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Historiographical Balance September 15, 2008

Posted by Will Thomas in Methods.
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Last week, I posted on the possibility that there might be such a thing as definable historiographical responsibility, and that defining this responsibility might aid us in developing new kinds of inward-directed critiques (critiques of historical work rather than critiques of those outside the history of science profession proper).  Specifically, defining historiographical responsibility would allow our critiques of each other to become more vigorous, but will also allow us to define new standards of critical fairness thereby bounding whatever dangers to professional civility might be presented by experimenting with a new critical sensibility.

The key to defining historiographical responsibility is the necessity of establishing a notion of historiographical balance, which must be defined around the ability of a historiography and the contributions of individual historical works to address key needs or problems.  These needs or problems are potentially limitless.  This limitlessness creates the need for a vigorous and continuous historiographical conversation to articulate (and rearticulate) what needs and problems the historiography seems to be addressing currently and in what proportion and how well, and what needs and problems ought to be addressed in the future.  Then, it falls to criticism to determine which styles of research and writing best serve historiographical needs.

We return to the relationship of the historical work to the historiography.  It seems to me that the notion of the “corrective” is nearly useless, particularly within a literature that favors case-study.

For example, in the historiography of 20th-century physics, certain aspects of fundamental physical theory and Cold War issues (atomic weaponry and government funding) dominate the historiography.  The “corrective” is not capable of alterting this fact.  Case in point, in the June 2006 Isis, Joan Lisa Bromberg published “Device Physics vis-a-vis Fundamental Physics in Cold War America: The Case of Quantum Optics” which is a nice case study of the physicist Marlan O. Scully’s work.  Who?  Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter.  The piece is specificially situated around the problem of whether Cold War funding had a “distorting” effect on the content of the physics of that era.  The case study (correctly, I think) suggests this effect has been overstated.  Putting aside the question of whether or not the question is even worth addressing (the notion of “distortion” being rooted in the suspect historiography of the counterfactual), the case study provides a corrective, but this is a little like trying to affect the momentum of a train by throwing a tennis ball at it.  It’s well and good, but we could (and have!) wrangled with such questions, back and forth, for decades without realizing that we have no historiographical devices by which to settle the question, or even to settle whether the question is even worth asking.  Like the train, the historiography’s momentum can seem perpetual (unless people just get bored or frustrated, which is a lousy way to settle an argument).

If we are to escape self-perpetuating historiographies, what do we require to establish a notion of historiographical balance and to signal how that balance might best be struck?  I would argue against the notion that some quantitative measurement of articles published would be effective, simply because this gives no credence to the fact that most articles are not influential on what the conception of all but the most localized historiographies looks like.  (Raise your hand if you run out and read all the articles in every HoS journal.  One journal?)

I would point instead to historiographical technologies.  Book reviews serve this function to some extent, although, again, I would say, mostly in terms of localized historiographies (“this book on Descartes fits in with all the other books on Descartes in the following way…”) rather than overall historiographical need.  I’d suggest others are much more important, specifically canons and literature/historical overviews (provided the latter are canonical!).  I would also include (relatively) new technologies in a literal sense, specifically online resources and forums.

No, it is no coincidence that this argument is self-justifying for this blog, but I hope it goes to suggest how comprehensive the problem of historical understanding and historiography can be.

PS. On the development of criteria for criticism, see this interesting and recent post over at Advances in the History of Psychology for a specific case.

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