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  • The Herd Mentality and Russian Studies

The following remarks are adapted from Michael David-Fox's presentation at the panel "Historical Agendas and Russian Studies Journals after 2000 C.E." at the 32nd National Convention of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Denver, Colorado, 11 November 2000.

The first big question I want to raise on the topic of journals and historical agendas is: does the dog wag the tail, or does the tail wag the dog? Do mainstream or dominant agendas in the field inexorably reflect themselves in our journals, or do the journals really shape the agendas?

Russian studies in this country is a young field, born institutionally after the late 1940s. At least in the areas I know best – late imperial and Soviet history – its intellectual history could be interpreted as at least in part shaped by a succession of dominant approaches and concerns that have risen and then, after a time, clashed with their successors. ("Dominant approaches and concerns" is the charitable name for it; the uncharitable name for it is fads and herd mentalities). These successive, dominant preoccupations have been both thematic and chronological.

There was a time, for example, when late imperial history was obviously the center of gravity in the entire field. Interest in both 1917 and in NEP/the 1920s waxed greatly and then waned. Large-scale but narrow preoccupation with the decade of the 1930s is currently such that we might even talk about "1930s Studies." We are now obviously on the cusp of a great wave of post-war history that, as discussed in a recent issue of Kritika, threatens to "skip" WWII. 1 In terms of methodologies and dominant approaches, I will not belabor the point in discussing how political, social, and cultural history have been defined – except to note that their definitions have been connected to perceptions about dominant or "mainstream" historiographical trends, and that in that context they have all too often been cast as simply standing in opposition to one another. If we were to pay attention to how chronological and methodological inclusions and exclusions have intersected in our own field – to a fraction of the degree to which many of us have been trained to unravel the way class, gender, and ethnicity intersect in history – we might well come up with revealing conclusions. [End Page 1]

One byproduct of all this is that the development of the field has been punctuated by a series of thematic and chronological booms and busts. It could be argued that this is the way historical scholarship in general develops, of course, with new periods and new paradigms at the center of professional advance (and self-advance). But it is not hard to also make the case that they are damaging to the development of historical scholarship and are, arguably, noticeably more present in this relatively new field than in others.

Have journals reflected or caused the herd mentality? Here I think the answer is mixed. A strong case can be made that the perceptions of the field's successive "centers" and "peripheries" are themselves in fact gross oversimplifications, in part artifacts of the field's folklore. Many scholars throughout the history of Russian studies continued to research and publish important work (sometimes only rediscovered or upgraded in importance later, once the paradigms changed) on various fronts in fields considered "out" or obscure. At other times, a "hot" field (one thinks today of the history of religion and of empire) is promoted by journals in part because it in fact redresses serious past imbalances. In certain other cases, moreover, bids for methodological hegemony were made more in books and collections of essays than in the journals. Many other factors – relating to the discipline of history as a whole, trends in European history, the publishing business, and so on – go well beyond the putative impact of Russian studies journals. In the end, given our own discipline's serious neglect of its own history, and the fact that the question about the tail and the dog is really a very thorny question in the sociology of knowledge, I can do little more than for the moment raise it as...


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