Historical Analysis after the “History Wars”: Text, Culture, Evidence, and the Theory-Practice Binary

AHA Session 180
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Grand Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, Second Floor)
William H. Sewell Jr., University of Chicago
Gabrielle M. Spiegel, Johns Hopkins University

Session Abstract

This panel on the theory and practice of history in the twenty-first century is envisioned as a follow-up to two preceding AHA conversations: the “‘History Wars’ of the 1990s” roundtable organized by Sarah Maza in 2014 and the 2015 panel, “Historical Analysis After the ‘History Wars’: Gender, Race, Subjectivity, Part I,” organized by Anna Krylova, which extended discussion about the theoretical and methodological questions of history-writing, posed in the 1970s through 1990s, into the present-day problematics.  The proposed 2016 panel brings together an intergenerational group of scholars who continue to consider the question of how the practice of history has changed and evolved since the 1990s by critically accessing the meanings and deployment of such bedrock concepts of historical analysis as “culture,” “text,” “evidence.”  Professors Symes and Krylova critically examine the impact of structuralist and poststructuralist theorization on what historians presently mean by “text” and “culture,” and the work—at once enabling and limiting — that those concepts perform in historical scholarship.  Their particular interest lies in what Symes calls “domestication of theory,” that is, the internalization, on the part of the historical profession, of certain structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to “text” and “culture” and their implicit others: the social, the contextual, the material.  Professor Di Cosmo examines the integration of historical and scientific knowledge in collaborative projects recently undertaken by historians and scientists and posits two questions: first, methodological, whether scientific data used by historians can be considered historical evidence; and second, epistemological, about the changing meaning of the discipline of history and historical practice.  Professor Surkis explores the ways that  theoretical counter-positions—the legacy of the “History Wars”—are being dismantled through current work in the field of legal history: “theory and practice; culture and economy; discourse and materiality; language and the body; intellectual and social history.”  All presenters draw on their own recent work and consider ways of going beyond the historiographical conundrums under critique.  The other two panel participants—Professors William Sewell (Chair) and Gabrielle Spiegel (discussant)—played a major role in the actual “History Wars” of the 1990s and in the development and critique of the concepts under consideration. They also participated in the 2014 “History Wars” roundtable.  Their contribution to the discussion of the issues raised by the four presenters will both enrich and further the panel’s scope and significance.

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