Evaluative cultures: History vs Economics!

by Michèle Lamont on June 11, 2009

How Professors Think shows that across all disciplines, evaluations depend on taste and expertise.  Because tastes are often idiosyncratic (what is “fascinating” is what looks like me or reinforces my own line of scholarship), funding agencies should explicitly instruct panelists to value the quality of the proposal (expertise) more than what excites (a matter of taste).

How Professors Think also shows that economists and historians have very different views concerning where excellencet resides – in the object being evaluated or in the eyes of the beholder. While economists think that excellence is objective and is to be found in the proposal itself (that a clear line separates what is first rate from the rest), scholars hailing from more interpretive fields believe that evaluators play a central role in giving value to the proposals – indeed, that they are engaged in the coproduction of excellence. While participating in panel deliberations, they produce what they hope will be convincing arguments about what is good work. They don’t think that their views – their subjectivity – corrupt the process. Instead, they think it is essential to the process, because they are asked to serve in their quality as connoisseurs, as experts who have spent many years developing a very refined classification system for understanding what the field has already produced and what is new and promising.

My book discusses in some detail the evaluative culture of historians. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly to some, I characterize history as presenting a relatively high degree of consensus about what constitutes quality and how to recognize it. At least, this is what historians told me about their field.

When historians compare their field with English literature – a contrast that could not be starker – they say that in their field “the disciplinary center holds.” According to one interviewee,

History hasn’t been politicized in the way some fields have, in a kind of roughly post-modern sort of approach to history. In the wider field you get a range, but the range is reasonably narrow. There are not so many people who would be writing in the language that would seem empty jargon, [that would be dismissed as a] bunch of junk by people who consider themselves empirical historians. You don’t have such a dominant group of people who are very engaged in cultural theory, who would just simply dismiss arbitrarily work that is narrowly empirical. The middle is pretty big, pretty calm, not overtly politicized, and the ends I think are relatively small [my emphasis]. The idea that evidence does matter, that giving attention to theory at the same time is a good thing, I think both of those do probably hold.

This peaceful state of affairs is not based on a notion that the field is (or can be) unified around a common theory. Rather, in the opinion of a particularly distinguished early American historian, what is shared is agreement on what constitutes good historical craftsmanship, a sense of “careful archival work.” A European historian concurs:

We are neither English, nor political science . . . We see ourselves as an interpretive, empirically grounded social science. . . I think that grounding in [the] empirical is something strong that makes historians sort of have more of an idea of “what’s new here?” [my emphasis]. Research is oriented toward getting results. Theory is useful, but not paramount. Those disciplines that tend to have less agreement are based more on rhetoric, on personalism, that is, “I worked with da, da, da, or this is my theory,” and they have no tangible way to judge excellence..


How Professors Think examines closely the evaluative cultures of six disciplines and only economics reaches a degree of consensus comparable to that of history – but in this case, disciplinary consensus is based on a shared culture of mathematical formalism, rather than in a shared recognition of standards for good craftsmanship (the other disciplines considered are philosophy, English, anthropology and political science). Accordingly, in several of the competitions I studied, historians were perceived as receiving the lion’s share of awards. This is explained, in part, because they apply in such large numbers, and are always represented on panels. But their success is also attributed to disciplinary consensus about how to recognize quality. The disciplinary fault lines might be deeper were I comparing tensions within subfields, such as American history or Chinese history. Were the discipline smaller, it might be characterized by more conflict. In any case, it is significant to know that various types of disciplinary consensus exist across the social sciences and the humanities. And that a shared sense of what defines good craftsmanship can act as a common disciplinary matrix of evaluation that is as powerful as shared mathematical tools.

{ 86 comments }

1

dsquared 06.11.09 at 3:03 pm

That’s fascinating. I’d actually tentatively advance the view that the perceived unity in economics is actually an outsized clique – there are surprisingly many economists who don’t share the culture of mathematical formalism, but they get marginalised and shut out (and unlike in the other disciplines mentioned, there is less incentive for them to fight back because the alternative of going into nonacademic but semi-related jobs is so much more attractive)

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Ian D-B 06.11.09 at 3:33 pm

I’m not sure economists that avoid formalism are completely shut out. With respect to theory, this is probably largely correct. For empirical work, though, there are certainly many economists who have little or no formal theoretical ability. It’s obviously important to be able to read theory papers, but there are lots of economists who couldn’t write one.

Moreover, within the culture of formalism, there’s certainly a lot of speculation with little formal support. AEA and AFA presidential addresses are often quite influential without involving much serious theory. I guess you could say that ideas need not begin formally, but they need to be made formal by somebody eventually. I think this discipline has overall served us well, even if it makes us overlook some things.

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Kathleen Lowrey 06.11.09 at 3:41 pm

Well, now I will have to go and buy your book and read the part about anthropology! Because it seems to me it’s a special case. I like to tell my students that the main aim of anthropology is to tell the story of the human story. What this means methodologically is that one anthropologist is mucking around with radiocarbon dating and another is considering queer publics in Jakarta. What these kinds of research share is empiricism, but after that, not much else.
Often enough, these kinds of proposals don’t get considered by the same panel of evaluators but also often enough, the resulting work is evaluated within the same home department. I’m married to an archaeologist and we do read one another’s work but without any hope of evaluation — the point of the exchange is that if you can hand an article or grant proposal back to the other person and say “I understood it” that’s a good indicator of its general clarity.
Obviously, anthro has had some nasty internal fights about what counts as good (or even legitimate) work and the center has not held in lots of places (and was only counted as the “center” in North America anyway; in Europe archaeology & social anthro are treated as separate disciplines). I suspect that even without disciplinary consensus, however, an inherently unfair factor that probably helps history helps anthro, too — which is the subject matter more often strikes the curious-kid part of evaluators as “ooh, cool” than does the subject matter of phil or english lit.

4

Kieran Healy 06.11.09 at 4:00 pm

As you say the historians value the time-in-the-archives thing, which leads to the detail-oriented concern for real empirical novelty and genuine new findings, skepticism about theory per se etc. But — in my limited experience with them — I also think historians respect a strong, clear writing style (even though narrative history is not what the core of the field is about). That stylistic aspect of the particular craft ethic would also further buttress skepticism about theory per se, etc.

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dsquared 06.11.09 at 4:06 pm

For empirical work, though, there are certainly many economists who have little or no formal theoretical ability

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to include the statistical toolkit in “mathematical formalism”. Although you or I might see a world of difference between “Generalised non-parametric deconvolution with an application to earnings dynamics”, and “Quantile maximisation in decision theory” (to take two forthcoming examples from the RES), to a passing anthropologist, they’re both of them just effing great lumps of equations ;-)

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Andy 06.11.09 at 4:17 pm

A lot of economists would say that they do have a “shared recognition of standards for good craftsmanship”, but that good craftsmanship generally entails mathematical formalism. Whether that claim is true is certainly up for debate, but most economists feel very strongly and agree with each other about the need for mathematical formalism as the bedrock for good research. I’m skeptical that stems from a culture of math as opposed to beliefs about best practices.

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 4:22 pm

Ah, I’m finally on solid ground. However, I don’t the portrait of history as a profession is really accurate – check out Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream for an account of how we historians spent the better part of the 20th century warring over the basic essence and purpose and practice of history (http://books.google.com/books?id=b42WRrk0-rEC).

