The Human Web

I enjoyed reading the McNeill’s concise overview of World History over Thanksgiving break.  It is a nice addition to the other types of histories we have read thus far and a good example of the recent attempts within the discipline to “develop a more adequate conceptualization of human history as a whole” (McNeill and McNeill, Webs, 11).  Another strong point in the text is that the McNeill’s were able to avoid using only a Eurocentric perspective in the text.  Instead, they were able to analyze various histories, using different elements like political and religious structures, and put them in the overarching “web” structure they used to frame the book.

In the interview with Yerxa, J.R. McNeill says “we mean attempts to tell the whole story of the human experience….” (pg. 13).  While I think the text is rich, comprehensive, and well-written, it is only an attempt to comprise all of history into one volume.  As such, I wonder which suggestions made in the text will be realized and which will fail.  For example, I was struck by the section about urbanization and city growth towards the end of the text.  The McNeill’s say “demographers expect it (population growth) will slow to zero by 2050 or 2070 (page 279).  Juxtaposed with the recent news that China has is reforming its one-child policy (, I wondered if demographers will soon release new expectations of population growth.  I might be wrong on this, but my assertion is that China will successfully contrive citizens to restructure family sizes.  And, the PRC is not doing this because they suddenly realized the One Child Policy was wrong.  Rather, there are deeper, political reasons.  Perhaps, the PRC realizes having the world’s largest population is economically, politically, and militarily beneficial and does not wan to lose that position to India.


I like how the McNeill’s ended the text with an open ended wondering of what is to come due to urban growth.  “The acute challenges of our time…..adjustment to life in the big city” hints that world history will continue to be an interlocking web of human interaction.  (page 318).  But, just as in the past rural world, the web of human interaction will continue to include “chance encounters, kinship, friendship, common worship, rivalry, enmity, economic exchange, ecological exchange, political cooperation, even military competition.” (Page 3).










“Putting”: The Placement of Others in Western Conceptions of History

The question of the “pre” and, well, the entire question of history, that emerged from this week’s reading was reminiscent of the Roundtable on the question of modernity from the second week of class.  The questions are essentially of the same ilk and beckon scholars to wrestle with historical periodization.

As I was reading terms like “prehistory” “deep history” “Paleolithic”, etc, I thought of Tosh for two reasons:  for one I wish all authors provided definitions in the book margins for even the basic of terms and secondly, Tosh reminded his readers that the terms used for time periods are all constructs developed later in history (Tosh, 24).  That is to say, history does not naturally divide itself along the terms developed in the West.  However, in an attempt to understand when societies developed, the articfical constructs, or Rankean “veils” (Smail, 45), persist.

Smail’s text is an intersting read.  One that I feel like I need more time with to fully appreciate the density of information and perspectives he brings forth.  Further I enjoyed the AHR authors’ additions to Small’s text.  Particularly, I enjoyed Ogundiran’s article that nicely wove each author’s topic into the overall themes and questions that Smail raises.  Namely, the question of “pre” history.

Ogundiran says the authors in the roundtable question “how to conceptualize and write history across what is assigned to different temporalities and different horizons of experience that are supposedly opposed to history:  prehistory and history…” (Ogundiran, 789).  The question of conceptualization seems to only trouble those that employ terms like prehistory.  It is historians in the Western academy that wrestle with the question of where (where in time) to “put” various civilations.  The Western influenced divisions of time are not conceptualized in the same way in each culture.  Much in the same way that Western division of nation-states, like throughout Africa or in India/Pakistan, are understood differently by the people who were “put” there.  Thus the challenge of historical periodization, from pre-history to modernity and beyond, continues to plague historians.

Unfortunately, while I understand the questions raised in the Roundtable, I do not have any answers.  If a historian wants to develop scholarship that is respected (and published) within the Western academy, it seems that she needs to fit in the framework of the discipline.  Further, historians that employ various constructs of history do so in an attempt to elucidate understanding from whatever time period or society they are investigating.

It seems, that the Western frameworks of histories continue to need prehistory as a means for further understanding.  Thus, I am not sure that, as Ogundiran hopes, we are at the end of prehistory.


A Tour De Force

I’ve already mentioned in class how much I have enjoyed reading Eley’s A Crooked Line.  I agree with Antoinette Burton’s assessment that his text is a “tour de force.”  His focus is broad enough to weave in the political changes throught several decades with the changes in history but narrow enough to not lose his readers in a sea of everything that ever happend in connection with the changes in the discipline of history.  He offers a strong response to Sewell’s criticisms in the roundtable when he says, “My Crooked Line was a very particular project….”  In other words, he didn’t forget to include anything, but chose to craft his text in a particular and effective way that demanded the exclusion of some discussion.

