Friday, January 29, 2016

The Promises and Perils of Disciplinary Border Crossing

[By Anne Kornhauser]

For the past month I have been touting the advantages of a multidisciplinary approach to certain kinds of historical understanding. Legal history is by nature multidisciplinary, but in my work I have chosen to situate legal history within a larger field of operation. I do not want to end this blogging stint, however, without mentioning a few of the drawbacks to the disciplinary eclecticism I have embraced, most of which are practical.

The first is that academics, like many people, like to put everyone in boxes. This means that scholars need to be able to identify their discipline and one or more subfields to constitute our expertise, to be recognizable within our profession. This form of identification makes sense to me; as a scholar, one needs to be able to speak with authority about a subject and to train authors in an area of specialization. If one claims too many forms of expertise, or none at all, one runs the danger of being accused of dilettantism, ignorance, or insouciance, and the accusers might just be right.

Yet expertise in the humanities and the social sciences is a tricky business. If it is difficult to parse, say, chemistry into its component parts, it is next-to-impossible to parse human behavior. As I have mentioned in previous posts, historians make do with different emphases, or perspectives, looking through some lenses but not others, isolating actors, institutions, and objects to make a case from a certain angle of vision about the significance of the human motivations, actions, or institutions we study. In some cases, we try to generalize or attribute causality to larger structural forces from our chosen vantage point and methodological assumptions. Whether looking for meaning or cause, the best we can do is to try to persuade through interpretation and evidence. One means of doing so is to assign greater importance to one aspect of the human condition over others.

Historians--still--almost always start with place. The discipline of history remains tied to the nation-state, though transnational, global, and "big" history have begun to disrupt this historiographical habit. There is something worth preserving here too: whether one starts with a nation-state, a geographical region, or a local community, there are many reasons to study a particular space and many obstacles to writing and teaching truly global histories. Since we must draw some lines, one thing that makes global history salutary is that it forces us to better justify some of those lines. History departments, academic publishing catalogues, history books, are organized foremost by time and place. But time and place only go so far in the business of identification within the historical discipline. It is what we study within the field of history that truly brands us: ideas, politics, culture, law, etc.

Here again, the reasons are mostly practical. As the field has grown, the ineluctable logic of classification proceeds apace. Academic publishers have developed series and specialized editors, job descriptions ask for greater and greater degrees of specificity in what we study and teach, and academic societies have sprung up to bolster thematic specialization. Finally, methodological or ideological infighting over a field or subfield can be another source of ever-multiplying subdivisions.

As good guild members, we like to protect our little fiefdoms in academia, policing the borders and admitting only those with proper identification. The historian who transcends prescribed categories may not quite fit into any scholarly community. More important, there is a risk that in covering so much ground, disciplinary or otherwise, one will be accused of meddling or superficiality. I, for one, will take that risk in exchange for what I believe can be gained from drawing on multiple disciplines both methodologically, in terms of the tools we use to study the past, and interpretively, in terms of how we define our objects of historical study. Invoking multiple disciplines allows for a wider array of possibilities for how we might read our sources; a deeper historical understanding, in particular the ability to recognize broad patterns of conceptualization, practice, and behavior that might otherwise be invisible to us; new ways to think about inherited disciplinary and epistemological categories, not to mention a more diverse community of interlocutors with whom to share ideas.

For these reasons, among others, I was attracted to legal history to complement the intellectual history I had already gravitated toward. Throughout my academic training, border-crossing was de rigueur. I intend to keep it up, unless the border patrols crack down. For I admit, I want to be accepted by the guild as much as anyone. And I do not just mean getting tenure, which I have. I mean being a valued, and valid, professional.