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History and Historiography September 5, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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When writing a historical work, it’s important to think about what one needs to accomplish with it, which is a two-level issue.  On one level, one simply needs to check an item off a to-do list: write something publishable, get a line on the CV, secure your professional credentials, move on.  So, let’s say there’s a set of “publication requirements”.  But (ideally) we also hope to contribute in some way to a historiographical literature and enhance historical understanding in some way.  And here is a question that needs to be seriously addressed: what is the relationship between historical work and historiography?  It raises a subsidiary question: does the individual historian have a responsibility to the historiography, and, if so, what defines that responsibility?

Insofar as authors are expected to address the historiography, it seems obvious that they do have a responsibility.  But is this a trivial responsibility?  I ask the question this way, because the topic and argument of the individual historical work is usually left to the historian’s own “interests”.  We all know the phrase, “I am interested in X, Y, and Z”.  Now we get into a touchy subject: are these interests sacrosanct?  Are we allowed to say: “Well, that sounds fine, but I’m quite familiar with the literature on X and Y, and I’m not really transported by the experience; it really just seems to reinforce an insight that everyone pretty much already accepts.  Wouldn’t it be more useful if you were to address a topic about which we know little?”

It’s legitimate here to say “actually, interests are sacrosanct; let me be,” and thus endeth the conversation.  So long as these works continue to fulfill publication requirements, they can continue to be produced, and unless you plan on taking over the journals and imposing your dictatorial regime, boo on that.  But suppose a historiography presents a set of needs that can be identified; suppose these needs can only be addressed through community rather than individual action; and suppose the fulfillment of these needs is capable of changing the criteria of what constitutes what is “interesting”.  Clearly research topics cannot and should not be dictated, but is it possible that there is such a thing as identifiable responsibility or obligation toward historiography, and that authors can be called upon at any time to justify their work with respect to that responsibility?

Christopher and I have been discussing this sort of question, and it seems to boil down to questions about scholarly culture.  At an opportune moment, I floated a test balloon on this subject in the comments over at one of my favorite blogs, History of Economics Playground, which is run by a group of people in the History of Economic Thought.  The response by Loïc, which struck me as very insightful, suggests there are similar sensibilities within that community as well.  Anyway, it’s a subject we hope to explore here further this fall.

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