While the academic system of checks and balances is effective in weeding out social biases and works to actively sustain a culture of cooperation and collaboration, it also serves to rigidly enforce its own status quo. It can and often does function as a means by which to keep certain fields and arguments marginal.
To succeed as an academic you need the scholarly support of a lot of people. As a graduate student you need the support of your adviser, of your cohort, of the people reviewing your papers, and of your thesis committee. Once you have your degree, you will need the support of hiring committees, of peer reviewers, of your academic peers, and of your tenure committee.
I will present an example to illustrate how this can become a problem. You study women in colonial Argentina. The historian who founded this subfield made an argument which forms the foundation of that field. Further, everyone in this subfield either studied under the scholar who founded it, or under one of that person’s former students. This includes your adviser.
You, however, a precocious fourth year doctoral student, disagree with that argument; you think that the historical record says something completely different, and you decide to make this the subject of your dissertation. You present this argument to your adviser. Your adviser might then say “If you write your dissertation based on that argument, I will personally make sure that your dissertation committee fails you.”
Or perhaps you are already a professor in a tenure track position when you come to this conclusion about your subfield. You try to publish on your findings, or maybe you report your findings at a conference. Perhaps some people will give your findings and argument serious thought, but others may feel angry and scared, as if you are a threat to their jobs (and if their career is based in the existing framework, then you kind of are). You might be denied tenure in reprisal. You may be blacklisted among departments which value research in your subfield.
Academics can and do have their careers destroyed over this sort of thing, sometimes before their career can even begin. This happens in all fields, and tends to occur more in the Sciences than in the Humanities. Even when it does not overtly occur, new scholars in any field will always have some level anxiety before challenging the work of an established scholar, and there is no way of knowing how many of these people self-censor.
There is also the issue of specialization. I specialize in gender and Jewish history, right? Other people specialize in just gender history, or just labor history, or just immigration history. So let’s say we’re all looking at the people who worked in the garment industry in early twentieth century Manhattan. A labor historian would look at these people as workers first and foremost. A gender historian would focus on the fact that most of these workers were women. A Jewish historian would focus on the fact that a huge amount of these people were Jews. An immigration historian would focus on the fact that most of the workers were Jewish and Italian immigrants.
Each of these historians takes the subject and, based on their specialization, rips it into parts. In reality, most of these workers were Jewish and Italian women, and they need to be evaluated with those identities, along with their statuses as immigrants and members of the working class in mind because all of those factors and identities informed their experiences in America.
Thus, specialization can lead to the erasure of aspects of a population’s identity. And this is getting lengthy, so the next post will be about the form of historical bias which is slightly less structural than the ones discussed here.