I remember telling my wife, the mathematician, that historians typically work on one time and place their entire careers. If you begin, say, as a historian of Russia in the 1600s (as I did), you are likely to end as a historian of Russia in the 1600s (I didn’t, but that’s another story). “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “Don’t historians get bored with their little time and place?” “Yes,” I replied. “Don’t they exhaust the topic and begin to work in circles?” “Yes, quite often” I replied. “Don’t they want to compare what they’ve learned about time/place X with time/place Y in order to better understand both X and Y?” “Probably,” I replied. “Then why,” she asked, “do historians continue to work the way they do?” It’s a good question, and one that deserves to be answered. On the one hand, ‘more and more about less and less’ has certainly enabled us–that is, the historical profession–to uncover a lot of the past that might have been forgotten. But, on the other hand, we’ve gone so far ‘inside baseball’ that we can’t and don’t talk to one another, let alone talk to colleagues in other disciplines or the public at large. There are exceptions, but they only improve the rule.
In their very readable new book Natural Experiments of History (Harvard, 2010), Jared Diamond and James A. Robinson point out that this way of going about history is a lost opportunity. If historians would pull up for a moment and look around, they would discover a world of “natural experiments” that could both shed light on their particular time/place and speak to larger patterns in world history. More specifically, “natural experiments”–what historians usually call the “comparative method”–would permit them to speak about the general causes of the specific events they study. To my mind, that is a laudable goal and one that we should pursue. Knowledge, as we know, is difference. If all you know is Russia in the 1600s, then you won’t really know Russia in the 1600s. We should do what we tell our undergraduates to do: compare and contrast.
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