Sunday, July 11, 2010

Creating a New View of Reality

History is truly a discipline unlike any other. History is simultaneously limited by it's exclusive attention to the past and unlimited in its use of, and application to, every other discipline. Though it is unique in this way, history is a discipline that shares much in common with others in purpose and methodology, making ample use of the similarities and differences alike, allowing historians to create a comprehensive picture of the past. John Lewis Gaddis said, “We know the future only by the past we project into it. History, in this sense, is all we know.”1 Only through history can society gain the perspective needed in order to make informed decisions about the future.

History shares much in purpose with other disciplines, its defining purpose being it's exclusive dealing with the past. One of the main purposes of history is shared with the field of geography in its representative qualities. “History, like cartography, is necessarily a representation of reality. It's not reality itself.”2 While geographers represent places in space through the use of maps and other geographical tools, historians represent events in time using generalizations and narratives. Anthropology shares this purpose with history as well in that, “They act as mediators between different worlds, seeking to do justice to the other world while speaking to their own, much as historians do.”3 Like historians do not recreate the past, the anthropologist's job is not to recreate the societies and peoples that they study, but instead to give a thorough representation of them.

History also shares a purpose with many other disciplines in creating accounts of existence, giving the field a direct tie to that of philosophy. “Since philosophy explicates thought processes, it has a great deal to say about how historians fashion arguments, the sorts of explanations they offer, their assumptions about how the past can be known, their models of causality, and so on... Like sociology and anthropology, philosophy offers general accounts of human existence.”4 While philosophy is an attempt at explaining a range of subjects, history attempts to create an explanation of the past. Social Science shares in this explanatory purpose in its attempts to explain the structures and behavior of societies, “Marx continues to be of interest, less so because of his failed predictions than for his analysis of the structure of power in capitalist societies and his comprehensive view of the close interrelationship of economic class dominance, political power, and ideology.”5 Anthropology also finds common purpose in its attempts to explain human activity. Clifford Geertz created his own account of human existence in his attempt to explain Balinese society through the lens of the cock-fight, saying, “As much of America surfaces in a ball park, on a golf links, at a race track, or around a poker table, much of Bali surfaces in a cock ring. For it is only apparently cocks that are fighting there. Actually it is men.”6

In addition to these roles, “Part of the historian's task is... to demonstrate that what is was not always so in the past and therefore need not be so in the future. The historian must be, in this sense, a social critic.”7 W.E.B. DuBois is a perfect display of this purpose in the field of Social Science, “In keeping with the reformist ethos of the time, DuBois believed in the utility of scientific research in the solution of outstanding social problems.”8 This purpose is also apparent in economics as shown by Joseph E. Stiglitz in Making Globalization Work as he asked, “How can we take the economic forces of globalization – which have so far been injurious to the environment – and make them work to preserve it?”9 Geography too may play the role of social critic at times as shown by David Harvey, who worried that, “The geographical ignorance that arises out of the fetishism of commodities is in itself cause for concern. The spacial range of our own individual experience of procuring commodities in the market place bears no relationship to the spatial range over which the commodities themselves are produced.”10

In addition to purpose, history also shares many of its methods with other disciplines. One of the key historical methods is the use of theories from many other fields in explaining a historical event. “History is eclectic, hence the range of its debts and the complexity of its relations with other disciplines. Sometimes these are to be understood in terms of the use of theories; indeed 'theory' can be a useful concept for clarifying relations between disciplines.”11 No field shares this trait with history as much as geography does, as it is also, “Rather eclectic, and to the extent it has theories, these are shared with other fields, such as climatology, economics and other social sciences.”12 History also shares with geography the ability to distort space and time to suit the purposes of understanding. Just as geographers can compare different landscapes of their choice, “Historians have the capacity for selectivity, simultaneity, and the shifting of scale: they can select from the cacophony of events what they think is really important; they can be in several times and places at once; and they can zoom in and out between macroscopic and microscopic levels of analysis.”13

