The Practice of History

A friend writes:

In practice it seems to have become a norm to say “historians agree,” when when that is not true, or sometimes just on the basis of some recent article or paperback, and which is popular with a certain crowd.

There is almost a tendency to present history as an activity in which some set “findings” have been made that have a fixed meaning.

Such a reality is not true even in many experimental social sciences which at least use statistical significance as a guide to reliability. It is even less the case with history where the nature of the profession precludes such statements. The very historians who do the most detailed archival, philological, and novel work are so often overwhelmed with that that they do not have a very good grasp of other areas of history, and even less the findings of social, psychological, and natural sciences. Whereas those who, because they come across well on camera, who speak most generally often simply do not have enough scholarly depth.

And for people on the left who really really feel that some piece of historiography has totally transformed historical understanding so that they know something that hoi polloi don’t, always keep in mind the sad case of Michael A. Bellesiles [link added].

My favorite example of this phenomenon is provided by Noel Ignatiev’s book, How the Irish Became White (1995). Ignatiev used “white” metaphorically to mean “part of the dominant group.” But since then it has become conventional wisdom that “the Irish weren’t even considered white in the nineteenth century!” One must use metaphors carefully. 

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