Is it problematic to identify with the history you study?

18 Aug

Last semester, in a graduate writing course, I worked on a paper about radical feminist group The Furies.  During peer review a colleague said he got the sense that I “really like” my subjects and accused me of glorifying them.  I make no secret of the fact that I too am a lesbian feminist.  While Tom ponders being a man doing women’s work, so to speak, I ponder the question, what does it mean to identify (too?) closely with my subjects?  To share their sexual identity and many of their political beliefs?

In this same course there were several other scholars studying people with whom they identified in some way: race, ethnicity, education, religion, region.  Not one of them had their credibility questioned in the way mine was on several occasions.  Ultimately, the critique ended with, “these were just 12 women living in a house together – how important can they really be?”  Aside from the fact that my analysis of their historical significance is in line with the other historians who have studied them in-depth, I explained the evidence of their influence every week.  Most of our classmates studied equally small groups or relatively unknown individuals and yet somehow their work registered as legitimate.  Lesbian history just wasn’t important enough to register.

The humorous part of an insult that implied my work is driven not by historical material but my own politics is that, it too, was politically motivated.  Clearly, this individual devalues lesbians to the point of historical insignificance while also singling out a lesbian feminist voice as somehow problematic and “other.”   The thing is, we are all political.  All historians are motivated in various ways by their identities and values.  And in some way, we all connect with the people in the narratives we construct.  A heterosexual man writing a history of the The Furies would not relate to the members as I did, but that does not mean he would not have opinions about the behavior, the politics they pursued, or the changes they were trying to create.  And I guarantee that as a man, such a scholar would consider and relate to the men from whom these women sought to separate.  The issue is not whether you identity with your subjects as I do, or question your place as a scholar of the subjects you choose,  as Tom does at times.  Rather, it is about the consciousness you bring to every step of the process.

Those who know me well understand that I am pretty self-reflective about how my personal identity relates to, supports, and yes, hinders the work that I do.  There were moments in my thesis writing a few years ago when my advisor stopped me and said, Chelsea, these sentences sound angry.  She was right.  It was a learning moment, and the start of a process in which I constantly engage in a dialogue with myself about the questions I am asking, that arguments I am making, the sources I am using, and so on.  Isnt’ that something we should ask and expect of all scholars?  And as much as this is a solitary process, it is a collective one too.  We share late night discussions in department hallways when a spark ignites a new perspective, we swap drafts of papers and chapters, we suggest books to read and scholars to engage, and we shoot off sleep-deprived and coffee-hazed emails in what seem to be moments of brilliance.  Ultimately, we learn to find our own voices by understanding those of others.  This includes the voices of the women I study.

Yes, I identify with the people I study.  With a critical eye I am the better for it, not simply because of our commonalities, but because it pushes me to engage in an honest, regular conversation with myself about who I am and the scholarship I produce.

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6 Responses to “Is it problematic to identify with the history you study?”

  1. twodonnell August 18, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    I think this connects nicely with my earlier post because part of my hesitation about whether it is “appropriate” that I am an historian of women is that I am ultimately limited in my ability to identify with my subjects and thus, I feel/fear limited in my ability to always see the significance or nuance of my story. I am a white, middle-aged, educated, white-collar, heterosexual male. What the heck can I know about poor, young, single, immigrant working women a century ago? In a bit of a paradox (and thus probably most unsatisfying as an answer), I think our community of historians can help and hinder our studies when it comes to this question. Helped of course in the way your advisor was able to clearly see when you were displaying too much emotion in your writing or raise questions about the merit of particular conclusions (I am reminded of that essay by Cronon, “Stories,” which makes a similar point); and clearly hindered by a mindset that feels justified in determining and enforcing what is significant in our field. I remember in a cultural anthropology course I took, learning about emic and etic perspectives. One explains culture from an insider or member’s view and the other from an outsider’s. Both are essential to understanding and neither can fully explain everything. It’s an imperfect analogy but I see similarities in our respective situations. I think we have to identify in some way to our subject, if we don’t we’re just charter accountants. We’ll just keep looking for that perfect historian’s balance. I think this question of a historian’s identity and its relationship to their work is worth further exploration. (Oh, and to make an argument for something being insignificant based on the number of people involved is surprising to hear coming from an historian.)

  2. onlinewithzoe August 18, 2011 at 9:25 pm #

    12 women in a house – made history and I am so relieved that you are making people notice.
    I page through American women’s books to see what is said about 1982. Most recently, “Her Story: A Timeline of the Women Who Changed America,” and there is nothing about the ERA. I stop and think, what an ego trip to see if I am in there. And then I look a little deeper and think about the kids who will see this book in libraries and use it for their homework and I feel sick. Makes me FURIOUS, actually.

  3. lesbian historian August 18, 2011 at 9:43 pm #

    I’m sure I’ll come back to this theme time and again. The consideration is also one that extends beyond what I put on the page. There are few days in which I don’t question the balance between activism and scholarship in my own life. Forever the search for balance.

  4. Jacqueline Cole Antonovich August 19, 2011 at 9:05 pm #

    A professor at my undergrad institution once told me that if you look hard enough you will see that a historian’s focus touches them in some personal way. For some it’s obvious, for others it is more nuanced. I, for one, think that the diversity of historians and the topics that arouse their intellectual passions make the field more engaging and challenging. What a great start to what I hope will be an enduring and entertaining blog! Cheers!

  5. chelsea August 19, 2011 at 9:14 pm #

    Thanks, Jacqueline. And thanks too, for your quick comment when I first posted about the blog. It was just the kick in the pants we needed to actually get going. I hope you’ll contribute when the mood strikes!

  6. Chris Deutsch August 19, 2011 at 9:50 pm #

    I was originally interested in studying veterans (which I am) of a foreign conflict (which I technically am) and exploring their search for meaning in wartime (which I certainly did) or with radical (I am) students (I am) sick of war (I am). So I can understand this grappling. Instead, I study people who would hate my political beliefs (and probably me) and have trashed, personally and professionally, my intellectual forbearers. I am deeply interested in those who looked at Civil Rights, antiwar protesters, and the student revolution (a general youth revolt really) (which leads into a wave of feminism and a redefining of many gender roles in society, most notoriously sex) and they could only see the long hand of Moscow reaching into the free world to topple its institutions through the subverting its youth. Does this oppositional stance presume an inability to write a scholarly, honest, and just account? If one can be too close can one be too far? Or, can only opposed people write history (if so, who writes histories of historians)? The digression is meant to remind us that academic distance is essential but we should not assume based purely on perceived similarities!

    In fact, I love history because yesteryear’s politics are dead [sic]. Example: arguing today over the war in Vietnam’s morality cannot change the course of the war; only reinforce our current political identities. Thus the debate loses its immediacy. That is to say, I don’t care if you personally identify with the Furies, it is not 1971 and their story has played out. If you draw strength from their struggle, I am glad that you could find such a source—show me a Revolutionary War epic that has not inspired its writer or stirred allegiance to the Thirteen. Should we similarly banish Revolutionary War historians for lack of historical distance?

    I am glad to read about someone else stuck with this issue, for should someone ever note my ideological friendliness to the Free Speech Movement, I would have to answer such charges myself. In the end, remember that social categories are ephemera!

    And for the record, the Furies are extremely important in my not-as-well-informed-as-you-are opinion!

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