Is there some reason why we identify ourselves as a particular type of historian? Jonathan Dresner took up this question, looking at his tendency (and that of his colleagues) to see themselves as social historians. Despite covering a broad range of topics (political, legal, diplomatic, …), ‘social’ is a convenient means of describing a broad variety of interest and techniques.

Why is it that graduate students tend to think of themselves as cultural historians? Why is there an impetus to define ourselves under this category when our topics of interest can vary. I have always had an uncomfortable relationship with cultural history. I feel that many graduate advisors (not mine) push their students into this field: social history is messy, forcing researchers to consider a broad, potentially infinite, range of archival documents; cultural history is clean, using theory to draw attention to a smaller number of documents. Moreover, recruiters seemed to be more interested in testing applicants loyalties to particular constellations of culturalists (both theorists and historians) than examining the rigor with which the applicants research and teach. Every introduction must spout off a list of critics in order to put the student’s acumen for theory on display (as well as to display an biases). Under these pressures, this generation of graduate students is forced to define itself as necessarily post-Foucauldian.

(I encounter this problem continually whenever I attempt to describe my own research. There is a tendency to regard regionalism, in contemporary politics and history, as a cultural problem that requires cultural methods and that, most importantly, confirms the importance of culture. In my research I have realized that the role of culture becomes limited. As ideas about the meaning of place are explored, regional identities become difficult to maintain. They are rend between the universalism of the nation and the specificity of the local. In order for a regional movement to succeed, it must inevitably base itself in the realm of political activism rather than cultural conservatism. The interesting question is how it becomes political, allowing culture to play a selective role.)

Should graduate students who use cultural methods call themselves cultural historians? Not necessarily. Most of them are standing on the shoulders of the social historians who came before them, even as they criticize their predecessors. Moreover, the relationship between the social and cultural is uncomfortably symbiotic rather than antagonistic. Indeed, our research might involve questions of social structure (just not in the strictly constructed Marxian sense). Or our exploration of cultural developments require reference to economic and class. But it is admittedly unattractive, potentially damaging, to place oneself at odds with the currents within the profession (the same way that we must also describe ourselves as world historians, comparative historians, etc.).