U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Celestial Emporium of Historical Knowledge

This morning, the American Historical Association announced that it has put together a draft revision of its taxonomy of the discipline and that it’s inviting comment from members as it moves toward a final form of the document. The deadline for comment is September 30.

The taxonomy is the list of subfields from which those joining, or renewing their membership in, the AHA select when describing their professional interests interests. Every member can list themselves as working in up to three subfields. These self-descriptions, in turn, become the basis for the AHA’s understanding of the overall shape of the discipline, no small matter for the principal professional organization of historians. Taken as a whole, the taxonomy is also an attempt to divide the discipline up into logical subunits, which is an interesting, but difficult, task.

The new taxonomy is of interest to me—and I suspect most other U.S. intellectual historians–in at least three distinct ways.

First, as a member of the profession and of the AHA, I have an interest in the overall adequacy of the taxonomy: does this divide historical knowledge in a way that makes sense, that is comprehensive and that lumps where it should lump and split where it should split?

Secondly, I have an interest, as an individual historian, in my own ability to describe myself using these categories. I assume that the task that the AHA will set for its members will be the same: to select up to three subfields in which we fit. With any luck, a revision of the taxonomy would make my self-description more accurate. Currently, under the old taxonomy, I’ve checked “United States since 1920,” “Intellectual” and “Cultural.”

Finally, as a U.S. intellectual historian, I have an interest in the taxonomy as a potential object of future study. What might this draft (and people’s comments on it) tell us about the practice of history in this country in the early 21st century? What might we learn from disagreements (assuming there are some) between the membership and the committee that came up with the draft?

The new taxonomy follows the overall approach of the old taxonomy.[1] It consists of two lists: one geographic and chronological, the other thematic. One obvious change is a dramatic increase in the number of categories in the former list. Let’s take the U.S. categories as an example. Here is the old taxonomy’s list of United States subfields:

  • General and Regional Studies (United States)
  • The Northeast (United States)
  • The South (United States)
  • Great Plains and Borderlands (United States)
  • The Midwest (United States)
  • The West (United States)
  • American Revolution and Early Republic, 1754-1815
  • United States, 1815-1877
  • United States, 1877-1920
  • United States History since 1920

In addition, colonial subfields fall under the geographic category of “North America” in the old taxonomy (oddly there are as many subfields in colonial history as there are in the rest of U.S. history under the old taxonomy):

  • Colonial North America
  • European Discovery and Exploration (North America)
  • British Politics and Administration (North America)
  • New England (North America)
  • Middle Colonies (North America)
  • Chesapeake (North America)
  • Lower South (North America)
  • British Islands (North America)
  • French and British Canada (North America)
  • French and Dutch North American Colonies (North America)

The proposed new taxonomy dramatically increases the number of categories on both lists while also reordering the material. Colonial history is now divided between two subcategories of the new “The Americas” category.[2] “Early and Colonial North America” includes the same ten subfields as the old taxonomy:

  • Colonial North America
  • European Discovery and Exploration (North America)
  • British Politics and Administration (North America)
  • New England (North America)
  • Middle Colonies (North America)
  • Chesapeake (North America)
  • Lower South (North America)
  • British Islands (North America)
  • French and British Canada (North America)
  • French and Dutch North American Colonies (North America)

But the new taxonomy also adds a new subheading entitled “Native American/Indigenous” which includes among its four subfields another colonial period specialty:

  • Precontact Native American/Indigenous
  • Colonial Period Native American/Indigenous
  • 19th-Century Native American/Indigenous
  • Native American since 1900

Meanwhile, the rest of U.S. history is divided into substantially more and smaller chunks than in the old taxonomy:

  • American Revolution, 1756-1783
  • United States, 1783-1815
  • United States, 1815-1850
  • United States, 1850-1877
  • United States, 1877-1920
  • United States, 1920-1945
  • United States, 1945-1975
  • United States since 1975
  • US Northeast
  • US South
  • US Great Plains and Borderlands
  • US Midwest
  • US West

One subfield (the odd “General and Regional Studies”) has been eliminated from the old taxonomy. The geographic subfields remain the same. But the four old temporal subfields have been replaced by eight new ones.

Even this small subset of the taxonomy gives us a lot to chew on. Friends of mine who work on the colonial period are already grousing about the decision not to alter the fundamental subfields of early American history, essentially retaining an old, Eurocentric structure.