I continue to learn how vitally important it is to hone in on one particular area of a larger subject in my academic writing.  The boundaries of the project provide security and focus on the topic.  Critics will inevitably say, “what about this?” or “you forgot to include that.”  However, as Eley shows us, a good response is always, “that was outside the scope of my research” or “My project was a particular one.”

Another part of Eley’s perspective and scholarship I find incredibly helpful and encouraging is his validation of those that have spent “a large part of their careers outside the university” (Eley, 203).  He recognizes that the life experiences of Thompson, Mason and Steedman strengthened their academic work and diversified their historical perspectives.  In some ways, their time out of the academy was really time outside of the “echo chamber,” and gave them a unique positioning which resulted in groundbreaking and lasting work.





Disciplined and Punished

Scott’s essay on “The Banning of Islamic Head Scarves in French Public Schools” aligns well with Foucault’s text from this past week.  The specific Foucauldian themes that I saw in this article include:  the body, spaces of discipline, and punishment.  Within France citizens do not have claims (agency) over their own bodies, but rather, the state claims the right to determine how a body can be presented.  The reasoning for this is sthat the state is concerned with maintaining French identity through identity and gender.  Thus, French women, as only one overarching category, must all adhere to the identity the state appropriates.   Scott articulates how the seemingly simple act of wearing a head scarf interrupts, or even threatens, French national identity.

Further readers are reminded that schools are places of discipline.  As an instituion they are representative of “mini-nations” within which the students (or citizens) must abide by the approved laws (Scott, 115).  Foucault’s claim that there are varied social institutions (prisons, hospitals, schools) are places where bodies are disciplines is clear within this article.  Bodies that did not wear the approved “uniform” (which included the exlusion of scarves) for French women (“white” women are the standard) were disciplined and punished through laws.

These are only a few of my “first reactions” to this article.  I think there are mutiple layers of analysis that could be done.  But, since I was my mind was emersed in Foucault, my mind was naturally reading the article through the analysis of the aforementioned themes.



Notions of Panopticism

Ah, Foucault, we meet again.  Last Fall I was introduced to him in my “boot camp” class and was left without words.  I just didn’t get him.  And, his writing…..don’t get me started on those long, drawn out sentences; the ones separated with semi-colons.  (you see what I did there?)

But, Foucault has grown on me….which is a good thing since I continue to find him in my course syllabi.  🙂

Since I am co-leading discussion this week, I will keep the bulk of my analysis for class.

For this post though, I would like to to work out some of my thoughts on panopticism.  First of all, the difference between a panopticon and panopticism was helpful for me to understand.  There are spaces, both physical and virtual, that are embedded with notions of panopticism that are not structured like a panopticon.  The internet is the space du jour that many cite as having a panoptic flavor.  Do you agree with this?  And what about FB being THE virtual space where we all “police” each other through our “likes” and critical comments?  Do we take part in the gratification-punishment (page 180) system?

And, how about physical spaces?  The UK is known for the CCTV cameras that are EVERYWHERE.  But the UK government added cameras to existing spaces.  For example, they put cameras on trains that already existed.  But, can cities be created for the purpose of monitoring the masses?  For example, is the planned urbanization in China part of the panoptic machine (this is research I am working out outside of this class)?  Are there other examples?  Thoughts?








Meaning and Representation

The combination of living abroad for a number of years and my ethnographic based Master’s degree has give me an appreciation of and love for cultural anthropology.  Understanding the contexts, messages, meanings, etc within objects, interactions, events of “others” is also part of “making sense of my world” (in reference to last weeks conversation surrounding why we study history.)

It was during the beginning of my life abroad that I was introduced to HSBC ( and their now famous ads.  In a brief snapshot the ads communicate the importance of cultural contexts, varying worldviews, and the meanings embedded in simple objects.  Here are two for your perusal:

CRICKETS, HSBC Bank, LOWE, HSBC, Print, Outdoor, Ads

There are two reasons I chose these particular ads.  Firstly, I mentioned earlier.  By comparing the meanings of objects through meanings, HSBC has captured one of the foundational elements of historical anthropology….that is to ask what other meanings or importance an object has to a particular culture (or in a particular time period).

