From the 127th Annual Meeting column of the September 2011 issue of Perspectives on History
"Lives, Places, Stories": Theme for the 2013 Annual Meeting
William Cronon, John McNeill, and Paul Sutter, September 2011
The 127th annual meeting of the American Historical Association convenes January 3–6, 2013, in New Orleans, which has one of the most unusual natural and cultural histories of any city in the United States. Indeed, it would be hard to imagine a better place for the AHA to explore the many insights we gain when we study human history in its environmental and geographical contexts. Our theme for this conference, "Lives, Places, Stories," is meant to encourage proposals from scholars who explore the roles of environment and geography in all aspects of human history. But we also intend this theme to be broad enough that any scholar working on any topic with any approach in any place at any time will feel fully welcome to propose papers or sessions that meet its capacious spirit.
"Lives" invites conference participants to consider the extraordinary range of lived experiences that must be studied and appreciated if we hope to understand the human past. Although scholars sometimes speak abstractly about such categories as class, race, gender, sexuality, age, disability, religion, party, occupation, education, and other such markers of human identity, in fact all of these abstractions express relationships that become embodied in the lives of particular people, communities, and institutions. Rendering the fullness of past human lives is one of the greatest challenges—and greatest satisfactions—of historical practice. Furthermore, the world of the living extends beyond the human: plants, animals, and disease organisms are just as profoundly a part of the human past as people are, and their lives too merit the attention of historians.
"Places" is our way of gesturing at the role geography necessarily plays in all historical topics, whether or not we explicitly recognize that role. All past events "take place" in particular geographies, and understanding these place-based contexts is an essential part of the historian's task. Geographers would remind us that places array themselves on myriad scales ranging from the individual body and its immediate habitat on up through the familiar nested hierarchies of village, town, city, countryside, county, state, province, region, nation, continent, hemisphere, all the way up to the global scale of the planet itself. Although places exist in the material world and are inevitably linked to the natural ecosystems and physical geographies in which they reside, they also express and represent complex ideas and values in human minds, languages, institutions, and cultures.
Finally, our invocation of "Stories" encourages conference participants to reflect on the ways people make sense of past lives and places by articulating their meanings in the narrative, causal, meaning-making frameworks of human storytelling. Whatever their analytical approaches, practitioners of history more than most other disciplines continue to recognize the essential role of narrative in their scholarly practice. We are eager for conference participants not just to tell stories about the past as a way to illustrate our discipline at its best, but also to reflect on the ways that the shapes and forms of those stories themselves affect how we understand and communicate the past.
The Program Committee also welcomes and will seriously consider proposals that do not fall under the scope of our chosen theme, as our overarching goal is to make the AHA annual meeting a showplace for the very best in historical practice.
William Cronon (Univ.of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president-elect of the AHA. John McNeill (Georgetown Univ.) and Paul Sutter (Univ. of Colorado, Boulder) are co-chair and chair, respectively, of the Program Committee for the 2013 Annual Meeting of the AHA.