Welcome back. In this post, I’m going to continue trying to kick my ideas about academic process and writing into some kind of shape that might be useful for somebody. Specifically, I’m going to try to lay out some of my thoughts about academic history writing, and discussions of methodology and theory.
To be clear, I’m no expert on theory. I have in a number of blogs talked about how I avoided theory for far too long and the repercussions it had in my MA and PhD. So at this juncture I’d like to thank the wonderful Dr Laurie Benson, and Kelsey Power for their resilience in convincing me to actually deal with theory and its ramifications on my PhD thesis. I cannot sufficiently express the debts that that I owe them. I’d also like to thank Dr Ellie Mackin, Stephanie Lahey, and Dara Vance for their encouragement and help with this when I was first kicking the ideas around on Twitter. (If I’ve forgotten you, please let me know and I’ll add you to the list)
I’m writing this post just a few days before it’s posted- and I’ve seen just recently discussions about “Does History belong in Humanities or Social Sciences” and several other discussions about methodology and theory, and history as a discipline. History is clearly an Arts/Humanities, as its methodology is substantially different from the Social Sciences. This became extremely clear when I worked with George Ritzer’s discussions of Weber’s theories of professionalization, Norbert Elias’s work on naval professionalization, and also Michael Lewis’s attempts in England’s Sea Officers to use an effectively sociological analysis of what is a Royal Navy officer (historically). However, as many people’s work- in fact most people’s work inches towards or becomes explicitly interdisciplinary, it has become much more important that historians in particular include a real description of their methodology and their engagement with theory in their academic writing.
In my MA and in the first few years of my PhD, I made a huge mistake. After having been scarred during an undergraduate course when I read Foucault (and didn’t have the foggiest notion of what was going on), I didn’t read or engage with any theory at all. During my MA, I knew that there were such things as ‘Social Historians’ and I knew that my MRP- which tried to look into whether Royal Navy officer education prior to the Second World War contributed to creation of a tactical culture in that conflict- wasn’t actually ‘Social History’. I described myself as a ‘Cultural Historian’ in that document- because what I wanted to look at and ask about was an ‘institutional culture’. Most of what my examiners and I talked about in my defense was that term. I mentioned it once, in the introduction, and then swiftly moved on0 assuming that a) people would know what I meant and b) that I could.. well.. just use the term and it didn’t really matter that it was established and had meaning and described a framework.
In my PhD, for the first few years- in fact, right up until I submitted my PhD the first time, I almost completely ignored theory. My friend Laurie kept on telling me that my approach was extremely similar to certain theorists- and I just didn’t do anything with that. I was scared of theory. Or, I was scared of Theory. It wasn’t until after my first Viva- during which my examiners pointed out that I referred to the Royal Navy as a ‘Westminster Model Navy’ that I realized that theory- was important to my work. Despite that- when I submitted the second time, I didn’t actually discuss the ‘Westminster Model’ in any kind of depth- I defined it in the introduction, and had a couple of sentences. In my final corrections, the single most important task was to add a section to my literature reviewed that thoroughly examined the theory of the ‘Westminster Model’, its history, and how I was adapting it.
At this point, I cannot believe that any historian would be able to do any kind of work without actively engaging with theory. For example, even the most basic frameworks for how we describe the general fields of our work are only theoretical. The periodicization of the Medieval, the Early Modern and the Modern certainly says more about the historians who use those terms than it does about the people and the things that they are studying. It is imperative that from this point forward, historians actively include discussions of their theory and methodology in their work. For too long we have used these terms- and so many others, as if our audiences should understand exactly what we mean. But there are complications.
The first is the idea of Theory vs theory. Certainly one of the reasons that I avoided “theory” for so long is that I was afraid of dealing with “Theory” emphasis on the capital T. I imagine most of us have seen those articles and twitter discussions that feature tips about writing your thesis, and include things like “Don’t mention Foucault unless you’re going to discuss all of his works in depth and expertly”. This was certainly the reason I never engaged with the theorists Laurie mentioned- or even really mentioned Judith Butler, whose ideas around gender and performativity were absolutely central to how I looked at how documents and symbols that publicly (and privately) discussed the Royal Navy’s existence and therefore defined it.
This problem can be helped by focusing on *process* and *influences*, rather than *expertise*, and also if we consider academic work as a threshold thing, rather than graded on a numerical scale. What I mean is: when I look at academic history, I don’t expect the author to have considered every single aspect of everything they touch on in their analysis. If they use a methodology they describe to analyse their research in light of what we already “know”, and then communicate their argument in a way that I understand what they mean, then that’s a very good basis for success. Educators need to encourage students to read theory- to engage with it- and to be honest about what parts of theory etc inspire them. We should make clear to our students that they can work with theory, discuss theory without making their work all about Theory. We should also teach our students that theory is *incredibly* handy for helping to develop the questions that you’ll ask of the sources, and for identifying gaps in the existing literature. For students to use theory successfully, we have to provide an environment so that they can become comfortable discussing theory, pulling it apart, putting it back together, and especially talking about how they did that. Consider, for the example, the idea of ‘Toxic Masculinity’. When applying it to history, the point isn’t really to go back through history and find examples of people who perpetuated what we would now consider to be toxic masculinity- but rather, to consider all of the questions that idea raises, and use them to investigate historical sources and understanding.
The second is, how- or where- does a historian talk about theory in their work? This was certainly a problem for me with my PhD thesis. At first, my literature review was merely a ‘Historiography’- to the point that although David Davies and Norbert Elias directly responded to each other in their work, I discussed them in separate chapters. I thought it was necessary to talk about the history alone, and then all the sociological discussions, distinctly. This is part of why I think highschool students (and undergrad students, and grad students) should be taught to write their literature review two or three different times and organized very differently, in order to try to work through how to structure their discussions in order to best situate their work. I believe that the best way to approach things is to organize the literature review so that it discusses the groups of writing that are most important to the reader understanding the foundations the work is built on. I know this sounds like “well, duh” but I think that historians and especially grad students need to be much more open about that structure. There’s absolutely nothing wrong (and many things right) with telling readers exactly what the structure is and laying things out for them. Further, using that approach means that if something is missing, it’s easier to notice and add it. I now strongly believe that we in some way replace the idea of including a ‘literature review’ with including a thorough discussion of methodology. This would necessarily include the ‘literature review’, because we have to discuss what others are doing and have done in order to discuss our historical or interdisciplinary methodology. As theory is so integral to so much of current and cutting-edge research and analysis, it has to be acknowledged and discussed.
Clear, well structured writing is Good Academic Writing. So as historians move forward, we need to make our writing as clear as possible. This means defining our terms, defining the metrics that we use to analyze our research, talking about the ideas and words and things that inspire us and guide us to use the language that we use to ask the questions that we want to ask. This means that we need to talk about all the things that we are doing- and important those things that we are *not* doing as well, to define the limits of our processes, of our inquiries and our arguments. If you’re not engaging with theory you have to ask yourself and explain to your readers why. More importantly, why would you try? It’s here, It’s important, it’s shaping discussions- you can’t adequately situate your work within the current literature unless you deal with theory.
Moving forward, we really should be teaching students to include a substantial methodology section in their work to provide a section where they can discuss their entanglements with theory clearly.