Blogs > Cliopatria > Just a Social Historian....

Dec 3, 2004 9:40 pm

Just a Social Historian....

One of the difficulties of the discussion about political, methodological and topical diversity in history departments is a serious misunderstanding of what it means to be a social historian. Take, for example, this comment about my own department as an example of KC Johnson's thesis:

Johnson brings out some important points, not the least of which is the different types of bias that exist. He notes the absolute dominance of"social history," to the detriment of diplomatic and political history. Not the mention the red-headed step-child of the discipline, military history.

For example, UH Hilo's small history department has four professors. These four professors each specialize in a geographic area. As far as I can determine, all of them are social historians. The business college does offers a course on American business history and the art department has courses on art history. But, in a society dominated by technology, the absence of a professor specializing in the history of science and technology is glaring. An interesting study would be to investigate whether the new"social history" is pushing historians in other fields out of academia, especially at small departments. [emphasis added]
It's true, I describe myself as"primarily" a social historian because my focus is on non-elite responses and adaptations to modernity and internationalization. My research on migration includes substantial doses of legal, diplomatic, and economic history, and my teaching is pretty strongly weighted towards political, intellectual and cultural history. Social history, to be done with any depth, has to include economic history, history of technology (not science, though I do pretty decent HistSci lectures in my surveys, if I do say so myself) and public policy; for 20th century topics, business history is pretty important, too.

My colleagues are a similarly complicated bunch: our Europeanist does research on 18c Russian-English relations, mostly diplomatic and intellectual history; our Americanist has done research on missionaries, on plantation life and teaches courses that are very strong in legal, diplomatic and women' s history; our Pacific historian does research on land reform (legal, economic, social, colonial, post-colonial) and political biographies, and his teaching also includes fair doses of international relations and religious history. We've supervised theses on everything under the sun, from Anglo-Safavid relations to Maori linguistic revitalization, Hawaiian legislators to Lend-Lease (that's just from last year's crop). As for the idea that we might use a dedicated History of Science person, that's only about three or four down on our list of positions we think would be worth having if we could only get money to double the size of the department. Also, I think some of the other departments could pick up the slack now and then: Sociology could offer courses on technology and social change; perhaps some of the science departments could offer history of science courses....

As Tim Burke points out, our departments do constitute a limiting factor in our thinking and practice, as well as being necessary organizational tools. I'm not convinced by his argument that groupthink is a necessary result of departmentalism (my word, not his), but it did occur to me that perhaps the problem is greater in larger departments than in smaller ones. One of the reasons that my department looks like a bunch of social historians is that we have to be. We have to be able to teach about almost everything within our field and we tend to integrate these things in ways that look more like the catch-all of social history than any of the neater methodological divisions. I call myself a social historian because I won't, can't commit to anything other than the study of people. Maybe I should just call myself an historian.

Non Sequitur: Congratulations to Jonathan Edelstein on two incredibly busy years of blogging on world affairs.

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Jonathan Dresner - 12/6/2004

You'll note that my comments about rationality are qualified with "mostly" and "available." I should also qualify that by saying that this is in the realm of basic economic choices, where rational choice theory applies much more cleanly than in other areas.

If accident, contingency, irrationality and personality didn't play a role in history, it'd be done with equations.....

Grant W Jones - 12/6/2004

Geez Ralph, it's not an either/or proposition, it it? I'm a big fan of narrative compared to dry thematic approaches. Biography is just another piece of the puzzle. I think there is plenty of room for many different fields in history. I've just encountered too many (present company exempted) social historians who think their field is the end all and be all of history. The rest of us find that attitude irritating to say the least.

Grant W Jones - 12/6/2004

I'm aware. Have you read David Hackett Fisher's Albion's Seed? I guess it could be classified as "social history." It is a fasinating book on the four British "folkways" in the United States which had immigrated prior to the Revolution and their effect on all subsequent immigrants.

Your point about humans as rational calculators is the same one made by neo-classical economists. I'm not so sure, if only people were rational and dispensed with mysticism.

Who is a "Great Man" is a judgment call. But most (all?) human societies have leaders: political, intellectual, religious, military, artistic, etc. I don't know why some historians think there is something wrong with studying these leaders. Ralph's quip about Grant, Washington and Napolean is a case in point: without leaders, armies are just armed mobs.

