Historical Methods

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  • Animals as subjects

    Posted on November 30th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    The readings this week argues animals have their agency and thus can be subjects of history from the perspective of animals’ life world, language, military partnership. Erica Fudge recovered cows’ order of their life world; Susan Pearson discusses the changing concept of language and mind to illustrate animals’ communication. Brett Walker, Chris Pearson and David Shaw put much attentions on the ideas of Bruno Latour’s Actor Network Theory and Donna Haraway to legitimate the agency of nonhuman.

    This is my first time to think about animals as being subjects with agency and intentionality. While I realized this first-time experience, I wonder how I had not thought about it before. I always feel my cat has her own order of the world and I am her servant in her world, how could I not think about animals are subjects before reading the articles this week? For me, the questions are not whether animals have agency, but how to represent animals with agency in historical research.

    In this sense, Fudge’s piece about cows is an example of representing animals as this article shows cows had their order of the world and did play roles in the past. While the authors this week all argue animals’ agency and I agree with them, I eager to see more studies which actually writings about animals.

    What I don’t quite understand is Pearson’s piece about language. I know the issue of whether animals have languages (both oral and body languages) connects with whether animals have mind and self, the most important part of agency. However, just like Pearson describes, scholars try “to answer this question: what is the human mind without language?” (p.101) Thus, I wonder why animals must have the ability to “speak” in order to have agency. Is it necessary to build mind and self with languages? Or can we (human and nonhuman) be agents without language? Can we have “self” without communication? These questions have been discussed at least in psychology and anthropology. I think if the author can mention these question at the first to second part of the article, it can bring a boarder context of this issue to the audience before jumping into this symbolic approach of mind and self.


  • When history meets science

    Posted on November 16th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    The reading this week contains On Deep History and The Brain and four essays of “AHR Forum: Investigating the History in Prehistories”, and there are mainly two sets of issues to discuss: the encounters of history and science, and the cancellation of artificial dichotomy, such as history/pre-history, modern/pre-modern, colonial/pre- colonial. I really enjoy these articles but today I am trying to discuss these two issues from a recent experience in a conference, instead of sticking on the readings.

    Last week I went to the annual conference of Society of History of Technology (SHOT) in Detroit, and there was a panel called “Asia as Method”. I went to that panel without any pre-existing idea about what this panel was going on. As this conference was the SHOT meeting, almost all participants were historians of technology. There were historians who study healthy products at early 20th century, and there were also physicists who study the experimental instruments of the 16th century. Thus, the Asia as Method panel was an interdisciplinary moment of history and many kinds of technologies, while it was also interconnection with the Western and non-Western world.

    The panelists were challenged by the audience because this panel named Asia, but most of them were actually studying East Asia. South Asia and other areas were under-presented. Also, most of the East Asian historical studies represent the successful cases of developmentalism, which has been criticized by World-System Theory and other critical theories. The audience of this panel then raised several questions: Is Asian technological experience different from the Western, or even African world? Does East Asian experience of modernization present a colonial story or successful developmental cases? Is historical studies of technology in Asia against colonial interpretations or to follow colonial domination? How to let Asia speak its own story, instead of just providing additional information to the Western-centric academic world?

    There was an interesting point of discussion raised in this panel: there were no clear conceptual and practical distinction between science and technology in some East Asian entities, such as in Japan. Thus, to some extent, the way to illustrate the world in Asia is different from the English world. It sounds an issue of philosophy of language, but here it provides a more radical argument than multiple interpretations for the one world, that the way to understand and analyze the world may totally different among every cultures, and thus there may be “different worlds.” Thus there is legitimacy of a whole historical experience other than the Western-English view, with accumulation of different language, culture and different past. This makes the discussion back to the basic motive of research – how to describe/understand/interpret our own world and our own past.

    The issue then was released from the tension between technology and history, or the West and non-West. All concerns can be considered base on its own research argument. The question is not how technological/historical a study should be, but to what technological/ historical extent can one tell his/her story clearly. Same as the encounters of science and history, it is sometimes indeed problematic that an interdisciplinary study should be more scientific or historical, or should an interdisciplinary researcher be trained by nature science or history. For now, I think it is decided by the story: an interdisciplinary historical research of science and history should stop to write the scientific part at the point that can tell the story clear enough, while in other words, one should provide scientific details that are enough to tell the story. Scientific sources are one kind of useful materials to tell the story, just like achieves.

