History As It Was

I’m finally getting around to last week’s NY Times piece by Patricia Cohen about the decline of the “traditional” specializations in history departments. Rather like the last Cohen piece that drew my attention, it feels a bit detached from time and space, describing a decade-long discussion as a suddenly urgent controversy.

This particular topic is one that I knocked around a few times while I was actively posting at Cliopatria. In one sense, it’s a discussion about history that needs a more fully realized sense of history. At least two moments in particular in the discipline’s 20th Century development need a closer examination for a better understanding of what the shift away from “traditional” diplomatic and political history means: first, how and when the methodological, rhetorical and canonical norms of diplomatic, military and political history of that sort developed, and second, about the initial rise of social history and then cultural history in tension with “traditional” political and diplomatic history.

I don’t have a good feel for the detailed answers to the first question, except that I’m sure that the highly professionalized, rigorously disciplinary kinds of political, diplomatic and military history that most specialists would cite as the canon in those fields are not the same thing as the kinds of histories written from the end of the 19th Century into the first third of the 20th. Yet it seems to me that defenders of these ‘traditions’ tend (as do most defenders of ‘traditions’) to be incurious about the development of the norms and practices of those fields. In part, that’s because once you have an awareness that your preferred approaches are not timeless, but displaced some other form or approach to writing history, that puts the rise of subsequent approaches in a slightly different perspective. If you can blur your own intellectual history, you can plant your feet in Herodotus and Ranke and make any newcomers out to be carpetbaggers.

The second institutional moment may be an uncomfortable one to recall because at least some political, diplomatic and military historians were markedly uncharitable towards their new social historian colleagues when social history began its intellectual and institutional rise. As, in some cases, social historians were towards the new breed of cultural historians, and doubtless as cultural historians will be or are being towards the next wave of interests or approaches. That’s not about the peculiar or unusual intolerance of a particular mode of doing history, that’s about the sociology and organization of academia. Junior scholars with an interest in political, diplomatic or military history may legitimately be puzzled about being held responsible for the practices of scholars one generation removed from their own senior colleagues today, but as historians, we shouldn’t find it much of a stretch to recognize that the people in power today in the discipline were shaped (or scarred) by their own traverse through relative powerlessness. It’s not a good thing that some of us do to the next generation what our own elders did to us, but it’s not a surprising thing that this should happen. Keeping this in mind, at any rate, puts the complaint in a slightly broader perspective, and dials down some of the cries of victimization.


That’s one thought. Here’s another: I wonder to what extent some of what is regarded as “traditional” historical writing as described in the Cohen article is alive and well but has migrated into other disciplines or melded into approaches which are labeled in other ways. “Traditional” intellectual history, for example, strikes me as very powerfully integrated into a good deal of what is labeled as cultural history. What has changed in some cases is simply the scope or range of how historians trace the development of an idea, concept or philosophy so that they are talking not just about the development of an idea across a series of texts, but with wider circulations of that idea in other forms of expressive culture and in everyday practice in mind. Similarly, a book like William Cooper’s Town seems to me to be a remarkably effective integration of “political history” with “social history”. Jan de Vries is an economic historian, but his work is also powerfully informed by a massive body of social history. When he makes his key claim that economic modernity was not so much a reorganization of production as a reorganization of productivity, that’s as much a social historian’s argument as an economic one.

Likewise, some “traditional” approaches to intellectual history have moved into disciplines like literary criticism, while some political and diplomatic history of the established sort can be found in political science departments (those that haven’t yet become dominated by quantitative social science, at any rate).

It seems odd to me that the defenders of a “traditional” approach to these fields don’t recognize the vibrancy of the way that they’ve intermingled with other approaches or specializations as a good outcome, or seem to lose all interest in “traditional” work once it migrates out of a history department into some other part of the university. But this is part and parcel of the way that culture-war rhetoric works when it turns its gaze on the academy: the prevalence of fashionable nonsense is frequently overstated, and labels and titles are used as totalizing descriptions of content. Hayden White and J.G.A. Pocock both have written intellectual histories, but if you threw their work together into the same bin because of that label, you’d be missing the point entirely.


