The report on history is concerned mainly with those persons—inside, but also outside, the historical profession—who are engaged in historical work of a social science character, and with that part of historical study and training that falls within the scope of social science. This focus has no invidious implications. On the contrary, the diversity of historical work reflects the diversity of the historian’s interests and of the evidence available to him; this diversity is a valuable, even indispensable, feature of the discipline.

Because history is not a unitary discipline, however, an inquiry of this kind assumes a special character. It cannot simply be addressed by the profession to the outside world. Instead it is addressed on behalf of one segment of the profession to both the discipline and the outside world. We have tried to convey the state of that part of history that is or would be social science, and to offer recommendations that would promote and improve this kind of work. As will be seen, many historians are inclined to greet such recommendations with doubt, scorn, anxiety, or hostility.

We believe the promotion of social scientific history is in the interest of all historians. The changing character of historical evidence, the development of new techniques and concepts in related disciplines, the growing body of research by nonhistorians into historical problems—all these imply that even those historians who are not themselves working in social science have to learn to read it and use it, if only to teach their students.

What is more, most of the material facilities required to promote social scientific history are by their nature facilities for the entire discipline. Better libraries, easier retrieval and dissemination of data, more generous arrangements for pre- and postdoctoral research, and similar improvements redound directly or indirectly to the benefit of all.

In return, these gains are dependent on the cooperation of all, for students of history as social science will always need training in all aspects of the discipline. If anything, the growing sophistication of social scientific techniques makes it all the more important for practitioners of these techniques to know and appreciate the humanistic approach to historical knowledge. We cannot afford to gain a world of numbers and models, only to lose our historical souls in the process.

There is already a large body of literature on the nature and method of history. There have been published in recent years a number of essays on the relation of history to social science. Many of these raise difficult epistemological questions about the nature of truth and evidence that we prefer to avoid. We have barely touched the classic questions of historical knowledge: To what degree can the historian ever free himself from the biases of his own time and place? Should he? Is there a special mode of historical knowledge based on empathy—the ability to put oneself into the skins of other people in other times and places? Are there laws, cycles, repetitions, irreversible trends in history? We have not seriously examined the role of historical thinking and materials outside the discipline of history—an important question in a day when economists, sociologists, political scientists, and many others are attempting to work with historical evidence. Instead, we have concentrated our attention on history as a discipline and profession, with special attention to the social scientific sector, loosely defined. The kinds of questions we ask are: Who are the historians? What do they do? How do they work? What do they want and need? And what can be done about it?

The first large section of the report treats the discipline of history in general and seeks to define the characteristics of social scientific history in terms of ideal types. It includes summary findings of a survey of about six hundred working historians which the panel undertook in the spring of 1968. The next section describes some of the varieties of social scientific history, their achievements, limitations, and promise. Then we turn to the resources, working, and needs of the profession—first in teaching, then in research. A special section is devoted to library problems; another, to the role of foreign scholars. Finally, we sum up the observations and recommendations made along the way.

The nature of history

“The contribution of history is perspective. This is no small matter.”

If we are to concentrate on history as social science, we need some sense of what sets history off from other social sciences. The contribution of history is perspective. This is no small matter. It is only too easy and tempting for each generation (especially the more sensitive members of each generation) to see the tests and troubles of its own time as unique. For many, what is past is past, what matters is now and sometimes later. This is particularly true of social engineers who, however much they may be motivated by the recollection of past wrongs, do not want to be discouraged by the record of past mistakes. In defense of this “ostrich approach,” it must be admitted that history has been misused as a stick to beat reformers and block change.

Yet never is the perspective of history so valuable as when men try to shape their destiny, that is, try to change history. Then, if ever, man has to know how he came to this pass; otherwise he is condemned to repeat his errors or at best to blunder through one difficulty only to arrive at another. In this sense history, if read correctly, should help make men wise. Not everyone would agree. There has always been a body of opinion within the historical profession that has denied the possibility of an objective history—for the very cogent reason that it is simply impossible for the historian to perceive the past except through eyes distorted by personal values and sympathies. Each man, in this view, is his own historian. As for the lessons of history, men choose these to their purpose. De Gaulle called on France’s tradition of greatness and power to justify his break with NATO; his adversaries pointed to the experience of two world wars to show the necessity of European cooperation. Israelis cite Jewish history to demonstrate the justice and passion of their attachment to the Holy Land; Palestinians point to their own history—as recorded in the Bible—to argue that they were there first. Some supporters of the American military intervention in Vietnam have drawn an analogy to Munich and the appeasement of the 1930s to justify firmness in the face of totalitarian aggression; some of their opponents have gone back to ancient Athens for lessons in the folly of arrogance.

History is not alone in this respect. One could cite any number of other examples of self-serving analogy, even of conflicting inferences from the same body of evidence, from any of the behavioral and social sciences. Indeed, a lawyer might remark that this is the human condition: people will always see things differently—that is what keeps the courts busy.

It would be a serious mistake, however, to infer from these difficulties that our ignorance is inevitable and irreducible. Just as courts have developed over time adversary procedures and principles of evidence designed to promote the pursuit of truth and justice, so social scientists, including historians, have invented techniques for the collection, verification, and appraisal of evidence as a means of understanding man’s motivations and behavior. The understanding that results cannot be complete or definitive: the social scientist typically deals with a realm of probability, but as his techniques have become more refined and powerful, the probabilities and usefulness of his answers have increased.

The gains have been greatest in those areas where the social scientist has been able to simplify his problems by exclusion of all but a few paramount variables. The best example is economics. History, by comparison, has and always will have a hard time: the matter to be studied is inherently complex (some would say, infinitely complex) and resistant to simplification. That, however, only makes the task harder and the results of inquiry necessarily looser. It does not rule out a closer approach to the goal of truth.

