Saturday, July 26, 2008

Why I Study History

When I was younger (19 or so) I had an.. um... let's just call it a mind-expanding experience. It became so clear to me all of a sudden just how far we as a society are from our roots, or from our foundations. I mean this in a pretty concrete way. From a handful of extended family tribes living close to the earth, we built up these incredibly complex civilizations - technology, religion, bureaucracy, global transportation, trade, electronics, communications. We take it all for granted: cities, highrises, airplanes, universities, supermarkets. But most of it is pretty new.

Catastrophe is always lurking around the corner, as a potentiality. Climate change is one likely trigger for many potential catastrophes, and it is possible that our civilization will end with it. Think about Rome. It was around for a thousand years, and it fell. In post-Roman Britain, for instance, with nobody to maintain the infrastructure in the cities there was hunger and plague. People pretty much abandoned the cities and went back to barely scratching out a living, with small scale subsistence farming. These were what we know as the Dark Ages. If it could happen then, it can happen now. And eventually it will. That is certain; the time frame and causes are less so.

Humans have found and continue to find many solutions to the problems of survival. We must fulfill our needs for shelter, food, companionship, etc. But we have a lot of flexibility in exactly how we do this. The incredible variety and creativity of solutions that people have found become apparent when studying in a field like history (and probably anthropology, too). I love learning how different peoples have organized their societies: the religions and culture and social structures, the ethics and cuisine and mythologies.

In addition, if there are so many different ways we have organized our societies, than that tells me that this particular one is not the immutable reality. That means there is also hope for change. We can do things differently, because we have already done them differently in the past. I wrote a whole theoretical paper going into this in more detail - if anyone is interested, I can post it here (here, actually).

As some of you know, I'm currently working on an MA in History (and International Relations) and considering applying to do a PhD. Problem is, I am interested in everything and have such trouble deciding what to focus on. But I'm pretty sure at least that I want to stay in the field of history.


Larry Gambone said...

Dominator society has only been around for about 6000 years and only became predominant in the last 3000. Many societies, such as the Iroquois confederacy achieved a high level of social organization and a village based agricultural economy without creating either class division or the state. In the long term of things, our system of having a handful of psychopathic bullies dominate and exploit us is the oddity. I suspect we will be forced to abandon dominator society or destroy ourselves.

Scott said...

Hey Jenny.

I'm constantly torn about whether academia might be a space for me to do that kind of work, so I'm always interested in learning about the experiences of others who have chosen to go down that path. What do you think of trying to do radical intellectual work in the context of the academy? What do you think of the experience of graduate school?

Toban said...

There's a lot of room to sprawl out in Sociology. That's the discipline that I'm moving into (after completing degrees in Media Studies, Library & Information Science, and English). (Before I decided to apply to Media Studies and Communications programs I wasn't planning to complete a Phd, so the other studies weren't as academic.)

Switching disciplines is a challenge, mind you. I was at a disadvantage when it came to Phd applications, and I've done a lot of extra work a couple of times when I switched disciplines.

In Sociology there still are constraints in terms of topics and approaches, but not as much as in other Humanities and Social Sciences fields.

Red Jenny said...

Larry, I tend to agree with you. The fact that there have been alternatives to dominator societies gives me hope that there will be again.

Scott, I think academia has many problems, but many opportunities. For me, it has been the right place, but I dropped out many years ago because at that time it wasn't the right place.

Toban: too many stats in sociology for me, although I like the field, the methodology is too hard for me.

Scott said...

Thanks Jenny...a sensible and measured answer!

With respect to sociology and stats: I have a friend who is a sociology professor who, when he is doing his schtick to connect with a new batch of undergraduates that he's going to be teaching, often bonds with them over a shared dislike of statistics. He lets them know that he managed to get all the way from 1st year undergraduate sociology student to full professor of sociology without ever having taken a statistics course, to give them hope that it is, indeed, possible!