U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Post-OAH Meeting Wrap-Up, Part II: Intellectual History at the OAH

This post continues my brief series on last week’s OAH annual meeting.

Although it didn’t earn a “State of the Field” panel all its own, intellectual history seemed to be live and well at the OAH. I attended three sessions devoted to intellectual history or with strong intellectual history content. All were interesting, coherent, and exciting, featuring strong papers followed by lively discussion.

On the conferences opening day, I attended a panel on Social Science and the Nation State from the New Deal to the Cold War. Jessica Wang of the University of British Columbia led off the session with an interesting paper about the role institutional economists played in the early years of the National Labor Relations Board. Although their vision for the NLRB was eventually crowded out by more legal-minded and conservative members, Wang argues that, in their focus on local factors in their analysis of labor relations, these economists represented a reformed social science tradition that challenges the notion–put forward by James Scott among others–that modernist state intervention necessarily contravenes local knowledge. Hamilton Cravens of Iowa State University followed with a paper that presented a (grander) narrative of social science during the Cold War, a period in which U.S. social science became more positivistic and more establishmentarian in its orientation, before fragmenting in the 1970s. Finally, Mark Solovey from the University of Toronto presented a fascinating paper about Sen. Fred Harris’s failed efforts to create a National Foundation for Social Science in the mid-1960s. Solovey’s paper offered interesting glimpses into the relationship between science and the social sciences and the limits of Great Society liberalism (as well as giving some attention to the single most interesting politician that my adoptive state has ever produced). The panel concluded with a thoughtful comment by Alice O’Connor of UC Santa Barbara and a lively audience discussion.

Later that day I also attended a terrific panel entitled Liberalism Without Boundaries: the Varieties of Liberalism in American Thought and Culture. Among the other attendees was Rick Shenkman of HNN, who video’d the papers for posterity. Chaired by George Cotkin of Cal Poly SLO, the panel featured three terrific papers by Dan Wickberg of UT Dallas (“The Cultural Sensibility of American Liberalism, 1890-1941”), Susan Pearson of Northwestern (“‘The Rights of the Defenseless’: Sentimental Liberalism in Gilded Age America”), and Jamie Cohen-Cole of Yale (“The Straightjacket of Conformity: Cold War Social Science and the Production of Consensus Liberalism”). Each of the papers was (and is) very much worth listening to. Wickberg offered a fresh (and to my mind convincing) description of liberalism that spanned the Progressive Era and the New Deal built around the notion of “sensibility.” Pearson looked at the relationship between the animal and children’s rights movements in the late nineteenth-century and raised interesting questions about the shifting meaning of the idea of rights. And Cohen-Cole offered a critical exploration of Cold War liberalism that explored the paradox that critiques of conformity and the “authoritarian personality” helped forge a conformist vision of consensus liberalism in which the American academy was postulated as a microcosm of the world at large. Unfortunately Wilfrd McClay’s excellent comment wasn’t recorded by HNN.*

Finally, on Friday, I attended the State of the Field panel on the history of conservatism. This has been blogged about below and the papers by Emory’s Joseph Crespino, independent scholar Rick Perlstein, the University of Michigan’s Angela Dillard, and NYU’s Kimberly Phillips-Fein (whose paper, in her absence, was read by panel chair Nancy MacLean of Northwestern) were all recorded by Rick Shenkman and posted on HNN. Unfortunately, the final paper by Bethany Moreton of the University of Georgia, as well as comments and discussion were not posted online.

Though the panel was not as devoted to intellectual history as the other two I’ve mentioned in this post, intellectual history was very well integrated into the discussions of conservatism. I say “well integrated” because when the study of conservatism really began to take off in the mid-1990s, it seemed divided between intellectual histories of conservatism (largely offered by conservatives) and social histories of conservatism (largely offered by liberals and scholars on the left). This divide was certainly present at a conference at Princeton that Jennifer Delton (now at Skidmore College) and I hosted back in 1996 (and at which a number of the participants in this panel gave papers). These two, largely incompatible narratives seem in the process of being replaced by narratives that try to see an interaction between conservative ideas and social and political facts. In different ways, each of the participants on the panel tried to do this…and (given the historiographical orientation of the panel) pointed the audience in the direction of other work that tries to do so as well.

Indeed, this last session’s comfortable mix of intellectual history with social, political, and cultural history nicely instantiated the sense I had of the healthy place of intellectual history at this conference (and in U.S. history today). After decades in which intellectual history was often seen as a subfield in crisis–top-down when bottom-up social history was on the rise in the ’70s; simultaneously buoyed and threatened by the rise of cultural history in the ’80s–we seem to be in a quietly comfortable and confident place. Intellectual historians are playing important roles in central discussions in the larger field of US history. And within intellectual history, junior, mid-career, and senior scholars seem to be talking with, rather than past, each other. I didn’t see any particular Next Big Thing in intellectual history at the OAH. But that’s part of this generally positive picture. “Normal science” can be a nice, productive and even interesting place to be.

I’ll conclude this series sometime in the next few days with a post on blogging and bloggers at the OAH.

* If you’re reading this by any chance, Rick Shenkman, please consider recording the comments and discussion as well as the papers! Putting this stuff on line is a great service, but as you know comments and discussion can be just as interesting as the papers.

5 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I chaired a roundtable that was effectively a “state of the field” of U.S. intellectual history at OAH in 2008. For some reason, though, the powers-that-be did not want to call it that: I submitted the proposal under that name, but it came back with the title changed.

  2. Very interesting, Mike! I just checked to see what they retitled it: “The Future of U.S. Intellectual History: Challenges and Possibilities.” I wonder why that was seen as preferable?

  3. A thought on the panel title: I see the second title as preferable because a state of the field panel suggests, at least to my ear, the kind of hand-wringing about intellectual history as a subfield that I prefer to avoid. Perhaps it seemed so to others as well. To my ear, which again might be idiosyncratic, the second title suggests a field that, as Ben noted in the post, is quietly and calmly doing its thing without boundary marking and anxiety-driven self-assessment. In other words, the second title presumes a healthy and vibrant field with a future.

  4. Thanks for the synopses of what sound like three compelling panels–confirmation that I wish I had been in attendance. I especially wish I had been there to hear the paper on Fred Harris. In the early 90s, while I was an undergraduate student at the University of New Mexico, Harris was by then a professor of political science there. I took an introductory course with him and it is one of many reasons I’ve been so interested in politics since.

  5. I think David’s point about the title is a good one, but “state of the field” is an OAH “brand,” if you will. They do it for all kinds of different things, like, as Ben posted, the history of conservatism this year. Since my panel was a very much a collection of people talking about intellectual history itself, I thought it fit pretty well what a “state of the field” panel would be. It didn’t really make any difference to me what the title was, but I always wondered if the change was more significant than the fact that they simply didn’t like my title, for whatever reason.

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