Minor Field Readings, Part 3: Changing Theories of History

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This weeks readings on “Changing Theories of History” discussed the ways digital methods are changing how historians practice or “do” history.  Several authors discussed how digital research methods change the scale of materials that we can draw upon while researching a topic.  Others discussed the possibility of using visualizations to communicate historical arguments rather than narrative.

Armitage and Guildi discuss in their article “The Return of the Longue Duree: An Anglo-American Perspective” the origins of the Longue Duree and the shift away from histories that seek to tell the grand macro-narrative to the small focused micro-histories of the 1980s.  Braudel, the original advocate of the Longue Duree, argued that histories in cycles of ten or twenty years don’t capture the “deeper regularities and continuities underlying the processes of change.”[1. David Armitage and Jo Guildi, “The Return of the _Longue Duree: _An Anglo American Perspective”] Beginning in the 1980s most historians moved away from approaches that focused on large time scales and felt a need to specialize because of the influx of graduate students to the profession.  As a result, micro-history flourished and represented a shift toward “generalization about the aggregate to micro-politics and the successes or failures of particular battles within the larger class struggles.”[2. Armitage and Guildi, 16] Since the 1980s, Historians have continued to write histories that have focused on manageable time spans, narrow topics, or individual locations.

Digital tools and methods however, allow for historians to once again approach topics from a macro, or Longue Duree, perspective.  Recent historians have already begun studying longer time periods.  Transnational, environmental, and “Big Histories” among others are representative of this shift back to the “macro”.  Armitage and Guildi make a convincing argument that this shift is because of the rise in the number of archives and tools that are available digitally.  They argue:

New tools that expand the individual historian’s ability to synthesize such large amounts of information open the door to moral impulses that already exist elsewhere in the discipline of history, impulses to examine the horizon of possible conversations about governance over the longue duree. [3. Armitage and Guildi, 38]

Armitage and Guildi make the argument that digital methodologies allow historians to take on a far larger scale and wider scope in their work than is practical or possible with traditional historical methods.

Lara Putnam also discusses scale, however she approaches the promise of possibilities of digital history from a slightly different perspective than Armitage and Guildi.4. Lara Putnam, [“The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast”]  Putnam argues that the discussion about the promise of digital history and new technologies is often focused on computational tools and big data algorithms.  However, Putnam points out that the number of historians actually using these tools is relatively small and we often overlook the impact that the Internet, digitized archives, books, or finding aids, and key word searching has had on the research practices of **all **historians. As I was reading her article, I was struck by the fact that I have no idea what it means to do historical research without the Internet.  The idea of having to write to an archive and not being able to just look at finding aids on the Internet is so foreign to me.  I grew up with the Internet and while it has developed significantly since I first started using it in the 1990s, my research practices revolve around my computer and the Internet.  My first step on a research project normally takes place in Google, which is a luxury, and a relatively new development. Putnam argues that we often take steps like these for granted without realizing how revolutionary the digitization of finding aids, keyword search, and even email has been for historical research. The process of finding secondary literature, locating archives, and searching for primary sources all take place online (at least to start) rather than in the stacks of the library.

However, Putnam also discusses hesitations and criticisms of the overwhelming amount of material available online and of keyword searching.  I think knowing a little bit about how the search algorithms behind keyword searching work is crucial as our archives continue to grow.  How can we be sure we aren’t missing anything if we don’t know how the tools we’re using work?

Putnam also argues that the availability of digitized primary sources changes the scale on which we can make historical arguments.  In the pre-digital era doing transnational research required a significant amount of resources and made it rather impractical for many, especially grad students.  However, Putnam argues that with the advent of the digital archive we should now be able to expand our historical studies not just to the national level but also to the global level.

The other theme throughout this weeks reading is how the digital is (or could) change the ways we communicate our historical arguments.  David J. Staley’s book _Computers, Visualization, and History: How New Technology will Transform our Understanding of the Past _explores the possibilities and implications for using visualizations as “a vehicle of scholarly thought and communication”.  [5. Staley, ix] Staley argues that visualizations are not simply illustrations that are meant to break up the text in a dense narrative.  Rather, he defines visualization as the “organization of meaningful information in a two- or three- dimensional spatial form intended to further a systematic inquiry…visualization stands on its own as the primary carrier of the information, not simply as a supplement or illustration to a written account.” [6. Staley, 36] He defines difference between abstract and representational visualizations.  However, while he encourages thinking about ways (other than narrative) to visualize historical arguments he acknowledges that visualization is not necessarily better than narrative but is better at certain things.  He discusses the differences in thinking visually and thinking linearly (as in a narrative).  When thinking linearly the mind connects elements like in a chain versus visual thought where the mind connects elements like in a web.  Furthermore, while writing “emphasizes sequence, dimensionality and linear chains” visualization “emphasizes simultaneity, structure, and association.”  So Staley asks, why then write narrative if visualization is, at times, better at communicating historical trends and developments?  He concludes that, for the most part, its because that is what our profession accepts, its comfortable to us, and that is what is recognized (at least currently) as scholarly work.  However, he predicts that this is likely to change as digital scholarship and methodologies continue to develop and require visualization to communicate the complex arguments they will produce.

Staley isn’t the first author we’ve read that has questioned narrative.  Hayden White has written several pieces about the construction of narrative and has argued that historians place far too much value on the idea of narrative without thinking critically about it.  White asserts “basic to modern discussions of both history & fiction, presuppose a notion of reality in which ‘the true’ is identified with ‘the real’ only insofar as it can be shown to possess the character of narrativity”. [7. White, The Value of Narrativity, 10]  Every event, White argues, is susceptible to at least two narrations of its occurrence.  The fact that a document even exists is because it has already passed through the narrative of whoever recorded it.  White asserts that the value historians place on narrative is a constructed communication of morality. As digital methodologies continued to develop and are more widely recognized historians will have to recognize alternatives to narrative as scholarship.

So what does all this mean for my work and my eventual dissertation?  Stephen asked us each a few weeks ago, “Why a digital dissertation?”  It occurred to me I don’t have a fantastic answer for that yet.  I know that I want to approach Physical Culture on a larger scale and from a different perspective than other historians have.  Rather than looking at one person, one city, or one small time period I want to try to approach from a national level with a larger timescale (probably 50ish years).  However, I also have to be careful to not bit off too large of chunk (I’d like to graduate relatively soon) and will eventually have to draw the line somewhere.  That means I’ll probably have to neglect looking at physical education for college students or take a more narrow approach to that piece.  Because not all of my sources are digitized—I’ll have to be strategic about what I include.  As I was doing the reading for this week I was also in the midst of planning a research trip to New York and have been thinking a lot about the scale of my dissertation. Putnam’s piece prompted me to wonder about the international connections (I know there are some) and what it would look like to connect the dots and show the transnational exchange of ideas about Physical Culture. What would it look like to visualize this exchange of ideas and could it be communicated visually?

As seems to be the theme with this readings course, I don’t have any answers yet but these are things that are definitely at the back of my mind as I continue to do some research this summer.  These readings have given me lots of things to ponder as I continue to craft my approach to looking at women’s physical culture and I think they’ll be very useful as I defend and frame my methods as well as the inevitable “Why digital” question.