Presidential The “History Wars” of the 1990s: What Was That All About?

AHA Session 102
Friday, January 3, 2014: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Marriott Ballroom, Salon 1 (Marriott Wardman Park)
Sarah C. Maza, Northwestern University
Alice Kessler-Harris, Columbia University
James Oakes, City University of New York, Graduate Center
Daniel T. Rodgers, Princeton University
William H. Sewell, University of Chicago
Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

Two decades ago vehement disputes were raging in our profession over what was  variously termed “postmodernism,” “post-structuralism,” “the linguistic turn,” or even more generally “cultural history.”   At the time, the mere mention of Michel Foucault was enough to make many a conference panel or department meeting descend into name-calling.  Although the occasional voice is sometimes still raised In Defense of History (the title of Richard Evans’s embattled 1997 volume), that controversy has subsided, and an open-minded eclecticism seems to characterize today’s historical practice.  The theme of this conference offers an excellent opportunity to take stock and look back at the stories, meaning, and legacy of the fraught but productive intellectual strife of the 1990s for our discipline.  The five panelists will do so by addressing some of the following themes:  what contextual, historical, and/or sociological factors account for the debates that erupted in the 1990s?  What was really at stake behind the rhetoric?  What was their own role in, or experience of, that time?  Are there comparable controversies today over method and theory, and if not why not?  Is the apparent decline of methodological controversy a gain or a loss?  In sum, what was the meaning of the “postmodernism crisis” in the American historical profession, and what is its legacy?

The five panelists are all distinguished historians who have either contributed to or written about the methodological debates of the 1990s:  Kessler-Harris as a feminist historian with a record of engagement in the public sphere; Oakes as a skeptical observer/participant in the debates;  Rodgers as the author of a prize-winning intellectual history, The age of Fracture, which covers this period;  Sewell and Spiegel as the authors of essays and books about historical and social scientific theory.

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