A Trip through One Semester of Historical Methods and Theory

Here I was, rock you like a hurricane

Almost everyone who goes to grad school in History has to do some variation on the Historiography of Everything class, where students hit the Foucault, Weber, and so forth and instructors pretend that the students will actually read Braudel’s 1300+ age epic The Mediterranean.

I had mine many years back at Columbia University, when I was extremely green and had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I had the opportunity to teach my own version of the course for the first time this Spring, and it required digging up all those old tomes and dusting off the syllabus from grad school.  We didn’t cover everything (if that’s even possible), but we had a great time chatting about the totemic words of historical scholarship (race! gender! sexuality! narrative!). Fun with Foucault.

Below is the series of blog posts that walk students through the big issues under discussion each week, with the syllabus available here.  Hopefully, it might be of use to others who are crafting such a course.  Of course, having a great group of students made testing out the new class a whole lot easier.

1. All about Narratives and Metaphors!

This week we look at the influential and controversial musings of Hayden White, who is about as close to a “theorist” as we get with historians (and he was a comp lit professor).  We also check in with geographer Anne Buttimer on the way that we construct pictures of the world as scholars, and the implicit conceptual models that stand behind them. Finally, the esteemed historian of slavery Walter Johnson introduces us to agency, a crucial historical concept that we all want a little more of–most of the time.

Add your responses to the readings as comments on this post.  If you run into problems, please do not hesitate to contact the instructor via email.

2. Paradigm Shift!

This week, we turn from basic concepts such as narrative, metaphor, and agency to–wait for it–something completely different.  Or not.

Thomas Kuhn‘s model of intellectual change comes from the history of science, but it applies to the history of history too, i.e. historiography. An idea has truly arrived when it becomes a cliché, and in that sense, the concept of the paradigm shift is undoubtedly here. We take a glance at his influential text, and then consider two paradigmatic examples of sea changes in our understanding of the past.

Think about possibilities for your final paper as you look at these readings.  What kind of topic, problem, or question could you examine that exemplifies the different ways that historians have interpreted (and reinterpreted) the past?

Some examples of historiography papers:

Was the Civil War the First Total War? (I didn’t get a great grade on this one, but it at least gives an idea of what a historiographical paper looks like.)

The Emergence of Urban Planning in the South (first semester of grad school; utterly terrified of Barbara Fields)

How We Got Here: Stein, Cowie, Arrighi, on the Post-Industrial Economy (this is a little looser in form and tone, since it originated as a blog post, but it’s a good example of how to engage with scholars who bring drastically different methodologies to bear on shared questions)

3. The American Political Tradition and the White Men Who Wrote About It


It’s no secret to fans of Gelato Orphans (or Tropics of Meta) that Richard Hofstadter has a special place in our hearts.  The good old historian is often trotted out by lazy journalists because of his famous book about “anti-intellectualism” and his essay about “the paranoid style in American politics,” but he had much more to say about American life, from the founders through FDR.  His book The American Political Tradition remains a superlative classic of historical writing and of the “essayistic” mode.

The Age of Reform is perhaps his other most influential work.  Think about the ways Hofstadter approaches writing about the past, politics, class, culture, and so forth. Is it different from the approach you would take?  Is it different from the methodological or theoretical stance that you find in other contemporary historical (and other scholarly) works?

We are also looking at Max Weber, the famous German sociologist, and the celebrated essay he wrote at the close of World War One and the beginning of an era of turmoil in Germany.  Weber is famous for his ideas about capitalism and Protestantism, bureaucracy and rationality, and has often been presented as a sort of counterpoint to Marx.  Do you find his analysis of class and politics to be compelling?

4. Size Matters

Think big – or not

This week we take a look at the temporal and spatial boundaries that historians set in attempting to understand the human experience.  Scholars have to decide not just where the beginning, middle, and end of a study should fall–the vexed question of narrative–but also on what scale the story unfolds.  Is it a study of a particular mining community in Colorado in the 1930s?  Is it a sweeping examination of vast environmental and climatic trends in the long history of the Ottoman Empire?  Could it be, like Joyce’s classic novel Ulysses, just the story of one man, or even the story of one day in one person’s life?  One might reasonably ask whether such a history is possible, or technically “history.”

