From the President's column in the March 2002 Perspectives

Where Have All the Theories Gone?

Lynn Hunt, March 2002

Marxism, modernization theory, poststructuralism, and even feminism have ceased to be topics of heated debate among historians. In fact, "theory" has declined everywhere in the humanities. In my field of the French Revolution, reputations were once made by either upholding or debunking the Marxist interpretation. In the 1980s, as Marxism withered along with Soviet power, the linguistic turn and feminism took up some of the theoretical slack; proponents of the former argued that power had to be understood in cultural and linguistic terms, not just economic and political ones, while advocates of the latter showed the negative effects of the French Revolution on women's rights. And now? Most historians—not just those of the French Revolution—are treading water, waiting for the next big thing to pop up from under the surface. Historiographical debates continue, of course, but they have assumed a surprisingly moderate tone: power is linguistic and political, women gained in some ways and lost in others, the bourgeoisie might not have been rising in the Marxist sense but social conflicts certainly fueled revolutionary events, and so on. I suspect that similar trends could be discerned in almost every field of historical study.

Have we moved, then, from the Age of Paradigms to the Age of Plagiarism? Rather than fight cultural wars, dispute theories, hurl historiographical epithets like sectarian labels (such as "revisionist" and "postrevisionist" in the history of the French Revolution), or agonize about historical objectivity in general, historians and the public are now consumed with scandals about plain old veracity, the truth about one's actions, the truth about the evidence available in the archives, and true representations of one's own originality. Historians may question whether any account can be objective in a scientific sense, but the public rightly expects historians to hold to a high standard of truthfulness about themselves and their work. The attention given to the succession of offenses has shown that we do share standards of evidence, even if we can't agree on objectivity in general.

I take the concern over historical truth and documentation to be a sign that we have entered a time of taking stock, a period that probably inevitably follows one of heated historiographical and theoretical controversies. It is easier to agree on the need to credit others properly for work used than to agree about interpretations of the French Revolution or the virtues of poststructuralism. It is also easier for the public to grasp the issues under discussion. It is no accident that most of the plagiarism cases have involved historians who write "popular" history, that is, books that ordinary people actually read, books that are largely devoid of historiographical and theoretical controversy. These are the history books whose success with the public has drawn the attention of journalists and whose defects make good copy.

I do not pretend to understand the full meaning of the focus on plagiarism, and in any case it should not obscure some of the other interesting aspects of our current trend of taking stock. One such aspect is the recent proliferation of encyclopedia projects. Encyclopedias are popping up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, and like mushrooms they only appear when the conditions are just right. The new crop of encyclopedias ranges from overviews of the social sciences as a whole to periods of history to individual cities. The sudden, uncoordinated, and virtually simultaneous production of so many new encyclopedias shows that publishers, at least, are taking stock by seeking the synthesis of all that specialized knowledge scholars have produced in the last decades. The encyclopedic impulse no longer has much in common with Diderot's 18th-century Encyclopédie, which announced its aim to mobilize all of human knowledge as an arm of social criticism. Instead, the recent boomlet in encyclopedias reveals the intellectual trends of our time; they reflect no particular theoretical bent and try to mediate the historiographical controversies without simply reducing their content to the lowest common denominator of scholarly agreement. They usually represent therefore a summing up of what has been accomplished rather than a forging forward. Yet encyclopedias probably also now resonate with skills we have developed using CD-ROMs and the Internet. You aren't meant to read an encyclopedia like a book from start to finish; you seek answers to particular questions, you surf looking for especially attractive sites, and you only dip in where it looks inviting. Can it be that the 20th-century's stodgiest symbol of middle-class social mobility has become the model of postmodern intellectual consumption in the twenty-first?

Theories have not disappeared without a trace in this era of taking stock; they have been incorporated into historical work, in some cases so subtly that they aren't recognized as such anymore. You don't have to be a feminist to ask about the effects of World War I on gender relations or a poststructuralist to wonder if national identities are historically constructed. Even the most recent of theoretical perspectives—what is called, somewhat inelegantly, "postcolonialism"—has suffered the same dulling of its cutting edge and at the same time still influences historical studies.

What remains, then, when the theories have gone? Most influential at the moment is a process rather than a theory: globalization. Although some might think that globalization is just an updated form of modernization, it really isn't. Modernization theory held that European—and in particular the English and then American—examples would serve as the model for the rest of the world and that modernization was ineluctable. Modernization implied a teleology. In contrast, I take the term globalization to be nonteleological, at least in terms of values and ways of life. Globalization is worldwide integration through technology and market exchange, but we have learned the hard way that integrative processes do not necessarily lead to a convergence of values (an endorsement of modernity or Westernization). Just how this process of globalization will affect our theoretical models is still unclear; it does seem, however, to rather definitively put to rest any notion of "the end of history." One reason "postcolonialism" has attracted so much attention is that it can incorporate globalization more easily than many other theoretical models.

Historians have never been all that comfortable with theory, so it should perhaps not be surprising that the discipline is relatively undisturbed by the recent decline of theory in the humanities. Indeed, we might take a certain collective satisfaction in noting that many of the disciplines in the humanities have reacted against theory by becoming much more historical (the "new new historicism" in English literature being only the most recent example). Despite occasional proclamations that one or another type of history is the only one worth doing (I remember a statement like this about quantitative history by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, not too long before he switched to cultural microhistory), historical work taken as a whole can best be characterized as reflecting "mindful eclecticism." Different problems often require different methods of approach, and no one method can answer every question we might want to ask. And the questions keep changing as current events force us to re-evaluate our past. Who knows what the next big thing will be? It does not seem unlikely to me that it will be some kind of revival or refashioning of diplomatic and/or military history. All I know for sure is that nothing remains the same, not even the discipline most closely attuned to the past.

—Lynn Hunt (UCLA) is president of the AHA. She can be reached by e-mail addressed to lhunt@history.ucla.edu.