Tuesday, February 08, 2005

History and Histories...

This post is somewhat similar to my post on feminism, in that once again I am quibbling primarily over abstract distinctions. But since the proliferation of themed histories constitutes a particular kind of foolishness, it deserves, I think, its own post.

By themed histories, I refer, as you have no doubt surmised, to such disciplines as "women's history", or the history of a particular race, such as "black history". Such areas of historical study are, as nearly as I can tell, subject to serious flaws, and I will therefore undertake to offer my reasons for this assessment and my prescription for the future.

The first problem that these histories suffer from is that they make flawed assumptions about the commonalities of people's experiences. Women’s history, for example, presupposes that there is some shared experience of "women" in history. That women's history must do this is clear, since if women in fact often shared more in common with men in some contexts than with other women, there would be no point to the division.

I contend that this is in fact the case. There is no clearly identifiable women's experience which justifies the creation of a women's history division. Some examples will make clearer this assertion. An upper class Roman woman in ancient Rome would have almost nothing in common with a female freedom fighter in modern Africa, for example. The Roman woman would, by contrast, find many points of contact with upper class roman men, and even perhaps with lower class Roman women. In the latter case, indeed, it is quite reasonable to suggest that the ties with the upper class men would be more numerous than those with the lower class women, as a result of the various social backgrounds of each. A similar argument can be constructed to show that races do not have clear cut convergences of identity over time and in different circumstances.

I should note at this point, however, that I am open to hearing examples to the contrary on this point. There certainly are some certain shared experiences of, say, light skinned people. Susceptibility to sunburn, perhaps. There is no reason to say, aside from the fact that I have not encountered them, that there could not be differences which made the historical experience of one group or another fundamentally different from all others.

But, there is a fundamental danger with saying that there in fact are shared experiences as a result of sex or race. This danger is the danger of claiming that there are inherent differences between the sexes or between races, which are strong enough and uniform enough to warrant the formation of separate divisions of history. If such differences do exist, they may or may not carry with them consequences which could be used to justify unequal treatment of minorities or women. This will of course depend upon the nature of the differences which are asserted, but it is a consideration to remember.

But we break history up into various sections for ease of study all the time, you say? Well, there is no fundamental difference between such divisions as "gender history" and ones such as "19th century history" or "20th century Japanese history", in terms of the claims each makes. "19th century history", which is generally shorthand for 19th century European history, makes the claim that there was a certain shared set of values and experiences among Europeans during the 19th century. Such a claim is of course open to dispute, and in fact such temporal and geographical divisions are repeatedly discussed and critiqued by historians.

This brings us to the other major flaw of women's and minority history. In these areas, there does not appear to be any serious attempt to examine the empirical foundations of the claims which the divisions are making about history. This is all the more shocking given that women's history is making an empirical claim about approximately half the people who have ever lived!

One final point to make is regarding nationalism and history. Nationalist history is often revealed to suffer from the same faults as women's history. It makes a broad claim about the commonality of a given community, which is not supportable empirically. Nationalist history, however, differs slightly in that at least amongst some members of the historical community it is open to critique. So far as I have seen, women's history has not been subjected to any serious critique of this kind. As always however, I would be delighted to hear that I am incorrect.

"Reform history to include those who have been left out, do not give those who have been left out their own history. Setting them apart is just another method of asserting their unsuitability for inclusion in the full story of the human race"

-The Doom of Fools