To pursue these questions, we will begin to delve into the concepts of microhistory, the Annales school, and world-systems theory.  Please post your own thoughts and impressions below.

5. Space Is the Place

This week we deepen our discussion of the landscape and everyday life from last week’s look at Braudel, Ginzburg, and company. From the artificial Soviet city of Magnitogorsk to the ancient origins of the American front lawn and the strepitous lanes of the Mall of America, we will consider how historians have understood the past through the lenses of social history and the built environment.

6. It’s All About Race… Or Is It?


This week, we turn from broad theoretical questions about agency, narrative, and scale to what are known by historians as categories of analysis: race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, and so on.  These are the unifying dimensions of life in the contemporary world that define so many people’s experiences and allow historians to examine a diverse array of people, communities, and stories along one axis or another–their skin color or racial designation, their income or occupation, their gender identity or sexual orientation–and the way these forms of labeling or identification affect their experience of life socially, culturally, politically, economically, and in so many other ways.

For Americans, race stands out as perhaps the preeminent among categories of analysis, since the “original sins” of enslavement (of African people) and genocide (of indigenous people) have fundamentally shaped the course of US history from the very first colonial settlements in the New World.  Historians have debated for ages whether race, class, gender, or sexuality has had greater weight in influencing the course of events in the past and social life today. But this week we look to some preeminent thinkers in this field: Lipsitz, who considers the material and ideological dimensions of what it means to be “white,” of “whiteness” as a thing unto itself; Fields, who boldly challenged the fundamental concept of race itself; and Holt, who provides an elegant survey of some of the basic questions and ideas advanced in the then-new literature (in the 1990s) about race and identity in the United States and beyond.

7. Class and the Classy People Who Have It


This week, we turn from America’s all-time favorite category of analysis–race–to its all-time least favorite, class!  In a republic founded on (sort-of) white male solidarity, class was not supposed to matter as much as in the fussy, hierarchical societies of the “Old World.”  Yet differences of income and status still grew from the rocky soil of American republican virtue.  Like pretty much every other society ever, we have had to contend with economically-based social distinctions among broad groups of people. Marx may have defined class in a materialist sense of money, occupation, and power, but other scholars such as E.P. Thompson have come along to explain how class is much more culturally constructed as an identity in the lived experience of everyday life.  Meanwhile, Thomas Laqueur reminds us how gradations of social status have been embedded historically in the seemingly ordinary but richly symbolic arenas of death and burial, while historians such as Sven Beckert have explored how class identity is formed even among the upper crust.  Even your intrepid instructor has written about the formation of class consciousness within the so-called knowledge economy.  In any case, it’s a great time to be poor!

8. Boys and Girls in America


This week, we turn our attention to gender–a category of analysis that doubles as a free-floating, almost infinitely variable and malleable social construct and a seemingly “natural” and fixed biological distinction.  As opposed to race, a concept we all know was created on the fly, improvised by slavemasters and slaves and jurists and lawmakers over hundreds of years, gender differences appear, at least superficially, to be rooted deeply in our most ancient artistic, legal, and religious traditions.  Gender has provided one of the most fundamental axes of social organization, albeit in a dizzying variety of ways, for most of human history.  Yet we also recognize that gender itself is not identical to physiology or the normative sex differences that are documented, interpreted, and ultimately designated at birth in most cultures.  The rise of trans activism to prominence over the course of the late twentieth and early twentieth centuries makes this fact crystal clear.  As Kate Bornstein famously put it in 1994, “Sex is fucking. Everything else is gender.”

(And we’ll get to sexuality after Spring Break… appropriately enough?)

Gender, thus, offers us yet another lens through which not only to “see” history but to organize, categorize, and make sense of our investigations into the past.  We will look at Joan Scott’s seminal article that argued why gender is a “useful category of analysis”–one of the most read-ever in the discipline–as well as two outings by historians who approach the historical construction and evolution of gender ideas from two very different perspectives (themes of morality and vulnerability around pregnancy in the 1940s and 1950s versus aspirational images of masculinity in print culture around the same time).  These readings open up vistas into the understanding of issues as different as suburbanization and consumer culture as well as the bodily experience of gender and its portrayal art, fashion, and literature.

