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The Perils of Particularism: Political History After Hartz

From: Journal of Policy History
Volume 11, Number 3, 1999
pp. 313-322 | 10.1353/jph.1999.0005

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Journal of Policy History 11.3 (1999) 313-322

Perspectives in Policy History

A sea-change has occurred in political historywriting since the 1950s. Gone, for the most part, are many of the broad, sweeping generalizations that used to characterize this field. The terms employed in such endeavors -- the American Mind, the American Way of Life, American Civilization, the American Spirit (all titles of books published in the mid-twentieth century)--seem anachronistic, if not downright ridiculous, today. Whatever it is that defines the values and direction of American politics, this set of cultural markers seems a good deal more elusive today than it did to scholars like Louis Hartz, Daniel Boorstin, and Richard Hofstadter in the postwar era. In the place of studies of America, the disciplines of history, political science, and sociology have turned to careful, highly focused studies of particular eras, areas, and groups. National character is out, local cultures are in. The venerable nation-state is out, replaced by regions, states, cities, or even smaller territorial and nonterritorial units. As Thomas Bender noted recently:

For some time the field of American history has been divided into embarrassingly short time periods as well as into the subfields of political, economic, intellectual, and social history. But even more ominous is the rise in recent years of a new kind of division within social history. Specialization now focuses on social groups within society. These subfields, because they represent real populations in the American past, are easily assumed collectively -- and in a simplistically cumulative manner -- to constitute American history. So we have the history of women, blacks, labor, immigrants, and so on as special fields of study. Each is studied in its own terms, each with its own scholarly network and discourse.

This movement -- broadly stated, from synthesis to particularism -- might also be considered as part of a more general intellectual movement within the humanities and the social sciences. There is no question that the embrace of the particular constitutes a methodological/epistemological reorientation of some considerable dimension. I shall concern myself here only with the study of American political history, but it is probably worth considering these questions within broader rubrics as well.

By particularism, then, I mean two things: first, narrowly defined topics, and second, an approach to the task of explanation that focuses on explaining the event in question rather than on building conceptual and theoretical tools that might explain a larger range of cases. Of course, theory has not been entirely ignored; surely there are at least as many theoretical frameworks circulating among historywriters today as there were several decades ago. But these theories tend to be all-encompassing, and poorly specified. They float hazily above the surface of the text, and writers demonstrate little attention to the development of generalizable causal propositions.

What I am advocating, then, in opposition to what I have labeled "particularism," is not science per se but rather theory, of the middle-range sort that Robert Merton identified many years ago. Indeed, many of those writers I wish to criticize are irreproachably scientific (in the sense of using operational concepts and quantifiable indicators) in their approach to the study of history. (By the same token, the best exemplars of middle-range theory are often historians who never employed so much as a pocket calculator.) This essay, rather, attempts to come to grips with what has been lost since historical writing began to eschew epic scale and causal analysis as modes of apprehending the past. My argument, perhaps already apparent, is that the move toward particularism within the field of political history has involved a set of costs that has not been fully acknowledged or appreciated.

As my primary foil, I shall use Joyce Appleby's 1992 presidential address to the Organization of American Historians. Appleby, as many readers will recognize, is an odd choice for this task since her own work is hardly particularistic. However, this address represents a rare attempt to articulate in a relatively concise fashion the practices and perspectives of historywriting in the post-1950s world. As a state-of-the-discipline piece, it offers an excellent synopsis of a nonsynopsizing genre. Perhaps it could have been written...


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