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Concepts and Methods Cross-disciplinary (or interdisciplinary) approaches Discipline • A branch of learning, or scholarly instruction. • Involves various skills and practices appropriate to the field of study, and training in those skills. • A discipline is supported by, e.g., organizations and associations, standards, journals. historians have conventionally maintained that neither a specific methodology nor a special intellectual equipment is required for the study of history. What is usually called the “training” of the historian consists for the most part of study in a few languages, journeyman work in the archives, and the performance of a few set exercises to acquaint him with standard reference works and journals in his field. For the rest, a general experience of human affairs, reading in peripheral fields, self-discipline, and Sitzfleisch [staying power] are all that are necessary. Anyone can master the requirements fairly easily. How can it be said then that the professional historian is peculiarly qualified to define the questions which one may ask of the historical record and is alone able to determine when adequate answers to the questions thus posed have been given? It is no longer self-evidently true for the intellectual community at large that the disinterested study of the past—“for its own sake”, as the cliché has it—is either ennobling or even illuminative of our humanity. (Hayden White, ‘The Burden of History’, in White, Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978), p. 40.) Interdisciplinarity The crossing of traditional boundaries between different academic disciplines; the use of methods and concepts from two or more disciplines. Interdisciplinary reshaping of history Some reasons why history increasingly adopted an interdisciplinary approach: • Enlargement of subject matter of history into areas already covered by other disciplines (e.g. sociology). • Requirement for new conceptual tools to study enlarged subject matter. • A holistic (cf. total history) understanding of the past. The Warburg Institute, University of London Aby Warburg (1866-1929)—art historian who criticized the ‘frontier police’ between scholarly disciplines [history] must be wide open to the findings and methods of other disciplines—geography, economics, sociology, psychology—and at the same time must resist the temptation... to divide itself into a number of “specialisms” (economic history, the history of ideas, etc.) each going its own independent way. (Geoffrey Barraclough, ‘History’, in Jacques Havet (ed.), Main Trends of Research in the Social and Human Sciences, Pt 2: Anthropological and Historical Sciences, Aesthetics and the Sciences of Art (Paris, 1978), p. 264.) • What we need are alert, inventive and ingenious brains looking for alliances; men who, when they come across any intellectual work, ask themselves... ‘What use can be made of this though it was not made for me?’ (Lucien Febvre, ‘History and Psychology’ , in Peter Burke (ed.), A New Kind of History: From the Writings of Lucien Febvre (New York, 1973), pp. 10-11.) • history [rests] on the close collaboration of all the human and social sciences, to which the special contribution of the historian is le sens du temps. (David Thomson, ‘The writing of contemporary history’, The Journal of Contemporary History, 2 (1967), p. 33.) Key areas of interdisciplinary approaches in history • History and social theory (the social sciences; sociology) • History and cultural theory (cultural anthropology; literary studies)—the ‘cultural turn’ Theory—dictionary definitions • A system of ideas or statements explaining something, esp. one based on general principles independent of the things to be explained; a hypothesis that has been confirmed or established by observation or experiment and is accepted as accounting for known facts. (Shorter OED, 3b) • An unsubstantiated hypothesis; a speculative (esp. fanciful) view. (Shorter OED, 5) Theory First, ‘theory’ implies a general account of something, which explains more than one instance of it—case studies bear on theories, but the latter are more general and abstract than the former. Second, it implies that phenomena can be explained by reference to it, with the result that these phenomena are better understood at the end than at the beginning of any enquiry. Third, it implies that new cases will be illuminated by it—in history this is not the same as prediction, since history cannot be said to predict the future. But a theory of revolution might be developed, for example, in relation to the French and Russian revolutions, and then be found to be extremely useful in relation to, say, the Mexican Revolution. Fourth, it implies the existence of a coherent perspective, embodied in the theory, which is able to bring together and render meaningful diverse phenomena. This is a corollary of its status as an abstract, general framework. (Ludmilla Jordanova, History in Practice, (London, 2000), p. 62) Sociology and history • Sociology—the study of human society, involving generalizations about its structure and development • Social history—the study of past societies, with an emphasis on the differences between them and their changes over time The general and the abstract vs. the individual and the temporal Problems with theory and historical evidence If one historian asks, ‘Do the sources provide evidence of militant struggles among workers and slaves?’ the sources will reply, ‘Certainly.’ And if another asks, ‘Do the sources provide evidence of widespread acquiescence in the established order among the American population throughout the past two centuries?’ the sources will reply, ‘Of course.’ (Aileen Kraditor, quoted in John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 5th edition, p. 218) Cultural anthropology • The study of human culture, usually through ethnography • ‘[Culture] denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes to life’—Clifford Geertz, ‘Religion as a cultural system’ in The Interpretation of Cultures (1973), p. 89 • ‘[Culture is] a system of shared meanings, attitudes and values, and the symbolic forms (performances, artefacts) in which they are expressed or embodied’—Peter Burke, Popular Culture in Early Modern Europe (1987), p. 270 • Fields of inquiry include kinship relations, social organization, ritual, material culture, systems of money or exchange, leisure, beliefs (such as religion and magic)… • Prominent cultural anthropologists include: J.G. Frazer, Alfred Radcliffe Browne, Margaret Mead, Claude Lévi-Strauss, Franz Boas, Clifford Geertz Clifford Geertz (1926-2006) • Described his cultural anthropological work as ‘thick description’; see ‘Thick description: towards an interpretative theory of culture’ in his Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 3-30 • A famous example of his approach is ‘Deep play: notes on the Balinese cockfight’ in Interpretation of Cultures, pp. 412-53 Parliamentary debate in the House of Commons State opening of Parliament Three witches, by Hans Baldung, 1514 Some sceptical notes • • • • • Is interdisciplinary history really feasible? Is it always desirable? Do we lose something by such an approach? Do we lose the sense of history being a coherent subject? Does it instead become some sort of scholarly ‘pick and mix’, with the result that historians will increasingly find themselves speaking different languages from one another? • In gaining greater breadth in our understanding of the past, do we lose the sort of depth that traditional historians would claim for their more focused training and approach? • Do we risk getting caught up in endless, often convoluted theory, that may be of little relevance to a past about which we often have only scanty knowledge? • We might think theoretical models, and such things as anthropological and sociological approaches, are fine when applied to the contemporary world where we have a fairly full access to information—but are they appropriate when applied to, say, the 12th century? Disciplinary boundaries I have little concern with history. It is a platitude that a thinker can be understood only against his historical background; but that, like all platitudes, is at best a half-truth, and I do not believe that a detailed knowledge of Greek history greatly enhances our comprehension of Greek philosophy. Philosophy lives a supracelestial life, beyond the confines of space and time; and if philosophers are, perforce, small spatio-temporal creatures, a minute attention to their small spatio-temporal concerns will more often obfuscate than illumine their philosophies. History, however, is intrinsically entertaining. A few external facts and figures may serve to relieve the reader from a purely abstract narrative: I hope that my occasional historical paragraphs may be of use to that end, and may do something to placate the historically minded reader. Jonathan Barnes, preface to the first edition of The Presocratic Philosophers (London, 1979) Other cross-disciplinary areas, 1: Psychohistory • Psychohistory—the use of psychoanalytic theories by historians (e.g. Freudian, Lacanian) • Typically based on Freudian notions of the importance of the unconscious in understanding human behaviour and motivations; and the role of experience, particularly early childhood experience, in understanding the development of the adult • See Freud’s studies of historical individuals, such as Leonardo, and his influential work Civilization and Its Discontents • A notable early work in the field of psychohistory was Erik Erikson’s Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958) • A good introduction is Peter Gay, Freud for Historians (1985) • Scholarly journals: Journal of Psychohistory; Psychohistory Review • Criticisms: reductionist; applies particularly modern concepts to an understanding of the past; can the dead be psychoanalyzed? Other cross-disciplinary areas, 2: Environmental history • The study of human interaction with the natural environment—the way the environment shapes humans and humans shape the environment • Combines history with the natural sciences, and includes consideration of the ecosystem, climate, atmosphere, as well as natural events (e.g. earthquakes); how we impact on the environment; and how we think about the environment • Influenced by the approach of the Annales historians, particularly Fernand Braudel • See the article on ‘Environmental History’ by Richard H. Grove in Peter Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (2001), pp. 261-82 • An example of an interdisciplinary approach which has not yet become part of the mainstream of historical studies; you might consider why this is the case—are there crucial differences between the humanities and the natural sciences that make interdisciplinarity difficult in an area such as this?