Monthly Archives: September 2014

Culture, Anthropology and Sitting

Last Fall I traveled to South Korea. And when I returned home, I could barely walk…and it wasn’t from the amount of ‘trekking’ around Seoul and Gwang Ju and the Yellow Sea that gave me the pain in my legs – it was sitting. Yes, sitting.

When I arrived, fresh off the plane and suffering from jet-lag, my hostess showed me to the place I would be staying, the beautiful building in the picture below.


The Guest House

As we walked in, there was really just one big room that made up most of the house, the room pictured below.


The Main room in the Guest House

I was slightly puzzled, but I didn’t try to “let on.” I thought she was taking me to the guest house but the assortment of furniture, artifacts and symbols in the room confused me. I wasn’t sure if this was a small church meeting room or if this was really where was I supposed to stay and why did they have the logs on the floor? I didn’t know if they were benches or a table or what. It’s really not good to be jet-lagged, extremely tired and confused.

My confusion, I soon learned, came from my lack of knowledge of Korean culture.  Koreans have a very communal culture and do many things together, thus the most important room in the house is the room where the guests or family gathers. And the logs on the floor were the dining room table. And you sat on the floor to eat. And try doing that for 14 days straight and see how your legs feel.

If I were a historian looking at this pictures sometime in the future and I was American, I might have the same problems. With the cross on the wall, the piano in the room and logs that look like benches, I might assume right away that this was small meeting room for a church. But of course, my historical anthropology would be short sighted.

Written text from the time, as well as other pictures and artifacts, such as tables from the era, should tell me that the logs on the floor could possibly be a table, not benches, which is a very western idea about logs on a floor. The communal nature of families also might give me a hint that this was a communal gathering area for the house.

Historical anthropology can be tough to get right. Just like my example above.

A case in point is Robert Darnton’s interpretation of a little known story about cat killings in Paris during the 1730s. In the “The Great Cat Massacre,” Robert Darnton draws on his extensive knowledge of eighteenth century French culture to interpret the story of cat killing. He draws parallels between the Mardi Gras celebrations of the time and the trial and execution of the cats. He asserts that “The text made the theme of sorcery explicit from the beginning. Jerome and Leveille could not sleep because ‘some bedeviled cats make a sabbath all night long.’  His analysis is compelling and seems very plausible, even if the story is a bit gruesome, especially when he describes…well I won’t go there.

The only problem is, others also make totally different and compelling interpretations such as Roger Chartier’s in “Text, Symbols, and Frenchness.”  Chartier states that the story “resembles the plot of French folk tales celebrating ruse and the ingeniousness of the lowly turned against the masters” and in such, Chartier questions whether or not the story ever actually took place.

So what are we budding historians supposed to do?

Geertz gives us advice.  After his description and analysis of cock fights in Bali, (I love the story of he and his wife running from the police, dashing into a fellow fugitive’s home and their fellow fleer’s wife setting everything up to seem as if they were having tea – all before the police arrive), Geertz concludes:

But whatever the level at which one operates, and however intricately, the guiding principle is the same: societies, like lives, contain their own interpretations. One has only to learn how to gain access to them.(453)

As historians analyze their primary sources a society’s culture, the context in which an artifact, text or symbol is situated and our own biases must be taken into consideration.

One of the guiding principles of society in Korea is communal meals and another is that those meals are eaten while sitting on the floor. My advice is that if you every go to South Korea, try practicing sitting indian style for say, thirty minutes or so a day – you’ll thank me for it.

A little more on culture.

My Korean friend’s text message :

정말 고마워요. 당신 정말 성실한사람이예요..^^(my Korean friend’s smiley face)

faith는 한국어로 믿음. 성실함 이란 뜻이예요. ㅋㅋ(haha in Korean lingo)

My text message:

 자는 기쁜 도아주워요! ???? 하하 (haha, literally 하하 is pronounced haha in Korean)


September 27, 2014 · 6:16 pm

On Weavers, Weaving and History

Have you ever seen cloth woven by a weaver on a hand loom?

If you look closely you will see that it is made up of small threads interwoven with other threads. The threads are small, thin and seem fragile but when woven together they create a strong, beautiful piece of cloth. You must look close on a woven pice of fabric to see the individual  threads, but they are there. And when you discover them, you begin to see all the colors and textures and weaving that went into creating the fabric. It truly is a work of art.


Weaving Loom: from

So, by now, you may we wondering, “Why is she talking about weaving in a history post?”

Let me explain.

When E.P. Thompson began his work on what became The Making of the English Working Class, he decided to find the little “threads” that wove the history. Instead of looking at the bigger picture of the English Industrial Revolution from 1790 -1830, he looked at the individual threads, and he started with the weavers.