Granted, I think you’re right about the archival stuff – but that’s in part a product of the collapse of any over-arching theory about history. Since the whole objective vs. subjectivist, history from above vs. history from below, political history vs. the cultural turn, history of DWM vs. social/gender/race scholars, has pretty much ended, the only frame of reference you have is “did this person do their archival work well? Are their arguments firmly based in the evidence, or are they trying to hang their argument from a thread?”

I also think that the evidentiary nature of the discipline also contains conflicts within specialties – as a modern U.S scholar, I’m unlikely to try to pick a fight in ancient Greek history because I haven’t read any evidence that could be used in an argument. Within specialties, there are huge fights over interpretation and methodology and theoretical stance, but they do tend to center around the evidence and method.

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david 06.11.09 at 4:30 pm

I expect I could name that early american historian.

There’s not quite so much unanimity among historians in my experience in the discipline, on the theory question. First, it’s generational, and in the 90s the theory types were the kids proving they were getting something the old types didn’t. But the theory people reached for was never history. It was outside the discipline, brought in to help the discipline, which was defined both empirically and thematically. Rather than approach, what made you a type of historian was where and when — which seemed different from the anthropologists, say. So what made you a historian was sitting in this or that archive studying this or that year. What made your work interesting was what extra-disciplinary tools were brought to the work. You end up defining history as empirical not theory blah blah, because the theory by definition isn’t the history part.

There’s a lot to be said for that clear writing style point of Kieran’s too. The fear of alien jargon was pervasive, and shared by most of the leaders on the theory side of things.

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socialrepublican 06.11.09 at 4:38 pm

Quite right, Steven

If you look at generic fascism studies, the ‘culturalists’ of the New Consensus have been accused by the ‘materialists’ on a regular basis of trying to normalise Nazism and are so how complicit in a form of Holocaust denial. The Goldhagen affair shows how heated and vitrolic debate can get within the specialities

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 4:59 pm

David – I think you hit on a very important point. Historians generally borrow their theory from outside, and don’t really teach people how one goes about constructing one’s own theory – which is kind of weird if you think about it. It may be an vestige of the old empiricism, but it’s odd.

I wonder how long this has been the case. Certainly the Progressive historians seemed to do a lot of their own theorizing even as they looked to the social sciences for rigor, I think social historians generally did a lot of their own lifting (although I may be wrong here, given the borrowings from anthro/soc among early soc. historians), but these days, I don’t see it.

I know this is something that I’ve felt uncomfortable about – I do borrow theory from outside, but I’ve always made little stabs of my own at explaining how/why I think things happen, almost as a reflex.

Socialrepublican – the Godhagen affair is a good example, but the one that always shocked me was the David Abraham Case. That’s the sort of thing that as a young grad student wakes me up at night.

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Tracy W 06.11.09 at 5:29 pm

….scholars hailing from more interpretive fields believe that evaluators play a central role in giving value to the proposals – indeed, that they are engaged in the coproduction of excellence. … Instead, they think it is essential to the process, because they are asked to serve in their quality as connoisseurs, as experts who have spent many years developing a very refined classification system for understanding what the field has already produced and what is new and promising.

This seems odd to me, that you would contrast this with economists. Would a group of economists give a high rating for a proposal that already covers what the field has already produced and wasn’t at all new and promising on the basis that it was an excellent proposal in its own right? I’ve never sat on a board evaluating research proposals at all, but I have a tough time visualising economists today getting really excited about a proposal that was just a repeat of the Lucas critique, or otherwise didn’t advance economics knowledge at all.

And one can presumably think that excellence is objective and is to be found in the proposal itself, while still thinking that evaluators are vital for recognising that excellence. After all, it’s the evaluators who decide what gets funded, or what gets awards and thus extra attention. If economists don’t think that evaluators add anything, why are they sitting on evaluation panels in the first place? Why is there peer review in economics if economists believe that evaluation isn’t an important part of producing excellence?

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alex 06.11.09 at 5:41 pm

@10 – I rather think the lit critics borrowed their theory from outside too. OTOH, I think the assertion about historians’ unity only holds good so long as you don’t bring the conversation round to ends. Everyone in history [except a few wackos who keep turning up like mad relations at a wedding - Keith Jenkins in the UK, e.g.] likes nice, methodical, artisanal means. Ends, however…

13

Matt L 06.11.09 at 6:08 pm

I agree with the post and some of the comments: there is a pretty broad consensus on how to do history, but the ends, as alex put it are up for grabs. I would argue that in the field of history, ‘theory’ is in the eye of the beholder. If it comes from outside of the discipline its theory, but if its from the inside its called methodology. If a theory is around long enough it becomes method. Someday we’ll have people referring to Foucault as ‘a historian’ despite the big bad debates about objectivity in the 1990s. Derrida is another case, however…

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 6:17 pm

Yeah, ends are the sticking point.

As for Foucault, I always had a problem with his history – he’s really good at conveying the spirit of the time, especially in Discipline and Punish, but he gets really loose about context when it suits him. Bentham’s panopticon was roundly rejected by Parliament – it wasn’t the model for British prisons for a long time.

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bianca steele 06.11.09 at 6:45 pm

Yes, in central European history there are certainly debates over principle and approach, though would they be called “theoretical”? (This wasn’t my area of research, but it was an area of interest to the scholars who’s work I was basing my thesis on, and to my advisor.) I attended a talk once, given by a visiting scholar whose approach was obviously different from the conference organizer’s, and I remember there being only one sharpish comment towards the end, which as I recall came off as more or less asking why the speaker hadn’t taken the questioner’s own approach.

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bianca steele 06.11.09 at 6:47 pm

That was about 15 years ago, btw, around the time Goldhagen’s book came out. He may have been at the talk, I didn’t know what he looked like.

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Phil 06.11.09 at 7:11 pm

he gets really loose about context when it suits him

“Foucault (1977) actually says that England abandoned transportation “at the beginning of the nineteenth century”. Transportation to Australia was not abandoned until 1868 and continued to Gibraltar (where 9000 were shipped) until 1875. There was more transportation to Australia in the second third of the nineteenth century than in the first … French transportation continued to 1938, albeit at lower volume and with less colonial success than English transportation. Foucault gets the history of the past so badly wrong because he wants to write it to lead to his big fact about the history of the present – the ascendancy of the prison. “
– John Braithwaite, reviewing David Garland’s (assez foucauldien) book The Culture of Control

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John Quiggin 06.11.09 at 8:20 pm

I’ve never done a panel evaluation, but I regularly have to read and assess proposals. I pretty much agree with the post about the way economists see that, to the point where I’m surprised to learn that other disciplines could think differently. A couple of qualifications
(i) A clear line separates what’s first rate from the rest. Yes, but that clear line doesn’t correspond to the funding cutoff I deal with, which is one that sees some good (but not stellar) projects get funded, and others miss out
(ii) You can also add value by providing useful comments on how the project could be improved, but I guess that’s not what the post is about.

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John Quiggin 06.11.09 at 8:29 pm

I don’t think it’s hard to explain the preference for mathematical/quantitative methods in economics. The central concerns of economists – prices, wages, output and employment – are usually presented to us as quantitative data (even if every data point hides a complex story) , so trying to reason about them using purely verbal methods is a bit like blindfold chess. It can be done, and the resulting performance can be very impressive, but the average mortal is going to find the mathematical/quantitative route a lot easier.

