Tuesday, April 13, 2004

Metaphor, Theory, and History

Towards the end of his 2001 critique of "whiteness studies," Eric Arnesen charges that scholars used "Whiteness" as simply a metaphor for social status or ranking. Arnesen's point, was that whiteness theory added nothing to earlier attempts to understand white racial identity. In its present (2001) state, whiteness studies were empiricallycally barren and undertheorized. It might be an attractive metaphor (all immigrants had to "become white"), but ultimately, it flattened out the past in an oversimplistic and inaccurate way.

At the time, I thought that Arnesen's critique was devastating. I still do. But lately, it has me thinking about the common way that metaphosubstitutesbstitues for theory in historical writing. In a sense, we historians are an untheoretical lot. We simply aren't trained for it. We don't (usually) have any pretensions to THE SCIENTIFIC METHOD. Mostly, we try to go into the archives with a fairly simple question, find a good hook to hang the evidence on, "get the story right," and tie it to some important issue. Sometimes this might be related to contemporary issues. Other times, it might even be tied to some kind of theory (see efforts in the 1970s to determine the precise moment that the United States became CAPITALIST). But even the most sophisticated theorists rarely go about using theory in the rigorous manner that (good) social scientists do. You can't. Historians are expected to be comprehensive in a way that I think social scientists aren't. Not consulting certain archives, records, or other sources can be damning, regardless of how good your evidence or how elegant your argument (quantitative historians seem largely exempt from this rule, probably because most historians don't know enough statistics to engage their arguments in the first place). The upshot is that historians, even devotees of Foucault, or (in the elder days) Marx mostly rely on metaphors to do the theoretical work for them. This has many advantages. A metaphor, particularly if it's catchy, can double as the "pre-colon" title of a book or article (the post-colon part tells what the book is actually about). This, of course, has the added bonus of the book's argument doubling as the title. Even the best researched books, thus, get reduced to their metaphor (think "imagined communities", "the middle ground," or "the wages of whiteness").

I bring this up because it relates to the title of this blog and, incidentally, my dissertation. At a fairly early stage in my academic career, I decided that I was going to study immigrants in the South and the way that they adjusted to the color line. This led me to a "how Italains became white in Birmingham" MA thesis, and eventially a (still in progress) dissertation on the same subject. Though the topic was the same, it was clear, even as I wrote my MA thesis, that the argument of the dissertation would have to be different. What I have settled on is the metaphor of "Ambiguous Spaces." The idea is that immigrants to the South often set up places like stores in black neighborhoods or lived in racially transitional areas where the rules of the color line were often ignored. My dissertation follows the rise and fall of these places and the effect that they had on race relations in Birmingham. In time honored fashion, I also realized that my metaphor can be ripped from its original context and be used to describe my professional activities--working in an interdisciplinary undergraduate program where boundaries between disciplines are blurred and ignored. So this blog is my attempt to combine my efforts to finish my dissertation with my present job (which I like, but wish it offered more opportunities to discuss some of the big questions like "what does disciplinary mean?" Hopefully, I'll also get a chance to post some random book and cd reviews. Cheers.


Sunday, April 11, 2004


This blog is sort of a catch-all for my interests, mostly academic and professional. It should function as part dissertation journal, part comment on the fields of distance education and interdisciplinary studies (from the perspective of a skeptical advocate). Most posts will inevitably be various musings on subjects which I don't really have a forum to discuss in my everyday life. Great fun of course.


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