9. Let’s Talk About Sex

butch queen

This week we venture a bit beyond the famous “trinity” of categories of analysis – class, gender, and race – to other themes and issues that historians have increasingly turned their attention to in recent decades, notably sexuality. Of course, it is very difficult to disentangle gender and sexuality – they are distinct categories of identity and dimensions of human experience that are, nonetheless, intertwined and often mutually reinforcing in many cultures.  The study of sexuality by historians stems from several key sources; in part, scholars began to take the subject seriously as a result of the efforts of feminists to bring issues of gender, sex, reproduction, and the family into academic discussion, as we saw last week in Joan Scott’s influential work.  From a different, albeit often related direction, LGBT historians have pushed for the stories of gay men, lesbians, transpeople, and communities to be told, resulting in key works such as George Chauncey’s Gay New York (1994) and Nan Boyd’s Wide Open Town (2005).  There is also, of course, the French thinker Michel Foucault’s work on sex, the body, and power, such as The History of Sexuality (1976).

For our discussion, we are looking at three very different ways that historians have brought sex and sexuality into the study of the human past.  One comes from Margot Canaday’s award-winning book The Straight State; another, from a journal article by the brilliant Danielle McGuire, author of At the Dark End of the Street; and finally, an essay by emerging scholar Casey Baskin, that looks at an unusual set of primary sources. (Please note that some of these readings include potentially disturbing descriptions of sexual violence.)

10. Work It, Girl


This week’s material may seem to bring us back to issues we’d discussed in the past–isn’t this just “Class” week all over again? Labor, capital, economics, exploitation, your Aunt Rose’s wobbly hip, blah blah blah.  In fact, though, the readings are meant to bring us back to two central trends that are redefining historical scholarship in the early twenty-first century: globalization and the history of capitalism.  The shotgun marriage between the two, it should be noted, started with the first of those terms.  The end of the Cold War inaugurated an era of (American) capitalist triumphalism: in the global contest of ideas, Communism (and its less intimidating sibling Socialism) had definitively lost with the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire, leaving only the US model of liberal democracy and capitalism as the sole remaining option.  With a decade of Wal-Mart and Britney Spears and Will & Grace, it seemed that the protean powers of American market society had truly achieved the ultimate pinnacle of human development, and the free-market agenda of the International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization seemed virtually unchallenged–summed up in the idea of the “Washington Consensus” and the slogan “There Is No Alternative.” The scholar Francis Fukuyama, rightly or wrongly, ended up getting slammed as the prophet of this consensus, declaring “The End of History.”

History has a nasty way of sneaking up on people, though. The dot-com bubble of the late 1990s burst; terrorists killed thousands of Americans in an audacious declaration of war in 2001; and the US and global economies lurched from crisis to crisis in the 2000s and 2010s. Increasingly, historians returned to a focus on money, power, and economics that some had abandoned in the turn toward social and cultural history from the 1970s through 1990s, with the result that scholars such as Bethany Moreton and Louis Hyman increasingly focused on issues such as retail, credit, and high-tech in their work.  This week, we look at both the interrelated nature of global production and supply-chains (in the work of Chomsky and Moreton) as well as the changing nature of work itself in the new digital economy (Terranova).

Admittedly, when I was picking out these readings in Fall 2016, I did not realize precisely how resonant they would be with the current moment.  As Aviva Chomsky delineates in her introduction, there have been two main responses to globalization in the US: one that celebrates increasing “integration” of various national economies and says that there is no alternative, and another that views increasing globalization and immigration with suspicion and even hatred.  It is not hard to see how these two points of view lined up with the political positions of key figures in the past US presidential election, with contemporary parallels in the politics of nations such as the UK and France.  As the historian Samuel L. Jackson once said, “Hold on to your butts.”

