Monthly Archives: September 2013

Cultural Theory…Good or Bad?

If last week I felt pleasantly enlightened about historical history, this week I simply feel confused.  While doing the reading I initialy thought the cultural approach was obvious and was how I looked at history.  I definitely believe in the inclusion of other disciplines in historical study and the importance of analysis based on the context of the timeperiod being studied.  However, I couldn’t get a firm grasp on the success of cultural history.  Several of the readings touted the benefits but equally criticized the approach.  I look forward to class discussion so I can, in the words of my great uncle, “Get my head right.”

I found Chartier’s analysis of Darnton’s work very interesting.  After reading the excerpt of The Great Cat Massacre, I was a bit confused.  I was convinced that there was something at play larger than the ritualistic killing of cats, but that was the extent of my understanding.  I thought Chartier did a particularly good job of explaining Darnton’s approach, and I bought in to it.  This idea of “text” and “context” being central to a complete understanding of history made a lot of sense.  By looking at the “text” of the cat massacre, one could appreciate the context of pre-revolutionary France, and by looking at the context, the “text” made more sense.  This inteplay as a part of the “symbolic forms” really took me by suprise and showed me the importance of Darnton’s work.  Tosh also had me convinced that cultural history was a viable approach with his explanation of other academic fields’ contribution.  Nearly all of them, anthropology, psychology, art history, ect., stressed the need to analyze history in the context of  the time the particular event happened.  I was ready to embrace and commmit to an indoctrination of the cultural approach.

However, both Tosh and Chartier ended their respctive chapter and review in ways that left me undecided.  Chartier criticized Darnton for his unquestioning use of one written source to make claims about the broader French society and questioned the use of such symbols to explain culture.  I seemed to agree with this criticism.  Without looking at larger entities, like the nation-state, political climate, or economic condition, Darnton did seem to miss a lot in his analysis, even though I think he would argue that the culture of this time is much more important and encompasses these other approaches of analysis.  Similarly, Tosh ended his chapter on a down note.  For example, I thought one of his best points against a cultural approach was that “Cultural historians are for the most part thrown back on oblique and ambiguous evidence of what went on in the minds of ordinary people, and it is appropriate to recognize these limitations before wholeheartedly embracing the interpretative procedures of cultural anthropology or textual theory” (267).  Reading this, I began to agree that it is quite a stretch, and possibly somewhat arrogant, to assume that one knows the thoughts and emotions of a historical actor from the past.  Even with numerous writings and other sources, we will never definitively know the mind of another person.

I hope I was not the only one confused and torn on the approach of cultural history.  I really do look forward to class, so we can talk these things out.  In the meantime, is there anyone who can enlighten me on this subject?  Any other secondary sources I should look at before Tuesday’s class?


Theory is a Thing? What?

This week’s reading really hit home for me.  For all the years of studying history, I had heard rumors of historical theroy, but I had never learned or read anything about it.  I knew it existed but had never taken it seriously or thought it worthy of my attention.  For me, theory was something belonging to other disciplines, phychology, anthropology, and sociology.   I would have agreed with the statement that Tosh makes  that historians have only “have relied on their techniques of source criticism in order to capture the meanings that people in the past have given to their experiences” (215). However, Eley showed me that yes, historical theroy is relevant.  Two things especially stuck out to me concerning this week’s reading:  first, the interconnectedness of theory across academic disciplines, and second, historical theory’s connectedness to politics.

Eley primrily analyzes Marxist theory in his exploration of the development of historical theory in the past four decades.  In doing so, he discusses how Marxist thought permeated across academic disciplines.  Because of the all-encompassing power of Marxist thouhgt, historians realized that other disciplines should be consulted in any historical analysis.  I thouhgt this was important.  History involves the interpretation of everything in the past, and “everything” includes developments in anthropology, physcology, biology, etc.  For example, one would be hard pressed to explain the development of Social Darwinism without a complete understanding of evolutionary theory.  For me, this is obvious, but this development is relatively recent.  As it relates to the reading, sociology had a tremendous impact on social history.

A second point I found interesting that is related to the idea of interconnectedness is the influence on politics on the discipline of history.  The Cold War, especially, impacted the development of social and cultural history.  Many of the pioneering social historians were at some point in thier lives communists, though many of them, like E.P. Thompson, left the party after the Soviet invasion of Hungary.  The rise of communism offered another angle of viewing the world, different from the Euro-centric, capitalist method.  Because communism stressed the importance of the working classes, social historians also saw the need to explore the histories of the lower classes.  History would no longer be devoted to the “important people.”  Although the reading has yet to discuss it yet, cultural history developed because of the fall of the Soviet Union.

I was left with sever questions that I think would be good to discuss in class.

1.  Can an historian who is a disciple of a particular historical theory be completely unbiased in his interpretation of particular events?

2. Is it possible for an historian to unknowingly practice an historical theory?

Drunk on Digital Kool-aid

Well, if graduate school is supposed to challenge my existing beliefs/opinions then it already has succeeded.  If someone asked me last week what I thought of digital scholarship, I would have told them that I thought it was a fad that will slowly fade and that true scholarship remains that of material publications, meaning books and academic journal articles.  However, in the last week I have experienced an “about face” in my opinion of digital scholarship, and digital history in particular.  I guess I have drunk the proverbial kool-aid.

