The History of History, Part 2: Of B.S. and Social Science

My thoughts on models of time were pretty exhausted by the end of my first entry, so here I will discuss general topics related to history, as a kind of debriefing from the first set of books. I tend to waver when asked to pigeonhole history as a social science or as part of the humanities. I have met historians — both grad students and professors — who suffer from “physics envy,” but I have also met historians who stick to humanistic topics and value literary writing above all else. With that said, pretty much every humanistic historian I know is embracing digital humanities software, so clearly a technological element has wormed its way into the profession. (The only professors I know who ignore computers are those professors near retirement age.) I rebelled against quantitative social science early in my undergraduate years. The overwhelming quantification and statistics of modern political science can be too much for some youths. I dropped my burgeoning political science major because there seemed to be no room in the rigid, supposedly objective models of political science for irrational choices, human pettiness, or other emotional actions. If you asked me until recently, I would have said that history is absolutely a humanistic discipline.

So why do I now waver about history’s classification? My perspective evolved when I was at Villanova University. Our instructor for “Digital History,” Deborah, had a background in public history, but she worked for a software corporation that manages historical websites for the City of Philadelphia. She showed that the two fields could reinforce each other. The key is a willingness to go through a tough learning curve, knowing that frustrations with software in the short term can pay off in the long term. By the end of the semester, I could not code, but I could use software like Voyant and WordPress, and I could turn GPS coordinates into digital map points. Most importantly, I learned that proprietary file formats may not be readable forever, so it is important for historians to “curate” their own data periodically, updating documents, datasets, and website contents to the latest industry standard. As for “Public History,” I received a crash-course in demography and statistical analysis, using Microsoft Excel to generate data based on census information. I do not believe that statistics are completely objective, as so many politicos and too many political scientists believe, but I learned from “Public History” that a sample of, say, 500 census entries can supply substantive insights into a community’s characteristics. If statistics are scientific, then I think the incorporation of statistics can make history a social science.

Sometimes being a centrist gets a bad rap, but I think that, from now on, I should maintain a centrist stance regarding the social-science-versus-humanities question. Depending on the project at hand, history can skew into social science (e.g., demographic studies), or history can stay comfortably in the humanistic camp (e.g., cultural histories of the arts). Rather than pigeonholing oneself, the flexible historian should pursue whatever methods help the work at hand. History can be a catchall — the historian’s toolbox can be enormous, depending on the topics under consideration. Moreover, I do not see why a love of clear writing should make a historian averse to the technicalities of social science, nor do I see why cultural historians should maintain a Luddite-like attitude toward digital humanities tech or histories of science. Social and natural scientists can learn from historians, and vice-versa. There is a political consideration, too: If the government and major grant-giving foundations increasingly offer grants for multidisciplinary initiatives, then historians must adjust their rhetoric and abandon some of their old expectations in order to get at the cash.

To shift gears, I want to discuss popular history, specifically why badly written or researched books linger in popular consciousness — in other words, why do these works have what my dad calls “the stickiness factor.” I suspect that the cronyism of mass media is a major reason for the enshrinement of mediocre talents. If you watch typical talk shows on American news channels (excluding the more cerebral programs on CSPAN and PBS), the historians whose books receive coverage are generally journalists or private citizens without graduate degrees in history. Their books tend not to review scholarly literature, articulate analytical questions, or provide extensive footnotes. TV show guests who do have Ph.D.’s tend to be not historians (unless they write about presidents); rather, the Ph.D. guests are political scientists or government functionaries who are from or once attended major universities, and who have some status in high society. In short, the guests hail from the same places where major newscasters and pundits went to school and spend their vacations.

A bubble of self-reinforcing bullshit therefore pervades the TV shows that are watched widely in America. The archetypical host thinks, This author is a Harvard man? So am I. Clearly his book must be masterful. Thus we wind up with Bill O’Reilly being feted as a major historian, when his history books are in fact disgraceful. Cronyism in mass media conglomerates is not entirely to blame, of course. Some of the responsibility for weak histories gaining cultural stickiness lies with the publishing industry — specifically, the uncritical editors, advertisers, and marketers who make fortunes publicizing badly written but salacious popular histories. Yet people who are not historians have taken the reins for discussing history on TV, and the average viewer lacks the training to tell weak popular historians from good ones.

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