    Back to the Asian studies of history of technology, I also think the question is not only about history/pre-history, colonialism and/or post-colonialism. It is also about how to reconstruct a world with multiple ways to reasonably reconstruct history beyond academic westernization. The artificial dichotomy of history/pre-history, colonialism and/or post-colonialism are just one interpretation of history and we don’t need to fundamentally block them. The point is there are many kinds of concepts can show the past with continuity. In this sense, I agree with Ogundiran, that “using all the multidimensional sources that are capable of disclosing different kinds of historical knowledge cross-culturally and in the long term” (p.801) can be a way to “be close to the end of prehistory.” (p.801)

  • Categories in the postmodernist view

    Posted on October 19th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Joan Scott is apparently not the first one nor the only one who discusses gender as a category of analysis, but she does provide a deep understanding and bring the complexity of gender as a category into the field of history. This week, Scott’s articles not only give me some insights of gender as a category, but also to practically show how to embody postmodernism and the linguistic turn in reviewing and constructing an approach to study history. Although Foucault also puts all subjects into relationship, he is sometimes obscure. Scott states her relationship-oriented approach in a clear and actionable way.

    It is impressive that Scott indicates gender as a category to identify and analyze power relationship. This statement refuses the essentialists view and legitimate gender by avoiding to isolate gender from other categories to analyze power relationships, such as class and race. I am not sure if her discussion about gender was connected with a boarder context of the discussion about gender equality. Scott’s paper published in 1986, while in 1985, the concept of “gender mainstreaming” was announced on the Third World Conference on Women in Nairobi, Kenya. The idea of gender mainstreaming is that “Governments and other actors should promote an active and visible policy of mainstreaming a gender perspective in all policies and programmes so that before decisions are taken, an analysis is made of the effects on women and men, respectively” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender_mainstreaming). Gender mainstreaming is a normative argument regarding to policies, but it does present some ideas of postmodernism and the inclusive view. According to this concept, there is no “women policy” or “family policy” specific for biological women. It needs to consider gender issues in all polices, and also needs to include men into gender issues, because all polices will involve power relationship and inter-connect with either economic, political, cultural and social status of both men and women.

    However, obviously, not all historical researches have to put gender issues in stories, as there are still many categories to reconstruct historical events. Still, I think it is important to keep the concept of power relationship in mind to help researchers identify those “invisible” sections. Sometimes, actors (women, workers, patients, prisoners, people of colors…etc.) are invisible because they were not considered significant before. Furthermore, when they get their legitimacy to be subject to study, it is hard to find records about them. Thus, even researchers try to be inclusive, it is hard to find enough evidences. I think if it is the case, there are still possible ways to put those invisible people into accounts. One potential way is to explain the gap and clearly indicate the unfilled corner of the story due to lack of those “invisible” people and relationships. For example, in the case of civil rights, if there is no data to show opinions of women, illustrating this gap clearly and the possible reasons which women could not speak for themselves may be more comprehensive than just leaving them out of the picture.

  • Landscape of a historian

    Posted on October 12th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    This week I read Landscape for a Good Woman before A crooked Line, and I think it might not be a good idea. Not only because Eley provides the background of Landscape for a Good Woman, but also because compared with most academic books, Carolyn Steedman takes a very special way, an autobiographical approach. I thought it was just a book about two women. It was unexpected that she describes “we’d known all our childhood that she was a good mother; she’d told us so…”(p.1) and “she lied to me though when, at about the age of eight, I asked her what she’d done, and she said she’d worked in an office, done clerical work(p.33). There is so much tension between her and her mother and I even feel that she discloses herself “too much” for me. Sometimes a vivid story is attractive but a true story is moved and shock! Landscape for a Good Woman is this kind of true story that makes me a little uncomfortable with. I was naïve that I were prepared to read a story about working-class life which is full of tension and ambiguity as she describes, but were not prepared to read a private story about a mother and a daughter, even these stories are not “private” at all.

