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?