Just came across news of the publication of Rebecca Fried’s excellent article “No Irish Need Deny: Evidence for the Historicity
of NINA Restrictions in Advertisements and Signs”, Journal of Social History, 10:1093, 2015, from @seth_denbo on Twitter.
First, the background to this article. Fried’s essay is a refutation of a 2002 article by the historian Richard Jensen that claimed that “No Irish Need Apply” signs were rare to nonexistent in 19th Century America, that Irish-American collective memory of such signs (and the employment discrimination they documented) was largely an invented tradition tied to more recent ideological and intersubjective needs, and that the Know-Nothings were not really nativists who advocated employment (and other) discrimination against Irish (or other) immigrants.
Fried is a high school student at Sidwell Friends. And her essay is just as comprehensive a refutation of Jensen’s original as you could ever hope to see. History may be subject to a much wider range of interpretation than physics, but sometimes claims about the past can be as subject to indisputable falsification.
So my thoughts on Fried’s article.
1) Dear Rebecca Fried: PLEASE APPLY TO SWARTHMORE.
2) This does really raise questions, yet again, about peer review. 2003 and 2015 are different kinds of research environments, I concede. Checking Jensen’s arguments then would have required much more work of a peer reviewer than more recently, but I feel as if someone should have been able to buck the contrarian force of Jensen’s essay and poked around a bit to see if the starkness of his arguments held up against the evidence.
3) Whether as a peer reviewer or scholar in the field, I think two conceptual red flags in Jensen’s essay would have made me wary on first encounter. The first is the relative instrumentalism of his reading of popular memory, subjectivity and identity politics. I feel as if most of the discipline has long since moved past relatively crude cries of “invented tradition” as a rebuke to more contemporary politics or expressions of identity to an assumption that if communities “remember” something about themselves, those beliefs are not arbitrary or based on nothing more than the exigencies of the recent past.
4) The second red flag, and the one that Fried targets very precisely and with great presence of mind in her exchanges with Jensen, is his understanding of what constitutes evidence of presence and the intensity of his claims about commonality. In the Long Island Wins column linked to above, Jensen is quoted as defending himself against Fried by moving the goalposts a bit from “there is no evidence of ‘No Irish Need Apply'” to “The signs were more rare than later Irish-Americans believed they were”. The second claim is the more typical sort of qualified scholarly interpretation that most academic historians offer–easy to modify on further evidence, and even possible to concede in the face of further research. But when you stake yourself on “there was nothing or almost nothing of this kind”, that’s a claim that is only going to hold up if you’ve looked at almost everything.
I often tell students who are preparing grant proposals to never ever claim that there is “no scholarship” on a particular subject, or that there are “no attempts” to address a particular policy issue in a particular community or country. They’re almost certainly wrong when they claim it, and at this point in time, it takes only a casual attempt by an evaluator to prove that they’re wrong.
But it’s not just that Jensen is making what amounts to an extraordinary claim of absence, it is that his understanding of what presence would mean or not mean, and the crudity of his attempt to quantify presence, that is an issue. There may be many sentiments in circulation in a given cultural moment that leave few formal textual or material signs for historians to find later on. Perhaps I’m more sensitive to this methodological point because my primary field is modern Africa, where the relative absence of how Africans thought, felt and practiced from colonial archives is so much of a given that everyone in that field knows to not overread what is in the archive and not overread what is not in the archive. But I can only excuse Jensen so far on this point, given how many Americanists are subtle and sensitive in their readings of archives. Meaning, that even if Jensen had been right that “No Irish Need Apply” signs (in ads, in doors, or wherever) were very rare, a later collective memory that they were common might simply have been a transposition of things commonly said or even done into something more compressed and concrete. Histories of racism and discrimination are often histories of “things not seen”.
But of course as Fried demonstrates comprehensively, that’s not the case here: the signage and the sentiment were in fact common at a particular moment in American history. Jensen’s rear-guard defense that an Irish immigrant male might only see such a sentiment once or twice a year isn’t just wrong, it really raises questions about his understanding of what an argument about “commonality” in any field of history should entail. As Fried beautifully says in her response, “The surprise is that there are so many surviving examples of ephemeral postings rather than so few”. She understands what he doesn’t: that what you find in an archive, any archive, is only a subset of what was once seen and read and said, a sample. A comparison might be to how you do population surveys of organisms in a particular area. You sample from smaller areas and multiply up. If even a small number of ads with “No Irish Need Apply” were in newspapers in a particular decade, the normal assumption for a historian would be that the sentiment was found in many other contexts, some of which leave no archival trace. To argue otherwise–that the sentiment was unique to particular newspapers in highly particular contexts–is also an extraordinary argument requiring very careful attention to the history of print culture, to the history of popular expression, to the history of cultural circulation, and so on.
Short version: commonality arguments are hard and need to be approached with care. They’re much harder when they’re made as arguments about rarity or absence.
5) I think this whole exchange is on one hand tremendously encouraging as a case of how historical scholarship really can have a progressive tendency, to get closer to the truth over time–and it’s encouraging that our structures of participation in scholarship remain porous enough that a confident and intelligent 9th grader can participate in the achievement of that progress as an equal.
On the other hand, it shows why we all have to think really carefully about professional standards if we want to maintain any status at all for scholarly expertise in a crowdsourced world. I’ve said before that contemporary scholars sometimes pine for the world before the Internet because they felt safe that any mistakes they make in their scholarship would have limited impact. If your work was only read by the fifty or so specialists in your own field, and over a period of twenty or thirty years was slowly modified, altered or overturned, that was a stately and respectable sort of process and it limited the harm (if also the benefit) of any bolder or more striking claims you might make. But Jensen’s 2002 article has been cited and used heavily by online sources, most persistently in debates at Snopes.com, but also at sites like History Myths Debunked.
For all the negativity directed at academia in contemporary public debate, some surveys still show that the public at large trusts and admires professors. That’s an important asset in our lives and we have serious collective interest in preserving it. This is the flip side of academic freedom: it really does require some kind of responsibility, much as that requirement has been subject to abuse by unscrupulous administrations in the last two years or so. We do need to think about how our work circulates and how it invites use, and we do need to be consistently better than “the crowd” when we are making strong claims based on research that we supposedly used our professional craft to pursue. It’s good that our craft is sufficiently transparent and transferrable that an exceptional and intelligent young person can use it better than a professional of long standing. That happens in science, in mathematics, and other disciplines. It’s maybe not so good that for more than ten years, Jensen’s original claims were cited confidently as the last word of an authenticated expert by people who relied on that expertise.