    However, I think this uncomfortableness brings the success of Landscape for a Good Woman, since it marks that Carolyn Steedman is so “honest”. Through the two true lives of her mother and herself, she comes across the line between social history and cultural history. It is truly to “let the evidence speaks for itself”, and thus she avoids to let the boundary between disciplines cut the life experiences to fit the field of a discipline. Furthermore, while she is telling the stories, she doesn’t pretend to be objective. Once again, she is honest in showing her position. There is “I” everywhere in this book. She values her private story and successfully raises a feministic narrative into a legitimate position of academic field.

    I am curious about her so I googled her. And I found she discloses herself on her page as well, just like she is sitting next to me and talking. (Her page: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/people/staff_index/csteedman/) She is the first one I know who (and I don’t know if she will be the only one) says “…so I’m now free to move on to new projects and new ways of doing and writing history” and “but will I be able to write it, now that I’m free to do so? Watch this page!” For me, the reading this week is not only to know autobiography as an approach to do research, but also to know a very distinctive style of Carolyn Steedman as a historian.

  • The Foucauldian Idea of “Relation”

    Posted on October 5th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    “…one cannot be a ‘Foucauldian’ in the way once can be a Marxist or a Freudian,” and that is undoubtedly true. (O’Brien, p.46)

    This is not my first time to read Foucault but every time I read, I always have the same thought like O’Brien’s above. There are many approaches to “use” Foucault in topics, such as applying the concept of panopticism to analyze visibility in daily life, especially CCTV, or taking his approach to uncover dominance in other cases of a researcher’s local military, prisons and hospitals. However, there are many Foucauldian studies, none of them replicates great influence as much as Foucault themselves. In this sense, Foucauldian approach just helps them to notice something that was hidden before- it is power relation.

    But from “What is Enlightenment?”, I think it is not only about power relation. It is to think all materials, all actors and all subjects in a relationship-oriented way. He takes Enlightenment as a set of relations by analyzing Kant’s article. He says “In any case, Enlightenment is defined by a modification of the preexisting relation linking will, authority, and the use of reason.” When he defines his concern, his concern is also about relation of struggle process of modernity and countermodernity; this is a kind of relation again: “I think it would be more useful to try to find out how the attitude of modernity, ever since its formation, has found itself struggling with attitudes of “countermodernity.”

    Foucault thinks of concepts in the way of relation as well by describing the relation between Enlightenment and humanism “From this standpoint I am inclined to see Enlightenment and humanism in a state of tension rather than identity.”

    Even he talks about Baudelaire, he puts attention on relation: “modernity for Baudelaire is not simply a form of relationship to the present; it is also a mode of relationship that has to be established with oneself.” There are many statements show his way of thinking things in relationship: “Now the relations between the growth of capabilities and the growth of autonomy are not as simple as the eighteenth century may have believed.” At the end of this article, he says, “…they have their theoretical coherence in the definition of the historically unique forms in which the generalities of our relations to things, to others, to ourselves, have been problematized.”

    In this sense, Foucault proposes his way of studying things in relationship against structuralism. Genealogy and archaeology are his methods, but more importantly, the presumption of these two methods is his approach of relation.

  • From Text to Context, from symbols to culture

    Posted on September 28th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Geertz starts with Balinese cockfight to illustrate local culture in Bali; Darnton takes the story of cat massacre as the epitome of French society in 18th century. I believe they may be the good examples of, in Cronon’s word, “storytelling” as they are vivid and lifelike and keep to be informative. I especially enjoy the section about Geertz and his wife ran away from police, and locals pretended to have tea all day with them. (The cat massacre one is interesting as well, but as a cat owner who need to leave my kitten at homeland, I can’t really enjoy this one….) They both show the anthropological approach that can be applied to historical researches. However, as Chartier states in his article “Texts, Symbols, and Frenchness”, there are many questions for this approach needed to be considered, such as issues of materials sources, multiple meanings of a symbol, mobility of words and symbols.

    Although there are some questions, I think it is good to have those cats and cocks as “a point of entry that gives us access to the comprehensive of a culture in its entirety.” (p.685) because “culture” is omnipresent and thus it is hard to get. Just as Chartier says ““cultural objects” are not of the same nature as the serialized data studies by economic history or demographic history…Culture cannot be considered as a ‘level’ of some social entity resembling a three-story house because all interpersonal relationships are of cultural nature, even those we qualify as ‘economic’ or ‘social’” (p.683) I agree with Chartier’s concerns about anthropological approach, but I do think the way that starting with a thing and narratives around this thing, is an option to catch broader culture context.