Both Geertz and Darnton do this extremely well.  By asking what a chicken or a cat may represent, they were able to discover meanings connected to the entire social structure of the people they were studying.  Further, they each conduct their research slightly differently.  Geertz achieved it through ethnography (on-site with insight) which involved living as an observer, participant-observer, and participant as he and his wife gathered research.  Darnton relied on the study of languages, festivals, and social structures of a time period that had passed.  He had to insert himelf in a time period.  They did as Tosh says, looked for “the whole meaning in the life of society.” (Tosh, 258).  I think we as scholars will be asked to engage in some form of cultural history that involves a “Curiosity about—and respsect for—the cultural difference of the past (which) is in keeping with the spirit of historicism.” (Tosh, 258).

The other reason I chose these two images is because I recently had interactions with other Tech students on campus involving both “objects.”  First of all, as I was entering one of the GLC rooms to study, I saw a small rug, that seemed out of place, on the floor.  I assumed it was a misplaced decorative object.  A few minutes later, two students who were also in the room studying stood up and began to pray on the rug.  Immediately I understood the significance of the rug and why it was placed as it was (assuming it was laid as such so that the students could pray toward Mecca).

Secondly, after class one day, one of my students asked me if I ate cicadas.  Since I lived in Asia her question was not altogether misplaced.  I told her I did not and asked her if she did.  She went on to tell me of the feast her family enjoyed due to this summer’s “swarmageddon.”  The women in her family, and those connected with her temple, spent extra time this summer to gather the cicadas and freeze them for consumption throughout the year.  Due to the 17 year cycle of the cicadas, the abundance will provide her family an ample supply of cicadas for a while.  That short conversation provided insight into my students worldview and pespective along with telling me a little about some of the people living in Blacksburg.

Thus, our everyday lives provide oppotunities to engage in cultural anthropology.  Developing skills, even in our personal lives, that take us out of the “echo chamber” in order to observe that people value things differently will be beneficial to our academic careers as well.



Becoming a Historian

This week’s blog title is not just in reference to discussion last week but it is also borrowed from the first chapter of Eley’s text.  I’ll start with the points of his own personal journey in becoming a historian with which I personally connected.  As he says, he was “trained personally neither as a social historian nor a cultural historian, but that has never stopped me from learning how to do both.” (Eley, 11).  Eley also collected theory “on the fly” which is EXACTLY what I have had to do since entering the program last Fall (Eley, 13).  Learning on the fly is not something I excel at, but I have had to adapt in order to soak in bits and pieces of various theories through texts, seminars, and conversations in order to get a deeper understanding.  Finally, Eley affirms that “we become historians through different routes” (Eley, 3).

On to academic portions of the text.  Eley lays out a clear outline of what he thinks are the three sources of social history and within his explanation lies a broader description of the evolution of this subsection of history as a discipline.  It was helpful to read where current practices common to cultural anthropology began.  For example, understanding the “rhythms, organization and motives behind collective action” is part of what I do in my research.  Analyzing not just that something happened but I seek to understand WHY things happen in a particular context.

Within his explanation of the three sources of social history are many references to pillars of the discipline which, while be common to some, were new to me.  Thus, with some brief searches (on the beloved Net), Eley’s text serves as a textbook in my path of becoming a historian.  Of particular interest to me was the Annales school and Rudé’s “history from below” (George Rudé, Wikipedia).  In some basic ways, I see a connection between Subaltern theory and the “faces in the crowd” part of social history as each seeks to include the voices that are outside of the power structures.

Finally, since I still can’t figure out how to add Twitter here, I’m including the link I just tweeted.

It seems that more and more of China’s history is getting the “approval” to be told.


Bounded Knowledge, Scholar Responsiblity, and Crowd Sourcing my Dissertation (please).

The various readings for this week addressed a variety of issues in current scholarship, for historians or otherwise.  One negative characteristic of the Net, as Weignberger calls it, is that scholars can craft a research piece with a caveat letting the audience know that there may be other contradictory or addition information available elsewhere.  Acknowledging the availability of other information is acceptable but scholars still have to stake their claims on the research they have compiled.  There is an element of risk-taking in the academy that need not be lost because of the inundation and access of information.

This expectation to “bind knowledge” on any given topic will be something we will all be expected to do in our large research project.  The end of my dissertation may include a section on further research to be done but only as an invitation to others to conduct the research, not as an excuse for what may or may not have been included in my own research.  This process is incredibly challenging.  One of the characteristics that I am keenly aware of needing as I begin the dissertation process (topic, methods, theories, etc.) is focus.  I have to focus on what my task is and not get distracted by the sheer volumes of information available.  For the sake of clarification, I am not proposing limited research but instead I am recognizing the need for research that has an end so that any project, a paper, conference presentation, dissertation, can be bound and presented to the academy.

