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Apr 25, 2008 6:56 pm


Historical Argument From Soup to Nuts



I tell my students that all good research projects and analytical writing have to provide an answer to the question, “So what?”, a justification for the project or the essay. One student asked me if history as a discipline had any stock or standard answers to that question.

I started to list a few that I could think of, and then a few more. I thought I’d try out the results here, to see if readers could knock a few down or add some more.


Many historical monographs answer the question “So what?” in relationship to an established historiography first and foremost. If I publish a new interpretation of state formation in 18th Century Southern Africa before the rise of the Zulu Empire, I may justify my work largely as a response to other scholars who have written about the mfecane and the rise of Shaka’s new Zulu state. However, that historiography as a whole has many more sweeping “so whats” embedded within it, in relationship to contemporary South Africa, to models of state formation within Africa, to arguments about the relationship between environmental and political change. A historian who makes a new claim narrowly directed at a given historiography is often indirectly trying to shift arguments about the larger significance or relevance of the history under review.

Here’s the list I came up with on my first pass, with some works that I think represent each type of argument. I can think of a lot of works that exemplify arguments #7 and #8, but I couldn’t really think of a book or article that perfectly matched either one.

1. The past is prologue: a contemporary issue or practice has its roots or determinants in the history we are studying. Example: Rick Perlstein, Before the Storm; Fernand Braudel, Civilization and Capitalism.

2. The past is not prologue: a contemporary issue or practice that is commonly understood to be determined by history is not, and we’ll demonstrate that by telling you about that history. Example: Stephanie Coontz, The Way We Never Were; many histories that try to debunk the idea that contemporary ethnic conflicts are based on “ancient tribal hatreds”.

3. The past is analogue: a contemporary issue or problem resembles some past issue or problem; the historical example has just enough distance from our own situation that we understand ourselves better. Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror; Lisa Jardine, Worldly Goods.

4. The past is another country: our own times are made more particular by looking at just how different the past really was. Caroline Bynum, Holy Feast, Holy Fast; Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre; Richard White, The Middle Ground.

5. The past helps us make N as big as possible: it is a source of data for making generalizations, formulating models, constructing claims about human universals. Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs and Steel; David Christian, Maps of Time.

6. The past challenges generalizations, models and universals through attention to particulars and microhistories. Carlo Ginzberg, The Cheese and the Worms.

7. The past is procedural: we study it to learn how dynamic processes or change works out over time (without worry so much about the consequences of the history we are studying).

8. Hindsight is 20/20: we study a frozen moment in time because we can understand far better the total spectrum of social relationships, causal relationships, etc. than we can understand the present (here we choose richly knowable examples to study).

9. Nothing actually ever changes in history; change is an illusion; some systems or practices always remain the same. We study the past the same way we would study the present, to understand a single system which is continuous over time. Andre Gunder Frank, REOrient.

10. The unknowability of the past is humbling: we study it to learn about the permanent limits to our knowledge, or about the difficult range of epistemologies involved in knowing the past. Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past.

11. The past is ideology or discourse: we don’t really study it, we just build powerful contemporary claims from our representations of history. Hayden White, Metahistory.

12. The past is detection: we study it because we like solving puzzles and mysteries. Charles Van Onselen, The Fox and the Flies.

13. The past is entertainment or personal enlightenment: we study it because it has great stories, or because of the pleasures of narrative. John Demos, The Unredeemed Captive.

14. The past is heritage: we study it to form or enforce national, ethnic, religious or personal identity, or to combat attempts to destroy heritage. Gertrude Himmelfarb, The De-Moralization of Society.

15. The past as it is known in academic history is anti-heritage: it is associated with imperialism or domination, and we study it to combat or contest that domination. Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe.

16. The past is memorial: we study (recite it, really) it to honor what people did or sacrificed on our behalf. Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation.

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jackson jones - 11/19/2010

The money stock is the total amount of money available in a particular economy at a particular point in time. Since many different things may serve more or less well as money (or close money substitutes), and since several different sorts of things may be serving as money at the same time in any particular economy, precise definition and measurement of the money stock presents some serious practical problems for the policy maker who wishes to use manipulation of the growth (or contraction) of the money stock as a tool of economic policy.Money Stock


Raul A Garcia - 6/21/2008

I taught middle school in the Republic of South Africa in 2003. I asked my eigth graders to write an essay about their own culture- it opened up a lot of discussion as this country is collectively regaining its history after apartheid. My own country of birth, Cuba, will someday, hopefully soon, regain its history that has been largely lost and simplified under Fidelismo. The best question each year by any student is "why do I have to study history?" to which I exuberantly launch into my passionate view (necessary trait for a teacher- dispassion I stay away from). I ask them to look at any particular problem today and ask if it can be solved by science/technology only? Heritage and culture must be democratized and protected continually- the United Nations law on Cultural Diversity should not be trivialized.


Timothy James Burke - 4/28/2008

That's a good point! Heritage isn't just a conservative concept of history: it's for anyone trying to build a sense of a continuous tradition (which must be defended by remembering and recovering history).


HAVH Mayer - 4/28/2008

In line with Jonathan's comment (in particular) I think your list tends to understate the extent to which the professional practice of history has been "about" the application of the methods and insights of other disciplines to the past. Economics (often Marxist), sociology, social psychology, and anthropology have all had their vogues (and produced lasting value).

I'd add that you somewhat downplay (14) by citing Himmelfarb as your example -- there are entire fields of history (e.g., labor history) that on examination turn out to be largely about "heritage."


Ed Schmitt - 4/27/2008

I offer my U.S. survey students what I think is a variation on your #8. I suggest that the one thing historians reach agreement on is that human nature is essentially unchanging. It is our very different social, cultural, and historical contexts than offer people a matrix of different choices. To study the past is to see how actors on perhaps very different historical stages responded to their challenges, which in turn can inspire, horrify, etc., but it teaches us something about what it means to be human in different contexts. I like the idea of this kind of list a lot, as I ask students to consider this "so what" factor each time they pick a paper topic. Now I can give them something of a menu to look at. Thanks.


Jonathan Dresner - 4/26/2008

5 and 6 and 7 are variations on a theme I've suggested to my students many times: just as history benefits from theories and studies of the present, the social sciences which study the present need an historical perspective to give depth and weight to their theories. As such, history partakes of all the justifications and rationales as all the other social sciences, as well as its own unique ones.

Another thing I tell my students is that historical epistemology is a uniquely valuable training: historians deal with incomplete and distorted sources because they are all we have. That doesn't sound like a great advantage, but the ability to draw reasonable conclusions from incomplete and distorted information -- and to evaluate the likely reliability of that information so that the reliability of the conclusion can be known -- is a valuable skill in an imperfect world. (I think historians would make great intelligence analysts, yes) That's a little bit of 10 and 12, I suppose.

In a variation on 11 and 14, I think the continued use and abuse of history in political discourse is a justification for the study of history: it's a little bit of debunking, and a little bit of cultural relevance; a big part of the language of politics is history, and fluency in that language can be illuminating.


Timothy James Burke - 4/26/2008

That seems like a great addition, Ralph! It's not quite the same as saying "Nothing ever changes", but not quite past-as-prologue either.


Ralph E. Luker - 4/25/2008

Tim, I wonder if cyclicality, repetition, or even re-enactment ought to find a place or places on your list. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr.'s and Jr.'s work on cycles in American political history might be examples of the first. Howard Zinn's People's History might exemplify the second.

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