    So for me, the question is, how to make an interpretation of a symbol as accurate and informative as possible as I can to avoid most questions which Chartier raises. For now, I think the answer of this question can track back to the degree of knowledge about the context of that symbol. Knowing the context more comprehensive may be helpful to make such a cultural work.

    In addition, the reading this week reminds me that I used to do a small similar study of a symbol: a wedding ring. Last year when I first met my classmates in the US, I noticed that some married females wear two rings on their ring fingers, and I never saw this way to wear rings as people usually wear just one ring in East Asia. I studied the meaning of wedding rings and found those little rings carry a board narratives about marriage, family and westernization. Long story for short, thousand years ago in China, imperial concubines wore rings to indicate “do not touch me” during their periods. Traditionally, Chinese people exchange jewelry ornament including bracelet, earrings, necklace and pendant for wedding; rings were not the symbol of marriage. The jewelry ornament was provided by mother-in-law to both daughter/son-in-law, in order to show marriage was not only to connect the couple but also to connect two family. Wedding ornament was not a marriage contract, but a symbol of family property. Quantity of ornament shows the degree of richness of the two family and the degree of how these two family care about this marriage. Starting from early 20th century, rings becomes the main symbol of marriage as a westernized fashion for young people, but jewelry ornament still plays an important role in traditional wedding ceremony. Thus, during the process of westernization, people in East Asia combine engagement ring  and wedding rings, and thus only wear one ring in daily life.

  • Theoretical commitment and doing researching

    Posted on September 21st, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Among the readings this week, I feel lucky that I started from Tosh’s The Pursuit of History. Tosh provides a frame to discuss the perspective of social history in Marxism approach. The relation between practically writing history and theoretical commitment is very interesting. As Tosh already mentions about social science such as sociology and economics, I would like borrow the argument from a sociologist Max Weber’s Science as a Vocation, because it clearly explains the dynamic between theoretical commitment and doing researching. Weber states that no one can do a study without existing ideas. People must have something they care, so that they can do researches. This is where passion comes from. Thus, researchers have their values, and organize their questions and studies by their values. However, it does not mean researchers can interpret data following this value. If the research results are contradict with their value, researchers can reflect more about their values.

    While in some cases, having a strong theoretical commitment or stating one’s self cannot bring productive results. For example, for a long time every research in China has to follow its “historical materialism”, for they put value over their researches. However, in the context this week, I agree with Tosh that it is good to see Thompson displays his value in the beginning of his research. Thompson’s statement makes audience know the starting point of his research and be aware of his interpretation of sources. There may be multiple interpretations of the same sources, but it will be helpful to know how these interpretations come from. In other words, stating one’s lens clearly will make others easier provide more correction and feedback. Thus, it connects with some topics of writing is Digital Age we discussed in the past few weeks – how to deal with information online and external audience in such an open online world. I think identifying others’ values can help to judge the information they provide, and illustrating my lens can help my audience judge mine as well.


  • New Form of Knowledge

    Posted on September 14th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Both Weinberger and the authors of Writing History in the Digital Age discuss characteristics of Internet and how these characteristics apply to historical writing. They put much effort on openness of Internet, such as avoiding gatekeepers, increasing diversity and improving collaboration. The most interesting question for me is: as they all indicate Internet changes our way of understanding things into a flexible, nonlinear form, how do I write in this flexible, nonlinear form?

    “…hyperlinked works establish an ecology of temptation, teasing us forward. When the temptation diverge from our aims, we think of those links as distractions. But we could just as well consider the new form of knowledge to consist of content that simultaneously settles an issue for us and baits our further interest.” (Weinberger, 117)

    This new form of knowledge contains hyperlinks of relevant information around the topic. Thus, readers’ interest will be directed into these hyperlinks, not necessary the way that the author decides. Just like Wikipedia, readers today are used to start their learning from one thing, and then choose another relevant topic. They don’t have to follow any order of reading, like book chapters. For example, if I search Mao Zedong on Google and click his Wikipedia page. In the first paragraph, there are 8 hyperlinks and I can click anyone of them. The page provides lots of information about Mao Zedong as a person and the historical events he involved. However, what if I am the author who are going to write a book about Mao Zedong? What if I am an author who cannot predict or control my readers’ behavior as they may want to know different things like clicking on different hyperlinks?