There’s a separate issue about how far to go with formalism, rigor and so on where I think the tide has turned a bit in recent decades.

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bianca steele 06.11.09 at 8:45 pm

And socialrepublican, having googled “new consensus fascism,” and looked at admittedly only one Google Books result, I’m not clear how George Mosse is described as “normalizing” fascism even by the strictest Marxist–or we are living in seriously different worlds. Rather, Mosse seemed to me to tar all that is not (to coin a phrase) “politically correct” as basically fascism: living in 1910 and don’t like literary Modernism? like patriotic parades? etc.? you may be a fascist. Is he now incorrect, among those who care about whether or not they are? My mind is boggling.

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 8:46 pm

I don’t know about that, John. I’ve always grokked Keynes and Galbraith better than even academics of their identical school and stripe who were more mathematical. And one related thing is the division between empirical economics versus theoretical economics – I personally understand the empiricals better, even when they end up saying the same things of the theoreticals.

Incidentally, what do you think of Richard Parker’s critique of mathematical economics?

22

Getty L 06.11.09 at 9:01 pm

There are many problems to judging Foucault’s work in this manner. Firstly, to use this to a response to the question “is Foucault a historian?” is quite disingenuous. One could find many empirical, shall we say, hyperboles and shoddy interpretations among historians of all methodological persuasions, even among those most classical empiricists. To point to fact #171 and say, due to his exaggeration of said historical event, that he is not a historian or that he is deeply confused about what history is supposed to be do (a bold claim indeed), should rightly leave most educated peoples wondering how such an interlocutor could live in such bad faith. One must recognize what exactly Foucault was attempting to achieve with his oeuvre before one judges its contents.

It must also be noted that Foucault had little concern for the “ascendancy of the prison” in Discipline and Punish, one that has closely read the work should know this to be quite obvious.

23

Jacob T. Levy 06.11.09 at 9:31 pm

I am… not particularly startled that political science is not one of the high-consensus disciplines.

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magistra 06.11.09 at 9:50 pm

Is one way of thinking about the differences between disciplines the fox/hedgehog distinction – whether research is on many different topics or one or two big questions? In every subfield of economics and philosophy (and I know subfield is to some extent arbitrary) does everyone agree on what the key topics are that are worth investigating? I think in history, literary studies, archaeology (and indeed a few sciences, such as zoology), interests are far more spread out. You choose to study fifth century France or Dryden or dolphins because that is the specific thing that fascinates you, even if it’s not the fashionable topic. (Of course, you may try and find a fashionable angle, but that’s a different matter).

If you’re in a field where everyone’s working on the same problems, it’s intrinsically going to be more directly competitive, not least because you’re all going to know about the same things. In contrast, an appreciation of craftsmanship is more useful for assessing a historical project set in an entirely different millennium from your research specialism.

I’ll add a couple more things on the historian as craftsman (an analogy which I’ve also heard used of anthropologists). This may be one of the reasons that historians are particularly dismissive of ‘pop history': because that tends to require precisely the opposite of craft skills. TV, in particular, wants its history big and bold, and it’s hard to do that showman style well, and be the kind of person who’s careful with their craft. (I’d say David Starkey is an exception, who can do both strains, but Simon Schama isn’t a craftsman, in my view: too prone to ventriloquize).

And for all the disagreement about ends, and the political prejudices within history, the craftsman effect means if you are good enough, you can get away with any kind of unfashionable political/religious/theoretical preferences. Even now, the work of sufficiently good Marxist historians gets taken seriously by those with more mainstream political views. Eric Hobsbawm gets respected by British historians, if trashed by non-historians. (Though perhaps this is also because by now Hobsbawm himself is an important historical artefact, a time capsule of pre-WW2 experience).

As for Foucault, I found him easier to take once I saw him as writing political thought with historical examples rather than plain history. (Although in the later volumes of History of Sexuality, he moves towards the kind of intellectual history that is the genealogy of an idea).

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John Quiggin 06.11.09 at 10:14 pm

I wouldn’t say Keynes was non-mathematical (though obviously the level of math has ratcheted up over time, starting with Keynes’ immediate followers such as Hicks). In particular, the multiplier was a big deal in promoting the adoption of Keynesian fiscal policy, and the needs of Keynesian economics drove the development of econometrics and national accounting.

I tend to see (JK) Galbraith more as a social critic than as a professional economist – his books aimed at a broad educated public have survived much better than his professional work on things like price fixing.

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 10:33 pm

I’ll defend Simon Schama, haven taken a course from him and read a lot of what he writes. He knows his stuff, and he is as much a craftsman in the archives as he is a writer of grand poetics. And while I agree his work is baroque, and could do with a bit of editing for conciseness, I find it no less craftful than other works.

I’d also say that Schama has something that too many historians lack – a sense and a love of narrative. You still need the chops of an academic historian, but I think a skill with narrative is what separates the good from the great. Not sure tho.

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StevenAttewell 06.11.09 at 10:49 pm

John – let me put it this way; I read Keynes’ General Theory as a complete outsider to economics. And I could understand it – I had to take it very slow, re-read sections quite often, and ask for help – but I could. Most modern economics I can’t – I just lack the math skills for it.

And that is a problem for the role of economics in public policy and political debate. As Dewey pointed out, it is not good for a democracy to be ruled by elite experts dictating What Is Good to an ignorant electorate; what is needed is economics that people can understand, and debate, and apply in their own politics.

And I think Galbraith is criminally underrated by his own profession. Which, as Richard Parker points out, is part of the problem.

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Michael H Schneider 06.11.09 at 11:48 pm

to a passing anthropologist, they’re both of them just effing great lumps of equations ;-)

Naw, they’re strange and fascinating performative ritual utterances of Others. See, e.g., Geertz’s seminal Cockfighting In Academia

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DCA 06.11.09 at 11:58 pm

Coming from another discipline (geophysics) that tries to mathematize messy parts of the real world, I will say that I am struck by the very high levels of mathematical formalism in economics relative to my own field: there is much more emphasis on proofs, formally set out in the style of pure mathematics. (Not so true of data analysis papers, of course.)
This level of formality is rarer in my field, even in papers which are mostly theoretical. So there is a clear stylistic expectation about how results should be developed and presented, which presumably leaks into the proposal evaluation process.

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notsneaky 06.12.09 at 4:45 am

“but in this case, disciplinary consensus is based on a shared culture of mathematical formalism, rather than in a shared recognition of standards for good craftsmanship”

What exactly is the difference between “shared culture of mathematical formalism” and “shared recognition of standards for good craftsmanship”? I mean, isn’t one thing the same as the other? For economists good craftsmanship is, in daniel’s words, effing equations.

If it means something else than I think that John’s comments in this thread are a data point for shared recognition of standards – there’s no beta’s and x’s there but I completely agree with him.

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dsquared 06.12.09 at 6:47 am

There clearly can be good economics done without mathematical formalism – all of institutionalism, most obviously – and it is a bit of a shame that this kind of work is such low-status stuff these days. This goes back to my view of the Dani Rodrik book; that there was actually a very interesting institutionalist book there, which was interleaved like a millefeuille cake with desperately unconvincing empirical and formal chapters, in order to demonstrate that it was the work of an Economist, who could be trusted on these things, rather than just some sort of low quality economy-talking-guy. But I’m about to put a post up on the front page about this so I will now …

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StevenAttewell 06.12.09 at 7:18 am

Hear, hear dsquared! I’d also throw the German historical school of economists on the pile of good non-mathematical economics.