Was Stonewall Jackson a "great" man. I don't know. But he was, without a doubt, a great captain. A great deal of ink has been spilled speculating on what kind of country we would be living in if Jackson had been commanding his Corps at Gettysburg. I think the outcome of that battle is of some historical importance, and it may have hinged on the absence of one man.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/6/2004

Not at all. History as biography is incapable of making significant connections. That is, biography doesn't add up to a coherent narrative.

Grant W Jones - 12/6/2004

And history without biography is sterile.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/6/2004

Grant, Yes, yes, I know. Grant won the Civil War. Washington won the Revolution. Napolean conquered Europe. As I said, history as biography has its severe limitations.

Grant W Jones - 12/6/2004

Hey Ralph,

Here is a review of one of the many books on the subject I haven't read:,filter.all/book_detail.asp

Written by the Devil himself, Charles Murray. Enjoy.

And it is I, who acknowledge our common debt to the giants who have created works which I or you or 95% of the human race could never equal.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/6/2004

Some achieve modernity; some are born modern; some have modernity thrust upon them....

Social history is not really (or perhaps necessarily) the study of "the collective." Actually, all the great men in history are useless if there is nobody following them, using their products, reading their books. My research had as one of its assumptions, well borne out in the record, that "the people" make mostly rational choices based on available opportunities and information, but not necessarily the ones we would expect from our "modern" perspective or the ones that their leadership prefered.

I teach my surveys differently, because my research, like most of us, is a small book sitting on a shelf with giants (or some such metaphor), but I do emphasize that social patterns and trends and fads and movements and classics are the result of millions of individual decisions: decisions to change or decisions to continue a status quo; decisions to buy or to grow or to do without; decisions to go or stay; decisions to enjoy or dislike; decisions to recommend or avoid; decisions to believe or to doubt.

There are a very few "great men or women" who truly transcend their time and place; there are many more who were barely the first (or the loudest, like Edison), or who distilled the essence of their age into action.

Jonathan Dresner - 12/6/2004

Seriously, though, there is no reason why political history has to be ignorant of family history (or anthropology), or economic history (or economics), or religious history (or theology): in fact, as you point out, those issues intersect political issues at many levels.

Our strength is not in our subdisciplines and pigeonholes: it is in our willingness to approach interesting questions in effective ways with available and relevant sources.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/6/2004

No "straw man" Grant. There are strawomen, as well, and people like yourself who refused to acknowledge their indebtedness to others. It's a real blindness, but if you live long enough and read widely enough, you can overcome the handicap.

Grant W Jones - 12/6/2004

Thanks Ralph, for the obligatory "Great Man" as "Straw Man" theory of historiography. I'm an individualist. Therefore, I believe individual human beings are causal agents, not the Collective. Humans working together, and sharing knowledge, is not the same thing as a termite colony. Sure, just anybody could have painted the Sistine Chapel. There is a reason why books on the history of Western Art have more text and plates devoted to Michalangelo than any other artist.

Ralph E. Luker - 12/5/2004

Mr. Jones, Your "great man" theory of history is really quite simplistic. Ultimately, it reduces history to biography and makes it impossible to make connections or trace social change. Even the examples to which you point, the production of art and of scientific and technological knowledge is much more of a social endeavor than you seem to think. If you do more reading in those fields, you will begin to understand that.

Julie A Hofmann - 12/5/2004

I study dead white guys, but they aren't European, because there really isn't a Europe yet. I really like administrative and institutional history, and my disseration is on Carolingian administration, but it appears that administration is deeply intertwined with kinship networks...

Grant W Jones - 12/5/2004

Prof. Dresner states, "It's true, I describe myself as 'primarily' as social historian because my focus is on non-elite responses and adaptations to modernity and internationalization."

That still leaves open the question of what is the cause of modernity and globalization. It seems the issue is one of historical causation.

In 1929, just before the Crash, there was a celebration for the 50th anniversary of the invention of the light bulb. Edison himself was there. Think of the speed of change this represents. What caused it? The people in the slums, at "the bottom" of history. No. Leaders in science, technology and business were the direct causal agents. Not to mention the political institutions that where put in place by political leaders using the ideas of the Enlightenment, which allowed the innovators to function.

If politcal, economic, business, scientific, technological, military, art and intellectual history are "elitist," then so be it. These fields revolve around the actions/discoveries/creations of their leaders.

Historians are often accused of being a pessimistic, cynical, glass-is-half-empty, depressing bunch, and not without reason. Scientific and art history are an excellent antidote to this. By their nature these fields are the study of human creative genius. They provide inspiration of what is possible, inspiration that the youth of this country are in desperate need of.

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