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Debate on Role of Theory in Discipline of History

May 29, 2018
 
 

Three historians last week issued a manifesto, saying that the discipline of history has become dominated by empiricist approaches, to the neglect of the role of theory. This approach, they argue, limits the relevance of history as a field. "Existing academic history promotes a disciplinary essentialism founded upon a methodological fetishism," says their document. "Treating reified appearances (i.e. immediately observable, preferably archival, evidence) as embodying the real and containing the truth of social relations, it evaluates scholarship based on whether this empiricist method has been capably employed. The field tends to produce scholars rather than thinkers, and regards scholars in technocratic terms."

They added, "History, as a field, encourages a system of discipline or punish. Those whose positions appear to be cutting-edge but hedge their bets and organize their thought around common convention are rewarded, while those who strike out for new territories are condemned. By 'new territories' we mean alternative epistemological inquiries, orientations, or starting points, not new themes or topics. The disciplined are rewarded by the guild while the innovators are punished. Nowhere is this disciplining process more apparent than in the review and publication process of the American Historical Association’s flagship journal. The disciplining occurs via the practice of multiple anonymous reviewers policing their disciplinary turf and then congratulating themselves and their authors for their scientific objectivity and resultant meritocracy."

The American Historical Association has announced steps to "decolonize" its main journal, but the manifesto says that those steps have not gone far enough.

James Grossman, executive director of the American Historical Association, said that the organization's Research Division planned to discuss the statement this week, but he declined to comment further.

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