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ejh 06.12.09 at 7:48 am

I’d also say that Schama has something that too many historians lack – a sense and a love of narrative

Yeah, but the trouble is that if you’re writing for, say, Past and Present or Economic History Review then a sense of narrative isn’t really what’s called for. It’s entirely necessary if you’re writing for the general public, but that’s a different matter and indeed there’s a case for saying that quite a lot of history that’s presently written for the general public is produced by writers whose sense of narrative is unimpeachable but whose treatment of evidence probably wouldn’t get them past peer review.

(I’m not thinking of Schama in that last sentence, by the way. I don’t have any objection to him that I don’t have to mainstream British academic history.)

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StevenAttewell 06.12.09 at 8:04 am

EJH – yes and no. If we want to aspire to the standards of the old dry-as-dust scholars, and consider ourselves nothing more than researchers writing for researches, than maybe that’s accurate to say. But I would argue that a firm grasp of narrative is actually a powerful tool for making one’s work more widely readable to the wider discipline, by giving access to the emotional imagination of the reader to the subject in question.

And naturally, narrative is a second-order good (I think I’m using the term correctly but it’s 1 in the morning, so who knows?).

But I think historians aren’t just researchers. We are also teachers, and the ability to express narrative, to waken minds to the vibrant drama of history, to show the empathetic connection between the past and present that draws/informs all history, I would argue is crucial for the reproduction of the discipline. We are also, or should be, public intellectuals, storytellers and mythbusters – it is after all the ancient mission of our profession to publish “in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done…and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.”

And as a coda, I would argue that it is a generally good rule of thumb that if a historian has a firm grasp on their narrative, that they have a firm grasp on their subject matter and evidence – if not, trouble.

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ejh 06.12.09 at 8:09 am

Yes, but if you’re writing a journal article narrative may not actually be the point. You may well be dealing with a number of objections or other points which all need to be dealt with properly, but which process ties a stone round the neck of narrative and throws it into the river. Or you may be required to lay out evidence in quite a lengthy and readers’-time-consuming manner, which is crucial to the academic rigour of the activity (something which will be understood by just about everybody actually looking the piece) but which is not actually any fun to write, let alone read.

But you wouldn’t present a telly programme like that.

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Zamfir 06.12.09 at 8:23 am

But I think historians aren’t just researchers. We are also teachers, and the ability to express narrative, to waken minds to the vibrant drama of history, to show the empathetic connection between the past and present that draws/informs all history, I would argue is crucial for the reproduction of the discipline. We are also, or should be, public intellectuals, storytellers and mythbusters –

But isn’t this pretty much the accepted means, disputed ends problem referred to higher in this thread? The histerians I know are definitely not in agreement with you or each other on the importance of teaching and public intellectuality and popular writing etc. They still are in reasonbly close agreement about which subjects are part of history, and when they are studied well.

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Jock Bowden 06.12.09 at 8:37 am

GettyL

As I am not Foucault’s biggest fan, I would be interested in your sympathetic precis of “what he was attempting to achieve with his oeuvre”.

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Tracy W 06.12.09 at 9:28 am

what is needed is economics that people can understand, and debate, and apply in their own politics.

But the value of mathematics is that it helps make certain arguments understandable, and debatable, and applicable, because you have to lay out what you are and aren’t assuming, and how precise you are being about what you are assuming. I speak as someone with degrees in electrical engineering and economics. Paul Krugman makes this argument for the value of mathematics in economics at http://web.mit.edu/krugman/www/formal.html far better than I could. From my experience mathematics is a tool for making complex problems easier to understand and debate and apply, although pure mathematicians may differ from me. Algebra is the second-most useful problem-solving technique I learned at high school (the most useful one I learnt was that you can look things up in books).

I agree that there is a conflict here between experts and democracy, but I don’t think there’s an easy way around it. I know of no reason a priori as to why a modern economy is easy to understand, after all medicine isn’t easy to understand and we can actually see the human body, while we can’t even see the whole macro-economy, only bits of it. My only suggestion for a solution to this problem is better mathematics teaching at school so more people can master the necessary mathematics and statistics for important public debates.

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socialrepublican 06.12.09 at 9:30 am

Bianca

It is certainly not my opinion the new consensus (Eatwell, Payne, Griffin, Mosse, Gentile et al) in anyway normalises fascism. It was however a charge made in various forms by Paxton, Mann and others.

Schama can write beautifully but basically ripping off Furet mk II and not even mentioning him in the main text seems to me rude

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Jock Bowden 06.12.09 at 10:57 am

The best space to be in must be a double major in economics and history and a minor in math. That’s what I did, and my god does it make life easier!

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JoB 06.12.09 at 11:12 am

Michèle, thanks – good post. Don’t know why everybody went into mathematics/economics but would be good to know whether you have contemplated any ideas to counter-act this status quo effect? Or do we just wait for some patient enough to be acceptable for long enough to make ‘em authorities of their own at which point they can pretty much say whatever they want?

After ‘earning their stripes’ so to speak. Some of that will be unavoidable in any field (even if the idea is new and correct, it means nothing unless you can connect with what went on before in it), but maybe we can counterbalance just enough to speed things up.

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magistra 06.12.09 at 12:57 pm

You still need the chops of an academic historian, but I think a skill with narrative is what separates the good from the great.

I’m not convinced. Narrative skill is an under-rated ability among historians, but I’d say the key thing that separates out the historical greats nowadays is the ability to look at the same sources and period that everyone else does and consistently and correctly see connections and meanings that no-one has ever noticed before. Otherwise you have to say that Shelby Foote was the best ever historian of the American Civil War and John Julius Norwich of Byzantium.

In fact, there are times when narrative distracts you from historical analysis. For example, a narrative approach to the causes of almost any big event (First World War, Industrial Revolution etc) tends to end up with seeing its as more or less happening by chance, because you can’t see the underlying structural trends.

Also, there are many fields where you can’t do narrative history, because of lack of information. For the Middle Ages, if you stick to narrative history, it largely boils down to political and military history. You can rarely do women’s history, socio-economic history, the history of minorities etc as narrative history, because the sources aren’t there.

But because you’re not doing narrative history, doesn’t mean you have to stop being a storyteller. It’s often possible to slip in an anecdote or a memorable quote into a mainly analytical piece, like my friend who included in an analysis of early medieval slavery in Past and Present a document which seems to present someone who is a ‘part-time slave’ (i.e. only on some days of the week).

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Getty L 06.12.09 at 1:34 pm

Jock Bowden–

The sense that I received from my research that I have done on him (I wrote my undergraduate thesis on him, which gave me the opportunity to work with his very extensive canon), Foucault was conducting a historical epistemology, or history of truth. This may sound sort of “fruity”, but upon further analysis, and proper contextualization of his work with those that influenced him (the historians and philosophers of science Georges Canguilhem, Gaston Bachelard, Alexandre Koyré, as well as Nietzsche), it makes sense. Foucault, above all, was interested on how the concept of truth not only evolved throughout time, but how it worked within various “local” contexts, shaping it and impelling those agents within that framework to view themselves, and others, in a particular manner. I have always found this quote by him quite illuminating:

“A few years ago, historians were very proud that they could write not only the history of battles, of kings and institutions, but also of the economy. Now they’re all dumbfounded because the shrewdest among them learned that it was also possible to write a history of feeling, of behaviors and of bodies. Soon they’ll understand that the history of the West cannot be disassociated from the way in which “truth” is produced and inscribes its effects”
–Michel Foucault. “The End of the Monarchy of Sex” in Foucault Live: Collected Interviews 1961-1984 pg. 215

I could go on, if you were interested (I did write 100 pages on this stuff haha), but I’d rather not bloviate if need be.