Thompson says in The Making of the English Working Class, that “The conditions of most weavers, from the 1820s (and earlier in cotton) to the 1840s and beyond, are commonly referred to as “indescribable” or as “well known.” They deserve, however to be described and to be better known.” (44) And he does describe them. He weaves them together to give the reader a picture of the truly human cost of the Industrial Revolution.

Mrs. Hulton and myself, in visiting the poor, were asked by a person almost starving to go into a house. We there found on one side of the fire a very old man, apparently dying, on the other side a young man about eighteen with a child on his knee, whose mother had just died and been buried…I have no doubt that the family were actually starving at the time… (44)

Using first hand accounts of the ‘small threads’ that made up the story, Thompson pieces together a picture of the Industrial Revolution’s affect on those whose backs it rested.

He however doesn’t leave them powerless. He chronicles their agency, their place in fighting back. Thompson chronicles the advent of writings such as Corbette’s in his conversational tone that connected with workers, inspired them and helped to draw them together. Other radical writers and thinkers all coalesced together to fight back and bring the rise of the English working class.

So, why did Thompson decide to look at the ‘little threads’ of the English Industrial Revolution? Why did he not look at prominent figures, the bills in Parliament or the overall changes in the economy?

Because as a historian, his guide for historical research, the ‘framework’ from which he wove his story, was a theory. In fact it was a theory developed on class consciousness, marxian theory. Over the years, historians have not worked ‘outside’ or ‘irrelevant’ of the political and literary theory developing around them. Works by such theorists as Said, Marx, Foucault and Bhabha and even Saussure and Derrida affect historians work. Historians too join in the conversation on theory. You can see it in Thompson’s work as he analyzes, especially in his analysis of the radical journalists of the English Industrial Revolution. For historians, theory may open up a ‘pattern’ to follow or a way to look at language.

The way historians “do” history, the theory they follow, the ideas they concentrate on certainly vary over time. No discipline that remains static remains relevant. But ultimately, whatever theory they may follow or whatever time period or people they may study, historians remain weavers – they take the threads of history and create intricately woven fabrics of past time.



Please permit me a little aside here at the end. Elizabeth Gaskell wrote a novel in 1854 entitled North and South. The novel is set in a northern English town during the Industrial Revolution. The BBC made a miniseries of the novel. It is a poignant story that shows the working conditions in textile factories in the first half of the 19th century. Follow this link for previews of the miniseries It is available on Netflix.







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Older, Not Necessarily Wiser

You know, there are advantages to being older.

I usually wouldn’t say this; I like to be somewhat delusional about my age. You know the old cliche “You are as old as you feel.” Well….. on second thought, let’s not go there.

After reading this week’s selections, my initial thought was “Screw the conventionalities, I’ll do history like I want to do it!” (Ok, nobody send this post to my grandchildren who have never heard their grandmother say ‘screw’.)

I say that somewhat out of frustration. My daughter currently struggles with a desire to apply to a PhD program to do the thing she wants to do – become an English professor.  Her downfall, however, is she is more of a blogger than a conference paper writer. (Check out her latest blog at: She is currently trying hard to produce work with “good scholarship” because she knows she must jump through the right “hoops.”

But I’m older than my daughter. Not wiser, just older. And I don’t have to jump through hoops.

Sherman Dorn in Is Digital History More Than an Argument about the Past, states, “…young scholars worry about what counts as scholarship in an online universe, fearing that their senior colleagues will not respect anything other than monographs published by a university press…” (1)  So where does that leave so many young people who grew up in the digital age? Is their desire to do digital history make them less of a historian?

Ben Schmidt does remarkable digital work with the data from ship’s logs. He’s taken the data and digitized it into a visual experience that is informative and far from dry. (The squiggly lines running around really fascinated me as I watched where ships traveled. I also discovered that few ships ever went to Korea – a little bit of information I will store for possible future reference.) He also weighed in on the question of scholarship and history.

Schmidt says, “Historians tend to view…argumentation as the heart of their creative endeavor. But widespread availability of digital sources calls that priority into question.” (1) I wonder if historians have created an “echo chamber” by looking to the monograph and analysis of monographs as the penultimate achievement of a serious, scholarly historian.

David Weinberger, in Too Big to Know talks about the concept of an “echo chamber.” People who surf the web often gravitate to sites that ‘echo’ their own beliefs. Liberals, conservatives, blacks, whites, hispanics groups of all kinds like to talk with and affirm their beliefs with others of like mind.(82) Have scholarly historians done something similar? William Cronon while addressing his colleagues spoke about something he called “professional boredom” which he wrote about in a column earlier.

