U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Update from DK

My family and I have been in Copenhagen, Denmark for a week with four students from my home institution, Marian University. The point of this portion of our stay was for me to complete a course I offered on comparing different aspects of the United States and Denmark. One of the “outings” we did was to venture down to the University of Southern Denmark to visit colleagues of mine who had left the Copenhagen Business School to take up posts at SDU in Odense, DK. We had a brief seminar with a few of the folks there, including an American scholar who currently holds the Fulbright I had in 2008 and whose book jacket appears in this post.

Sarah Elkind spoke with my students and I as part of a small seminar on comparative history and gave a wonderful summary of her work in comparative environmental history and public policy. I offer the cover art for her first book as a way to encourage readers to check it out and to look for her next book on Los Angeles which will be published by UNC Press in the relatively near future.
Among the interesting stories Sarah treated us to was an account of how Los Angeles allowed a truly remarkable form of wildcatting. It seems that the land on which sat many an oil rig had been subdivided for houses–meaning the plots were small. So small, Sarah explained, that the legs of the rigs would cross over each other because they sat quite literally on top of each other. And if fire struck…well, you can imagine the remarkable results.
When we discussed Sarah’s first book in which she compared water policies in two bay area cities–Boston and Oakland–she gave us some interesting insight into why comparative history is so hard and also so important to do. The main problem is self-evident: one can always find profound differences between two places so why even try a comparison. We pushed Sarah on this point and asked why she had attempted such a study anyway. Her response reminded me of the kind of explanations that William H. McNeil often gave when asked similar questions.
She initially attempted a comparative study as a challenge put to her by a Ph.D. advisor. The hope was that by incorporating a comparison into her study she might broaden her work on Boston and make her manuscript more attractive to a larger audience. But when she completed the work, she grew to appreciate (as McNeil often noted) the emergence of what seemed like universal questions about the operation of historical change and choices. In other words, through comparative study Sarah found herself asking historical questions that she would not have otherwise.
The field of comparative studies has many able practitioners, and Sarah is certainly yet another good historian to read. I would also direct your attention to those who provided some very interesting comments to my original post on the subject.