Monthly Archives: October 2013

Our Generation’s Approach?: The Excitement and Possibility of a New Method

Throughout this class, we have flirted with this idea that a new approach to historical scholarship is right around the bend, so to speak.  Social history morphed into cultural history, and now there seems to be a vacuum in the discipline, without any apparent guiding principles.  The question for us is where do we go in our emerging historical scholarship.  How can we leave a lasting mark on the discipline?

In the latter parts of A Crooked Line, Geoff Ely calls for a new approach that combines the best aspects of social history and cultural history; “there is really no need to choose” (Ely, Crooked Line, 181).   Thus, as current graduate students looking to create our own niche in historical scholarship, we certainly need to at least think about what Ely is saying.  He believes that both social and cultural history have run their course, so to speak, as the inherent flaws of each approach have been realized, but by combining the two approaches, we will be able to “totalize” a better picture of the past.

I think this is a really interesting refreshing idea after all of our discussions of one approach dictating historical scholarship.  I think Ely sums it up best when he says there is a need for a “basic pluralism,” meaning “an acknowledgment that there are different ways of understanding the world, none sufficient in itself for every possible analytical or interpretive purpose” (Ely, “The Profane and Imperfect World of Historiography,” 433).  Honestly, this appears to be such an obvious idea that I am surprised that so many past historians have only used on approach.  In thinking about some of the work I have done, I definitely, though unwittingly, incorporated political, social, and cultural approaches to create a fuller picture than only one approach would allow.

I think the takeaway for us as current graduate students is encouragement.  The discipline is certainly changing, even if we cannot feel the ground moving under our feet, like Ely claims to have happened in the 1960s, and we are going to be a part of such change.  We won’t have to fit our ideas into a narrow approach simply because that is what is dominant at the time.  Because of the need for a more synthetic approach, we can use anything and everything to help us better understand history.

Several questions for class:

1.  Does anyone else feel that using all kinds of historical approaches in our research is obvious?

2.  In the past, why did specific approaches, like social history and cultural history, dominate the discipline?

Gender: A Completely New Perspective!

Before this week, I honestly did not think gender was relevant to me.  I am primarily interested in nineteenth-century American history, an era before the traditional historical narrative focuses on women (Does the traditional narrative ever focus on women in any time period?).  However, I realized that gender is completely different than simply women’s history and provides an approach to historical scholarship that can incorporate other subjects.   Honestly, I was biased against gender history and only considered it an approach conducted by passionate feminists.  This is most definitely not the case, as I now would like to incorporate elements of gender history in my work.

This week, I particularly enjoyed Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis.”  As a gender neophyte,  this article gave me a wonderful summary of the trends of gender history as it developed in the 1980’s.  I was very surprised to find that there was actually several different branches of women’s history:  those historians that explore the origins of patriarchy, Marxist feminists, and post-structuralists that study a gendered identity (Scott, “Gender,” 1057-1058).  Before this article I just thought gender historians were interested in simply attributing more agency to women.

Before this week, I knew that class, gender, and race were the most popular subjects currently in historical scholarship, but I did not realize that gender historians have provided a methodology for study of all three.  According to Tosh, gender historians are no longer fixated on “the notion of a uniform and constant pressure by men” (Tosh, 278) but also try to study class and race to see how the three elements fit together.  It seems as if the three approaches are now intertwined in such a way that studying any of them requires somewhat of an incorporation of the other two.

As usual, there were several things that stuck out to me.  First, I still do not understand how gender historians simply disregard biological differences between the sexes; Joan Scot explicitly says that gender’s “use explicitly rejects biological explanations.  (1056). How can it be the case that the numerous differences between men and women’s bodies are not incorporated into a gender approach?  Secondly, I was surprised to find that gender actually does deal with men.  Is this a common approach?  I was under the (probably incorrect) impression that gender history only nominally looked at men.  As always, I look forward to class so that we can discuss these things further.

I spent too much time thinking of a witty title, so I’m taking this week off from wittiness due to my bday. I would provide a boring title, but that’s just not me.

I feel like the readings always exceed my expectations.  I had never read anything by Foucault.  In fact, I had never heard his name before this course.  After reading Discipline and Punish though, I understand what the hubub is about.  I found the subject to be incredibly interesting, and he is a wonderful writer, especially with his gruesome depictions of torture. Wow!  Correct me if I am wrong, but Foucault’s main thesis was the idea that as punishment methods have become more and more “humane,” more discipline is actually being imposed on the individual by the society.  Now, punishment/control encompasses one’s entire life, with an increase as a person ages. Tosh tells us that this “pointing to the way in which people are confined within the regulatory scope of specific discourses” is a theme common to all of Foucault’s works.    I did read Tosh as I was in the middle of Foucault, and I’m glad I had him by my side to help navigate me through this dense work.

(As a side note, I actually liked Foucault’s writing style.  His sentences were long, but there was a flow, something uncommon in such a philosophical work.)

Tosh never disappoints, and this week’s reading was no exception, although what on the surface was a mere forty pages was saturated with new and complicated information.  I now feel educated enough to carry on a general conversation about post-modernism, something any author of a textbook would see as a success, I think.  This school of thought is less appealing to me as a historian than the other methods we have talked about , but I think it is more thought-provoking.  I doubt I will ever be a post-modernist, but hopefully it will challenge my methods and approach to historical scholarship.

There were several things, in particular, that I think more historians should take into consideration from this chapter.  First is the idea that “facts” are not the same for historians as for those in other disciplines (182-183).  For historians, facts are actually inferences based on the hitorical record; they cannot be attained through experiments or even observation.  This is the reason for seemingly continual debate of some historical writings, as “facts” can be changed from historian to historian based on many factors.  Historians should thus be open to revision of their work and so-called facts.

My second point is similar:  historians need to guard against “ransack[ing] the past for material to fuel a particular ideology” (191).  In some studies I have undertaken, I now wonder whether I made a correct interpretation of the past or was I prejudiced in using sources that supported what I already believed.  This reminded me of T.C. Chamberlain’s method of  multiple hypotheses, a way to guard again such prejudice.  Here is a link to the article.  I would highly recommend it: I hope we can talk about this further in class, and as a professed feminist, I would like to hear Chelsea’s opinion.  Note: This is not a tongue-in-cheek comment.  I am serious.

As a final thing to consider, I thought the post-modern idea idea that almost every, single aspect of scholarship is biased in some way, even language.  Who knew that everything that I write or say may be a “scructure that determines [my] perception of the world” (195)?  Historians should definitely take this into consideration when working with sources.  Sources may be biased in not only what is written, but actually the words used by the creator of the text.  This even further strengthens that a true construction of the past is impossible without being inside the mind of the historical actors.

Athough I’m not “torn and conflicted” after doing this week’s readings, I still look forward for class discussion.  I hope we can discuss further how we can use post-modern ideas in scholarship to not destroy our current interpretations and methods of approaching history but to strengthen them from criticism.