As a twentieth-century historian, the decision to go from one 1920-Present subfield to three subfields since 1920 raises two sets of questions. The first concerns the years chosen to begin and end these new subfields. I understand 1945, which is a classic watershed year, but I wonder how many people working on the mid-twentieth century actually either stop or start their area of specialty with the end of World War II. And 1975 seems like a fairly arbitrary date with which to end the penultimate category and start the final one…though 1975 is the starting point of Dan Rodgers’s Age of Fracture, so there’s some pedigree to this choice.

My second set of questions is more practical: how would I describe myself using this new set of dates? The old category of “United States history since 1920” very nicely describes the period on which I have worked and plan to work in the future. But under the new taxonomy, I would have to either artificially limit my temporal self-description or abandon any thematic description of my work. Even if I limited myself to the project I’m currently working on, I’d straddle the last two temporal categories. Although it’s always worthwhile rethinking the way we divide U.S. history chronologically, my first impression is that we do not want to create more temporal subfields for the purposes of the AHA’s taxonomy. Doing so would likely lead most of us to describe our fields of specialty less well. Accuracy is being sacrificed for a largely false sense of precision. (It’s worth noting that the AHA also asks members to describe up to two projects on which they are currently working, so there’s room for very precise descriptions of one’s work elsewhere in one’s profile.)

The list of thematic categories raises even more complicated questions. In the proposed new taxonomy, there are at least nine subfields into which my work might fit. But I would have at most two that I could list (and possibly only one if I had decided to spend two of my subfields on the now smaller temporal chunks).   This is not merely a function of the breadth of my interests, but of the overlapping nature of the thematic categories. I suspect that many other people who might check “Intellectual” might also check “Cultural” and “Political Culture.” And I’d also guess that many who might check “Film Studies” might also check “Popular Culture” and “Cultural.” Of course these overlaps are nothing new; they’re in the nature of such extensive thematic subfield lists. The desire to be comprehensive leads to a profusion of categories, which in turn makes it more difficult for any scholar to fully describe herself given the three-category limit.

I won’t attempt to analyze in more detail the changes from the old thematic taxonomy to the new one. But in the interest of making it easier for those who want to do so (in comments below or elsewhere), here’s the old thematic taxonomy:

  • African American
  • Agricultural
  • Archaeology
  • Art and Architecture
  • Asian American
  • Business
  • Chicano/Latino
  • Comparative
  • Cultural
  • Demography, Population, and Social Life
  • Diaspora Studies
  • Diplomatic/International
  • Disability
  • Economic
  • Education
  • Environment
  • Ethnohistory
  • Exploration
  • Family
  • Gay/Lesbian
  • Gender
  • General Studies
  • Health and Disease
  • Historiography and Historical Method
  • Immigration
  • Intellectual/Philosophical
  • International Relations
  • Jewish
  • Labor
  • Law
  • Literature
  • Maritime
  • Media
  • Medicine and Health
  • Military
  • Minorities and Minority Issues
  • Music
  • Numismatics
  • Oral
  • Peace
  • Political
  • Popular Culture
  • Print Culture
  • Psychohistory
  • Public Religion
  • Rural
  • Science and Technology
  • Sexuality/Gay/Lesbian
  • Slavery
  • Social
  • Society, Social System, and Values
  • Sports
  • Urban
  • Western Civilization
  • Women
  • World
  • Beginnings of Human Society (World)
  • 4000-1000 BCE (World)
  • 1000 BCE-300 CE (World)
  • 300-1000 CE (World)
  • 1000-1500 CE (World)
  • 1450-1770 (World)
  • 1750-1914 (World)
  • 20th Century (World)

One final thought: it does seem to me that digital technology might allow the AHA to ditch the old three-category limit or, with a little more effort, replace the simple list of thematic subfields with some sort of thematic schema that provides more of a sense of the relationship of these subfields to each other.


[1] The AHA unfortunately does not provide a link to the old taxonomy nor is there even a page devoted to it. Members can find it by logging on to the website and updating their personal information.

[2] At least as displayed on a MacBook running OS X.9.4 and the latest version of Firefox, the “Early and Colonial North America” subheading in the proposed new taxonomy looks as if it is listed under the “Europe” heading, but I’m pretty sure this is just a formatting problem.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Some of the slashed fields are bizarre. Why ‘intellectual/philosophical’? This combination belies an older (one might say outmoded) understanding of intellectual history as an extension of history of philosophy. Perhaps this is the result of the closer relationship between intellectual and history of philosophy still existing in European intellectual history?

    ‘Diplomatic/international’ is also puzzling, since I see those two subfields as large, distinct entities with much recent international history explicitly working against the white, male, Western, etc. conception of the world long articulated by many diplomatic historians.

