March 13, 2008

Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology?

Sometimes friends in other disciplines ask me the question, “So, what are the big ideas in history these days?” I then proceed to fumble around for a few minutes trying to put my finger on some new “-ism” or competing “-isms” to describe and define today’s historical discourse. Invariably, I come up short.

Growing up in the second half of the 20th century, we are prone to think about our world and our work in terms of ideologies. Late 20th century historical discourse was dominated by a succession of ideas and theoretical frameworks. This mirrored the broader cultural and political discourse in which our work was set. For most of the last 75 years of the 20th century, Socialism, Fascism, Existentialism, Structuralism, Post-Structuralism, Conservatism, and other ideologies vied with one another broadly in our politics and narrowly at our academic conferences.

327577395_991a9ab4e4_m.jpg But it wasn’t always so. Late 19th and early 20th century scholarship was dominated not by big ideas, but by methodological refinement and disciplinary consolidation. Denigrated in the later 20th century as unworthy of serious attention by scholars, the 19th and early 20th century, by contrast, took activities like philology, lexicology, and especially bibliography very seriously. Serious scholarship was concerned as much with organizing knowledge as it was with framing knowledge in an ideological construct. Take my sub-discipline, the history of science, as an example. Whereas the last few decades of research have been dominated by a debate over the relative merits of “constructivism” (the idea, in Jan Golinski’s succinct definition, “that scientific knowledge is a human creation, made with available material and cultural resources, rather than simply the revelation of a natural order that is pre-given and independent of human action”), the history of science was in fact founded in an outpouring of bibliograpy. The life work of the first great American historian of science, George Sarton, was not an idea, but a journal (Isis), a professional society (the History of Science Society), a department (Harvard’s), a primer (his Introduction to the History of Science), and especially a bibliography (the Isis Cumulative Bibliography). Tellingly, the great work of his greatest pupil, Robert K. Merton, was an idea: the younger Merton’s “Science, Technology and Society in Seventeenth Century England” defined history of technology as social history for a generation. By the time Merton was writing in the 1930s, the cultural climate had changed and the consolidating and methodological activities of the teacher were giving way to the ideological and theoretical activities of the student.

I believe we are at a similar moment of change right now, that we are entering a new phase of scholarship that will be dominated not by ideas, but once again by organizing activities, both in terms of organizing knowledge and organizing ourselves and our work. My difficulty in answering the question “What’s the big idea in history right now?” stems from the fact that, as a digital historian, I traffic much less in new theories than in new methods. The new technology of the Internet has shifted the work of a rapidly growing number of scholars away from thinking big thoughts to forging new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes or work which will enable us to harness the still unwieldy, but obviously game-changing, information technologies now sitting on our desktops and in our pockets. These concerns touch all scholars. Our Zotero research management tool is used by three quarters of a million people, all of them grappling with the problem of information overload. And although much of the discussion remains informal, it’s no accident that Wikipedia is right now one of the hottest topics for debate amongst scholars.

Perhaps most telling is the excitement that now (or really, once again) surrounds the library. If you haven’t been to a library conference lately, I suggest you do so. The buzz amongst librarians these days dwarfs anything I have seen in my entire career amongst historians. The terms “library geek” and “sexy librarian” have gained new currency as everyone begins to recognize the potential of exciting library-centered projects like Google Books.

All of these things—collaborative encylcopedism, tool building, librarianship—fit uneasily into the standards of scholarship forged in the second half of the 20th century. Most committees for promotion and tenure, for example, must value single authorship and the big idea more highly than collaborative work and methodological or disciplinary contribution. Even historians find it hard to internalize the fact that their own norms and values have and will again change over time. But change they must. In the days of George Sarton, a thorough bibliography was an achievement worthy of great respect, and an office closer to the reference desk in the library an occasion for great celebration (Sarton’s small suite in Study 189 of Harvard’s Widener Library was the epicenter of history of science in America for more than a quarter century). As we tumble deeper into the Internet age, I suspect it will be again.

[Image credit: Alex Pang; Quote: Jan Golinski, Making Natural Knowledge (Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 6.]


