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Method as identity.

October 28, 2009, 11:25 am

Is it not ill-advised that historians often identify ourselves by method as well as, or even rather than, by subject of interest? I.e., we often say “I’m a social historian” or “I’m a cultural historian” as well as or rather than, “I’m a historian of the US South.”

I think this way of talking and thinking is based on a faulty analogy to shop labor. It’s a bit like saying, “I am a lathe operator.” Except, the thing is, it’s fine to be a lathe operator if you’re a good lathe operator; there’s plenty of objects that need lathing and there will be for the foreseeable future.

The same is not true for history. In history, people are seized by methodological enthusiasms; it may suddenly seem like the lathe is the way to go, and there are projects that demand expertise in the lathe. So you train up on the lathe, and you lathe away, and your project’s done, and then you look around for another lathe-worthy project.

But in history, unlike in shop labor, it turns out there often isn’t another such project—they’ve dried up. The interesting lathe-answerable questions got answered.

At which point you either moan about how the AHA doesn’t want to put on panels about lathing anymore, or you try to use a lathe for a project that really, you ought to be using a jigsaw for, and make a complete mess of it, or—and this is of course the ideal choice—you train up on the jigsaw and you use it for the next project.

There’s actually a fancy French phrase for approaching history as a series of problems requiring solution: histoire problème.

Why don’t we all just say we practice histoire problème—I mean, Michael Kammen says it’s pervasive, right? or at least we could say that we’re problem solvers using whatever tools are useful—instead of getting in a lather about lathers?

Related: where is the American histoire totale?

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