Ph.D. Octopus

Politics, media, music, capitalism, scholarship, and ephemera since 2010

Are We Experts Yet? Historians on the Street

with 6 comments

I am really pleased to be able to introduce a post from the pseudonymous JP Schneider, who in the middle of tapping out his dissertation gives answer to the question: what role can historians hope to play as “experts” on contemporary historical events, such as the recent revolutions in the Middle East? -Luce

by JP Schneider

There is an alarming but nonetheless unsurprising degree of historical myopia amongst journalists, commentators, pundits, 24-hour news networks and “experts” on the convulsions that are sweeping the crumbling dictatorships in North Africa and the “Middle East”. Many are prone to suggesting that this is an Arab version of 1989, a lazy parallel that paints the Arabs as a singular, monolithic entity, and that the systems that oppressed these people in various states somehow possess a uniformly similar economic-political system that benighted those countries – and soon-to-be countries – under the Soviet boot.  So what can historians who study the region bring to bear on public understandings of what is happening at the moment, an especially pertinent question given the criticisms leveled at Middle Eastern studies departments in the US for failing to predict such seminal events as the 1979 Iranian Revolution?

The answer, of course, is relatively little. This shouldn’t be mistaken for the cry of a post-modernist; while it has its uses, post-modernism is ultimately an invitation to get lost in linguistic and methodological contortions and disappear down the rabbit hole of futility. Rather, the point I am making is a relevant corrective to those who are trotted out, whether in the academy or in the media, as having a more informed viewpoint than the rest of us helots.

And this speaks to a broader issue about the way in which historians do their research. Let’s say we are an historian of Egypt, or indeed, for that matter, Germany. What does that research entail? We spend most of our time sitting in archives because we don’t have the time (or the money) to get out and get talking to a wide variety of people. We may be lucky and have the benefit of a wide variety of contacts in our country of choice that we can draw on to get an “authentic” view. But how representative are they? If we’re researching nineteenth century trade unionism in Egypt or Germany, how many trade unionists do we know or speak to while we’re there on that oh-too-brief research trip? Yet as soon as we’re back in our citadels of learning we are drawn on as the repository of knowledge – historical and contemporary – on unfolding situations in our areas of expertise. Think about the situation with the higher echelons within the academy. Sure they have many more years of in-country experience, and a vast network of contacts, but how much faith should we place in the pronouncements of those with named chairs? When was the last time Juan Cole (much as I respect him) visited Egypt?

Should historians even be trying to gauge the present-day situation in their chosen country? Of course they should. The consequences of events and trends that occur in the past are all around us today. The Turkish kebab shop that sold you that deliciously unhealthy piece of meat: one small portion of the history of the Gastarbeiter. The many taxi drivers in Cairo, highly educated yet unable to find a job commensurate with their qualifications: the stagnation of the (late) Mubarak regime.

So what, I hear you cry as you stab the laptop screen in disgust and dismay. Simply this. As historians we should spend less time in archives and more time making the most of the countries we are temporary visitors in. The book or journal article can be delayed a little while. Interactions – whether snatched moments or lingering conversations – with our fellow men and women cannot. Ultimately, the scholarly work we produce will be richer for it. We might even be lucky enough to be there when history is being made in front of us.


Written by Kristen Loveland

February 28, 2011 at 09:37

6 Responses

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  1. I agree with the conclusion and empathize with the problem, but there’s an element missing in this analysis: the (American) audience, which we can presume is totally ignorant. So are most of the journalists covering whichever story. It’s true that a historian of North Africa can’t predict the unfolding events in Tripoli any better or worse than an intelligence analyst, a diplomat, or a protester on the ground. Prognostication is difficult. However, the historian is easily an expert compared to the vast majority of viewers unaware that Tripoli is the capital of Libya (this may sound glib, but I mean it earnestly). It is objectively the case that you and I know more about Europe than most Americans, enough that we could provide some context for CNN viewers on a major development in our respective countries of interest. Our conclusions might or might not be right, but at least we’d understand and be able to describe the basic issues at stake.


    February 28, 2011 at 10:44

  2. Of course these problems exist everywhere in academia: see those wanting to reinvent the field of economics for failing to predict the financial crisis. But fundamentally, the problem is less about methods and more about how there’s little professional incentive for academics to apply their expertise to current problems of the day, short of having a government appointment (at which point they learn on the job). Any kind of forecasting or policy work can’t meet the rigors of what’s typical published, but it’s still important — perhaps it’s what’s most important.