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  2. Perhaps this is just picking at nits, but I think the juxtaposition of ideology and methodology distracts from your essential point, and is a bit counterproductive. I buy the idea that new media is changing the game for history in fundamental ways. And I buy the idea that looking back to the early days of the profession can help historicize many practices in the profession that seem resistant to this change. Research scholarship around the turn of the century was bound up with the collection of materials (and supporting pedagogy) in ways that are quite similar to the efforts of historians working in new media. But the profession left that behind for reasons that are far more complicated than a pursuit of the will ‘o the wisps of ideology. The image of the lonely author toiling in the archives was entrenched in the profession long before the ideologies of the twentieth century. The AHA’s annual reports and the methods manuals of the early twentieth century are filled with efforts to strike a balance between the artistry (and audiences) of the Bancrofts and Parkmans and the new “scientific” apparatus of academic scholarship. And while the historians were wrestling with those issues, or just getting on with writing narrow monographs, specialists in the libraries and archives, were taking over the other work historians once felt they needed to take on themselves (and doing it better). So I think the problems are rooted in much deeper changes in professional practices and understandings, than your ideology/methodology construct allows.

  3. Fair point, Rob. I certainly wouldn’t deny that the story of 20th century historiography is more complex than can be captured in a blog post and that this particular post could stand some deeper thinking. I also don’t assert any firm causal relationship between the decline of organizing impulses and the rise of ideological impulses or vice versa. It is certainly true that the two have not been mutually exclusive. At the same time, as digital historians, I do think it is important to remind our colleagues that scholarly values change over time (something too many working academics find hard to internalize), that some of the changes we are seeing now have parallels (or converses) in the past, and that we may today (if only temporarily) be seeing the end of the “big idea” in history. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  4. I’d agree with Rob that ideology vs methodology is a false dichotomy. I think you’re dead right that history hasn’t always been done the same way and won’t always be done the same way, and that digital technology is bringing about big, exciting changes. I can see why you might want to spin that in a certain way to appeal to anti-theory people, but you could just as easily spin it the other way: couldn’t this technology be seen as part of the postmodern condition? For example, blogs and wikis allow people to break out of metanarratives and write their own history from different perspectives. In that case Lyotard is still very relevant.

    While I think you’re right to identify everything from the 20th century, including post-structuralism, as ideological, I don’t share your optimism that ideology has, will, or can come to an end. Even if it can, maybe late 19th/early 20th century scientists aren’t a great example of ideology free methodology. Wasn’t this the age of Social Darwinism, eugenics, and racial superiority? Nietzsche was into all of those things too, which just goes to show that no-one, no matter how sceptical (or influential to post-whatever theory, for that matter) is immune to dubious ideology.

  5. Fair points as well, Gavin.

    I actually think I have unwittingly stepped into a hornets nest here. I did not intend, nor do I presume, to make any strong comments on the “pro-theory”/”anti-theory” debate. I don’t really have a strong position on whether the application of the postmodern or other theoretical lens has been good or bad for the historical profession. I’m not “anti-theory” (which itself is an ideological position) in any strict sense. As a public and digital historian, I’d say I’m in the “non-theory” camp, and from my point of view, it seems like there are more and more of us “non-theory” people working in field.

    Really I’m just trying to say that though (for good or ill) ideological approaches have predominated (or at least weighed heavily) in recent years, it wasn’t always so. In turn I’m trying to make a case for recognizing the value of things that at first blush may seem outside mainstream of historical endeavor, but with a little perspective, are not. I think digital history falls into that category.

  6. Great post– a lot to think about. It actually jibes quite well with a couple discussions I’ve had recently…

    In the above response, you say “really I’m just trying to say that though (for good or ill) ideological approaches have predominated (or at least weighed heavily) in recent years, it wasn’t always so.”

    True, but while ideological approaches haven’t always dominated history, ideology has always shaped historical narratives and how historians come to understand the project of “history.”

