree strenuously is that there is a real problem of parochialism here. He's not wrong to think that there are plenty of canonical "social historians" who sneer at military history, or the history of technology, or business history, or diplomatic history. Usually in so doing they're sneering at a caricature--at some imagined practice that bears no resemblance to what those fields actually are.

On the flip side, though, there are those who want to protect those fields from imagined contamination by cultural and social history--say, a few military historians who would say that this new-fangled (e.g., the last 20 years of scholarship) military history shit is not really military history. But those kinds of academics are really quite marginal and frankly often quite silly: there's no reason to see them as representative figures.

David Silbey - 1/20/2006

"There is no necessary reason why "military history" should equal "battlefield maneuvers and accompanying decisions by generals and officers" now and forever"

Much military history has not been that for a long time.

And that points to another problem, which I would highlight. While many of the left-out specialties have had trouble or refused to integrate the models and tools of social history, there's also been a refusal on the side of many of the new genres of history to recognize when the left-out specialties _do_ in fact integrate the new methods.

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