Sunday, December 05, 2004

The Catch-all

Is there some reason why we identify ourselves as a particular type of historian? Jonathan Dresner took up this question, looking at his tendency (and that of his colleagues) to see themselves as social historians. Despite covering a broad range of topics (political, legal, diplomatic, ...), 'social' is a convenient means of describing a broad variety of interest and techniques.

Why is it that graduate students tend to think of themselves as cultural historians? Why is there an impetus to define ourselves under this category when our topics of interest can vary. I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with cultural history. I feel that many graduate advisors (not mine) push their students into this field: social history is messy, forcing researchers to consider a broad, potentially infinite, range of archival documents; cultural history is clean, using theory to draw attention to a smaller number of documents. Moreover, recruiters seemed to be more interested in testing applicants loyalties to particular constellations of culturalists (both theorists and historians) than examining the rigor with which the applicants research and teach. Every introduction must spout off a list of critics in order to put the student's acumen for theory on display (as well as to display an biases). Under these pressures, this generation of graduate students is forced to define itself as necessarily post-Foucauldian.

(I encounter this problem continually whenever I attempt to describe my own research. There is a tendency to regard regionalism, in contemporary politics and history, as a cultural problem that requires cultural methods and that, most importantly, confirms the importance of culture. In my research I have realized that the role of culture becomes limited. As ideas about the meaning of place are explored, regional identities become difficult to maintain. They are rend between the universalism of the nation and the specificity of the local. In order for a regional movement to succeed, it must inevitably base itself in the realm of political activism rather than cultural conservatism. The interesting question is how it becomes political, allowing culture to play a selective role.)

Should graduate students who use cultural methods call themselves cultural historians? Not necessarily. Most of them are standing on the shoulders of the social historians who came before them, even as they criticize their predecessors. Moreover, the relationship between the social and cultural is uncomfortably symbiotic rather than antagonistic. Indeed, our research might involve questions of social structure (just not in the strictly constructed Marxian sense). Or our exploration of cultural developments require reference to economic and class. But it is admittedly unattractive, potentially damaging, to place oneself at odds with the currents within the profession (the same way that we must also describe ourselves as world historians, comparative historians, etc.).

5 Comments:

At 3:42 PM, Blogger Brdgt said...

The nice thing about historians of science is that we rarely make the distinction any further than that. One can do intellectual history, cultural history, social history, institutional history, comparative history, marxist history, etc. etc. within the history of science but I think "outsiders" generally see us as doing intellectual history.

-brdgt

 
At 7:45 AM, Blogger Caleb said...

I think any label tends to flatten out the facts, and the same may be true with "cultural history." I disagree, though, that cultural history is "clean" compared to the messiness of social history: when I think of myself as a cultural historian, it's usually when I think of myself as a historian of complexity, since culture is created by a dizzying array of material and non-material forces, all of which act in mysterious ways on particular "texts," no matter how small.

I also think the disjunction between political history and cultural history may not be necessary. I still find useful the idea of "political culture," which straddles both fields. The fact that something like "political culture" exists just reinforces in my mind that labels like "political history" and "cultural history" and "social history" are at best provisional, and usually (as you point out) have more to do with institutional categories than intellectual ones.

But for the record, if we must identify ourselves, I see myself as a cultural historian. But I see cultural history as the brainchild of social history and intellectual history, and while the kind of cultural history I try to do leans more towards the latter, I recognize that it would be impossible to study what I study without the prior work of social historians.

 
At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that I am a social historian or a cultural historian. I'm just an historian. Je me méfie des classifications dans lesquelles l'administration ou la société (qui aime l'ordre) veut nous faire rentrer. Mes maîtres m'ont toujours appris qu'un historien est, avant tout, polyvalent. J'ai bien des axes de recherche, plutôt d'histoire sociale et économique, mais aussi culturelle (au sens "cultural history"). Il ne faut certes pas succomber à l'illusion de "l'histoire totale". Mais un historien doit voir large!

zid
http://www.20six.fr/blitztoire

 
At 1:01 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't think that I am a social historian or a cultural historian. I'm just an historian. Je me méfie des classifications dans lesquelles l'administration ou la société (qui aime l'ordre) veut nous faire rentrer. Mes maîtres m'ont toujours appris qu'un historien est, avant tout, polyvalent. J'ai bien des axes de recherche, plutôt d'histoire sociale et économique, mais aussi culturelle (au sens "cultural history"). Il ne faut certes pas succomber à l'illusion de "l'histoire totale". Mais un historien doit voir large!

zid
http://www.20six.fr/blitztoire

 
At 2:30 PM, Blogger John said...

Identifying oneself (or others) as a certain type of historian seems to be very connected to the politics of the discipline. A few years back, I went to a Historical Society conference in Boston and people there talked of "cultural historians" very derisively; being a "social historian" or a "political historian" meant something much more positive. The terms have become very devisive - I wonder if they were ever anything else. Beyond the identity politics of the terms, does it really mean anything to label oneself as, say, a "cultural historian"? I'm not sure it does. One last note: I recall a time (mid 1990s) when grad students in History felt they *had* to read Foucault in order to be respectable (this may still be true?), but had no idea what to make of what they read. A pointless exercise, but it highlights the main point - consuming theory not for what it might offer intellectually, but as a social marker.

 

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