U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Empirical Evidence Of The Decline In Intellectual History

I sent my Call To Action note to H-Ideas on January 17, 2007. That message, based on a mix of anecdotal and real evidence, has resulted in some positive activities: the creation of this weblog; plans for a U.S.I.H. conference; panels proposed and run at AHA and OAH; renewed calls for U.S. submissions at JHI and other journals; etc. I could not be happier with these developments.

There were also, of course, negative reactions to my statement. A major one, aired in a few private e-mails, involved the notion that I was completely wrong about the decline of the field. Examples cited on behalf of those opposed to my view included (a) an ongoing (if small) market for intellectual historians, (b) intellectual history journals still in operation (even if only a few), and (c) the healthy membership of the International Society for Intellectual History. Those were valid points for which I had to account.

I concede, again, that—at that time—my empirical evidence of the field’s decline was lacking. I did not then possess any numbers on defections from intellectual history as a subfield (related to the U.S. or otherwise). You might say my call was merely an intuition—but one subsequently and quickly confirmed by historians with longer vitaes than mine.

Now, however, I own a small piece of empirical evidence to back up last year’s claim. This morning Robert B. Townsend posted a snapshot of AHA membership statistics at the AHA’s weblog. If you follow the graphs in his post, you will reach this one—reproduced below:

If I’m reading this graph correctly, the percentage change of AHA members declared as working in intellectual history has dropped, during the 1992-2008 period, from about 9 to a bit less than 5.5 percent. While this decline is not as large those occurring in diplomatic, social, and women’s history, it is noteworthy and substantial.

My hunch is that the drops in social and women’s history are partially accounted for in the rise of cultural history. Some have argued that the change in intellectual history can be accounted for in that trend as well. But let’s narrow the focus to U.S. intellectual history, if we can. It is my belief that the drop in U.S. intellectual history practitioners is more like that which has occurred in diplomatic subfield: it is a hard, real decline.

My still anecdotal evidence for maintaining the “hard drop” assertion, for the same 16-year (1992-2008) period, is:

(1) the overall decrease in AHA and OAH panels dedicated to U.S. intellectual history topics,
(2) the drop in explicitly U.S. intellectual history-related articles in JAH and AHR, and
(3) the decrease in U.S.-related discussions and posts on H-Ideas.

I suppose I could also point to the fact that there have been no conferences specifically directed to U.S. topics in that period.

I reserve the right to be wrong. Anyone care to discuss this further? – TL

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. >”My hunch is that the drops in social and
    >women’s history are partially accounted
    >for in the rise of cultural history.”

    This isn’t really relative to your main point, but the rise in cultural history noted in the chart is relatively small compared to the huge drops in the other two categories. I don’t think the reason you give could really explain the phenomenon.

    Also, according to the my own eyeballing of the chart, there appear to be more drops than gains. This would seem to be impossible, unless: a) there are a lot of other small categories that weren’t listed, and those numbers had gone up (implying a greater diversity in the profession), or b) the categories are not mutually exclusive. Under that scenario, people could have more than one interest and intellectual history is in even more trouble than it appears otherwise, because people who did not have to forsake something else still didn’t check the box.

    The fact that there are more drops than gains, though, also makes it look like people in almost every subfield (or, at least, seven of them) could be making the same argument that Tim is, about their own respective area of interest. If so, is there anything particularly significant in the situation in which we find U.S. intellectual history? Maybe the diplomatic historians should start a blog too!


  2. Tim:

    My basic response to this post (and to most arguments about the profession that use statistics) is Mark Twain’s aphorism. “There are three kinds of lies,” he explained, “Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics.”

    The problem with all statistical evidence is that it does not speak for itself. In this case, you are claiming that empirical evidence provided by Robert Townsend points to a real decline in intellectual history. I’m not so sure. One problem is that the chart only references AHA members, not members of the OAH. So we have argument creep. Your initial call to action and subsequent arguments have cited the putatively poor state of U.S. intellectual history. This chart only shows the percentage decline of historians across all geographic regions claiming intellectual history as their specialty. It is probably fair to assume, though not possible to prove with the evidence at hand, that the decline in percentage could be attributable to the decline of European historians in history departments as they have been displaced by historians of other regions of the world. In 1992 it was not uncommon for even a small department to have a specialist in each Britain, France, and Germany. Now some departments have elected to add a Middle East or East Asian or African specialist rather than yet another scholar of Europe. Since intellectual history has always been prominent among historians of northern Europe, this could account for the entire decline.

    Or something else could be going on. Diplomatic history appears to be doing very poorly (as the chart, post, and subsequent comments have noted), but any look at the job ads over the last couple of years shows a skyrocketing concern for U.S. and the world. This has traditionally been the province of diplomatic history, and if you look at the hires for many of the positions in U.S. and the world in the last hiring cycle (which I have been following because I have friends who applied in this subspecialty), the vast majority of hires in these positions seem to be doing a variation on diplomatic history. So diplomatic history has changed names , but it is still basically going on, just under a different name. Intellectual history is now being done in religious history, cultural history, and political history. It seems to me that intellectual history has become so mainstreamed that it might be fair to wonder, to borrow a line from Nathan Glazer, are we are intellectual historians now? This is the real upshot of our earlier debate about the definition of intellectual history. I think your definition of intellectual history allows you to make the claim that intellectual history is not being done. If I look over the panels and articles in the AHR, JHR, or OAH and AHA annual meetings, I’m pretty sure I would find more than you would because my definition is more expansive. We are disagreeing foremost about a definition that is then being used to suggest a decline.

