Historians Being Mean: A Glossary

October 4, 2014 § 4 Comments

[Note: This is not mine, my wife, Margo Shea, came up with this last week in prepping for the Historiography course she’s teaching.  But, I think it’s brilliant, and kind funny, too, and worth sharing.  I took this, with her permission, of course, directly from her blog. All credit goes to her, not me.  I’m just married to a woman who’s smarter than me.]

Historians Being Mean : A Glossary

Last night, while I was prepping for the seminar I teach on historiography, I realized that one of the reasons we teach historiography is to give students a basic vocabulary with which to critique historical research and writing.

OK, I think back to graduate seminars  and wonder if they may be sites of some of the most grievous crimes against reality when it comes to language usage.  Pompousness galore!  While aspirational  erudition can be really annoying (see – told you!), there are instances in which the correct word matters, not the OK word or the more or less descriptive word. This, of course, is coming from the woman who, as a four year old, asked her mom if she could postpone her nap because she wasn’t currently tired.  I used the perfectly appropriate word and got out of my nap.  Life lesson learned.  Check.

In no particular order, then, here are a few of the most commonly used words historians sling at each other and what they mean.  Followed by what they really mean


Unsubstantiated. Obvious and unequivocal, this means you just don’t have the evidence to make the claim.  You rarely see the “unsubstantiated argument” in print as a response to an entire article or text, because it’s the baseline for the profession and most research that can’t pass muster on the whole ‘evidence’ thing doesn’t get published. If seen, it is usually applied to one aspect of the research, sometimes because the reviewer can’t think of anything else to criticize. More likely to be heard at conferences, occasionally seen in print records of scholarly roundtables.  In which case it means, “I just don’t like you at all and I don’t care who knows it” or “You are getting way too close to my research topic.” Implied insult: You didn’t do your homework.  (Alternate reading: Your sweeping, elegiac study kind of blows my mind, so instead of feeling unworthy of you, I’ll just hang out over here and quibble over details in this one subsection of this one chapter, OK?).
Anachronistic. The normal-people definition of anachronistic is a chronological misplacement or inconsistency.  It’s the employee at the historic site attired in 18th century garb with paisley Doc Martins peaking out from underneath her petticoat and apron.  When historians use it, they tend to mean that you are plucking a contemporary, commonly shared value or sensibility and superimposing it on historical actors.  Implied insult: You have no historical imagination.

Overdetermined. In layman’s terms, this means that an argument about cause or motivation attributes way too much significance to one criterion or set of criteria amongst a much larger pool of possible causes or motivations. The interpretation doesn’t leave enough room for alternate readings. This critique can be lodged in a few different circumstances and can be related either to the argument itself or to the person presenting the argument. Sometimes it is just a fancy way of saying, “Hey there, you’re right on the verge of manipulating your sources to your own dastardly ends.” Also, scholars opposed to the ideologies espoused explicitly by an author or implied in the context of the historical work may use overdetermination as a stand-in for “interested.” (See below.)  Implied insult: Your interpretation is about as subtle as two dogs sniffing each other’s nether regions.

Lost in the Structure/Agency Corn Maze.  Anyone writing about what people did and why people did what they did, especially if they happen to occupy subaltern status vis á vis a dominant power structure, has to grapple with the whole agency thing. To what extent do individual actors and groups exert personal and collective choice propelling them to act or not act, to speak, to be silent, etc?  And to what extent do the forces that structure their society influence and shape the boundaries of what is possible?  (Marx’s superstructure, Bourdieu’s field, etc.) It is easy to get lost in this maze and critics are unfortunately somewhere looking down watching you bounce off dried husks.  Implied Insult: Seriously, who really cares about what ordinary people did or why?
*Special thanks to Lara Kelland, who cares deeply about ordinary people who create social change, for this one.

Methods-Fetishistic. This basically red-flags an obsessive fascination with methods or methodology, a blind or perhaps naïve faith in methodology as the key to unveiling hitherto opaque historical truths. Historians who rely on quantitative, computational, data-mining methodologies fall under this scrutiny on the grounds that statistics don’t speak for themselves.  Implied insult: Got analysis?

Essentialist/Essentializing.  Basically, an essentialist argument applies an indispensable set of characteristics to any group of people, set of events or places or things.  Over generalization but more than that – it often but not always involves negative judgment.  All Irish people are alcoholic-soaked pugilists. All middle class women whose primary work is in the home in the 1950s were sexually repressed.  It projects the characteristics of a few onto an entire group.   Making data/evidence about a small number of historical actors apply to the whole.  Treating as representative the actions, performance, rhetoric of a few.  Implying connections between actions and subject positions without a lot of evidence.  Implied insult: The trees aren’t the forest, sweetie. And btw, there are a LOT of shades of green.

Teleological.  A teleological argument ignores contingencies that make historical change happen and basically suggest a certain inevitability of events. It is the classic “all roads led to here” argument.  Basically, a teleological argument looks at the present scenario and structures evidence about the past in such a way as to explain smoothly and coherently how A led to Z.  And occasionally you might get really lucky and be get told that you are “reifying a teleology.” Historical scholarship as means to end. Implied insult: Go back to grad school, Marxist.

Interested/Present-minded.  These are teleological’s pesky little brothers. It is a somewhat less harsh way of saying much the same thing.  You are hereby convicted of reading the past through a set of political, social or cultural interests and commitments or are looking at present circumstances and making assumptions about how historical actors might have responded to the same kinds of circumstances or how historical processes might have operated, etc.  Plus, you aren’t even badass enough for me to throw teleology at you.  Implied insult: Go to American Studies or Performance Studies or somewhere, you contemporary person, you.  You don’t belong here.