“What I meant by this,” he explained, “was the tendency of professionals, when talking mainly with each other, to adopt vocabularies and ways of speaking that have the effect of excluding outsiders who do not belong to that profession.”

Sounds like an ‘echo chamber’ to me. People who gravitate toward ‘echo chambers’ on the web develop their own vocabularies, their own way of speaking which in effect excludes others. Maybe some aspects of the scholarship in history are older and not necessarily wiser.

Now I must say, I am not a professional historian. And I’m not in charge of what is considered scholarship.

But I am older.

I’ve seen many things come and go. When businesses, ideas, schools, etc. became irrelevant and didn’t change with the times, they died. Period.

And I don’t want to see that with history.


(Disclaimer: All opinions expressed here are solely the author’s and not necessarily those of the AARP – or AARP’s history division.)




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“Doing” History

“Casting my eyes round I first saw her flying down out of the window. Distracted, I rushed down stairs; how, I know not;…When I discovered blood gushing out of her head or face, suffice it to say, I was completely senseless for a few moments. When she held out her hand to me I embraced it for the last time.” 1

No, this is not a post about horror films or melodramas, although the opening quote might lead you to think it is.

This also is not a post about human reactions to difficult situations or the  crude exaggerations of yellow journalism.

Instead, this is a post about history or more precisely, it is a post about “doing” history.  (We’ll leave the quote above dangling in our recent history and come back to it again shortly.)

The “doing” of history is actually a complex conundrum involving many aspects of the word “doing.” Tosh argues that “doing history” largely consists of first gathering many sources, primary and secondary. A researcher might develop an interest in a particular topic or she might have a particular historical question she would like to answer, so she enters the fray and begins her quest. Primary sources she may find range from newspapers of the time to a young woman’s diary filled with musings on love discovered in places as varied as a musty archive to the world wide web. Of course, she also searches for work done by other scholars in her field to see where her research will fit in and how she can join the historiographical conversation.

After the researcher compiles her sources she writes a monograph, a book of original research which then is critiqued by other practicing historians.  The book no doubt also will find a place somewhere, most likely, on the internet. It then becomes part of the ever widening network of information that runs edgeless and foundation-less through cyberspace. Someone may “google” the monograph’s topic, and if the author is fortunate, the search engine may “filter it forward” (13) allowing it to land on the first page of the search. The interested reader may then print the findings of the google search which becomes, in and of itself, a piece of history describing the types of articles, books and webpages that are popular on the given topic in our time period. Phew…

But we’re not done.

So now “doing” history must also include the internet and not just for book searches or cultural studies. Documentaries, oral histories, historical images, etc. abound on the web, free and unfettered, and not always done with scholarly research, in fact, very often not.

Which brings us back to our quote dangling uncared for in our recent history. The above quote is taken from the internet. It is not someone’s writing, but we couldn’t tell from just reading it. It is also not a description from a newspaper. It is in fact from one of the largest online data bases of primary source history. It is a quote from the Proceedings of Old Bailey a collection of over 200,000 criminal trials in England from 1674 – 1913. The internet does indeed “do” some mighty fine history.

Tosh, though, would have trouble with my usage of the quote, and for good reason. It is not in context. There is a gap in the record. It reflects my bias for something dramatic (the word I used to search the records was “blood.”) It truly is just dangling out there. But, I think, Cronan might find something in it that might be useful, a story.

William Cronan, the 2012 American Historical Association president, devoted his final presidential address to the Association to the topic of storytelling. In the context of positing the question, “what is the future of history?”, Cronan exhorts his fellow colleagues to venture out of the world of only analyzing monographs among themselves and venture into the world of storytelling for the general public.

Tosh states, “Second, the grand survey is the principal means by which historians fulfill their obligations to the wider public.” (162) Cronan, though, believes that is changing. In a world where there is public doubt as to whether or not to continue supporting the study of history, historians will need to show the public it’s relevancy. Cronan states, “We need to remember the roots of our discipline and be sure to keep telling stories that matter as much to our students and to the public as they do to us.” (5)

As Cronan spoke, I felt myself wanting to say “Yeah, I agree!”

And I do mean spoke.

Before I began reading the handout, I decided to do something I learned in another class and look up the author before reading his work. So, I sidled up to my computer, opened my search engine, googled ‘William Cronan,’ found a link to his speech, clicked on it and listened.

Thus did I “do” history.


1 Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 7.0, 05 September 2014), September 1812, trial of FRANCIS EVANS (t18120916-52).



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