Monday, October 18, 2010

Zelizer on reviewing across disciplines

What are the "rules of fair play" in a field that attracts scholars from various disciplines? This was one of the themes of Julian Zelizer's reply to a reviewer, Barry Blechman, in a recent issue of the Journal of Policy History. Without having read the book at issue, Arsenal of Democracy: The Politics of National Security—From World War II to the War on Terrorism (New York: Basic Books, 2008), I can't comment on the validity of Blechman's critique or the merits of Zelizer's reply, but I wanted to call attention to the important questions that the exchange raises for those working in interdisciplinary fields.

At the risk of oversimplification, Blechman sees in Arsenal of Democracy a book that "report[s] the main events" but fails to deliver an argument with "bite." Zelizer opens his Reply with this observation:
An important component to successful interdisciplinary scholarship, if the field is to work, is for scholars to take other disciplines on their own terms. Early in the development of the field, conversations too often revolved around historians dismissing social scientists for just presenting "abstract, timeless models" and flat, ahistorical theories, while social scientists dismissed historians for "just telling stories" and not providing theories and analysis.
Further into his Reply, Zelizer sets forth what he believes historians do:
The work of the historian is to provide a complete narrative about the events, personalities, and turning points that define key issues. Historians put together the narrative based on extensive archival research and avoid attempting to impose monocausal theories on the past. As an undergraduate, one of my advisers, Morton Keller, liked to quote Henry James, who said the problem with theories is that they leak at every joint. While I like my history more analytical than many of my colleagues, I think Keller had an important point. What is most interesting is how different forces interact in specific moments, not how one is more important than another.
Thus, Zelizer makes no effort to refute Blechman's charge that the book lacks a "policy prescription." In Zelizer's view, advancing that type of argument is "not what the historian does."

"In the end," Zelizer concludes, "Blechman is looking for a very different kind of book than he will find from most historians. That is a legitimate desire, but it is also important . . . to realize that the way this field works best is not by demanding that one discipline adopts the format and style of the other but, rather, to understand how each can contribute to a richer understanding of the important subjects of the day."

I'm sympathetic to this point. (I also think it's fair to demand scholarship in any "format" or "style" to advance an argument that is clear, well evidenced, and appropriately nuanced.) I wonder how it translates to a field, like legal history, in which everyone is "doing history," but not everyone would agree on "what the historian does."

For the full exchange, see the Journal of Policy History 22, no. 3 (2010): 374-84.

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