11. Can We Talk?

joan rivers

We’re getting oh-so-tantalizingly close to the end, folks–the end of history!  J/k, that’s so last week.  But we are still thinking about fresh work and different methodologies, in this case, Columbia’s Amy Starecheski and her innovative work of oral history, Ours to Lose.  Oral history is nothing new, of course; people have been conveying history through oral tradition since before Homer was knee-high to a grasshopper and the Cyclops still had two eyes.  But historians increasingly refined their approach to using oral interview methods to learn about the past and historical memory in the twentieth century, especially as social and labor historians turned away from considering the documents of high-status people (diplomats, presidents, generals, aristocrats) to learn about how the common man experienced history.  Columbia University, as a matter of fact, took a central role in much of the early, influential oral history, and Starecheski continues to work there in partnership with the esteemed Mary Marshall Clark.  More recently, the Oral History Association moved to Georgia State University under the auspices of the late, great Cliff Kuhn.  For many of us, oral history methods remain central to our work, especially in fields such as public history and urban history.  This week we’ll delve into the history of history “from the bottom up” and consider the many issues involved in trying to capture people’s experiences and stories in a responsible and effective manner.

12. You’re Cracking Me Up


As we near the end of the semester, we pull our lens of focus outward to consider not just a single category of analysis (race, gender, sexuality) or a particular community (NYC squatters) but the vast scope of the American experience in the late twentieth century.  If we started with “The Age of Reform,” then we finish with the “Age of Fracture.”  Daniel Rodgers, recently retired at Princeton, is one of the preeminent intellectual and cultural historians of our time, the author of books such as Contested Truths (1987) and Atlantic Crossings (1998), and Age of Fracture was his big send-off–an attempt to wrangle all the big ideas of conservatism, feminism, multiculturalism, and so forth in one book.

Rodgers, of course, finds himself in good (or at least good-ish) company.  Many others have tried to put the ultimate spin on the last thirty or forty years.  (His Princeton colleague Sean Wilentz dubbed it “the Age of Reagan.”)  Every generation attempts to frame, interpret, and categorize its own experience, or the experience of the past that only recently passed.  In some ways, it is the curse of the historian to not be able to fully recognize the currents and cross-currents that most shaped the riverbed of their own lives.  But Rodgers makes a good go of it, and he does manage to encapsulate a dizzying variety of ideas and movements in his look at the late twentieth century.

Does it work?  How can you write history at such a high level, without the granular specificity that makes something like Amy Starecheski’s work distinct and recognizable?  Does Rodgers’s central metaphor–of American life being subject to a series of “fractures” or disjunctures–make sense of what we all have experienced in the last few decades, or where we’ve ended up?

You can find a great roundtable discussion of the book by a bunch of guys who couldn’t get dates in high school at Tropics of Meta.

13. I Remember Me

30 rock - siri kill jenna

Tracy Jordan once said that “the future is like a Japanese game show — you have no idea what’s going on.” Judging from recent events, the TGS thespian might have been on to something.

On the other hand, the great South African human rights activist Evita Bezuidenhout has said, “The past is unpredictable.” (In fact, the quote is often, fittingly enough, also attributed to intellectuals in the old Soviet Union, as a way of describing life in a communist state where authorities casually rewrote the past.)

Let’s split the difference and say that they’re both right — the future is hard to understand, while the past may be impossible to understand. Part of that has to do with the powers and vulnerabilities of human memory.  This issue has been creeping along the edges of our discussion throughout the course, as, after all, one could say that history is simply the sum of our individual and collective memories.  Oral history, which we just discussed, always faces this problem, as personal experience may seem like rawest, most direct “stuff” of history but memory is always imperfect at best.

30 rock tracy sandwich
The dangers of oral history

Going farther back in the semester, we could also revisit the question of narrative. After all, everyone makes a story out of the nearly innumerable experiences of their own lives, whether formally (writing a diary or memoir) or informally (making sense of life in their own heads).  Then there is the way that the past is institutionally commemorated, in textbooks, statues, museums, and parades. (David Blight’s work on the post-Civil War US, Race and Reunion, is noteworthy in this regard.)

The late and sorely missed Svetlana Boym invites us to reckon with memory and the past in her book The Future of Nostalgia. It is a rather distinct work compared to some of the others we have read this semester, but let’s use it as an opportunity to consider how we deal with the memories of our own lives, and those of friends, families, communities, nations, and even world.  This is perhaps doubly poignant given the changed character of Russian life and relations with the West today compared to when Boym was writing.

On that note, we leave you with a song.