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Jock Bowden 06.12.09 at 1:50 pm

GettyL

No, what you have written is cool with me, and not at all inconsistent with my own readings. Where we might start to part ways is our different assessments of the success of his quest to write the history of truth. So many others had done so beforehand, and many much better.

However, I do not think that is where Foucault’s academic power came from. I strongly suspect it was his merging that history of truth with the particular identity politics that were ascendant at exactly the same time.

I focused on ancient history as an undergrad, and every time I picked up Foucault I cringed, especially as I was also reading historians also trained as classicists.

One of my tutors – a Foucault devotee – once suggested perhaps it was less Foucault I was unimpressed with, and more the poor teaching of him. To this day, I maintain my tutor was wrong.

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Jock Bowden 06.12.09 at 1:53 pm

Also, I think all those academics who over the past generation devoted themselves to the ‘history of the body’ while neglecting economics, wasted not only their time, but a generation of students’, who left university largely vacuous neoliberals.

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Getty L 06.12.09 at 2:45 pm

Jock Bowden–

I do agree that he failed in many regards. However there are two points to be made on that subject:

1)Foucault, like Nietzsche (who often receives many of the same criticisms concerning his “history of morality”), in my estimation, provides us with a “way” of confronting or viewing a particular subject or phenomena rather than a proper explication or undertaking of said way. In this way, he was able to ask certain questions in a unique way that were not previously put forth instead of provide us with adequate answers.

2)I object to the idea that there were many others before him doing much the same thing. Perhaps the Annales School had conducted similar research on the “mentalities” in the 40s and 50s, but Foucault’s approach to this questions of “truth” was informed from vastly different sources than the majority of historians. In this way, one must understand that tradition he is coming from to grasp the context in which the question is being asked. Foucault’s work can’t be judged on the basis of what a typical “history of truth”, conducted by a classically trained historian, would look like; rather, it must be judged solely on account of the question he is asking.

I disagree strongly with your point on identity politics, though I understand where your frustration lies if you indeed view him in this many. Despite the interest, in a largely personal sense, he showed in identity politics towards the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s, this was short lived and, in fact, played a very minor role in his research. The adoption of his work by gender theorists and others is actually quite surprising because, while they may both be marginally interested in some of the same things, Foucault largely writes against many of the them. Foucault’s work can’t be judged on the account of what others, like Judith Butler, have employed it for.

And yes, the “history of the body” stuff is quite frustrating. However, it must be remembered that in the middle portion of his career, Foucault was incredibly interested in questions about political economy. (Read: The Order of Things, Society Must Be Defended).

Equally, I would agree that his last couple of works are quite embarrassing. Certainly he wasn’t a Classicist. Personally, besides the points he brings up regarding “spiritual practices”, not a new concept by any means, I believe these works are largely dispensable.

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StevenAttewell 06.12.09 at 5:03 pm

EJH – It is true that journal articles are more constraining, but I’ve read some really good ones that managed to incorporate narrative in with their evidence and argument – social history, for example, is often quite good at this.

Tracy – if even most college educated people can’t pick up an economics paper and read it without having taken economics, statistics, etc., it may be simply too complicated. Now, I agree that math is a useful vehicle for doing economics – but it’s not the only one, and a lot of the great foundational works of economics are pre-mathmatical and they’ve hardly lost weight in the discipline. Now, it may be that economics and statistics are a necessary part of learning to be a citizen – but I wonder if there isn’t a happy medium between de-mathematizing economics (perhaps as a way of re-empiricizing it) and improving our collective educations.

Magistra – I would agree that interpretation is the highest skill, I was arguing that among those who have brilliant interpretative powers, those who can do narrative better I find more compelling. Hence, Eric Foner over Shelby Foote.

And I think it’s certainly possible to combine structuralism with narrative – even something as simple as Michener’s description of the geological formation of Hawaii managed to turn volcanic accumulation into a story, and I would argue that Braudel did this rather well.

Also, there are many fields where you can’t do narrative history, because of lack of information. For the Middle Ages, if you stick to narrative history, it largely boils down to political and military history. You can rarely do women’s history, socio-economic history, the history of minorities etc as narrative history, because the sources aren’t there.

Here, I really do have to disagree, and I think it does a disservice to those fields. Barbara Tuchman’s A Distatnt Mirror is a brilliant work of medieval history, and her use of narrative is wonderful – and it’s a social history. And I would argue that the great virtue of the “history from below revolution,” including both social/working class history (think E.P Thompson), Women’s History (I think of books like Mothers of Invention or a Midwife’s Tale), History of Race (especially anything by Eugene Genovese, Ira Berlin, etc.), by finding the voices of the unheard in ordinary documents, in court documents, in parish records, and letting them tell their stories.

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Phil 06.12.09 at 7:05 pm

One could find many empirical, shall we say, hyperboles and shoddy interpretations among historians of all methodological persuasions, even among those most classical empiricists.

“England abandoned transportation at the beginning of the nineteenth century” isn’t hyperbole or interpretation, it’s just an error.

To point to fact #171 and say, due to his exaggeration of said historical event

Not an exaggeration either.

that he is not a historian or that he is deeply confused about what history is supposed to be do (a bold claim indeed),

I didn’t say either of those things, and neither did the source I quoted.

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magistra 06.12.09 at 9:22 pm

Barbara Tuchman’s A Distatnt Mirror is a brilliant work of medieval history, and her use of narrative is wonderful – and it’s a social history. And I would argue that the great virtue of the “history from below revolution,” …by finding the voices of the unheard in ordinary documents, in court documents, in parish records, and letting them tell their stories.

OK. I wasn’t precise enough in my comments. You can’t do narrative history from below for most centuries of recorded history. Tuchman’s stuff is late medieval and focused around a male member of the nobility. You can’t do any substantial narratives with peasants before the fourteenth century (and Montaillou is a pretty feak archive). You can start to do more than exceptional gentry or merchant familes only from the late Middle Ages. Sufficient information for narrative histories about women (other than queens and saints) is almost non-existent pre-Margery Kempe/Christian de Pisan. Narratives of gay people – maybe eighteenth century, I’m not sure. (I also suspect most of African history vanishes).

Now, to many modernist historians, this might not matter. To me, as a historian of the early Middle Ages, saying that narrative history is key cuts out working on anybody outside a select few of the upper classes, or leaves you with something like Eileen Power’s composite portraits (which aren’t bad in themselves, but have their limitations).

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andrew 06.12.09 at 9:45 pm

I was under the impression the Tuchman’s book was not well-regarded by medievalists. Is that not the case?