Moving on, the Black Confederate Soldiers piece also brought up several issues.  Related to the other pieces for this week, one issue that arose is how will I research apart from misrepresented facts or myths?  What responsibility do I have to tell only the facts rather than other narratives embedded within a community’s mythico-history?  Does Steven Spielberg (in reference to the film Lincoln) have the same responsibility?  If not, where does the responsibility of a historian (or general scholar) end?

Finally, a tongue in cheek comment.  In light of the pieces we read that discussed crowd sourcing and wiki collaborative writing, I think I will propose a collaborative project for my dissertation to my committee.  Each member can write one chapter, I will sign off on it and voila!, finished.  With some shame, but still finished.



Cronon’s article on Storytelling brought both a sense of relief and challenge.  While his article was focused more on the responsibility and privilege historians have to tell stories, I focused more on the fact that storytelling in the literal sense is a valid method in the discipline.  Thus, I was relieved to discover, in the Tosh text as well, the varied methods of storytelling that can be used in the academy.

I am only at the beginning of understanding how to do and use auto ethnographical accounts as one method of research.  The benefit of using autho-ethnography is the relative ease of “accessing” the source.  By which I mean, the only real work is recording stories I already know and then crafting them in such a way as to make the necessary point or tie them into the theoretical framework of a research project.  I am challenged by the questions that may arise as to the validity of auto-ethnography.  Again, I am only at the beginning of understanding the use of stories as a valid research method, but I think the answer to my challenges with this method lies not in the method itself but in how I craft my project in such a way to give a coherent presentation of my research.

One other practical question I have from the Tosh text is in the section on comparative history (page 164-165).  He says that comparative history is defined as “the systematic comparison of selected feature sin two or more past societies that are normally considered apart.  It requires mastery of at least two national contexts…” (page 165).  Can a comparative history project compare one society over two distinct periods of time or does the comparison have to be of two distinct societies?  If it is not comparative history, what is the term given to research of two societies separated by time (or location)?  My questions are not rhetorical, if you know about comparative history, can you help me understand it more here?

Finally, I will not be in class next week, but look forward to catching up on the discussion through the Google Docs.





History: Forgetting, Displaying, and Remembing

This week’s readings were particularly helpful in providing a basic understanding of history as a discipline.  The Tosh text provides the necessary vocabulary within the discipline to engage in meaningful discussion on the topic of history.  Further his brief explanation on the establishment of history as a discipline was insightful.  However, the text is one-sided only addressing the establishment of history in the Western academy.  Benite fills in the gap that is missing from the Tosh text addressing the concern of connecting modernity with the West.  He says, “…the historical template within which European modernity was to be written by later historians was framed not only as a powerful argument about modernity’s own greatness as a singular European period…” (Benite, 642).  Benite highlights the fact that there has been a “European template” applied to other histories creating a false marriage of modernity and the West.  However, China’s current historiography “seems to be successfully redefining modernity and the road to it on Asian terms.” (Benite, 645).  A redefinition of modernity by any nation or non-nation alike  on their terms will be an interesting voice added to the discipline of history and I agree with Benite’s inclusion of history outside of the Western academy and affirm that an internal history is valid.  However, what about history that is internally suppressed or “forgotten”?  Will China’s definition of modernity include all of its history?   I found two articles relevant to this particular issue.

The first article is a few years old from The New York Times about how the Cultural Revolution is displayed at the National Museum in Beijing.

The second article, a blog from this week’s edition of The Economist, discusses the ongoing public discussion about the Cultural Revolution which is, as shown in the NYT article, a part of Chinese history not generally openly discussed or recognized.

What are your thoughts on the suppression of historical events within a nation?  Do you have other examples based on your particular research interests?

Social Memory

The Tosh text also discussed social memory which is directly tied to some of the themes of my developing research. Again, I am not a historian and only beginning to engage the discipline on an academic level, but in reading the Tosh text three questions came to mind:  How is social memory preserved when it is not allowed to be recognized or discussed?  How is social memory manipulated in such a way to validate current or future policies of nation states?  How does social memory add to or detract from a person’s or a groups agency or identity?  One example from China is the continued discourse that keeps the atrocities suffered at the hands of Japan before and during World War II at the forefront of the public memory.  Some argue that keeping Japan as an “enemy” (even if only a historical enemy) helps direct any frustration Chinese citizens have toward an external target rather than an internal one, i.e. the government.  Thus, social memory is used to reify the power a state has over its people.