Again with the historiography

Beginning of the school year again – sigh. This semester I’m teaching more Western Civ and Tudor/Stuart England.

As I write papers, I often find myself wondering how much coverage should be dedicated to the historiography. As I’ve said before, I never really know what the vast unwashed masses of historians think about a particular subject – only what a much smaller subset of them have written. And there is always the disturbing possibility that unpublished historians might apply common sense to a topic, which could easily contradict the published literature. Scientists would argue that even negative results need to be published, though it doesn’t sound like they follow their own advice very often. Thus you often wonder whether you’re wasting your time arguing for something that is “obvious” to the silent majority. I haven’t yet figured out which is worse: that the effort of your labors is greeted with a rebuttal, or with a shrug?

This uncertainty is particularly true with topical questions. It’s easy, for example, to find accounts and explanations of various events, but it’s much harder to find more than a single “in-depth” (definitions vary) analysis of a particular thematic subject, say, the “laws” of Vauban-era siegecraft, or a longitudinal study of a subject (beyond a single war or reign), or most topics in EMEMH for that matter. What’s a scholar to do?

First, I think we need to be a bit more systematic with our historiography. Unfortunately, publishers (in theory at least) don’t really want us to do this. If the Internet is to be believed, some editors see historiographical discussion as a waste of ink; undoubtedly that would be the only thing stopping my future book on Marlburian battle from rocketing up the New York Times Bestsellers list. To seriously analyze a historiography would also require scanning it all in and OCRing it before analyzing the text. Some might construe this as violating copyright. But, as physicists like to joke, let’s start by assuming a spherical cow.

The most common practice seems to be for a historian to summarize the literature in some multiple of a paragraph or page – this has become a veritable ritual in any literature involving the Military Revolution, for example. Summarizing a historiography in your own prose is sometimes necessary, but it is the ultimate in the “Trust-me-I’m-an-expert” game that we academics play. I hate that game.

What else can we do? We could start by including specific quotes from other published historians. Admittedly this is often difficult because we’re a long-winded lot, and a narration of the disputations can get pretty boring: “X said A, Y said not-A, Z says B…”. Not ideal, but we could at least throw in a few key phrases from an author or two. It helps if the historian we’re quoting is actually making an argument, with a clearly-stated thesis.

Perhaps our beloved word cloud could give us a hand, or we could look at which words are highly associated with each other (collocation). Heck, make a collage of all the keywords used to describe a topic. Maybe we need to do some network analysis on citations, like they do in the social/natural sciences – citation analysis, bibliometrics and the like. There are even some software packages that apparently do that. Just do something a bit more systematic.

Another option is to explicitly discuss the rhetoric used by other historians – Keegan’s “rhetoric of battle history” (or my “rhetoric of siege history”), for example. Are there consistent terms used to describe/explain a subject? Are there specific examples/authors/sources that are constantly cited? Are there particular metaphors that historians use when explaining an event or phenomenon? For example, what does it suggest that traditional military historians compare early modern sieges so often to dances, theater, and chess? And do these descriptors and metaphors vary from author to author (or country to country), or change over time?

And then there’s the thorny question of when to stop collecting more historiography. Undoubtedly even the most minutely-focused monograph might pass judgment on all sorts of historical conventional wisdom. Ideally, we have all those secondary sources text-searchable, either in Google Books or in your own database. But I think it’s best to start with certain types of works, those that have the most impact. Thus, we should focus foremost on accessible works. So start by analyzing works that are still in print or have been reissued. Look at works written by prolific authors, e.g. I came to Vaubanian siege warfare via Christopher Duffy’s Russia’s Military Way to the West. (This applies to primary sources as well as secondary.) The most systematic method would be to scan a bunch of notes/bibliographies from other secondary sources and see which titles pop up over and over. (I’ll leave it to others to decide whether that’s a “transformative” use or not.)

We should also look for works that are dedicated to the topic, using the most common synonyms (“laws of war”) and important peoples’ names (Marlborough, Vauban…). And we really need to pay attention to titles that are just begging to be cited by everyone and their brother: The Art of Warfare in the Age of _____. Knowing where to look also matters on the micro level. If you want to know what an author thinks about sieges ‘in the abstract’ for example, look in the art of war sections dedicated to summarizing the subject. You might be surprised at how different their abstract view is from the picture that emerges from the details in their narrative, or from the data in their own appendices.

However we choose to address historiography, we need to give our readers a sense of how many authors we are discussing. Has one solitary historian discussed the topic (and if so, does it get cited a lot?), or is it a topic touched on by most works in the field? If more than a couple of authors are involved, it’s helpful to group them into various schools or positions.  And it wouldn’t hurt to explicitly relate the size of the historiography to its importance: lots of works on topic X presumably signal importance, but does a small number of publications on topic Y indicate the opposite? I’m not so sure. Especially when that topic is widely exclaimed to be of critical importance to the period.

Another possibility is to ‘just ask historians.’ This seems a good idea in theory, but I’m not sure how it would work in practice. Possibly someone will develop a survey to administer to fellow historians, as mentioned in an earlier post – perhaps the Society for Military History should look into sponsoring a survey or two? Though I wonder what we should conclude from the rarity of such polling; that the example mentioned in the earlier post was performed by economic historians is also noteworthy I think. Personally I’m a little daunted by the effort needed to craft a questionnaire, identify and contact the responders, follow up to get a good response rate, and analyze the results. Nevertheless, such a survey would probably be a good measure of ‘public opinion’ – might be interesting to start with the state of the Military Revolution debate. That being said, I’m not really sure how we would deal with the inevitable contradictions between public opinion and what the ‘experts’ have said. What other response is there but to berate the respondents for not keeping up with the literature? Nor does this really answer the question of whether your research should respond to what the experts in your field think, or to what most historians, immersed in their own subfields, think. An interesting possibility, but lots of questions to resolve as well.

Thoughts? Good models to follow?

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