    Personally, I like to think that history– having made much less of the turn to theory than most of the Humanities– is well-positioned for what I do see as an upcoming “post-theory” moment, but it’s important to keep the lessons we’ve learned from these “ideological approaches” in mind as we move forward, and to not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

    Taking the example of constructivism you mention above, the key is to see new methodologies as a way of moving beyond the (ultimately unresolvable) argument of whether and to what extent scientific knowledge is socially/culturally constructed– with emerging new digital methodologies, we can work from an assumption one way or the other, and then see how much data bears out or subverts our thinking in new and exciting ways.

    Digital methods can render these ideological debates secondary– they can let us work off one or another assumption, and give us new tools for actually working with far greater amounts of real data. But the moment we begin to believe that the main issues these ideological debates helped to bring into historical discourse are moot– at that point, I think you venture into dangerous territory.

    My two cents, YMMV, whatever. But the question of what comes after the whole pomo/theory moment is something I find really find fascinating, and I wanted to pipe up here and put my voice out there.

  7. Tad — Thanks. I agree with most of what you say here. In particular, I agree that our current shift towards thinking about new methods will in turn only raise new theoretical questions and ideological debates. And so it goes.

  8. Tom: Regardless of bigger questions about ideologies in general, I think we agree on the most important point: one specific ideology – the one that says that historians should work in isolation to produce obscure monographs – is coming to an end, and we’ll be better off without it.

    Tad: I completely agree that digital history gives us a way of moving beyond the theory wars. The ease with which computers can model lots of alternative scenarios might mean that we don’t need to get too attached to any particular one of those scenarios. Digitization can allow lots of people to use the same material in different ways. Working on a digitization project doesn’t allow us to completely avoid all questions about meaning and interpretation, but we can get away with much less of that than someone writing a monograph whose conclusions depend heavily on one set of assumptions.

    I’m really impressed with the way CHNM is creating tools which make it easier for people to do history in whatever way they choose. Zotero can handle lots of different formats rather than trying to impose one standard for bibliographic data. Users can choose to organize their collections and tags however they want. That wouldn’t have been possible without the simple realization that different people classify things differently and that there isn’t one correct way to do it. In that way, some kind of relativist theory has had some kind of influence on digital history, even if not everyone has noticed.

    Finally, here’s a quote which says some similar things to the original post. Can anyone guess who wrote it and when?

    These technological transformations can be expected to have a considerable impact on knowledge. Its two principal functions – research and the transmission of acquired learning – are already feeling the effect, or will in the future.

    …it is common knowledge that the miniaturization and commercialization of machines is already changing the way in which learning is acquired, classified, made available, and exploited. It is reasonable to suppose that the proliferation of information-processing machines is having, and will continue to have, as much of an effect on the circulation of learning as did advancements in human circulation (transportation systems) and later, in the circulation of sounds and visual images (the media).

    The nature of knowledge cannot survive unchanged within this context of general transformation. It can fit into the new channels, and become operational, only if learning is translated into quantities of information. We can predict that anything in the constituted body of knowledge that is not translatable in this way will be abandoned and that the direction of new research will be dictated by the possibility of its eventual results being translatable into computer language. The “producers” and users of knowledge must now, and will have to, possess the means of translating into these languages whatever they want to invent or learn. Research on translating machines is already well advanced. Along with the hegemony of computers comes a certain logic, and therefore a certain set of prescriptions determining which statements are accepted as “knowledge” statements.

    We may thus expect a thorough exteriorization of knowledge with respect to the “knower”, at whatever point he or she may occupy in the knowledge process. The old principle that the acquisition of knowledge is indissociable from the training (Blidung) of minds, or even of individuals, is becoming obsolete and will become ever more so.

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  10. Perhaps this is just picking at nits, but I think the juxtaposition of ideology and methodology distracts from your essential point, and is a bit counterproductive. I buy the idea that new media is changing the game for history in fundamental ways. And I buy the idea that looking back to the early days of the profession can help historicize many practices in the profession that seem resistant to this change. Research scholarship around the turn of the century was bound up with the collection of materials (and supporting pedagogy) in ways that are quite similar to the efforts of historians working in new media.

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