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magistra 06.13.09 at 9:41 am

It is a very long time since I’ve read ‘A Distant Mirror’, and it’s well out of my period (I work 500 years earlier) so I don’t have an immediate personal view on Tuchman’s book. There was an interesting review in Speculum, Vol. 54, No. 2 (Apr., 1979), pp. 430-435 (on JSTOR), which thought that though old-fashioned in its history, it wasn’t too inaccurate. Interestingly, Charles Wood, who wrote the review, thought there were more problems with Tuchman’s narrative style: that changing modern politics had made some of her parallels look out of date within the seven years it took to write the book, and that she hadn’t really worked out an effective way of giving the reader the large amounts of background information he or she needed. But that reviewer doesn’t treat it as a travesty of the Middle Ages (like say, William Manchester’s ‘A world lit only by fire’).

I’d say that generally historians who aren’t specialists in the Middle Ages (along with non-specialist professional writers) can make a decent fist on some medieval areas (material culture, political narrative), where the types of sources are at least vaguely familiar to them. However, they almost always fall down badly on some other areas (socio-economic history and the history of mentalities, including religious mentalities), where the types of sources are very unfamiliar and/or very hard to understand.

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Zamfir 06.13.09 at 10:05 am

I read A Distant Mirror once, and really had no clue about the title. What is it suppose to mirror?

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Jock Bowden 06.13.09 at 11:12 am

GettyL

I’ll take Thomas Kuhn over Foucault anyday.

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Jock Bowden 06.13.09 at 11:15 am

If you want structure, narrative, mentalities, and religion Peter Brown is your man.

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belle le triste 06.13.09 at 11:29 am

Schama has half a love of narratives — he’s genuinely gifted on original-mindwidening openings to long-studied topics (and similarly memorable elucidatory acnedotes to open subthemes within the story), but he’s actually quite bad at endings in this mode: he almost always seems to have looped you round back, at small or large scale, into a comfy consensus-approved view of the whole by the local or global end. (Does this make him a whig? IANAH: just an eager reader… )

Which I have come over time to find as maddening as his horrible leather jacket.

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belle le triste 06.13.09 at 11:30 am

(oops, acnedotes is a great word but it’s not the one I meant to type)

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magistra 06.13.09 at 12:34 pm

If you want structure, narrative, mentalities, and religion Peter Brown is your man.

Which is one reason for arguing that Foucault’s stuff on the history of sexuality was useful. Brown’s ‘The body and society: men, women and sexual renunciation in early Christianity’ was heavily influenced by Foucualt’s ideas of looking at the meanings of particular sexual practices. There’s a good case for arguing that Brown’s book is what happens if you have Foucualt’s original perspective applied by someone with far better historical technique.

There is a actually a definite niche in history for scholars who ask very productive questions, even if their answers turn out to be wrong (I’d put Foucault, Friedrich Engels, Jack Goody, John Boswell and Philippe Aries in that catalogue, among others).

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StevenAttewell 06.13.09 at 4:06 pm

Magistra: While I would accept that some eras are hard to do narrative history from below, “You can’t do narrative history from below for most centuries of recorded history” seems too sweeping a statement. But in the Middle Ages, there really isn’t anything you could use in parish records, court records, and even negative statements about ordinary people in chronicles to pull the narrative through the keyhole as it were? I seem to recall that a lot of what we know about various peasant revolts comes from negative portrayals in official chronicles that then get “sifted.”

Belle: /shrug. Chacun a son gout, I guess.

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belle le triste 06.13.09 at 4:22 pm

It’s not really so much about “gout” — well OK the jacket is, but the lack of follow-through on his obvious eye and ear for new ways into old territory is a deeper issue. I guess I just wish someone with such an enviable touch when it comes to popular history was as good at new ways out of old territory…

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Getty L 06.13.09 at 6:42 pm

Jock Bowden

Thomas Kuhn is great! If you like him, you should read Gaston Bachelard or Alexandre Koyré though since Kuhn admits to largely developing his theories out of their work. In this way, Kuhn and Foucault have much more in common than one would think

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magistra 06.13.09 at 7:27 pm

But in the Middle Ages, there really isn’t anything you could use in parish records, court records, and even negative statements about ordinary people in chronicles to pull the narrative through the keyhole as it were?

When you start getting court records/parish records, which isn’t until the thirteenth century or later, you can do a bit more. But the most you are likely to get even then is anecdotes or brief stories, maybe enough for an article, but not a book-length narrative. And you very rarely get sustained information about any individual unless they are gentry/merchant level or above, because the types of sources you need for that (letter collections, journals or even account books) don’t exist/survive. Even for the late sixteenth century, think how hard it’s been to reconstruct the details of Shakespeare’s life (and there are still gaps). There haven’t been lots of clones of Natalie Zemon Davis’ Martin Guerre book, despite its popular success, because equivalent stories are so hard to find.

Most narrative accounts from below of later centuries tend to have a backbone of a few key individuals, about whom you have sustained information, and whose experiences form the core of the book. If you think of narrative history as structurally like a work of fiction, you can’t have more than about a dozen central characters or your audience loses the plot. When you don’t have that kind of information from the sources, you can either create a composite figure (as Alex Haley did in ‘Roots’) or you can do an analytical book with illustrative anecdotes (like Barabara Hanawalt does). But you can’t do narrative in the normal sense.

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david 06.14.09 at 1:05 am

Inquisition trials are always good- those freaks went after everybody, and the cases occasionally are still there to gawk at.

It’s important to remember that Foucault was a shit historian, and the apologies and whinging about important questions don’t change that, even though I’ve put them forwards at time. Equally important to note that Kuhn too was a shit historian, and prompted a bunch of superior inquiries based on a generally weak understanding of what happened. Yes those last two words of the previous sentence are what the fight’s about.

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Getty L 06.14.09 at 1:23 am

David

Your statements concerning what a historian is “supposed to do” come off as incredibly insular, reactionary and ignorant (that is unless you can give me a metaphysically sound account of the meaning of the phrase “what happened” that would, once and for all, solve the problem of demarcation in the historical discipline, placing those like Foucault and Kuhn on the outside of the debate.)

Unless you are a philosopher of the social sciences or history (which you may in fact be), I doubt you understand the magnitude of this problem and should cease further attempts at cutting others down over it.

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andrew 06.14.09 at 1:42 am

magistra, thanks for your reply on Tuchman. I think I may have read that review years ago when I decided, just out of curiosity, to look up how Tuchman’s books were received by academic historians and I probably took it to be more critical of her history than it was.

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StevenAttewell 06.14.09 at 2:12 am

Getty L – On a tangent (not challenging your statement at 63), I think the best example of the peculiarities of history can be shown exactly in the line “what happened,” or as the father of academic history Von Ranke would put it, “eigentlich.”

As historians who’ve covered this in their intro to theory and method know, “eigentlich” can mean both “what actually happened” (suggesting an empirical, objective study) or “what happened in essence” (suggesting a more analytic, interpretative, and subjective study). Now historians brawled over that one word for almost a hundred years, but I would say, even in the current moment, that there are limits to how “in essence” you can go without being called out for going beyond your evidence.

Arguably, as people have noted in this and previous threads, Foucault went far beyond those bounds – and wrote things that were factually incorrect. Now I wouldn’t phrase things as David has done, but let’s not go too far in Foucault’s defense re his chops as a historian.

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Sandwichman 06.14.09 at 5:27 am

because you have to lay out what you are and aren’t assuming, and how precise you are being about what you are assuming

My reading of mathematical formalism is that it provides a screen behind which one can conceal not laying out those things. “Assumptions were made,” the most formidable of which are embedded so far back in the formalistic procession that to question them now can be dismissed as antiquarianism.