This week’s reading did a fantastic job, I think, of connecting to our class discussion.  Many of the problems that I had with Weinberger that seemed to get somewhat explained through our discussion were almost completely resolved in this week’s portion of Too Big to Know, and especially chs. 5 & 6.  First and foremost, Weinberger shows how America’s “best and brightest” led the United States into the Vietnam War, but they were all white, middle-aged males.  If this group of decision-makers had included a more diverse group of people, the Vietnam War might have been avoided.   However, I agree with Weinberger, I think especially because I am a white protestant male, that “not all diversity is equal.”  Sometimes racial and ethnic diversity do not help problem solving because race does not inherently make one think in a different way.   Rather, it is diversity of “perspectives and heuristics” that makes a group smarter, and diversity is most helpful when people share a similar goal, even if they have different opinions about how to attain it.  Weinberger makes this especially clear in explaining how a discussion of climate change does not need to include those people who completely disregard climate change.  Also, last week I would have agreed with the notion that it only provides space for echo chambers, meaning that people discuss their own radical opinion amongst others who share their radicalism, and this leads to an increasingly polarized society.  Weinberger agrees that this does happen but that the connectedness of the internet exposes extremists’ views to their polar opposites on the other side of the political spectrum.  Simply by being exposed to a completely contrasting view, this might lead to more moderation by both parties.

Most relevant to last week’s discussion is Weinberger’s chapter about long form arguments versus web form arguments.  As a graduate student in history, I have read long form arguments for the entirety of my academic career, so I obviously consider this to be the the only credible type of historical writing.  Weinberger challenged this preconceived notion.  I believe his best criticism of long form arguments is his idea that a traditionally published hard-copy document “stays constant as the world changes around it.”  If a document is published on the internet, contrastingly, it can evolve as new evidence is uncovered and to counter criticism.  This makes it much more relevant and able to stand the test of time.  Tanaka makes a similar argument in his article saying that a study of history doesn’t have to be linear and shouldn’t be.  Digital scholarship allows a reader to travel in a “horizontal” path, exploring multiple arguments, sources, and themes.

I have to admit that Weinberger makes some wonderful points, and as I was reading, I noted in my book, “wonderful quote!” or “I completely agree with this.”  However, I think it will still take some time for me to fully embrace and be comfortable in all the wonderful advances of digital scholarship.  For right now, I think I am going to focus on Alex Sayf Cummings’ point that “this informal zone of writing, sharing, and discussion can complement, rather than supplant, the main streams of scholarly discourse and publication.” In other words, I hope to use this blog to add to our understanding of historical study in a way that does not displace traditional scholarship but adds to it.  So I guess I’m not yet drunk on digital kool-aid but definitely tipsy.

Discussion Question

  • What got you into History?

  • Cronon article:

    • Agree or disagree?

    • According to Cronon, what are the threats to history?

    • What do you think challenges the study of history?

    • Cronon mentions historical fiction in film. Do you think Hollywood helps or hinders the study of history?

  • Weinberger

    • I thought Weinberger’s introduction of chapter one was very interesting and fundamental to how we now must think about knowledge.   Do you agree with his assertion that “knowledge is not the same as it was”?

    • How does social media affect how you connect with information?

      • One of the many “filters” he talks about?

    • Poses the question (13) that the world is too big to know? Is this true?

      • If so, what do we gain from trying to know it?

    • Makes the claim (p.16) that traditional ways of channeling and deploying expertise are insufficient to meet today’s challenges.  This is especially relevant to us, seeking a graduate degree.  Do you think this is true?  If yes, why are you pursuing a degree?

    • What are facts in this digital world?  Weinberger makes it seem like all facts are true and should hold equal weight when they are on the internet (38).  Are facts “truer” than others?  How do we, as historians, provide any effective analysis if all facts are presumed true?

    • What does he mean when he says “knowledge lives in the network itself”? (45)

    • His idea of crowd-based knowledge is interesting.  Do you think that crowds should be seen as a reliable source, that they “do a good enough job” (53), rather than experts?  IS a good enough job good enough?

      • Is expertise needed in any field?

  • Tosh

    • Again, Tosh proved incredibly relevant to our graduate work in history. What were some things that stuck out to you from the reading?

      • For me, need of a mastery of sources to guarantee that the “big picture” isn’t biased; make sure to look for the hidden traces in the historical record–reading between the lines; need for creativity in finding and using sources; need to understand that historical actors have no idea of latent history

    • How could we incorporate the narrative style in our writing while still responding to the pressure of completing “an acceptable thesis within a few years in order to secure an academic job” (159)?

    • Based on the reading,  is Tosh prepared to adapt to the digital world?

  • Blogs

    • “What implications do these ideas (Cronon’s, Weinbergers) have for digital history?”

    • “What’s the impact on research when most casual questions can be answered in a couple seconds on Google?”