    • Sorry, I meant to be more clear in the above post. I’m being critical of the old taxonomy and praising the changes made by the new system which does separate intellectual/philosophical and diplomatic/international.

  2. What would our profession look like if we stopped pretending that region and time period are any less subjectively thematic than the categories listed under themes? Quick case in point: AHA has divided the Americas into North America and Latin America, not North and South America. This may be why there is no subheading for Spanish colonies listed under Colonial North America (there is French and Dutch). For anyone who has read colonial U.S. history for the past decades, this seems like a rather bizarre choice.

    Is it time to think about what it means to the profession to segregate (and likely privilege) time and place from topical categories?

    PS. And yes, Colonial North America also looks like it is on the Europe list on Windows O/S Chrome browser.

  3. This is very interesting Ben. I tried to figure out how old the old taxonomy was, but the announcements simply says that it hasn’t been updated “in a long time.” Is there anywhere on the AHA site that provides more specific information about when the existing taxonomy was introduced, and how it differed from its predecessor, if there was one? One might hope for more accuracy from historians, since the temporal dimension really is our business, and the categories tend to express a particular moment in the life of the profession.

    Two points.
    1. In designating these categories, the AHA wants to give a comprehensive picture of what the profession does, but it actually seems like the more useful feature is a pragmatic one: by designating particular members in terms of the categories, it allows colleagues to connect with and identify those who have similar interests. Perhaps the taxonomy should be judged by how well it does this job. I would think probably pretty well.

    2. On the question of topical areas: this seems at first like a mishmash of particular objects of study (“capitalism”) and ways of studying (“oral history”–unless one thinks this is the study of dental hygiene practices!), but, in fact, this distinction proves hard to make. Designating oneself as a historian of capitalism, rather than, say, an economic/business historian actually implies a rather different approach and conceptualization of the object of study. There definitely seem to be categories that represent new ways of thinking about history that have become prevalent in the last 20 years: memory studies, emotions/senses (note the linkage of these two!), borderlands, transnational, Atlantic world, etc. My sense is that these newer areas of study express a kind of fluidity and skepticism about fixed categories that is representative of our own globalizing neo-liberal moment. But these categories sit next to the broad designated and very established older areas of study: cultural, political, social, military (but not the history of war!), religious, diplomatic (although I thought the preferred term, at least for Americanists was “foreign relations”), intellectual, etc.. These older and more general categories seem to carry less explicit ideological baggage (if I say that I’m a cultural historians, for instance, it seems a lot less programatic than if I say I’m a historian of print culture/history of the book), but of course the way they divide up the world is just as deeply a product of modern social thought. On that note, I found it interesting that the proposed categories do not include “modernity” as a topic of study.

    • On the “when” of the existing AHA taxonomy, I implemented it back in 1996 relying on the taxonomy of the recent Guide to Historical Literature. The previous categories had been an odd mish-mash of temporal, geographic, and thematic categories. If I remember correctly, the list included categories like “modern Europe” alongside “Asia.” As the current discussion reflects, in the first person the categories rarely specific enough. But faced with the existing rather long and daunting list, everyone feels sure there are quite a few other categories that can be trimmed. It creates a daunting challenge, and I’m glad to see the AHA finally tackle it.

  4. Does the taxonomy really just reinforce what is considered acceptable object or method of study? How does this list or any list constrains the boundaries of the profession? It may have practical use but it also makes some things invisible. For example, under the “Americas,” it list indigenous people but doesn’t recognized hemispheric flow of goods, people and ideas. So you can study the U.S., Latin America, or Native people but not the hemisphere, unless you check “transnational” which still assumes the nation-state as having priority rather than cultural borders (which does not necessarily mean its neo-liberal globalization). “Intellectual” history also is unclear obscuring the history of thought regardless of who thought it. I have found the list frustrating when I am forced to choose three. Is there another way to communicate what each member does beside this outdate method of taxonomy?

  5. This reminds me of an essay Russell McCutcheon wrote, called “Classification and the Dog’s Breakfast,” (in his volume _The Discipline of Religion_.) In it, he critiques the assortment of AAR groups–which include “Religion and Politics,” “Kierkegaard Studies,” and “Hinduism.”

    In the AAR, these are groups, so of course there are special interests and politics involved. There’s something at stake. So, what’s at stake here? Whose interests are being served or not? It will be interesting to see how new taxons are utilized–in job calls, conference panels, etc.

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