20 February 2011

Social Scientist or Historian?

I've long believed that many modern historians are, in actuality, little more than social scientists who are simply using history as their vehicle for pushing or promoting certain politically correct social views and theories. It's poor history, but it does get you invited to speak at all the right seminars and conferences; as well as interviewed in the rapidly dwindling circulation mouthpieces of leftist academia and big government. Several historians and blogs come immediately to mind. Recently, I was giving this view some thought and was reminded of what Kenneth Stamp wrote in his introduction to the 1974 edition of The Causes of the Civil War:

In recent years some historians have attempted to solve the problem of historical causation with the analytical tools of modern social scientists.

Other noted and respected historians have alluded to this same approach in regards to history. Robert Krick has referred to this "social science" approach as "psycho-babble." I would tend to agree. In Krick's classic and wonderfully insulting--as well as accurate--style, he skewered the faddish social science model with these words from his book, The Smoothbore Volley That Doomed the Confederacy: The Death of Stonewall Jackson and Other Chapters on the Army of Northern Virginia (page 236) :

It wonderfully suits the Zeitgeist by appealing to the sempiternal yearning to smash idols, which inevitably afflicts a noisy segment of the race.  The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm.  In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers.

As we are well-aware, ruling class academics and big government types like to focus the majority of their "idol smashing" on certain southerners; most notably Robert E. Lee and other Confederate leaders. For example: A Confederate History Month proclamation by the Commonwealth of Virgina which honors Confederate soldiers and leaders, yet fails to mention slavery is unacceptable, while a bicentennial proclamation by the United States Senate honoring Abraham Lincoln which fails to mention his colonization efforts doesn't even get a critical mention in the press, the CW blogosphere, nor among the rest of the self-annointed  "objective scholars." Why? Would anyone seriously postulate that the orchestrated outrage of the former and the utter silence regarding the latter was mere coincidence? Again, agenda-driven social science, not historical analysis.

Call it the Saul Alinsky approach to critical thinking - Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it. This rather shallow perspective on the Civil War, of course, also applies to more than the personalities. Stating the obvious, it also extends to the causes. One such recent example is the Virginia Historical Society's exhibit on the Civil War. You will see at the link that the caption under the video notes:

Why Did the Civil War Happen? is the subject of the introductory video for the VHS blockbuster show, An American Turning Point: The Civil War in Virginia. Slavery caused the war, but the war did not begin to free the enslaved. Throughout the 1850s, slavery had kept the free North and the slaveholding South on a collision course that could end in dissolution of the Union or a war to preserve it. (Emphasis mine.)

The notion that "slavery caused the war" is problematic, simplistic, and extremely shallow. Did slavery cause the WBTS? Yes, but so did a number of other factors. To quote an analogy I used before:

Did the United States invade Iraq over WMD’s? That’s what we were told. Did we invade because Hussein would not permit UN arms inspections? That was the “official reason” but does it tell the whole story? No, it does not. Did we invade Iraq over possible terrorist threats to the United States? Yes. Did we invade Iraq because we wanted to establish a strong presence in the Middle East to guarantee the free flow of oil at market prices? I believe so. Did we invade Iraq in order to establish a pro-Western government that would ostensibly have positive, long term consequences? Yes. Did we invade Iraq to rid the region of a mad man like Hussein? Yes. Did we invade Iraq because the United States government wanted revenge over Hussein’s plan to assassinate Bush’s father? Yes. All of these were reasons for going to war with Iraq. (You may disagree with all of these "reasons" - that's not the point, just that there were ostensibly multiple reasons.) It is extremely na├»ve to take the public, political statements and documents of politicians at face value when it comes to giving the reason for invading Iraq. It is ridiculous to claim one reason for our invasion of Iraq, just as it is with most wars; there were multiple reasons and tensions that built over decades for a whole host of reasons. It was no different with the WBTS.