That equivalence of the labelling of scholarly work with the content of that work points to another issue, which is whether we want to have any account of the development of disciplinary history as a form of progress. It seems to me that some defenders of “traditional” forms don’t view much or any of the vast body of published work in other specializations as adding to what we know about the past. But speaking in the most ‘traditional’, positivistic sense, I can’t see how it’s possible to adopt that posture. You may think that histories of gender are now overrepresented in the field. That’s a legitimately arguable premise. But that’s coming from a near-zero percentage of historical scholarship only forty years ago or so. Over the past forty years, social and cultural historians of all stripes, from the rigorously quantitative or materialist practicioners to the more narrative or descriptive scholars, have created a huge amount of knowledge about people, places, events, phenomena, causes and consequences about which we knew little to nothing previously. How can that in any sense be a bad thing, or not be seen as progress? Would it be better to know less?

Or must political, diplomatic, and military history be written indefinitely in a fixed, frozen form, with a fixed proportional allotment of the disciplinary pie? Part of what bugs me a bit from many of those who complain of the relative decline of these approaches is that they not only overlook their integration into other styles and specializations, but more or less give up on making a positive argument about why history written just so has a distinctive value which must be preserved. You can’t make that argument by pointing to the very best, most artful works written in a “traditional” mode and taking those as the typical example of the practices we might lose. We can play that game all day: I see your John Keegan and raise you a Lynn Hunt. The best work in any discipline is sui generis to some extent: it supercedes the specializations from which it arises. What we’re really talking about here are the everyday norms of specialized approaches that govern the production of the bulk of scholarship in a given field.

Those are the grounds on which someone has to say, “Look, diplomatic/military/political history written just so, with these norms, needs a protected place within the discipline because here’s what it does with enduring value that no other approach can do as well“.

That argument can include all sorts of things. One could argue that these fields are more readily suited to narrative history, and that narrative history is intrinsically easier for a wider public to understand or relate to. (The bookstores seem to agree: political biography, military history, narrative political and diplomatic history pretty well outsells social history by a wide margin.) You could make a more theoretical argument that formal political outcomes are explicable by formal politics, and that those outcomes are determinative of social or economic outcomes (likewise for military or diplomatic history), that social or cultural historians are simply empirically wrong to dissipate the discipline’s understanding of the political or of institutions into wider social structures or cultural formations. Or you could argue that formal politics or military history is the best place to study contingency or agency, e.g., to try to deliver something of use to your colleagues in other specializations while arguing that your own approach is the best way to approach that understanding.

There are a lot of potentially persuasive ways to go at this objective. But every specialization in a given discipline (and every discipline in the wider academy) should have to be continuously renewing these kinds of arguments about the legitimacy and necessity of their own practices. “I’m studying something we don’t yet know, using methods that are necessary to that study.” “I’m disseminating scholarship in a form or style that I believe communicates important ideas more clearly to wider audiences.” “I’m working with problems or ideas that have the deepest or best expression in a particular subfield or approach.” It’s not enough to say, “There is less diplomatic history now, and that’s not fair”. You have to do the harder thing and say, “Here’s why we need diplomatic/political/military history written in this way, in that form”. Sure, lots of other specializations have gotten lazy at doing that work themselves: it’s not enough to argue for histories of gender, for example, simply by saying that we don’t yet understand enough about the history of gender. Here’s to making everyone renew and explore their raison d’etres, and for a genuine spirit of openness about that enterprise, as opposed to just trying to reslice the disciplinary pie so that everyone gets their quota of protected legacy positions in some kind of fixed proportion.

This entry was posted in Academia. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to History As It Was

  1. dmerkow says:

    I do wonder if the move away from more traditional versions of military/political/diplomatic has meant that historians have decided to leave potentially valuable archives underutilized. There would seem to be a strong value to have historians crawling around in gov’tal archives. I think this is especially true of local and state histories which have declined as a location of political history. There is a lot of public value buried in those archives that historians won’t getting around to look at, instead they really more on newspapers and the narratives constructed therein.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s hugely variable depending on the period and place that someone’s studying. Cultural and social historians working on modern Africa make extensive use of government records, for example. They have to.

    I think the people who mourn traditional military/political/diplomatic history are really complaining less about the use of particular archives and more about the way in which those archives then inform the rhetorical and substantive approach of history. Social historians using public or governmental records tend to read “across” or “through” those records for traces of something that they don’t mean to say, what Marc Bloch called accidental witnessing. “Traditional” political history tends to take those archives as they are, working from their organizational structure and defined interests.

Comments are closed.