Historical Scholarship as a Subordinate Enterprise

I was recently speaking with a very prominent psychiatrist about the history and science of various mental illnesses, and he told something along the lines of “what historians can do to help is to explain how diseases came to be defined as they are; that way we can have a better idea of what we are dealing with.” I looked at him for a moment, and thought to myself: “Fine, but what can you do to help me?” Of course I didn’t say that. The question of what he could do to help historians better understand the past had clearly never crossed his mind. So I just nodded and smiled and muttered something that he didn’t find particularly interesting. We soon moved on to talking about the beer selection.

I mention this anecdote to bring up what I consider one of the central problems facing historians and other scholars in the humanities interested in doing interdisciplinary work: our relatively lowly status in the institutional and epistemological academic food chain. I’ve very much enjoyed reading both Michelle McClellan‘s and Trysh Travis’s posts about the general lack of interest among feminist scholars toward addiction studies, but my initial response to both posts was: “hey, disinterest may not be so bad. At least they aren’t insulting you.” I’ve spent a bit of time here and there working with people from the so-called “hard” sciences, and I’ve found it surprisingly easy to walk away from those conversations feeling a bit put off. I don’t think the scientists involved in these conversations have been intentionally trying to insult me, but they sure have done a good job at it nonetheless – and I’m not particularly sensitive to such things. Here, then, is an issue that I think those of us working in the humanities need to confront: the assumed subordinate position of our disciplines to the sciences in the hierarchy of academic knowledge production.

Read more