Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Houses of History by Anna Green and Kathleen Troupe.

The Houses of History is an epistemological examination of the 12 major theoretical perspectives that have informed historical study over the last century. The twelve schools are: Empiricism, Marxism, Psychohistory, Annales, Historical Sociology, Quantitative History, Anthropological/Ethnohistory, Narrative History, Oral History, Feminist/Gender History, Postcolonial and Poststructuralist.

Each of the twelve gets a two-part chapter. Part One is composed of a thorough explanation that is as immensely informative and desert dry as one would expect. Part Two presents a writing sample or chapter by an exemplary proponent of the school discussed.

The authors are both college professors in New Zealand. Indeed, this book is from an introductory History and Theory course they co-teach at the University of Waikato. As a result, Professors Green and Troup are used to explaining the intricacies of historical theory to undergraduates. Neither writer is forceful in putting-forth a favorite theory, or damning a foolish notion. However in the Part One descriptions of their chapters, the authors will present conflicting views between and within the schools. This presentation permits the reader to draw her own conclusions regarding the effectiveness of varying perspectives.

In their presentation, the professors sometimes fail to illustrate newly introduced terms and ideas with examples. For example, when they discuss how, in the 1940s “A.R. Radcliffe-Brown combined functionalism with a structural perspective,” a morsel of his writing, illustrating what this looked like would have been useful (Green & Troupe, p. 173). This is less a problem in a classroom using the text, where a student can raise her hand and ask for an example or a fuller explanation. But a little too much abstraction is perhaps a forgivable occupational hazard with theorists.

Another area of concern is some anti-intellectual, political correctness in the work. New Zealand, like the US, has a tragic history of genocide and oppression towards pre-colonial native populations. As a result, there is a tendency in academia to bend-over backward, showing how open-minded we are regarding native views, even at the expense of accuracy. In the “Postcolonial Perspectives” chapter, the Part Two writing sample chosen is mythical, racist and lacking citation or confirmation. Henrietta Whiteman, discussing her great-grandmother White Buffalo Woman, is comparable to promoting The Bible as history. Religious beliefs, for example “Cheyennes keep this earth alive through their ceremonies” are presented with reverence and without examination (Green & Troupe, p. 289). Hatred towards whites is expressed first, in the judgment that their tight clothes make them “narrowly exclusive, insular and illiberal.” The discussion degenerates from there to a description of the repugnant “strange odor” of whites described as a “murderer’s stench” (Green & Troupe, p. 290). I am reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s “Notes on the State of Virginia” where he talks about the “disagreeable odor” of his slaves. Whiteman is similarly bigoted. There is a great variety of Postcolonial history-writing that is analytical, scholarly and from the perspective of the invaded peoples. A better choice could have been made. But this is just one writing sample of a single “Part Two.”

On the whole, this is a valuable text for history lovers. It is useful to be able to look at an historian’s writing and determine her influences. Being able to critically examine the critical examiner will improve one’s insight. While dry and occasionally arcane, The Houses of History contributes to our understanding of our past. No greater compliment can be extended to a history book.

Green, Anna & Troup, Kathleen. The Houses of History. New York: New York University Press, 1999.