Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The History Manifesto (Digital History Week 7)

For this week’s assignment, my digital history class read Jo Guldi and David Armitage's The History Manifesto (2015) and explored the form and content of the material as well as the debate surrounding the book. Some of the questions we considered area as follows:

What claims do Guldi and Armitage make about recent trends in historical scholarship and practice?

            According to Guldi and Armitage, by the twentieth century, the “longue durée (although generally not, of course, under that name) offered a canonical tool for writing revisionary history in the service of reform” (23). Then, coming out of a crisis of the general humanities, the term long durée emerged as Ferdinand Braudel and the Annales school believed that the solution to the crisis of the humanities could be found in a history “measured in centuries or millennia” (16). Yet, where Braudel and Annales school historians studied human agency in the environment over long spans of time, after 1968 historians began to narrow their time and geographic scales (39). As historians needed new material for their dissertations, they buried themselves in the archives and focused on short-term history as they embraced micro-studies of people in small time scales and reduced geographic locations. As historians retreated from the long durée, other scholars, like economists, embraced universal models to study the past and predict the future, a job previously held by historians and the study of historical data (46, 11). Fortunately according to the authors, a new form of long durée has emerged promising new studies and conclusions with the use of big data and new technology (9).

What do they see as the proper role of historians in society? What skills, in their view, make historians particularly well equipped to weigh in on pressing issues of the day?

            According to the authors, historians hold the role of studying the past to help understand the present and predict the future. Furthermore, in addition to the role of predicting the future, historians hold the role of prescribing ethical decisions in a society as they use long durée to overturn false myths (22, 37). With this role in mind, the authors describe specific skills that make historians particularly suited for contributing to studying the pressing issues of the day. For example, being experts in studying change over time, “Historians have special powers at destabilizing received knowledge, questioning, for instance, whether the very concepts they use to understand the past are of themselves outdated” (14). Moreover, historians are equipped with the skills of “noticing patterns… and finding correlations” whether studying micro-histories or big data (104). Additionally, historians are equipped to study a variety of data from different sources (108). In the words of the authors, historians tools “for weighing data rest on several claims: noticing institutional bias in the data, thinking about where data come from, comparing data of different kinds, resisting the powerful pull of received mythology, and understanding that there are different kinds of causes” (108)

How does digital technology come in to play here?

            Considering the role of digital technology, the authors believe that such technology offers great promises for historians and the return of long durée. As digitization allows historians to analyze more data and access more data than ever before, tools like Paper Machines/Many Eyes/Google NGrams “invite scholars to try out historical hypotheses across the time-scale of centuries” (93). Moreover, digital technology will allow historians to compare sources next to each other in new ways. For example, “By placing government data about farms next to data on the weather, history allows us to see the interplay of material change with human experience, and how a changing climate has already been creating different sets of winners and losers over decades” (99). Furthermore, digital technology helps to “illuminate silences in the archives” which 1) brings to the public history that some (like the government) might rather hide and, 2) helps to contextualize the history of groups without much written record (like Native Americans) (100).

On what basis do Cohen and Mandel take issue with Guldi and Armitage? How do the books' authors respond? Who, in your view, gets the best of the argument?

Looking at Cohen and Mandel’s critique of The History Manifesto, I find it interesting that Cohen and Mandel do not critique The History Manifesto’s “favored modes of historiography” but rather critique its arguments. In their critique, Cohen and Mandel take issue with Guldi and Armitage in claiming that the evidence used to support The History Manifesto’s arguments are often taken out of context, misinterpreted, and lead to opposite conclusions (AHR 530). For example, Cohen and Mandel claim, “There is no evidence either that historians concentrated on long-horizon research before 1968 or that there was a fall-off afterward, when the great shrinkage supposedly began” (ARH 532). In response to the critique, Guldi and Armitage first highlight the judgmental tone of the critique and then reaffirm their arguments in The History Manifesto by further explaining their evidence (544-547). Looking at book, the critique, and the response, I believe that Cohen and Mandel have the best argument. While I appreciate the points raided in The History Manifesto, Cohen and Mandel’s critique shows holes in The History Manifesto’s argument, consequently leading me to view the critique as having the strongest argument.

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