It’s Not about That: Revisiting Thematic Fields in the History of Science

AHA Session 211
Saturday, January 9, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Room 309/310 (Hilton Atlanta, Third Floor)
Hugh Cagle, University of Utah
Jorge Cañizares-Esguerra, University of Texas at Austin
Surekha Davies, Western Connecticut State University
Marcy Norton, George Washington University
Carol Pal, Bennington College

Session Abstract

In 2004, historian of science James Secord noted how major historical fields have managed to retain their majority:

"Historians have a tendency to neutralize fundamental challenges by creating new subdisciplines that allow their advocates room to work while minimizing their impact.  They add sidecars to a vehicle that continues to travel in the old way toward the old destination."[1]

Now, more than ten years later, this "sidecar" status continues to be the case for fields that should long ago have established new destinations for the field.  In this roundtable, we address that situation as a problematic.

Thematic fields in many historical disciplines have already proven themselves to be game-changers.  Where once the past was understood primarily through geographical and chronological groupings, these new thematic fields gave us something different; they shone a light on the threads that connected these areas, challenged the old boundaries, and gave us new narratives through which to understand the past.  We began to see new patterns, and these patterns in turn changed the way we understood the moyen durée – or did they?

This roundtable takes as its starting point the sense that many thematic fields in the history of science have started to stall out, and have not fulfilled their original promise.  Their themes have still not altered the central narrative, and are threatening instead to become self-contained spheres, in which scholars preach only to the converted.  They continue to be about themselves, rather than making themselves crucial to the larger historical narratives with which they are engaged.

Thus the question that needs to be answered is: does this mean that these new categories have done as much as they can do, or are scholars in the history of science just too comfortable with the actors, categories, and narratives they know best?  Our roundtable addresses this question using perspectives derived from four of these thematic fields that have arguably outgrown sidecar status in their engagement with the history of science – Atlantic History, Monster Studies, Indigenous Studies, and Women in Science.

[1] James A. Secord, "Knowledge in Transit".  Halifax keynote address.  Isis 95 (2004): 654-672, here 670.

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