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RETHINKING THE MYERS/METZGER CRITIQUE OF HISTORICAL METHOD by Herman Mast III History Department University of Connecticut Methodology and its Malcontents Like all scholars, Sinologists live with an unavoidable paiadox of method: we conduct our scholarship in an uneasy range somewhere between methodological bafflement and methodological certainty. On the one hand, we characteristically want to identify deep structures and analogies that are central to our subject. We also want to establish interrelationships between incremental change and a broader pattern of cumulative causation, and to build up models of social transformation that honestly reflect both specific phenomena and their dynamics. Each discipline of the Sinological social sciences promotes (or at least pays serious attention to} interpretive frameworks and paradigms, while claiming a certain independence from the metaphysical biases of previous generations. On the other hand, that independence is often in doubt because conceptual premises are taken too much for granted, are left unclear, or resist precise alignment with generalized explanations. Moreover, limited data are sometimes coaxed into models which--if not premature--generally prove to be (in Benjamin Schwartz's words) •infinitely easier to falsify than verify." Because of these (and other) abiding methodological limitations and shortcomings, it can easily appear that our analyses of causality are mere reductionism, that we prefer to keep our methodological assumptions inaccessible, or that our reach exceeds our grasp. Reductionism, unconscious or unthought-out assumptions, and conjecture, according to the main thrust of the Myers and Metzger critique, have rendered the methodology of modern China specialists basically deficient and irresponsible. Political and intellectual historians especially, they argue, are prone to assume that the outcome of the Chinese revolution, propelled by a progressive dialectic through identifiable linear stages, was logical and inevitable. However, the Marxist-Leninist model of political development is, in the words of Tom Metzger at our panel, "an arbitrary, not historically viable paradigm for the study of the past." For their colleagues' doctrinal assumption of Marxist determination, Myers and Metzger find a·variety of causes. First, poor training has led scholars to oversimplify and then to look for categorical answers to complex problems. In that frame of mind, they 11 assert, the power of scholastic formulas and paradigms over scholarship becomes almost irresistible. Second, the profession is opportunistic or duplicitious about the United States's two-China policy. Third, and perhaps most crucial, Marxism is attractive for frustrated scholarly idealists because it permits them to empathize with their revolutionary subjects. The Myers and Metzger characterization ultimately reduces the typical Sinologist to a kind of pandering closet Hegelian whose epistemology is think, narrow, and unhistorical. Despite my own initial reaction of dismay and anger, I soon convinced myself that we should not make too much of the tone and style of the Myers/Metzger indictment. Sweeping criticism of the status quo invariably winds up sounding more condemnatory than intended and necessarily irritates its victims, I reasoned, but our irritation does not validate the criticism. Thus it would probably be a mistake to vent peevishness at the expense of substantive issues. After further reflection, I have concluded that it is indeed wrong to treat the aggressively negative style of the Myers/Metzger critique so casually. The radical discontent which they inject into their commentary at every turn ultimately cannot be separated from the commentary itself. More importantly, the style of their indictment exhibits some of the same faults of which they accuse their colleagues. Their condemnation of methodology, for example, arises in the context of logic that is often more emotional than intellectual--which helps explain why their polemic is in so many places a tissue of such notions as common sense would call poppycock. Their indictment is also so dogmatic and totalistic as to have a chilling effect on open inquiry. I have c6me to share with Pa~l Cohen and Ed Friedman the conviction that Myers and Metzger's overall approach to criticism is incompatible with a genuinely free marketplace of ideas, and with the spirit of decency and collegiality. am far from convinced that Myers and Metzger's prejudices do much to help us toward a more profound conception of method. Marxism and Methodology Myers and Metzger pay special attention to two...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1940-5065
Print ISSN
1521-5385
Pages
pp. 11-16
Launched on MUSE
2021-05-25
Open Access
No
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