[cross -posted at Cliopatria]
I tell my students that all good research projects and analytical writing have to provide an answer to the question, â€œSo what?â€, 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 Iâ€™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 â€œSo what?â€ 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 Shakaâ€™s new Zulu state. However, that historiography as a whole has many more sweeping â€œso whatsâ€ 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.
Hereâ€™s the list I came up with on my first pass. I can think of a lot of works that exemplify arguments #7 and #8, but I couldnâ€™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 weâ€™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 â€œancient tribal hatredsâ€.
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 donâ€™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 modern Western society is anti-heritage: it is associated with imperialism or domination, and we study historiography 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.