Method, the Discipline, and The History Manifesto

Like many in my field, I read with interest Jo Guldi’s and David Armitage’s The History Manifesto over the weekend. Guldi and Armitage argue that historians should embrace the recent return to interest in long-term, large-scale historical inquiry which holds forth the potential to shed meaningful light on the most pressing issues of our day. Issues like global warming, growing economic inequality, technological change, and the pervasive spirit of crisis in higher education, all depend upon critical engagement with data from the past. At present, economists, environmentalists, scientists, and journalists all have exerted a substantial influence in how we understand the roots of global problems today, but none of these disciplines have the tradition of critical scrutiny at the core of historical analysis. 

Guldi and Armitage argue that over the last 40 or 50 years, historians has gradually backed away from considering questions of the longue durée in the interest of increasingly focused and small-scale studies sometimes associated with micro-history. The reasons for this are bound up in changes in the profession over this stretch of time. The pressure to focus on smaller periods of time and more focused problems appears to stem from the growing influence of “short-termism” which emphasizes the action of individual human agents, the impact of specific events, and absolute command over a small body of historical documents. Professionally, they hint, this short-termism reflects the pressures to publish efficiently to get a job, earn tenure, get grants, and establish a position within the discipline. The influence of these short-term goals and short-term approaches has saturated how we teach historical methods to undergraduates, who we are constantly urging to narrow their topics, to graduate student research seminars with too little time to go beyond a single body of sources or text subjected to close reading.

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Anyone who took one to Tim Gregory’s seminars in the 1990s or reads even superficially in the discipline of Mediterranean history knows that interest in the longue durée has only gained strength over the last three decades. From article length studies on containerization to massive monographs on historical connectivity and the protohistoric Mediterranean, scholars have continued to explore longterm trends in the history of the Mediterranean. In fact, regional studies of Mediterranean landscape, whether focusing on a single island or a particular valley, tend to engage in diachronic approaches drawing on archaeological and textual evidence in equal measure. It is genuinely heartening to read a work like the History Manifesto that pushed the discipline to absorb more lessons from the study of the premodern Mediterranean world.

At the same time, I left this book with a nagging feeling that the authors dodged a key issue driving historical work toward more focused studies. For the last century, historians have looked toward their methods to define their discipline. Our tendency to encourage students to focus on small bodies of material and limited questions has not been exclusively the product of short-termism or foreshortened professional horizons, but the need to pass on the basic skills of historical work. Critical reading of a text, for example, requires us to focus on single text, if only for the duration of a class or an assignment. Writing a thesis and making arguments grounded in critically engaged evidence remains the hallmark of historical work and practicing these methods requires attention to detail whether at the scope of a region, an epoch, or a single battle. If historical work depends on a particular set of methods which give historians a command of detail, nuance, and causality central to presenting a compelling argument about the past, telling the discipline to shift their focus toward understanding long-term trends in a critical, historical, way is not enough.

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Of course, Guldi and Armitage recognized this and argued that digital tools from the simple effectiveness of Google Ngrams to more complex designs that allow historians to perform “distant readings” from a well-defined and substantial bodies of evidence will accelerate historian’s ability to understand longer spans of time and more complex issues. At the same time, these forms of “distant reading” ask historians to suspend a certain amount of critical attention to individual texts and push historians to developed greater expertise in computer algorithms, quantitative methods, and arguments made from large datasets. While these things are possible, I can’t help but thinking that they represent substantial changes to the discipline and its methods. More importantly, these changes suggest that Guldi and Armitage see the strength of the discipline less in its current methodological tool kit (with its strengths, weaknesses, and discursive character) and more in the discipline’s authority in speaking about the past. In other words, they are asking historians to shift their disciplinary authority away from a body of methods, techniques, and skills refined over centuries, to new approaches under the same disciplinary and professional banner. While they couch this shift as a return to perspectives more common before the middle of the 20th century or still thriving in odd corners of the discipline like Mediterranean studies, they are asking historians to step into a very different river with fundamentally different disciplinary and critical character.

The interest in microhistory, agency, and close reading of texts arose, in part, to address the weaknesses of big picture thinking and to maintain a view of the humanities that is conscious of the individual. These practices coincided with the core qualities of the historical method: its philological roots, the character of history as craft, and the passionate faith in our working within a human-centered discipline (e.g. Collingwood’s rethinking historical thoughts). As someone how has spent a good bit of his professional career working with diachronic historical datasets, I continue to be skeptical about their ability to unlock something fundamental human condition, and I share Collingwood’s view that this is the discipline’s highest calling. After reading The History Manifesto, I’m wonder how much of our authority as a discipline is grounded in the humanistic and humane methods at the core of our practice and how much we’d lose when we step back from the individual to understand the past. 

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Check out the book, it’s free!

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