    So I review many famous blogs and Facebook Pages about history, and find there is a common style among these blogs and Pages – most of contents are organized by events and there are just a few posts tried to write comprehensive history. In this way, the authors make their posts into hyperlinks for readers to choose what they want. The authors don’t even try to predict how audiences read the posts, but let the audiences “hyperlink” the posts by themselves. They may post a story of Mao’s family member, another post about his early life, and a post about his leadership. In other words, these authors try to make the readers themselves be the central site to understand Mao through these posts as hyperlinks, and they will not place an order for readers to understand Mao. The story of Mao has been cut into many pieces, but will be collected and re-organized in readers’ mind.

    This may not be the only way of writing a new form of knowledge in digital age, and I do think there are many possible ways to write in digital age. While I am reflecting myself as a blogger now, I think it won’t work well if I just post something online. I am still figuring out my own style to write digitally – as the new form of knowledge.

  • Drama and storytelling

    Posted on September 10th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    Today after class, while walking out of the building, I suddenly realize why the term “drama” caused misunderstanding. In Chinese, “drama” contains every kind of drama and “TV series” is called “TV drama”. Interestingly, the term “TV series” in Chinese usually refers to foreign TV series, not local TV series. So, terrible sorry for that. I think that is even an issue of philosophy of language about how different languages categorize dramas.

    Speaking about drama and storytelling, I would like to add something under this topic: model opera. Starting from 1952, a new kind of drama, model opera, emerged in Mainland China. During Culture Revolution 1966-1976, model opera was an important channel for political education and advertisement. Model opera was not a kind of historical drama, but it changed audience’s sense of history. Traditionally, Chinese dramas were either romances or historical stories about ancient elites, emperors and generals. Ordinary people, especially those illiterate persons (about 57% people were illiterate in 1964), learned history from dramas. Most people used to think themselves as descendants of ancient emperors. For the first time, farmers, craftsmen and soldiers became visible in dramas as that was a time of communism. Thus, although model opera was to promote current political leaders at that time, it shaped how people thought of their history and themselves.


    They are “revolutionary opera” on wiki but we usually call them as model opera.

    Some people said time-travel-dramas and historical fantasy were so popular, because model opera made people unfamiliar with traditional Chinese history. As traditional Chinese dramas “educated” people about history, time-travel-dramas and historical fantasy, as TV series, also served that purpose. However, time-travel-dramas were banned in 2012 because they were so popular but too far away from real world and real history. For laypersons, historical fantasy is still a channel of historical education now.


  • How to network knowledge?

    Posted on September 7th, 2014 hungyin No comments

    It is Internet age, and I do agree that one individual cannot know everything at this time since there is so much information. People co-working with each other and making knowledge become a networked thing is an effective way now, and it may be the most practical way to build professional knowledge, as Weinberger describes. However, while it is easy to find a solution from laypersons, it is also easy to get incorrect information.

    It is more important to know how to answer a question than only getting some facts. However, as Cronon states, “we are not permitted to argue or narrate beyond the limits of our evidences.”( p.10), how do we keep telling a good story while networked knowledge may be incorrect?

    Also like Weinberger says “we have so many facts at such disposal that they lose their liability to nail conclusions down, because there are always other facts supporting other interpretations.”(page.28), it is hard to distinguish facts and lies. I think Weinberger will say the more networked, the more it will be testified. The issue of authenticity is also mentioned by Tosh. In that case, it requires paleography to testify the medieval materials. That means, usually, to find out what material is fake, the researcher relies on supportive knowledge – knowledge is not directly relevant with that subject but can contribute to it. If one wants to justify networked knowledge, does he/she need to have more networked knowledge?

    If some historians are working on the Middle Age and they got some materials, they can examine these materials with each other, invite archeologists and paleographers to testify, and even apply people outside of academic community to help. But the question remains: if there are different descriptions about these materials, how do these historians pick one? If they need to have more evidence to make their judgment, how much evidence do they need to make this judgment?

    For me, it looks like networking never ends. Knowledge is now networked. And to know whether knowledge is authentic, it needs to be more networked. It is not only get everyone interested in one topic together in one virtual room and networked knowledge emerges. There must be more rooms connected with this room to make knowledge emerged. To what extent can we know something is true? To what extent can we trust others’ information and judgments?