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Historical Scholarship as a Subordinate Enterprise

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I was recently speaking with a very prominent psychiatrist about the history and science of various mental illnesses, and he told something along the lines of “what historians can do to help is to explain how diseases came to be defined as they are; that way we can have a better idea of what we are dealing with.” I looked at him for a moment, and thought to myself: “Fine, but what can you do to help me?” Of course I didn’t say that. The question of what he could do to help historians better understand the past had clearly never crossed his mind. So I just nodded and smiled and muttered something that he didn’t find particularly interesting. We soon moved on to talking about the beer selection.

I mention this anecdote to bring up what I consider one of the central problems facing historians and other scholars in the humanities interested in doing interdisciplinary work: our relatively lowly status in the institutional and epistemological academic food chain. I’ve very much enjoyed reading both Michelle McClellan‘s and Trysh Travis’s posts about the general lack of interest among feminist scholars toward addiction studies, but my initial response to both posts was: “hey, disinterest may not be so bad. At least they aren’t insulting you.” I’ve spent a bit of time here and there working with people from the so-called “hard” sciences, and I’ve found it surprisingly easy to walk away from those conversations feeling a bit put off. I don’t think the scientists involved in these conversations have been intentionally trying to insult me, but they sure have done a good job at it nonetheless – and I’m not particularly sensitive to such things. Here, then, is an issue that I think those of us working in the humanities need to confront: the assumed subordinate position of our disciplines to the sciences in the hierarchy of academic knowledge production.

Part of the issue is, I think, that when you really get down to it, most biologists, neuroscientists, pharmacologists, and others in the hard sciences often find the study of the past quite interesting – indeed, I think they sometimes feel compelled to engage with the past – but they do so in a way that both trivializes what historians do and separates it out from their own work in any meaningful sense. I was particularly struck by the part of Professor McClellan’s recent post  where she describes presenting her paper first and “setting the stage” for the other papers with her historical analysis. This is, of course, often the role that historians adopt – or are given – and while Professor McClellan stated that doing so privileged her own disciplinary perspective I’m not sure that is what usually happens. Almost invariably, it seems to me, historians are reduced to providing the neat little extra bit of something, the “framework” or “context” that “raises interesting questions” but, in the end, really acts as little more than an entertaining diversion before the more serious parts of the conversation begin.

That’s fine, as far as it goes, and as long as historians and other scholars working in the humanities know our place things usually work out great. But when we start to assert ourselves life gets more complicated. So, for example, if a group of historians and a group of neuroscientists are both presenting at an interdisciplinary conference on addiction, the neuroscientists will invariably say rather grandiose things

Addiction Science, Med/Psy Version

about how changes in brain function “cause” addiction and then go on and show a lot of cool pictures of brains lit up in different places. On the other hand, if a historian incorporates something about brain function into their own work things usually don’t go as well. As long as the historians are careful not to say anything meaningful they can usually get away with it, but if they make even the slightest mistake they get ripped apart. If they try to make an argument about brain function it gets worse quite rapidly. And, if they dare utter what many of us actually think about the topic–

Addiction Science, Historian Version

that measuring changes in blood flow in the brain doesn’t actually tell us that much about how, or why, people act as they do– then all hell breaks loose. I’ve actually see this happen, and it isn’t pretty.

So, scientists often feel free to make historical claims – and in fact they often feel somewhat compelled to – but, at least in my experience, they really don’t like it when historians try to make scientific ones. Historians, for our part, generally don’t feel comfortable making scientific claims at all, and when we do we generally do so with a lot of apologies – disqualifiers of the “now, I’m not a neuroscientist…” type. But when was the last time you head a scientist apologize for not being a historian? When was the last time you saw a scientist exhibit any awareness at all that the historical claims they were making were, at best, simplistic? And why is it that when historians do hear scientists making claims about the past that make our stomachs churn our response is generally to sit meekly in our designated space and smile politely?

I’m generalizing horribly here, of course, but it does seem to me that this is the basic dynamic at work when historians and scientists in the so-called “hard” sciences try to work together. Scholars in the humanities end up adopting a supine position, both epistemologically and professionally. And then, at the bar, we complain about it to each other and get another drink.

Now, I’m too young to be bitter about such things. Indeed, there’s no reason to be bitter, since, there’s always other people to talk to. But I do think that if we are actually interested in pursuing interdisciplinary projects we need to talk about this. As historians – and literary theorists, and other scholars engaged in the humanities – I think we need to be honest about the fact that in the current hierarchy of knowledge we are somewhere close to the bottom.

What to do?


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