J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The “Noble Dream” of History as a Science

Having quoted briefly from Gordon S. Wood’s Washington Post essay on writing history, I want to add his further analysis of why so many professional/academic historians write books that don’t appeal to the public as many narrative histories do. I liked how Wood’s article didn’t follow the common pattern of simply lamenting that many historians write opaquely on obscure topics, but analyzed why they come up with their books:

Instead of writing this kind of narrative history, most academic historians, especially at the beginning of their careers, write what might be described as analytic history, specialized and often narrowly focused monographs usually based on their PhD dissertations. . . .

Such particular studies seek to solve problems in the past that the works of previous historians have exposed; or to resolve discrepancies between different historical accounts; or to fill in gaps that the existing historical literature has missed or ignored.

In other words, beginning academic historians usually select their topics by surveying what previous academic historians have said. They then find errors, openings or niches in the historiography that they can correct, fill in or build upon. Their studies, however narrow they may seem, are not insignificant. It is through their specialized studies that they contribute to the collective effort of the profession to expand our knowledge of the past.

The writing of these sorts of historical monographs grew out of the 19th-century noble dream that history might become an objective science, a science that would resemble if not the natural sciences of physics or chemistry, then at least the social sciences—economics, sociology, anthropology, psychology—that were emerging at the same time as professionally written history.
Wood thus recognizes the limitations of both approaches to history, but sees potential for a synthesis of the insights gained from narrowly focused studies applied to narratives that reach outside academia.

Wood also rightly puts the emphasis on subject rather than language; it doesn’t help much to write clearly if your topic doesn’t grab readers outside of the field. The sciences, social sciences, and literary studies have developed specialized vocabularies, either because they need greater-than-everyday precision or because there’s value in seeming obscure to the non-initiated. In contrast, the study of history doesn’t really have jargon, except for a few terms like “agency” and “contingency.” So it all comes down to the topic and the approach.


glovely@verizon.net said...

Last line should read "...In CONTRAST..."

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! I made the fix.