Moreover, since so many of these self-consciously, smartest-people-in-the-room historians, social scientists like to lecture the rest of us that we should focus on "more recent scholarship," perhaps they should take their own advice when it comes to causation and the WBTS. Professor Marc Egnal's Clash of Extremes - The Economic Origins of the Civil War serves as an example. As Egnal notes in his introduction:

A focus on slavery also explains little about the divisions within the North and the South. It assumes unity in each of these regions when in fact there was fragmentation . . . There is no question that some individuals in the South felt that Lincoln's election posed a mortal threat to slavery, but more did not . . . In sum, the current emphasis on slavery as the cause of the Civil War is fraught with problems. It does not clarify the sequence of events, the divisions within the sections, or the policies and actins of the Republican Party. It is these problems that a new interpretation must address . . . It argues that more than any other reason, the evolution of the Northern and Southern economies explains the Civil War. (Emphasis mine.)

So, the next time you read a simplistic, politically motivated, narrow-minded, one-sided view and perspective of the WBTS, just remind yourself that, you are, for all practical purposes, reading the work of a social scientist, not a historian.

*Note on comments: Comments on this post will be purposely and selecitively screened. If you're critical of this post, your comment will only be posted if you wish to address the historian vs. social scientist aspect. I'm not going to post comments meant simply to deflect or obfuscate. 


David Rhoads said...


I wonder if you are conflating the term "social science" with a specific academic discipline such as sociology or psychology or, alternately, with certain specific interpretive theories such as Marxist theory or hermeneutics. If you are, I can at least see how you might arrive at the conclusion that social science equals "psycho-babble". However, that assessment certainly trivializes sound social scientific methods--quantitative analysis, for example--that have contributed much to well-done historical studies like the one by Marc Egnal that you cite here favorably.

Regardless, history--however well or poorly practiced--is certainly one of the social sciences, as opposed to one of the natural sciences (e.g., physics, biology, etc.).

I agree with you that "simplistic, politically motivated, narrow-minded, one-sided view[s] and perspective[s]" make for bad history. But unless you are simply looking for a short-hand way to express derision, I don't think characterizing the purveyors of such perspectives as "social scientists" instead of "historians" really adds much to the discourse. Why not simply distinguish good history from bad history instead of proposing an unnecessary and ultimately unhelpful dichotomy between "social science" and "history"?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Hello David - Thanks for the comment. Admittedly, there is sometimes a fine line between the disciplines. But I think you get the point I'm making, though you may not agree w/it. Individuals who are essentially social scientists use history to promote their views and agendas but disguise what they're really about by calling themselves historians. It ostensibly gives them more credibility, i.e. objectivity.

It is my opinion that this is similar to the position Krick is taking, though I don't claim to speak for him. That's just my take on what I've read and heard him say. I'm not saying anything new here - just being a bit more direct.

"a short-hand way to express derision?"

Brevity is the soul of wit. It is also, quite often, the soul of expression.

Leonard Lanier said...

The Stampp quotation actually refers to the popularity of statistical and quantitative analysis among historians in the 1960s and 1970s,i. e. the use of census, probate, and voting records to create a statistical picture of a historic population (such as Civil War soldiers).

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Leonard - Yes, I understand. Stampp is referring specifically to a book by Lee Benson: "Toward the Scientific Study of History", but that does not detract from my point.

Stampp continues in the next paragraph:

"As one reflects upon the problem of causatin one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historical event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations."

But, as you no doubt realize, there is more to being a social scientist than "statistics."

As American Heritage offers one definition:

"A scholarly or scientific discipline that deals with such study, generally regarded as including *sociology*, **psychology**, anthropology, economics, political science, and history."

Thanks for the comment.

BorderRuffian said...

"The itch to fling dead cats into sanctuaries usually does more good than harm. In this instance, it also affords a limitless appeal in a smug way to the political-correctness wowsers."


There are a lot of blogs that fit that description.

That would be a good name for them- "Dead Cat Blogs."

And their toady followers- "PC Wowsers."

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Krick does have a way w/words, doesn't he? ;o)