Friday, October 21, 2005

Recent Research

One thing I've started wondering about in historiography is this phrase "recent research indicates..." I see it all the time as of late, especially in journal articles. But, it's honestly a bit misleading. Where it makes sense to use a phrase like "recent research has shown" is when a new archive has been opened up, new documents have been uncovered, or something has finally been accurately translated. In other words, in areas where the primary documents have actually been widened or improved through "recent research". However, this doesn't often happen in historiography. In many areas, we've been looking at the same pile of documents for decades. What changes is the interpretation- every generation has their own take on that pile of documents. This is why someone like Georg Iggers can write an intellectual history of historiography and do such a good job of charting the changes in mindsets.

I think where it's a bit misleading is when we use "recent research" to refer to a new take on the documents. Because then it implies that there's some reason to take the more recent opinion more seriously than the old opinion. But, again, they're often just different approaches, neither one being more or less valid than the other. In the sciences, new knowledge has to build on old knowledge and the most recent research is generally the most advanced. But, this isn't the case in history writing. Generally, the most recent research is just more recent. It's good to be up-to-date on the historiography, but I have to wonder if it's totally necessary. Often, I find the most interesting approaches in books from the 1960s.


Anonymous said...

Just wondering: Why do you find interpretations from the 60s to be more interesting than say "the linguistic turn," or the Annales, or post-modernism, or any other of Iggers cherry-picked historiographical movements? Also: the 60s, but where? France, Germany, England- I'm assuming the US?

Rufus said...

Actually, I might well be doing my minor field exam with Iggers, so it's funny that you mention him.

I was thinking more of Enlish history of the 1960s, but there is some interesting stuff from the states and Canada. The "linguistic turn" is interesting to me, but I reject Saussure more completely, so it's not that convincing. What a lot of it comes down to is that I like Hayden White, but don't agree with a lot of what he has to say.

I've actually found the Annales school to be more rewarding than my post might suggest. Postmodernism has some extremely fruitful methods, but I think it tends to over-historicize and I'm not convinced it has produced an epochal text either.

Thanks for the questions.