“Academic” vs. “Popular” History

Dan TodmanI just ran across an interesting post about the ongoing conflict between ‘academic’ and ‘popular’ history on a blog by Dan Todman, a Lecturer in Modern British History at Queen Mary University of London. It treats issues similar to those discussed on AHP in February with respect to the Wikipedia entry on History of Psychology.

Todman’s point of view is clear enough from the rhetorical question with which he opens the piece: “Is the ‘history boom’, like a toxic algal bloom, poisoning itself?” However, he has a number of quite thoughtful things to say about the distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history not simply being about the number of letters after one’s name.

So let’s be clear – my difficulties aren’t about who gets to take part, but rather about the lack of ambition that means that history has to be presented as easy, and the consequences of that. History is hard – it involves the weighing of incomplete and often contradictory sources to analyse the past as well as to construct a narrative. You have to be able to make judgements about that evidence – as writer and as reader – to improve your understanding of the past. You don’t always get it right the first time. But being hard doesn’t mean that it’s impossible, or only for those with the right combination of letters after their name. All of these things are not complicating barriers to entry: they are the very essence of what we do…

But he also points the finger at publishers, whose choices about what to publish, he says “seem both to underestimate the reader and to block the way to the really good work we know is being done.” Of course academics have long had to deal with the unfortunate fact that the institution they have contracted to distribute their works — publishers — have entirely different interests at heart, viz., sales rather than intellectual quality. This is why, early in the decade, I was (futiley) arguing that scholars should use the internet revolution to free themselves from their “Faustian Bargain” (to use Stevan Harnad’s phrase) with publishers (here, here, and here).

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.