In the thick of it (labels and research)

Historians like labels. X history. History of y. The labels carve out subjects, set boundaries in time and space, at times even suggest methodological commitments.

The ubiquity of labels clarifies that historical research is partial and plural, lacking a privileged vantage point to lord over all. Some delimitation is policed by the graduate programs. Language requirements in some programs require that students commit to one continental marker, e.g. for research in Latin America the student must demonstrate proficiency in Spanish, Portuguese and French (see Yale, and Princeton). Almost everywhere fields of study are mapped as a cross breed of geography and chronology (see Columbia, NYU, Berkeley, Stanford, Chicago) through which faculty members declare their expertise. The graduate school labels are anodyne compared to the alphabet soup of affiliate societies of the American Historical Association. They total 116 (some are libraries, and ventures of other sorts, so not all denote fields), from the Organization of American Historians through the Business History Conference to the Society of Automotive Historians.

Despite their fondness for demarcation work, or because of it, historians regularly discard one set of labels for another. (A curious exception is the internalist vs externalist distinction in the history of science, which won’t go away, see here - perhaps related to how History of Science has been pitched to natural science students.) An entrant scholarly generation is allowed to re-map preoccupations, passions and flare.

The buzz (leave a comment if you see otherwise) these days is with environmental, global and transnational histories. The trending fields carry the glint of novelty, but you will provoke indignant ripostes if you dare deny that they have also a long, distinguished (and neglected) pedigre.

Some forty years ago, the trending fields were labor, feminist and race histories. And even earlier social history, one variant of which was “history from below”, or more colloquially “history from the bottom up”, bandits, migrants, jazz players. Despite the progressive political sympathies of its authors, the movement seemingly took common sense claims of social hierarchy as a good approximation of reality, and proceeded to turn that world upside down. It was sticking it to the “big white man” histories.

I am writing a history of economic journalism and find myself neither at the bottom nor at the top. My subjects are white, the majority are men, some were very tall. On the conventional account of history and sociology of knowledge, that take classrooms and campus offices as privileged knowledge sites, journalists are second hand dealers in ideas. Pierre Bourdieu called them “gate-keepers,” when he was in a good mood. Sociology of journalism, post-Bourdieu, takes journalism as a field caught in between the far more powerful, august and autonomous fields of the economy and politics.

These disparaging features are what draws me to journalism. The scholarship has put them everywhere and nowhere. Journalists, editors, publishers are seen as deeply problematic historical subjects, malleable, erratic, pedestrian. Yet, their writings appear as sources in social science and historical studies, as testimonies, as data, as proxies of public opinion. Journalists speak to and they speak of the state, science, business, the citizenry. They animate a wide range of genres and means of communication - some segment of which will always be in crisis, another booming (what the TV was for magazines, the internet is for print media). They make themselves invisible while being the masters of publicity.

Within the history of economics (itself a label) demarcations once paraded around the place. They have since lost their vigor. When I came along the methodology wars were over. Roy Weintraub’s 1999 “How to write the history of twentieth century economics?” a summation of that ordeal, that split the community along readings of Imre Lakatos, Thomas Kuhn and rhetorical approaches. Perhaps, now is time to return to labels. If so, I pre-record my preference: I do history in the middle.

Share your perspective