Merlin Chowkwanyun has a fantastic post responding to a guest post of mine at the U.S. Intellectual History Blog. My post is entitled Diagnosis – Intellectual Historian, and Merlin’s response is entitled The Taxonomy Fetish: Another View on the Intellectual History in the History of Medicine and Public Health.
I have so much respect and admiration for Merlin’s work, that if he thinks I am way off about something, I am generally tempted simply to express thanks and take the correction. This sounds gratuitous, but I am absolutely serious. And indeed, I do generally take the ultimate point regarding the dangers of fetishizing taxonomy. Along the way, however, I do have some items of disagreement that might be worth noting in the interests of continuing a fascinating and productive exchange.
Merlin sees in my post
two questionable claims: 1) the supposed dominance of social and cultural historians in the field and 2) the sharp dualism the essay erects between “social and cultural history” on one hand and “intellectual history” on the other, one that I find false.
He continues by arguing that
Most historians of medicine and public health would probably self-classify as “social and cultural” historians. But that doesn’t mean intellectual history is marginalized or excluded. Actually, it’s the exact opposite. At least for the past 50 years, intellectual history has been a central part of the field.
Merlin then goes on to discuss a number of marvelous and important books in the history of medicine and public health, and shows unequivocally that many of them make use of techniques drawn from intellectual history or the history of ideas in supporting their claims. I agree entirely with Merlin that one can certainly find many such examples. But respectfully, I did not claim the nonexistence of such. Of course medical and public health historians draw on intellectual histories in their arguments, but such does not IMO establish that the larger works that Merlin is citing are intellectual histories, any more than my utilizing techniques of social and cultural history in what I aim as a work of intellectual history transforms the latter into social and cultural histories. (If readers, like Merlin, do not like this kind of distinction, bear with me, for below I indicate that I generally share the dislike). Indeed, the subtitle of the amazing Framing Disease anthology that Merlin cites is “Studies in Cultural History.”
I suppose Merlin might well respond that if it is so easy to find examples of major historians in the field readily drawing on intellectual history, that undermines my claim regarding the dominance of social and cultural history in the field. This might well be true, although I tend to suspect that we might in the end only be quibbling over the margins. It seems undeniable to me that the New Social Turn was taken up in earnest in the history of medicine and public health, largely for the reasons internal to the history of the field that Merlin notes. If Merlin’s argument is that there has always been more room for intellectual history in the field than my post suggests, I have no real disagreement other than to note two follow-up questions:
First, “how much more room” is there, and second, “to whom is the space extended?” The first might be a question where Merlin and I would disagree but a little if at all, so I’d like to look at the second question here.
The examples Merlin cites are all of eminent historians, and it is well-established in the political economy of scholarship in higher ed that more seasoned and more senior scholars may have more license than junior scholars. This is undeniably true with regard to interdisciplinary scholarship, where the difficulties and perils are simply different for junior than senior scholars (I am certainly not suggesting that this is a good thing).
Given the extent of his disagreement with my post, Merlin wonders wherefrom I derive the claims adduced in it, which is an entirely legitimate question. I will admit right off the bat that, in part, being a junior interdisciplinary scholar often seems to commend a habitual posture of defense (again, just a description, not an endorsement). Such a habit might well make it more likely that I would see obstacles and dangers around every corner, creating a kind of self-fulfilling intellectual paranoia. (This is my musing, not anything Merlin said or implied!). There is no doubt this is the case, and knowing my habits and my idiosyncrasies, is one reason I reached out to some trusted mentors to affirm the skewed nature of my concerns, as I noted in the original post:
I presumed this was simply plain old junior faculty paranoia – until several trusted and senior colleagues concurred that it could indeed present some difficulties.
It is of course quite possible that I am simply misinterpreting the advice I was given, and that really I am out on a limb with the concerns that I expressed in the original post. And if such is the case, I am really, really glad to be in error here. Really! But I wonder.
This leads to the last point, which is Merlin’s warning about the fetishization of taxonomy:
At worst, for those who take them a little too seriously, they can encourage fetishization of taxonomies that, at most, should serve as loose indicators of one’s approach, not hard-and-fast boundaries sharply demarcating fields. The latter can encourage practitioners to self-balkanize and pledge allegiance to a certain mode of thinking over others, rather than read widely to try and synthesize a diversity of approaches. This tendency is especially dangerous with early-career scholars or graduate students, who should be feeling out as much analytic, methodological, and substantive terrain as possible.
Merlin is unquestionably correct here. I take his admonishment; indeed, I am trained as an interdisciplinary scholar, so, at risk of hubris, I can say that avoiding disciplinary and methodological taxonomies — at least to the extent of fetishization — is literally an intellectual modus operandi in which I came up as a scholar. But I think there’s an important distinction that was implied but which was poorly explained (if at all) in my post. There is, sadly, an undeniable gulf between what kinds of practices are good for scholarship and the production of knowledge and what kinds of practices are likely to be successful in the political economy of higher ed (i.e., publishing, teaching, tenure & promotion, etc.) Obviously, reasonable people of good conscience can disagree on the extent of the chasm, and any such gap at all is lamentable, but one would be hard-pressed to deny its existence. There are two possibilities here: one is that I am overstating, perhaps considerably, the extent to which entire works of intellectual history have difficulty finding a home within the discourse community of the history of medicine and public health. The second is that I am closer to the mark.
The second possibility here presents a potential obstacle solely within that political economy, within the subfield (because it might well make it harder to get papers published, conference presentations accepted, etc.). To the extent this claim is at all valid, I respectfully do not think that (correctly) detailing the intellectual deficiencies of disciplinary and field-based methodological taxonomies is responsive, because it does nothing to address the sociological fact about the state of the subfield. Now, even if Merlin agrees with me on this narrow point, he has already demonstrated that he rejects my characterization of the field as such, a point discussed above (and again, about which I suspect we are likely in closer agreement than one might think in reading our two posts together).
So, those are some preliminary perspectives. I am obviously going to reread and reflect a bit more on Merlin’s post. I doubt there is any correction I could accept more cheerfully than this one, for it means that my concerns are at least to some extent overblown, and that there is indeed far less dissonance than I had (literally?) imagined for the kind of historiography I want to write.
(edited for clarity)