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Crafty Historians by goosecommerce
April 6, 2009, 2:11 pm
Filed under: History and Historians, Ivory Towers
but more like basket weaving

but more like basket weaving

Q. Can you tell us about specific disciplines and how they fare in peer-reviewed competitions?

In history there is a high degree of consensus among scholars about what is good. But it is not based so much on a common theory, or method, or whether people think the discipline is part of the humanities or social sciences. It’s a shared sense of craftsmanship. People care about whether the work is careful. They believe they can identify careful work. And that they can convince others about it. The degree of consensus has varied over the years. In the 1960s, for example, the discipline was polarized politically. But it has found consensus in the practice of scholarship.

Historians believe that contrasts sharply with English literature. As one told me, “The disciplinary center holds.” That sense of consensus makes history proposals and applicants very successful in multidisciplinary competitions like the national fellowship and grant programs.

Panelists who are in English literature perceive that their discipline has a “legitimization crisis.” … Some are unsure whether “quality” exists.

Like history, economics is a highly consensual discipline. But the consensus isn’t grounded in craftsmanship; it’s in mathematical formalism. As a result, while the last few years have seen more openness to other approaches, like behavioral economics, most economists believe they have fairly straightforward measures for evaluation. They know what excellence is, and say they can identify it when they encounter it. But intersubjectivity is also at the center of their evaluation process. …”

~Karen J. Winkler, “Reviewing the Reviewers: A Q&A With Michèle Lamont,” CHE, 3 April 2009. (h/t to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria)

From my own, horribly limited and absolutely anecdotal experience, what Lamont says about how historians evaluate each others’ work rings true. An evaluation of craftsmanship — careful work, qualified claims, mounds and mounds of evidence — is thebasis for most, if not all, critiques in the discipline. This is why the third-worst thing you can say about any historian is that they got their footnotes wrong, the second-worst is a charge of “antiquarianism,” and that the high crime is plagiarism — they are all variations on a single charge of faulty craft-work.

I think this is also why there are few, if any, prodigies in history. Careful craftsmanship is not an inborn skill.

However, it also strikes me that Lamont leaves something out, at least in the interview (the book is not yet ready to hand). Craftsmanship is a framework and a rhetoric that hides a lot of conflict based on methodological and political orientations. The culture wars continue, both within the discipline, and at its margins — e.g. cultural history vs. social history; econ history as done by economists vs. history of econ culture, as done by historians; historians’ participation in, & evaluation of, works in “American Studies”; etc., etc. But like all frames, that of craftsmanship both constrains and conditions the utterances made within it; so in the end, I think that as good a controlling rhetoric as any, and (with my disciplinary chauvinism showing), perhaps better than most.


Image credit: Anyhoo, “DSC_0578 – Ivory Tower,” Flickr, CC License

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[…] and Historians, Ivory Towers | Tags: Academic, Navel gazing Remember when we were talking about how crafty historians are?* Well, other, smarter people have been having the same great idea. Let me fill you […]

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