Journal of Social History

Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History. – Review

Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History. – Review – book review

Thomas Bender

Contesting the Master Narrative: Essays in Social History. By Edited by Jeffrey Fox and Shelton Stromquist (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998. 266pp.).

It is difficult to characterize this volume, which derives from a “Workshop on the Rhetoric of Social History,” organized at the University of Iowa in 1992, part of a larger “Project on the Rhetoric of Inquiry.” The essays are themselves quite diverse in focus, with specialists on United States, Mexican, South Asian, Japanese, and Chinese history participating. Although the title refers to social history, most of the essays employ a methodology fairly identified with intellectual or cultural history. There is also reference in the title to the notion of a “master narrative,” a concept quite loosely deployed here, with little recognition of its Hegelian origins and implications. In addition, the introduction devotes itself to a fairly pedestrian discussion of the objectivity crisis explored in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream (1988), one apparently uninformed by the important, reassuring, and quite differently grounded responses of Thomas L. Haskell (in History and Theory) and James Kloppenberg (in the American Historical Review). [1]

Rather than resorting to any of the characterizations offered by the title or by the editors, I would designate these essays as works of historical deconstruction, to adapt the phrasing of Ian Hacking’s recent definition of the mildest form of constructionism. Instead of Derridian theory, these critics are historical and straight-forwardly empirical, bringing forth new evidence and arguments to undermine widely accepted narratives (but not in any serious philosophical sense master narratives). The cases are generally well made: the essays on British feminism, the historiography of India, the rhetoric of the peasant in China, and gender in Mexican history seem fairly on target, but not surprising, partly, perhaps, because of the long interval between the time of the Workshop and the date of publication. The essay by Daud Ali on Indian historiography is particularly insightful on the relationship of social and political history in the colonial circumstance; had it come out in 1992, it surely would have been no ticed along with the much-cited work of Partha Chatterjee and Dipesh Chakrabarty that was published at that time.

The most important and provocative essays in the book, at least to me, were on United States history. Barbara Laslett argues the importance of gender in understanding the development of quantification and “scientism” in the social sciences. Her approach, more than any other essays, is grounded in social history. She sketches the early twentieth-century development of sociology through the life of W.F. Ogburn. Her claim for gender as a useful category of analysis seems strong in so far as it refers directly to him and his very particular personal and professional biography. But when she generalizes, which she does wildly, she seems to accept a kind of essentialism, assuming that females do not do quantitative social analysis and that it is a white male path to masculinity. In fact, quantitative methods were pioneered for political use by women and African Americans, ranging from those who undertook the Hull House Papers to Crystal Eastman, Margaret Byington, and other women involved in the Pittsburgh Survey, while the early W.E.B. DuBois, particularly in The Philadelphia Negro (1899), relied very much on quantitative methods and believed deeply in the power of objective data. It is thus difficult to draw an absolute gender or racial line, though the idea that gender is part of the story is probably correct, a point well made in the recent collection edited by Helene Silverberg, Gender and American Social Science (1998).

Essays by Ruth Crocker and Randolph Roth confront the much discussed issue of fragmentation and synthesis. They take different but compatible approaches, and they come to similar conclusions. (I should note that both frame their essays in terms of an essay of my own on this issue, and in varying ways their essays contest my argument.)

Croker uses the historical literature on the settlement movement as the foundation for her generalizations. She makes the important point that “what looked to some like ‘fragmentation’ in fact resulted from the democratization of the profession.” (176) She insists upon the presence and value of a multiplicity of historical narratives, and she recasts the issue of fragmentation and synthesis as one of “competing rhetorics.” (177) But she asks an important followup question: are historians engaged in a “conversation” or a “shouting match?” Her conclusion is that perhaps neither of these alternatives describes the present tendency for scholars to work in “parallel yet different rhetorical and ideological traditions.” (192) Responding to her own insight, she argues that it is essential and “possible to ‘listen in’ across subfields” toward the end of proposing “working interpretations,” if not a synthesis. (193)

Roth worries that the professional values of cosmopolitanism and of narrative mediation of conflict that so define the practice of those self-consciously democratic historians who advocate synthesis, including myself, fail to grasp how often these values inadvertently produce the exclusion of those voices whose orientation is parochial. He demonstrates his point with telling critiques (or, more precisely, retellings) of the stories that constitute (or might constitute) the synthetic work of Jean Baker, Eric Foner, Mary Ryan, Sean Wilentz, and myself, among others. His critique shows how even when a minority history is represented, the voice of that group is often silent. He argues that the logic of narrative coherence in the interest of compelling synthesis often produces these exclusions. In the end, he warns, the “democratic historians,” including myself, must take note that their own positions are not so far from the consensus and republican historians they criticize. It is a point well taken. It is impor tant, however, to notice that he does not see synthesis as inherently exclusionary. He draws attention to three great synthetic works that for him constitute a democratic historiography: the studies of reconstruction by DuBois and Foner and of the New South by Woodward. He praises them not only for their inclusiveness, but also because “they confront human limitation.” (237) [2] I am not sure that Woodward’s book fully meets the criteria by which he has judged a variety of other synthetic narratives, but the others do, and I would share his praise of them and urge us all to emulate them.


(1.) Thomas L. Haskell, “Objectivity is Not Neutrality: Rhetoric vs. Practice in Peter Novick’s That Noble Dream,” History and Theory, 29 (1990), 129-57; James Kloppenberg, “Objectivity and Historicism: A Century of American Historical Writing,” American Historical Review 94 (1989): 1010-1030.

(2.) W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935; New York, 1956); C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877-1913 (Baton Rouge, 1951); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (New York, 1988).

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