Open Criticism and the Freedom to Imagine New Forms of Research in the Social Sciences
Publishing online and soliciting tweets gave ample room for an airing of any
grievance with our manuscript to be heard. As advocates of open
access publishing, we were enthusiastic about providing this opportunity for
dialogue. But some of that dialogue comes in the form of a heated attack,
in a few notable cases, questioning our credentials as scholars in the process. When does open-access critique offer useful food for
thought and revision, and when does it overstep the boundaries of scholarly
respect? I will argue here that traditional scholarly standards have
become confused in the midst of hasty communications from our critics. One of the features of the most impassioned critiques we heard was
inflated rhetoric about the faultiness of the text as a whole, coupled with
fairly minor critiques of the data we used and our interpretation
thereof. This mismatch has dangerous consequences for debate.
Our book was not a research monograph
that claimed exhaustive research on a historical era but rather a polemic,
whose purpose was to hold up new methods for research in the social sciences,
drawing inspiration from methodological revolutions of the past. Polemics
like these have an extreme utility in the social sciences and humanities, as
they unify scholars working with new toolsets (for instance the digital
humanities) and propose new possible orientations towards their use.
The crux of our
argument about the waning of an age of mid-century public intellectuals who
participated in government debate and the rise of economists rests upon
secondary, scholarly sources that have been vetted in other
contexts. These timelines exist independently of our own work. We
did not pretend to be doing archival research on a monograph that would review
in detail the lineaments of the American academy in the 1970s.
I believe that some of
the rhetoric that accompanied our interlocutors’ fastidious suggestions
came because our interlocutors misunderstood the genre in which we were
writing. We were writing a persuasive essay, not a monograph in which we
claimed exhaustive, expert authority on the eras and actors in question.
We were taking on the case of history departments as an exemplary
case of a profession working within the modern university as a whole, offering
a critical stance while arguing positively for the promise of some new
practices that we have seen younger scholars pursuing – including digital
history, working with big data, and engaging the timescale of the
My coauthor and myself both work in flagship departments of history where we are routinely exposed to cutting-edge scholarship as well as the ambitions of young scholars. We wanted to write a polemic that would foreground the difference and novelty that characterized the work that most impressed us, pulling positive examples of similar revolutions in historical methodology from the past as points of comparison for how important a methodological revolution can be.
To lift up such examples in the form of our own manifesto should be seen not as an act of hubris, but rather as an act of the routine service that scholars perform when they write review essays about recent work in the field, introduce a new set of theory, or write their own historiographical and methodological introduction to a book or journal article.
As younger scholars, we cannot match in detail the historiographic richness of a Lynn Hunt or Hayden White, who personally experienced the scholarly revolutions of the 1970s and who published their own manifestos this year. Yet as younger scholars at the beginning (in my case) and height (in David's) of our careers, we are strongly motivated to notice and rank new trends in publishing, big data, and other methods that seem promising, which we and our students and collaborators may borrow as we seek to plow new routes through the field.
The purpose of a
polemic, after all, is to stir debate about the ethical orientation and methods
of a field, not to have the final word on any particular episode in
history. To draw these arguments together as a provocation to
professional history is an important task for provoking a debate about where we
are going as a discipline. It is also one of the most ordinary traditions
in the academy, the eruption of such disagreements. Some time in the twelfth century, Peter Abelard got into a dispute with
his own teacher. Things weren’t working out well, so he moved down
the valley, and set up his own tent, and students followed him there, where he
began giving his own lectures. Polemics are like that: they are an
assertion that one body of scholars have begun to see the matter that motivates
us differently than another body of scholars. These moments are creative;
they bring together new bodies of scholars, who by moving apart, begin to think
about themselves and their work anew. Such moments are also polarizing;
not everyone must agree or come along, and those who don't come may well
complain about what the new camp is doing.
We wrote a polemic that put distance
between ourselves and the practices of social and intellectual history of the
past in which we ourselves were trained, looking forward to the research that
we are most excited about shaping our own work around and proposing as models
for our students. In our polemic, we talked about how new generations of
historians are separated from the past by the political impulses of their time
and the arrival of new technical methods like the digital humanities. To
disagree with us would mean taking exception to our theory that time-scales in
history have been broadening since 2000; that many great scholars are currently
taking on climate change, international governance, and inequality as their
major foci; that 1968 offers an exemplary moment for understanding how changing
politics beyond the academy has long shaped the way that scholars engage archives;
and that digital tools promise some help in this new longue duree even while
they raise other ethical issues about access to archives.
In an era of open-access publishing,
when critique is extended, open, and invited, it is crucial that we as a scholarly
community do not mistake a criticism of editorial work that could be improved
(and is then improved, thanks to open access publishing) or an ideological
difference in the making with scholarly failure. Nor should we allow
disagreements over critique and genre to cover up a more profound disagreement
about the kind of scholarship, methods, and politics that are new and exciting
in our discipline.
One cannot expect all scholars to be
enthused about transferring their labored research into the new tools of the
digital humanities, nor should one even expect all digital humanists to agree
about my own take on the most compelling trends in digital history.
However, offering a portrait of some exciting trends served a goal of
unifying some scholars who agree that big data opens the gate to
contextualizing archival research with long time-scales. Those scholars
can now identify more clearly their own orientation, and debate the best
methods and practices available within that orientation, as a result of being
marked out. That some students and colleagues are inspired by thinking
about the tools of big data in terms of periodization and politics has been my
personal experience in teaching, writing, and lecturing about this book over
the last year.
Ultimately the questions at the heart
of such disagreements as these — both of how we understand the university past
and how we release our texts to the public online — are crucial for making
sense of the role of the social sciences in the university to come.