    This Dani Rodrik NSF White Paper elaborates on these problems with incentives in the economics profession. I’m sure history has similar issues:


    February 28, 2011 at 13:27

  3. Perhaps a distinction needs to be made between historians as contextualizers and as predicters. I agree with Dave that historians can play an important role as a source of general knowledge about a region, and it’s likely that they will be a public’s best source of contextual information, besides good reporters embedded in the countries themselves and speaking to those involved.

    But I cringed when Niall Ferguson used his credentials as an historian (“If you look at history, and remember I’m an historian…”) in order to support his conservative worldview and basically predict the long-term failure of the Egyptian revolution.

    On the other hand I went to a great talk by Roger Owens and Serhii Plokhii on the day Mubarek was supposed to give up power and then didn’t (people were on their iPhones throughout the talk giving updates on his speech, so perhaps this brought home the impossibility of prediction…) where the historians outlined the background in Egypt, Tunisia, etc. and of attributes of revolution in general, tried to draw a few comparative conclusions, and when pushed stuck to the fact that they really couldn’t make any concrete predictions on the outcome a few months or years down the line.

    I’d be interested if anyone claims to have predicted the spread of revolution from Tunisia on throughout the Middle East. Most of my friends who study the region seem just as surprised as the rest of us.


    February 28, 2011 at 14:13

  4. I’ll just add the quote I read from Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis’ 2002 book “The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past,” which I thought was relevant:

    ‎”Historians are… in much less demand than social scientists when it comes to making recommendations for future policy. We have the consolation in contrast to them, though, of more often getting things right.”

    Of course, Gaddis was at least partly asserting that historians more often get things right because we try to understand the past rather than predict the future. But I also think he was snidely proclaiming the superiority of the discipline of history. I’m not sure that this right, and I’m not sure that history itself is not a form of social science (it is at Stanford and Chicago).

    But if social scientists are not trying to predict the future, and are only trying to create models that explain what has already happened, aren’t the all just historians in disguise? It strikes me that the essence of social science is its purported predictive power.


    February 28, 2011 at 15:47

  5. There are really multiple issues arising from the initial post. There’s the difficulty of knowing “the other” (a term I use broadly, encompassing any category of person other than the subject). Then there’s the question of what historians can know about the past (which is also, really, a question of “knowing the other” – “the past is a foreign country,” after all). Finally, there’s the issue of the historian’s proper role in society.

    It’s difficult to answer the third question, which has really become central to the debate in the comments, in any way that doesn’t implicate the other two. Any historian playing the role of a public intellectual has to answer questions as to the interpretation s/he places on his or her knowledge of the past and its relevance and/or application to the present situation.

    But I don’t think the difficulty of that task means that historians should tend to retreat from the public stage. Ideally, historical debates would rise to the level of the German Historikerstreit, when superstar historians drew massive audiences on TV. Of course, that’s unlikely to happen in the US, and means that the content of any hisotrian’s public appearance is likely to be somewhat watered down.
    The problem is that the vacuum will be filled anyway, either by less-than-rigorous, spotlight-hungry academics or worse creatures. Millions of rapt Americans are currently seated in the lecture hall of Professor Glenn Beck. It’s one thing to sincerely debate methodological problems as a matter of professional necessity, but disappearing into libraries and offices to do so while history is abused in the public sphere is, as I said before, tantamount to a dereliction of duty. Why? A discipline can’t continue to perfect itself in cloistered seclusion while the values it’s aiming to protect are collapsing all around. Driving that wedge will not only ultimately do a disservice to historical discourse, it will make professional historians seem irrelevant and unnecessary, just when they’re needed most.

    That said, I wonder if it wouldn’t be helpful for historians to have a professional code of ethics of some kind (I’m sure something like this exists, but I mean, of course, with teeth) to discourage some from brandishing their credentials irresponsibly.

    On a somewhat unrelated note: I don’t think it’s as facile as JP claims to compare the Arab revolutions to 1989. Not that the analogy doesn’t have its faults, but JP’s argument against notes correctly that the Arab world is no monolith, but seems to suggest Eastern European Communism was one. There was no Prague Spring in Bucharest nor any Solidarity movement in Kiev; the “Soviet bloc” may have looked unified by ideology from the perspective of the West, but as always, things were far more distinctive up close.

    C Szabla

    March 1, 2011 at 02:42

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