Whiggish. Present-Minded + Pollyanna.  Herbert Butterfield published  The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931. “The Whig interpretation of history,” he said, was “the tendency in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.”  Things are always getting better. Progress is inevitable.  History is a straight line towards awesome. Implied insult: If you love the system so much, maybe you should have just gone to business school.

What Steve Earle can teach us about the Annales school of historiography

October 2, 2014 § 4 Comments

I’m teaching a course on Historiography this semester.  This week, we’re dealing with the Annales school of history, as  a sort of background before we read Marc Bloch’s  Strange Defeat.  While this book isn’t really an annaliste work, Bloch’s theories of history still impacted his evisceration of his country after the Fall of France in 1940.  We’re reading an excerpt from Fernand Braudel’s magnum opus, La Méditerranée et le Monde Méditerranéen à l’Epoque de Philippe II, published in 1949.

In it, Braudel talks about the mountain regions of the Mediterranean world, and argues that the culture and civilisation of the plains didn’t reach into the mountains.  The hills, he claims “were the refuge of liberty, democracy, and peasant ‘republics.'”  And he mentions bandits.  One of my favourite history books of all-time, and one which was massively influential on me as a young scholar, is Eric Hobsbawm’s Social Bandits and Primitive Rebels, which, despite Hobsbawm being primarily thought of as a Marxist, was deeply indebted to the annalistes, and to Braudel in particular.

But, as Braudel goes on and on about the freedom of the mountains, I kept thinking about hillbilly culture, about the Hatfields and the McCoys, about hillbilly culture, and so on.  And it occurred to me that the mountains are no longer this mythical place beyond the reach of modern society.  The coercive power of the state has caught up to the mountains.

And then I thought of my favourite Steve Earle song, “Copperhead Road.”  In this song, Earle sings of three generations of a family who live in the ‘holler’ down Copperhead Road. In the American Civil War era, copperheads were northern Democrats who opposed the Civil War and called upon President Lincoln to immediately come to peace with the Confederacy.  Braudel argues that

The mountain dweller is apt to be the laughing stock of the superior inhabitants of the towns and plains.  He is suspected, feared, and mocked…The lowland peasant had nothing but sarcasm for the rude fellow from the highlands, and marriages between their families were rare.

At any rate, Earle sings of John Lee Pettimore III, named after his “daddy and his daddy before.”  Granddaddy John Lee made moonshine down Copperhead Road.  Daddy John Lee ran whiskey in a big black Dodge, which he bought at an auction.  Meanwhile, John Lee III is a Vietnam vet growing marijuana in the holler down Copperhead Road.  He signs the song in a good ol’ boy twang, and sings of white trash.

Granddaddy John Lee hid out down Copperhead Road, only came to town twice yearly for supplies, and successfully dealt with a “revenue man” from the government.  Daddy John Lee was doing alright for himself before he crashed that big, black Dodge and the whiskey he was running burst into flames, killing him, on the weekly trip down to Knoxville.  Meanwhile, John Lee III wakes up in the middle of the night with the DEA and its choppers in the air above his land.

In other words, as we move through the 20th century, from Granddaddy in the 1940s to John Lee III in the 1980s, we see the mountains lose their allure and mystique.  What was once the badlands is now under the control of the government. In the early 21st century, it is even more so.

On Irish Historiography, Revisionism, and the Troubles

August 22, 2011 § 3 Comments

Last month, at the Annual Conference of the Canadian Association of Irish Studies at my alma-mater, Concordia University, I was witness to an interesting discussion about revisionism in Irish historiography.  The discussion centred around issues of identity in Northern Ireland during the Troubles. In particular, the issue of binaries, in that one was either Protestant or Catholic and the twain never met.

I have long had problems with revisionist history (in the historiographical sense, let me be clear), in that it seeks to normalise, which means it plays down the unusual, the anachronisms, and so on.  In some ways, this is a good thing. In the case of Ireland, there is some good which has come out of revisionism, most notably, we are free to focus less on the stereotypical tragic history of a “famished land, who fortune could not save” (to quote the Pogues).  In short, Ireland is free to become (to borrow from revisionism in Québec historiography) “une nation comme les autres.”  Revisionism also leads us to post-structuralism and allows us to get past the binaries in many ways: Catholic v. Protestant, man v. woman, city v. rural, North v. South, Ireland v. England, etc. We can see the greys now, a process begun with the muddying of the playing field by the great revisionists of the 20th century: T.W. Moody and Robert Dudley Edwards, as well as the great troubadour of revisionism of our era: Roy Foster.

But, this becomes problematic when taken too far.  When we become too focussed on seeing past the binaries, to see all the ways Catholics and Protestants got along in Belfast, in Derry, and across the North, we run a new risk.  And that is to trivialise the Troubles.  The Troubles was, ultimately, a civil war between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland. For the most part, we have long used “nationalist” and “Catholic” and “Protestant” and “unionist” as synonyms. And it is good to see across the lines, to see the attempts at peace-building and community-making in the midst of the terror and devastation of the Troubles. But if we push this impulse too far, then we are blind to the Troubles (or any other conflict that relies on binaries). There is a reason that those two sets of words were/are seen synonymously. It remains that over 3,500 people are dead, countless lives were torn asunder, and the two cities of Northern Ireland, Belfast and Derry, still bear the scars of the Troubles on their landscapes.

We, as historians can try all we like to see past the binaries here, but the simple fact remains that this binary was a pretty fundamental one, it resonated with people, it caused them to fight, sometimes to the death, for what they believed in. It caused them to engage in terrorism. It tore families and communities apart. We cannot lose sight of that.

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