The Varieties of History
James J. Sheehan, December 2005
From the President column of the December 2005 Perspectives
We sometimes think about disciplines as if they were columns of explorers, pushing deeper and deeper into uncharted territory, cutting trails through the tough underbrush of error, excavating new and exciting truths. This is a comforting image for those who imagine that they are in the vanguard of the disciplinary column, just as it is disquieting for those who fear they may be too old and infirm to keep up the pace. It seems to me, however, that this is not a very good way to think about the discipline of history, in part because we are concerned at least as much with conservation and recovery as with innovation and discovery, but more importantly because historians do not form a single column that moves in one direction. I much prefer another metaphor: the discipline of history, I think, is like a city; it changes as a city does, not by marching in a single direction, but rather by incorporating new territory around its periphery and by removing or restoring old neighborhoods within its core. Like a city, historiography changes as it responds to the pressures of growth but also retains its essential identity.
The most striking fact about the development of history as a discipline in the past 50 years has been its remarkable expansion in size. Although in relative terms, the number of new degrees has recently declined, absolutely the numbers are impressive: in 2002, for instance, 1,000 history PhDs were awarded, the highest number in 20 years and, if compared to the figures from the 1950s, quite extraordinary.
We have not thought enough about what this pattern of demographic expansion means for the inner life of the discipline. It would be useful, for example, to have a study of historiography comparable to Diana Crane's and Vera Zolberg's analyses of modern art, both of which show how changes in scale affect the character and distribution of artistic innovation.2 It would be particularly interesting to see how the founding of new universities in the 1960s encouraged disciplinary innovation and how changes in population density influenced the rise and fall of certain fields of study. I would not, of course, want to reduce changes in historiography to demographic pressures, but it seems clear than in disciplines, as in cities, demography means a lot.
As the discipline grew larger, it naturally became more diverse. We can see clear evidence of this diversity in the character of the annual meeting, which has more sessions on a wider range of topics than ever before. Or, to take another example, compare an issue of the American Historical Review published 40 years ago with one from 2005: in 1965, the AHR appeared four rather than five times a year, had fewer articles and reviews, was largely (although by no means exclusively) about Europe and the United States. The subjects we now see as centrally important—gender,
ethnicity, popular culture—were only beginning to make an appearance.
An important source of history's growing diversity came from outside the discipline, from political, social, and cultural movements within American society that naturally evoked interest in aspects of the past that historians had overlooked or undervalued. The same thing may be happening today when diplomatic and military history, which had languished during the final stages of the Cold War, has been revitalized by a new sense of crisis and opportunity in international affairs.
History's diversity also comes from its sensitivity to developments in other disciplines. History, Fernand Braudel once remarked, is "perhaps the least structured of all the human sciences [and] is open to all the lessons learned by its many neighbors, and is then at pains to reflect them back again."3 Over the past half century, historians have drawn inspiration from—and sometimes have inspired—sociologists and political scientists, economists and anthropologists, literary theorists and cultural critics. Although there always have been those who worried that the porosity of history's boundaries was a threat to the discipline's integrity, openness has usually produced a healthy kind of hybrid vigor. Despite the hopes of some and the fears of others, the discipline has flourished. History may be—in Braudel's terms—the "least structured" of the human sciences, it is also among the toughest and most resilient. What historians share is far more important than what divides them.
History will survive but it will certainly continue to change. The winds of fashion will keep on blowing through our disciplinary streets; undoubtedly we will find new subjects and rediscover old ones; some kinds of history will, temporarily at least, fade from view; the boundaries between history and other disciplines will be opened or redrawn. And yet it seems to me unlikely that any one way of writing history will prevail. Like the residents of a living city, historians will be both divided and united by the space they share. We should, I think, celebrate this variety. The disagreements that sometimes result are signs of life rather than symptoms of decline or harbingers of revolution. We should also do our best to facilitate the flow of traffic within our city, taking full of advantages of the variety it offers us. We may well find some of our neighbors a bit annoying, but we must avoid the temptation to construct gated communities. "An orthodox history," as the great English medievalist F. W. Maitland wrote, "seems to me a contradiction in terms."4
Let me conclude with a quotation from Lawrence Stone's essay of 1979, "The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History":
History has always had many mansions, and must continue to do so if it is to flourish in the future. The triumph of one genre or school eventually always leads to narrow sectarianism, narcissism and self adulation, contempt or tyranny towards outsiders, and other disagreeable and self-defeating characteristics.5
Stone was a formidable innovator, but he recognized that new histories sometimes grow stale, just as old histories can be made new again. In the end, what really matters is not whether history is old or new, but whether it is sensitive to the rich variety of the human experience.
—James Sheehan (Stanford University) is president of the AHA. This is his valedictory presidential column. Readers attending the 120th annual meeting of the AHA will have an opportunity to hear Sheehan's presidential address, "The Problem of Sovereignty in European History," which he will deliver on Friday, January 6, 2006 in the Millennium Hall of Loew's Philadelphia.
1. My title is borrowed from Fritz Stern's classic collection of historical writing, The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present, first published in 1956 and still in print. I offer these remarks as a modest contribution to the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the book's publication and the 80th anniversary of its editor's birth.