    A few other complaints: Your post references “intellectual history journals still in operation (even if only a few).” Please name an intellectual history journal that was in operation twenty or thirty years ago that is no longer. You mention an ongoing (if small) market for intellectual historians–do you have any actual evidence that the job market for intellectual historians is different than for any one else, with the exception of Afro-American history in the last three years? Do you even have anecdotal basis for this complaint?

    Even if we did agree on all of the above and you could prove to me that there has been a hard, real decline in the absolute and relative number of U.S. intellectual historians–I have one final thought that moves out of empirical argument altogether. There is something about empirical argument that misses, for me, a basic point: I’m not sure that numbers correlate with vitality. To use an obvious example from a different arena, mainline churches have traditionally had the most members in the United States. But throughout the twentieth century they have not been the most vital. Instead upstarts such as Pentecostals, Mormons, and, after WWII, evangelicals and new religious movements have been the most vital force in American religious life. The Catholic church in the United States seems to be growing smaller but more vital. Perhaps in the same way, I think some of the most interesting and innovative U.S. intellectual history is being done right now. I’m not trying to be Panglossian, but the hand-wringing about the state of the field tends to obscure this more sanguine reality. It is that reality that makes this blog interesting, not the attempt keep what some consider a dying field on life support.

  3. I chaired a panel at the most recent OAH on the state of intellectual history, and many of the panelists felt very strongly about one of David’s points: that the content of intellectual history is popular and vibrant even if it is less likely to appear under that name.

    While I think this point is fair and accurate, it does not mean that there is nothing interesting happening here. If people are well-disposed toward intellectual history, but only if it’s called something else, then that, in my view, signals the existence of some kind of trend or other. Off the top of my head, and with no evidence beyond the anecdotal, I’d say it represents a certain anti-intellectualism (which I find, paradoxically enough, to be rampant in the academy) and a very deep concern for the appearance of elitism (which, of course, resonates far beyond the ivy-covered walls). These are not necessarily a problem, just a change.

    The significance of such a change would be minor if intellectual history was merely changing its name to something else. But if its energies are being dispersed at the same time that its traditional name is being discredited and canonical texts marginalized, then the cash value of this change is the marginalization of intellectual history as a professional discipline. From the standpoint of the universe, this might mean very little. But it has a significant effect on those job seekers who cannot plausibly or convincingly label their work as anything other than intellectual history. If history departments are not hiring in this arena, then such people are simply not going to find work. While in the big picture this might represent only a shift in intellectual trends, it can be a very painful experience to those who are affected by it, which I think accounts for a great deal of the “hand wringing” mentioned in David’s post above.

    But what I take to be his larger point is most germane here: whatever the problems may be, the solution is to do good work and attract more people to the kind of work that U.S. intellectual historians do. I think we all agree that this is what we’re trying to do with the blog, the conference and so on.


  4. Colleagues,

    If you read my post carefully, you’ll note that at least half of my hastily constructed argument deals—corresponding with Robert Townsend’s AHA post—with practitioners and explicit evidence of professional practice (i.e. active claims on the field), not necessarily (or strictly) any loss in coverage of topics related to intellectual history. In that way, Mike’s comment gets closer to my point.

    I apologize for the lack of clarity on the “still” clause noted by David in relation to journals. My point there is that they (JHI, MIH) have ~not~ died, not that some existed and died. However, with regard to U.S. topics, JHI editor Martin Burke explicitly noted last year that the editors wish more U.S. submissions were incoming. I wonder if progress has been made there?

    On the uses of statistics, I agree with David that uncertainty exists (I have long been an admirer of the very Twain witticism cited above). That’s why I used the crucial “small piece” clause (I also originally meant to end my post title with a question mark). To make solid and substantial claims about decline (or loss) with regard to U.S. history, we’d have to see a tabulation based on OAH member data. But, broadly speaking, I think that European intellectual history is a more explicitly active subfield than its U.S. counterpart. I make this assertion based solely on conference proposals seen over the past 5-8 years at H-Ideas and the JHI/Burke reference above.

    I agree with David that tabulations of numbers of practitioners are not evidence of vitality, at least in terms of implicit topical coverage in articles and books. In this and recent posts I have not forwarded a claim that intellectual history is ~not~ generally being done. Historical biographies, American Studies, and cultural history can and do deal with intellectual history and the history of ideas. Several USIH posts over the past year have dealt with biographies. I have argued, however, that there should more explicit claiming of intellectual history. My reasons for this are contained in prior posts.

    As for hand wringing, well, it’s pointless and silly. I did not mean to convey emotion in my June 2 post (above)—although I can’t say the same about my older, Jan. 2007 H&E post. In any case, there is nothing wrong with pointing out numbers that support (or deny) claims made here and elsewhere about intellectual history. We’d be remiss to ignore the information.

    – TL

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