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Jock Bowden 06.14.09 at 8:49 am

GettyL

I have only read Koyre in relation to the “Copernican Revolution” and loved the way he re-oriented history and science back towards Plato away from Aristotle, back towards metaphysics, and for demolishing the supposed antagonism between science and religion.

On Foucault and Kuhn, they were both in the same territory on institutions and knowledge as discourse, but I find Foucault’s emphasis on power – or at least his particular understanding of power – not convincing. It is too dark.

I am always astounded by the gender studies enthusiasm for Foucault, for I find him to have a deeply masculinist, indeed misogynist, mind. My theory is that Foucault’s notion of “power” and ‘regimes of discipline’ tell us much more about Foucault’s psychosexuality than 17th century medicine or 18th century penal systems, let alone anything from fifth century BC Athens, or fifth century AD Gaul. ;) But that is a whole other topic.

And then there is F’s vascillating positions on structuralism and agency. Some find these impressive of intellectual evolution, progression, or maturity, and I can see some of that. But given my thoughts on his understanding of power, I tend to see his vacillations more as incoherence and/or career opportunism.

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Jock Bowden 06.14.09 at 8:50 am

magistra

I find Brown’s work is weakest in those areas where he is most influenced by Foucault . Brown really needs to be upfront when he is riffing off Foucault, and thus deal with Foucault’s explicitly and critically. Unfortunately, for Brown, Foucault’s understanding of ancient sexuality, gender – and ancient history generally – is not insightful and quite often just wrong. Brown’s other weak area is once again when he applies Foucault – without acknowledgement – to alleged changes in private life in the fifth century West.

OTOH, Brown makes much more productive use of anthropologists such as Mary Douglas, who was his major influence when analysing the role of the Holy Man.

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Getty L 06.14.09 at 9:23 pm

StevenAttewell

I understand and appreciate the distinction that you made between evidence and interpretation; however, I would suggest that there is always some matter of interpretation involved in any empirical study (based on the narrative that one implicitly buys into or, in particular, what and how future events have helped illuminate the area of study at hand). Now, I’m not about to invoke Derrida, but I think that the distinction may be slightly simplistic, assuming too much about the demarcation between evidence and interpretation, as well as buying into a much older notion of empiricism that reeks of the days of logical positivism. Unless the historian would wish to not write anything at all, something that Ayer, the early Wittgenstein and others would have had them do if they wished to stay within the bounds of true empiricism, there is always interpretation.

Therefore the point would be how much interpretation…honestly I’m not qualified to put forth such a claim, which is why I refuse to walk around and say “this person a historian” or “this person is a bad historian”. Foucault indeed “went beyond the evidence”. However, it was also never his goal to “show it like it was” in the classical sense. It was far more speculative and, I would say, at times, courageous. He also never claimed that his theories were necessarily correct though either, the point was, as the Nietzschean he was, to attempt to raise questions. Perhaps the more important question is a meta-level one, namely, ‘what does one do when they do history’?.

Again, I’m not so sure.

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Getty L 06.14.09 at 9:27 pm

Jock Bowden

Without belaboring our back-and-forth at all, I will just say that I agree with you on the point of power being odd. However, being that I have read a healthy dose of Nietzsche and that Foucault account of power is Nietzsche’s, this point is taken a lot easier for me. However, as Nietzsche’s own reflections on power were quite muddled, this comes through with Foucault as well.

I do take issue with the “career opportunism” point; however, the “psychoanalytic” point about Foucault’s sexuality has more than just a little bit of truth to it :)!

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StevenAttewell 06.14.09 at 11:36 pm

Getty L:

Of course the division is somewhat artificial and overdrawn – that’s one of the reasons why it feel apart after about a hundred years or so.

However, regarding Foucault, regardless of his intentions, I think when you say “such and such happened,” that’s not speculation or imagination or raising a question – unless it’s explicitly labeled as such, such as in an “alternative history,” where you construct an imagined timeliness of events. That’s a statement about historical evidence. And regardless of what you call yourself, when you’re making statements about “what happened,” you are doing history, and there are certain standards of method, just as there are in mathematics. Even the most subjective, po-mo historian still accepts that there’s a way you go about things, and a difference between subjective interpretation and false statements.

Now if Foucault wanted to do something different, all he had to do was not make claims about the past – but at least in that book, (Discipline and Punish) it’s pretty clear that he was trying to show the historical development of ideas, structures, etc.

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Getty L 06.15.09 at 3:44 am

StevenAttewell

I recognize this, and your point is well taken. However, I find it unlikely that, at any point in his career, Foucault simply “made something up”–such a thing is incredibly unlikely (especially taking into account the rigor he displayed in his research at times–for example during the formulation of The Birth of the Clinic, reading every book published in France on medicine during the time period). If someone can point me to such an instance though, I will stand corrected. At that point, he can certainly be labeled disingenuous (or at least a true student of Sir Walter Scott).

Until then, I will simply say, as I did before, that Foucault was able to give us new techniques and perspectives in which to approach historical phenomena. This doesn’t absolve him of the empirical failures he certainly had, and the questionable interpretations in which he engaged. However, he, much to the chagrin of the modern antiquarians, made “courageous” (in the Popperian sense) inferences that, despite some of their falsities, illuminated many previously ignored subjects.

It is now our task to do it better. Or we could go on a witch-hunt, which would rid the “canon” of many of its great “practitioners:

We could note, for example, that Ranke wasn’t a historian because he drank the Schelling kool-aid, or that Hobsbawm’s historical works reflect the fact that he was a Stalinist apologist more than an empiricist. So on and so forth.

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StevenAttewell 06.15.09 at 4:09 am

Getty L – I don’t think he made stuff up; I think he either made a mistake, or simply didn’t do enough research because his interest was in the penal system not transportation. And the reference is to his statement in Discipline and Punish that the British abandoned transportation in the early 19th century.

I don’t want to hunt anyone, I simply believe that we should call people out when they make “courageous inferences” that aren’t correct or grounded in evidence. After all, I think he could have done what he wanted to do – examining the rise of the carceral state – without making those kind of claims. It’s not uncommon in the discipline that people reach for more than they can grab as an attempt to make their argument more vital or important.

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magistra 06.15.09 at 6:13 am

I think he [Foucualt] could have done what he wanted to do – examining the rise of the carceral state – without making those kind of claims. It’s not uncommon in the discipline that people reach for more than they can grab as an attempt to make their argument more vital or important.

But it’s actually pretty hard to make any generalizations about the past without being wrong in some specific instances. History’s evidence is messy like that: you can always find some examples which don’t fit more general rules. The medieval world was patriarchal (in the sense of men, not women, holding power), but you can find a few women who rose to power and held onto it. That doesn’t make the wider generalization invalid, as long as you accept it’s a simplified model. Foucault’s work is very much about using a general model to view past societies.

Such uses of models (economic, sociological, religious etc) can always be criticised by more empirical historians for not fitting the facts closely enough, or distorting the evidence , and often correctly so. But the countervailing problem for empirical historians is that they can end up giving you an atomised history. If your archive tells you the attitude of twenty different people to servants in the early twentieth century, and there is also wider evidence from newspaper sources, should you not make a generalization, because somewhere there’s probably someone with a different attitude? If you can’t make generalizations and must stick only to the particular, you can do narrative history, but that’s about all.

