Publication Date

August 23, 2018

Perspectives Section

From the President


Research Methods


Photo: Dan Waters

This month’s column follows last April’s examination of responses to an email survey I sent to acquaintances several months ago, to get a sense of the shape of the discipline today. Here I report replies to my second question: how historians select a field to study—not a specific topic, but a general area. As I promised those who returned my survey, I will respond first.

Although I enrolled in courses on both European and American history as an undergraduate, I never seriously considered graduate work in any field other than US history. My application to graduate school projected a focus on 19th-century American intellectual history, reflecting the influence of several courses I had taken. During graduate work at Harvard, however, my interests changed to early America—but not because of the impact of Bernard Bailyn, whose brilliant teaching influenced many of my rough contemporaries. By chance, Bailyn was on leave my first year (when one enrolled in seminars), so my colonial history seminar was taught by Frederick Tolles, who came from Swarthmore to fill in for a semester.

During that course, I had what I often describe as a conversion experience. I recall sitting in my library carrel reading an obscure pamphlet that the Patriot agitator James Otis Jr. published in 1765, during the Stamp Act controversy. It was as though Otis reached out to me over the centuries and asked, “Why have you never focused on the fascinating 18th century before?” I had paid minimal heed to the colonial period, seeing it only as a prelude to the more interesting 19th century. But by the end of the semester, I had decided that my future lay with work in early America. The following fall, I introduced myself to Bailyn when he returned from leave and, as Tolles had advised, handed him a copy of my seminar paper to read. That was the beginning of a relationship that continues to this day.

A field.

A historian’s path to a field can be unpredictable. Coggleswort00/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Several of my respondents also attributed their choice of field to reading, but to secondary works in which they found notable silences. “Why are there so few women?” one woman wondered of what she was reading. A man who studied “political history and the history of elites” as an undergraduate chose social history to “bring into focus the lives of ordinary Americans.” He was not the only one who wished to write “history from the bottom up” or who saw writing history as a contribution to the struggle for what he called “social justice.” (Some survey responses thus described motivations similar to those of Lillian Guerra, whose passionate essay about why she became a historian appears in this issue.) Further, people were puzzled by historical developments not sufficiently explained in their reading, like a Europeanist who found existing narratives of pre–World War II history and the rise of fascism “fascinating” in their “idiocy.”

Why are there so few women?” one historian wondered of the secondary sources she was reading.

A few attributed their choice of field to professors. One man termed his thesis adviser “an unusually creative and brilliant scholar” who had the “ability to consider historical processes on a capacious and global scale.” A woman commented that having “the benefit of a professor whose chief interest was women’s history” was transformative. For another woman, simply finding a professor who “had no ulterior motives and also took me seriously” was key; he was an early Americanist, so she became one too. A man whose original thesis adviser left for another campus latched on to a different professor, who encouraged him to think broadly.

Many Americanists wrote of a particular affinity for our national history, though in different ways. One said she chose US history because she “wanted to learn about what was close to me.” Another wrote that the subject “was immediately consequential to the lives of many people now living.” A historian urged by a professor to study women outside the United States instead opted for American women because of her own “lived experience” and her “growing personal interest in feminism.” The Civil War attracted one respondent for its “colorful characters”; urban history intrigued another who grew up near but not in a major city. One colonial historian told me, “I was the kid who wanted to visit (and indeed did visit) all the sites in Salem, Plymouth, St. Augustine, etc.” Another cited her childhood interest in her own family’s history, “for which I had an early and natural curiosity.” Still others listed courses that piqued their interest in specific issues: when she was a senior in college, one told me, an early American history class presented “the puzzle of how quite different people tried to understand (and take advantage of) one another.”

Yet my non–North Americanist friends and colleagues often wanted to stay away from the United States, including physically. Trips abroad led some to European, South American, or Asian history. One remarked that studying the United States held little interest, so an adviser suggested investigating Asia. After examining various possibilities, this friend “decided that one would never be bored if you were studying the history of South Asia.” A scholar of Chinese history wrote emphatically, “I study China because, growing up on a farm, I wanted to get as far away from rural Nebraska as I could” and “China was in the news.” A Latin Americanist began by wanting to learn Spanish well, choosing to study abroad, and then becoming intrigued by the South American country in which he was living.

A class presented a historian with “the puzzle of how quite different people tried to understand (and take advantage of) one another.”

The answers I did not fully anticipate (but surely should have) were from those who replied not by identifying a topical or chronological field, but by instead describing a particular approach or problem that intrigued them. “My work—my ‘field’—is varied,” wrote one woman, “but what seems to drive everything is an interest in how abstract ideas get translated into concrete everyday practices and the material world.” Likewise, one told me that despite the pursuit of “eclectic” topics, “cultural history has been the underlying constant.” Another respondent said, “I work on political history (broadly defined) with special attention to gender, race, and class. . . . These sub-fields tackle big questions about the distribution of power.” And several friends cited an interest in gendered analyses, not necessarily in a political context.

What I conclude from these answers is that historians’ choices of fields or topics to study are more personal and less able to be categorized than are their reasons for becoming historians in the first place. The only clear pattern appears to be some Americans’ explicit interest in our own national history—but they are offset by other Americans who knowingly chose not to follow that route. And the absence of a pattern seems to me all to the good. My colleagues have arrived at their intellectual destinations by following uniquely individual pathways. As did I.

Next month: how historians construct their scholarly networks.

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Mary Beth Norton
Mary Beth Norton

Cornell University