The Balance in History

New analysis suggests decline in percentage of historians who focus on Europe, a rise for those focused in Asia -- and diplomatic and military specialties holding their own.
July 21, 2011

Europe is down. Asia is up. And some specialties that scholars have feared were disappearing appear to be alive and well.

Those are some of the results available in an analysis by the American Historical Association of its members and their primary fields of interest (by both geography and subject matter). As a popular major and as a key provider of general education courses, the discipline of history is watched for even slight shifts in its focus. (AHA membership does not, of course, include all historians, and the membership is probably less reflective of community colleges, which tend to hire Americanists or generalists. But the membership shifts generally are viewed as consistent with trends in the field.)

Currently the top geographic area of specialization is Europe, with 37.2 percent of historians. That's down from 41.5 percent a decade ago -- a drop of such magnitude that historians of North America are now almost equal, at 36.2 percent. Asian history, at 8 percent, has overtaken Latin American history as the third most popular area of specialization.

The data show that areas other than North American and Europe made huge gains in percentage terms in the 1990s, and gains more in line with the profession as a whole during the last decade. The following table shows the share of historians in each specialization, and how their numbers have grown. Because the association's membership increased over all, the relative increases are the measure of shifts in popularity of various regions.

Regional Specializations of Historians

Region Share of 2010 Total Growth 1992-2010 Growth 2000-2010
Europe 37.2% 20% 21%
North America 36.2% 20% 43%
Asia 8.0% 196% 46%
Latin America 7.8% 256% 38%
Islamic / Near East 3.5% 711% 90%
Americas / American Indian 2.9% 931% 20%
World / Western Civ 2.3% 32% 55%
Africa 2.1% 184% 47%

Trends in non-geographic specialties are in some ways less precise, as historians participating in the AHA survey can now select as many such areas as they would like. Formerly, they could select only three such areas and -- in response to requests from AHA members -- the limit was removed. So some of the growth over the last decade is due to this change.

But while the total number of specialty designations is up 28 percent in the last decade, some fields that have feared lack of support were up by greater proportions. Designations of military history are up by 39 percent over the decade, for instance. Diplomatic history is up by 36 percent. Those are both areas that some scholars have complained have been eclipsed in recent decades with more study of newer fields that are seen as more multicultural.

To be sure, some fields that would be consistent with a multicultural emphasis saw even larger gains. Diaspora studies was up 83 percent over the decade. But that 83 percent represented only 143 historians, compared to 649 for military history. The religious history specialty is up 44 percent (now declared by 1,277 historians).

Robert B. Townsend, assistant director of research and publications at the AHA, said the data do not indicate whether a greater percentage of historians are studying those areas with gains, or whether these historians always had such fields as their fourth or fifth area of interest. But in either case, he said, the data suggest a greater breadth of interest in these subjects.


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