When there is no way to reproduce a scientific experiment in a lab setting the only tool left is one that historians have always had to make use of, deductive reasoning. “It's here that the methods of historians and scientists – at least those scientists for whom reproducibility cannot take place in the laboratory – rough coincide. For historians too start with surviving structures, whether they be archives, artifacts, or even memories. They then deduce the processes that produced them.”14 History also benefits from other tools that many disciplines commonly make use of, the most obvious of these being the creation of theory and generalizations. In the process of writing narratives historians cannot but help making generalizations, while theory can be extremely useful in providing an explanation for the causes of historical events. Many sociological theories, such as Marx's theory about the mode of production,15 Weber's iron cage,16 or DuBois' Veil,17 are directly applicable to historical events largely because the authors of these theories were using a historical approach, bringing together varying interdependent variables from the past to explain the social structures of their times.

With all of the tools that history shares with other disciplines there is one that is completely unavailable to historians, that being hands-on research. The historian's subject lies in the past, ensuring that they may never experience it first-hand as W.E.B. DuBois could with his. “Without research assistants, DuBois conducted a door-to-door survey to get at the facts about the economic , social, religious, and familial life of the inhabitants of the Seventh Ward, in the hope of dispelling the myths and fantasies that circulated in the white community.”18 Historians cannot walk among the people they study as Geertz and his wife had, “On the established anthropological principle, When in Rome, my wife and I decided, only slightly less instantaneously than everyone else, that the thing to do was run too.”19 Historians are instead forced to piece together an account of the past with the remnants that are left behind.

There remains one difference in methodology that becomes clear when comparing the methods of social scientists and historians. “It is, most fundamentally, the distinction between a reductionist and an ecological view of reality.”20 Social scientists, for the purpose of forecasting, attempt to reduce a complex event to simplicity, as dealing with an uncountable number of interdependent variables makes such forecasting impossible. “In sociology such a theory would be applied to a number of cases, but a sociologist would be less likely to start with the case study and then apply a mixture of theoretical devices to it, which is precisely what many historians do... They are more likely to look for the rigorous application of a theory, and to find eclecticism sloppy and intellectually unacceptable.”21 The fact that historians avoid forecasting what might happen in the future frees them from the burden of reductionism. They can instead take an ecological approach and apply as many theories with as many interdependent variables to a single event as is necessary to explain it.

Because history is such an eclectic discipline, historians are able to borrow the theories of any other discipline that fit with the event being studied. From the social scientist a historian might borrow, “A Marxian approach to society (which) contained a number of ideas, theories and concepts that could be applied to a wide range of historical cases, as indeed Marx himself applied them. In particular, the analysis of modes of production and their implications, class oppression, revolution, ideology and imperialism were taken up by historians.”22 From political science historians may borrow the case study by Bejarno and Segura, which makes clear the continuing problem of race in the United States through the example of the 2003 race for Louisiana governor.23 One of the most useful fields from which historians have borrowed recently is Anthropology. “Anthropologists developed a number of ideas and concepts that can be used by historians. Ritual, fetish, kinship, magic, possession, symbol, shaman and the gift relationship would all be obvious examples where, even if the concept were not exclusive to anthropology, that field endowed them with a rich significance upon which historians could draw.”24 Our diversity of methods to draw upon is an infinitely useful tool that makes the gathering of historical data that was previously unobtainable possible.

History is a versatile discipline that is at once both unique and applicable to all other fields. Through the study of the past historians reach for many of the same goals as other disciplines while also borrowing many of their tools for its own ends. History combines with the other disciplines in the endless pursuit to explain where the future might take us by providing the answer of where we came from. As different as they all may think of themselves, the practitioners of each discipline all share one basic desire regardless of their field of study. “This is what paleontologists, tailors, and cartographers as well as historians hope for – the product may move those who encounter it to revise their own views so that a new basis for critical judgment emerges, perhaps even a new view of reality itself.”25

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