To go back to one of the original parts of the post, historical ‘craftsmanship’ tends to be very much about careful use of the sources, and in that sense Foucault was not craftsman-like. But I think there is still room in history as a whole for a few people who aren’t craftsman-like, who can make big, bold and half-wrong statements which arouse interest and get a debate started. Most pioneering work, in particular, turns out to be wrong in its details; but without the pioneering work, the better, later histories wouldn’t be written (as David says of Thomas Kuhn, and as is certainly true of Karl Marx’s historical works).

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Chris 06.15.09 at 9:19 pm

As Dewey pointed out, it is not good for a democracy to be ruled by elite experts dictating What Is Good to an ignorant electorate; what is needed is economics that people can understand, and debate, and apply in their own politics.

Hmm. But if it turns out that the actual ways economies actually behave are just as intuitively understandable as quantum mechanics, then what? It seems to me that this could be a very dangerous prescription for substituting truthiness for truth. If economics is going to inform policy by saying things along the lines of “Policy X will produce Result Y”, then we need an economics which makes those statements only if Policy X *actually will* produce Result Y, and not just if it seems like it ought to.

I think it’s great for the people to decide society’s ends (or, at least, all the known alternatives are worse). But deciding the means may really be a job for experts who understand the complex relationship between means and ends; it’s hard for the people to be expert at everything at once. (Maybe the Internet will help, but I think that people will still superficially browse discussions between experts and come away mainly with their preexisting biases reinforced.)

That, of course, is what representative democracy is supposed to be for; but there’s always a temptation to undercut the other guy’s reasoned but unintuitive position with a little demagoguery. (Examples too numerous to mention.)

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StevenAttewell 06.16.09 at 3:14 am

Chris:

The key phrase there was “if it turns out that the actual ways economies actually behave.” We’ve been doing economics for 233 years at least, as we’re still not at the point where economics can accurately and routinely predict economic behavior. If that becomes the case, then we need to do two things – one, we need to make sure that economics are more broadly taught in our schools; two, we need to give economics the same respect for empirical truth that we do for physics or genetics. However, we’re not there – and we’re unlikely to ever get there.

Democracy isn’t just about the ends, however, it’s also about the means, and the means matter on a level of beliefs. Two people might want to build a road, but one wants to do it through public works and establish a public road; the other wants to sell the land to private developers and let them establish a toll-road. It is unlikely that such a debate could ever be resolved by an appeal to expertise, because as we’ve discussed, there’s some deep ideology underneath that expertise, and in a representative democracy, the ideology behind public actions is supposed to be decided during elections.

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Tracy W 06.16.09 at 9:03 am

Steve Attewell:Tracy – if even most college educated people can’t pick up an economics paper and read it without having taken economics, statistics, etc., it may be simply too complicated.

How many college-educated people can pick up a paper in any specialised scientific field they didn’t do a degree in, and read it? It took me until the final year of my electrical engineering degree to be able to read a journal paper.

Now, I agree that math is a useful vehicle for doing economics – but it’s not the only one, and a lot of the great foundational works of economics are pre-mathmatical and they’ve hardly lost weight in the discipline.

It’s one thing for maths not to be the only vehicle. It’s another thing for those other vehicles to be as good as mathematics in working out the implications of a hypothesis and in communicating those implications to other economists.

As for those great foundational works, can you please list them? Because I’m not aware of them. For example, The Wealth of Nations is not assigned as reading in Econ 101 classes. every economist I know who has read Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations notices Smith’s use of the labour theory of value, and the lack of marginal analysis. (I’ve read The Wealth of Nations and I found it interesting because of how well Smith got data about the whole economy without the System of National Accounts or any real statistics department, and for the historical insight, but the economic theory didn’t surprise me).

but I wonder if there isn’t a happy medium between de-mathematizing economics (perhaps as a way of re-empiricizing it) and improving our collective educations

In other words you’re engaging in economic SF here. “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could de-mathematise economics?” “Wouldn’t it be nice if we could travel faster-than-light?” “Wouldn’t it be nice if someone could invent cold-fusion?” You might be able to make a nice novel out of your wondering, but unless and until someone actually does figure out how to accomplish a miracle, it seems a bit pointless to inject this sort of speculation into policy debates.

As for your more recent comment, I think that even if we had an easy-to-understand economics, it still wouldn’t resolve public debate. The law of evolution is easy to understand as scientific theories go and has been thoroughly empirically tested, and yet people still attack it whenever it strongly conflicts with their preferred policies, and make up false assertions about it like “evolution operates by random chance”.

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StevenAttewell 06.16.09 at 5:48 pm

Tracy –

Regarding foundational works, Smith, Ricardo, and the classical economists didn’t use math. Even the generation of Marshall, John Bates Clark, John L. Commons, Richard Ely, Henry Carter Adams, and so forth didn’t use much in the way of math. Keynes uses some math, but it’s at a level that I – someone who’s seriously bad at math – can muddle through and understand, and most of his generation were the same way. My point is this – econometrics and heavily-mathematical economics is new, starting in the post-war years, and before the introduction of this heavy math-concentration, economics was something that the public at large could read, understand, be conversant in, so that when people used economics in debates over economic policy, people could understand what was going on.

Of course an easier to understand economics wouldn’t end debate (btw, I love your rather flippant sci-fi analogy, considering that people have been using a more easier to understand economics for virtually all of the discipline’s history) – the point is that it would allow the electorate to know when people are making false assertions, because right now they can’t tell. And that’s just as bad a form of public discourse as is resistance to evolution. At least in evolution, people who get a solid grounding in biology can grasp when creationists are trying to pull the wool over their eyes; but if the economics version of a creationists tried to pull a fast one, only economists would see it.

And then we’re running into a problem of democracy, because if a claim of expertise is going to be prioritized over democratic decision-making – as it is in the case of the germ theory of disease and immunization and so forth – you need one hell of a strong claim to empirical correctness and practical results. Economics has (to date) failed to show the goods on that score, which is why I don’t think it can be accorded the status that it’s given in economic policy debates.

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Jock Bowden 06.17.09 at 6:27 am

StevenAtwell

Aristotle didn’t use math in his physics or astronomy. What’s your point?

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Jock Bowden 06.17.09 at 6:30 am

An undergrad economics major can be successfully completed with no more than high school algebra, calculus, and stats.

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ejh 06.17.09 at 6:46 am

the point is that it would allow the electorate to know when people are making false assertions

Why would you think so?

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StevenAttewell 06.17.09 at 7:22 am

Jock Bowden- economics isn’t a natural science. What’s yours?

And not every high school teaches calculus or stats, and not every student gets through them.

EJH – because they’d be able to recognize how solid the various truth claims are? For all the imperfections of the average voter, I’m still a believer in Deweyian democracy. What’s the alternative?

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ejh 06.17.09 at 8:23 am

because they’d be able to recognize how solid the various truth claims are

Again, why would you think so? How specifically would a false assertion be recognised? How “solid” a basis would these judgements have?

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Jock Bowden 06.17.09 at 8:30 am

And math isn’t a natural science. And what high school doesn’t teach algebra, calculus, and stats? They are compulsory on the curriculum. If they are not being taught this is not an issue for university level economics.

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Jock Bowden 06.18.09 at 8:18 am

Besides, in 2009, an education that does not include an adequate coverage of math and stats is not much of an education at all.

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Robert 06.18.09 at 11:57 pm

I affirm that Tracy W. doesn’t know what he is talking about.

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