I’ve addressed common views of historical bias, what academia does in order to stem the influence of this bias, and the types of biases which are fostered by that very same academic system. Now I will discuss the most glaring and unchecked form of bias which may be detected in works of academic history. It is perpetuated by those who enjoyed Critical Thinking 101 a little bit too much.
For historians, the study of philosophy and theory are really intended to help us organize and analyze our own thinking, not to provide us with guidelines by which to construct our work. And on that count, they are effective; Gender Trouble—in addition to making me cry blood and scream WHYYYYY a couple of times—really helped me to organize my thoughts about gender history and was thus incredibly valuable to me as a historian.
Theory and philosophy are not, however, supposed to supply the outline of our theses and the guidelines of our thinking. We cannot assume that events were caused by the means of production, or the sexed body, or the ideological state apparatus, or the….whatever Foucault was talking about, and we cannot approach the historical record with the intent to make that record fit into the framework of our pet theorist/philosopher. That’s just crappy, irresponsible scholarship.
This happens a lot, and it is a problem. Some fields, particularly modernist fields like Latin American history, need theory more than others because some of those theories overtly shaped the trajectories of the stuff they study. However, some subfields are guilty of consistently using the work of theorists as guidelines rather than thinking aids and this dependency is perpetuated by the academic system of checks and balances.
This post originally included a discussion of modern history and certain modernist fields, but I soon realized that I was derailing my own post with that discussion (the material I removed was over 600 words long). Because of this, that material will be discussed in a separate post.