Historians have often treated the complexity and particularity of their material as a good in itself. They have pursued the essential wisdom by immersing themselves in a particular time and place until they absorb its ethos, its rules of action, its everyday routines. The deep immersion sometimes produces marvelous reconstructions of the past, as when a Jacob Burkhardt takes us to Renaissance Italy. It also has a “privatizing” effect: historical work becomes an intensely personal thing and hence indivisible, noninterchangeable, perhaps even incommunicable.

This point of view has interesting consequences for the historian’s attitude toward research as an activity competing with other activities for scarce time. If the product of research is personal, it is not necessarily cumulative or additive. Some research is worth doing because of the subject and the person doing it, but much work is a waste of time, the writer’s and the readers’. Hence the remark of one of our correspondents:

“We need Malthusian restraint in research, not expansion, support, or encouragement. Demand quality and accept no substitutes.”

For similar reasons historians are often suspicious of courses in methodology and hostile to any kind of normalization of research procedure. If historiography is art, it cannot and must not be reduced to some kind of routine.

These values have, to be sure, a strong intellectual justification. Insofar as history attempts to see things whole, it is more dependent than other disciplines on individual perceptions. Interpretation and understanding are never routine; there are too many variables to reduce the analysis to some kind of procedure. Hence it is important that each scholar dig down to bedrock. He comes with new questions and concepts to old material as well as new; and if he permits himself to rely entirely on the ruminations of others, he has given half the game away.

It is one thing to justify this attitude in principle, however, and another to establish it as a moral absolute. Nothing comes free, and the insistence on “original” research is bought at a price. No other discipline builds so slowly, because the members of no other discipline are so reluctant as historians to stand on the shoulders of others. All historians can recall criticisms of colleagues and students on the ground that their work was too derivative at one point or another, that it relied too heavily on secondary sources.

A look at historians

Does our picture of the historical profession seem exaggerated? What do individual historians say about their conditions? To get some idea, we asked them.

In April and May, 1968, the History Panel mailed a short questionnaire to about one thousand regular members of the history departments of twenty-nine American colleges and universities. Over the next six weeks, roughly six hundred of those historians returned usable questionnaires, forty sent word of their refusal or inability to answer, one hundred replied in some other form, and two hundred and sixty did not respond at all. In the selection of departments the Panel intentionally emphasized large, prestigious graduate departments, but also included six good institutions where there was little or no training of graduate students in history. The twenty-nine departments together gave 64 percent of the PhDs in history granted in the United States during 1960–66.

The sample therefore provides a fairly good picture of what is going on in the institutions giving the bulk of American historians their advanced training, even if it seriously underrepresents the smaller and less prestigious departments.

The topographic map of the profession that emerges shows a rough, uneven terrain. Four fundamental features are shown by the data: (1) a rather unequal distribution of historical specialties among different sorts of departments and academic positions; (2) wide variation in research interests, needs, and support according to special field, type of institution, and position within the institution; (3) a standard life cycle of research experience; (4) some change in these matters from one generation of historians to the next. Let us examine each of these briefly.

Within the sample, African and Asian historians are disproportionately concentrated in the institutions with highest prestige, West European historians in the smaller liberal arts colleges, intellectual historians in both, rather than in the departments of middling reputation.

Historians of Asia, Africa, and Eastern Europe fairly frequently had affiliations with research centers in their institutions, while historians of the United States or Western Europe rarely had such affiliations. Yet the latter groups show the highest proportions of full professors, while the newer fields of East European, Asian, African, and Latin American history include many of lesser rank. Likewise, diplomatic historians, economic historians, and the much younger group of historians of science are concentrated in the senior ranks, while political, social, and intellectual historians generally occupy the junior positions. Thus an economic historian of Asia (to take an extreme case) is likely to hold senior appointments in both a department of history and a research center in a high-prestige institution, and a historian of European science is likely to hold a similar position without the research affiliation, while the odds are better that an American political historian will hold high rank, without research appointment, in a less distinguished institution, and that a Latin American social historian will hold a similar appointment at a lower rank. Since rank, quality of institution, and research affiliation all affect the historian’s ability to get his work done, the problems faced by specialists in the various fields differ considerably.

There are, for example, marked variations in research funds available to historians in different fields, as shown by the data on funds received from outside the university between 1964 and 1967, reported by historians in the twenty-nine departments surveyed. Except for the history of science (which is the best-supported field in almost every respect), the specialties receiving heavier outside support are generally those connected with interdisciplinary research centers. Among geographical specialists, historians of Latin America, Africa, and Asia do best. That is partly because such specialists are more likely to undertake expensive forms of research in the first place; it is also because more money is available for research on “exotic” areas or in interdisciplinary fields like economic history. Over and above these differences by field, our data show the decided advantage (not only in outside grants, but also in university support, teaching load, and time released for research) of the historian in a high prestige institution or with a research appointment.

On the whole, with the important exception of historians of science, the kinds of historians who are best supported also show the closest ties to the behavioral and social sciences. About a tenth of the historians in the sample have undergraduate degrees in behavioral and social science fields other than history; around 7 percent have PhDs in those fields; and roughly a third claim “substantial training” in at least one of them.

“We find that we can divide our historians into three categories: uninterested, involved, and frustrated.”

About three quarters of the historians queried said that at least one social science field was “particularly important” to their own fields of interest, about two thirds expressed interest in a social science summer training institute, and just over half would choose a social science field for a full year’s additional training. Distinguishing between fields, we find that we can divide our historians into three categories: uninterested, involved, and frustrated.

Historians of science and intellectual historians, especially those dealing with Europe and North America, typify those with little social science training, little current contact with social science fields, and little desire to change in this regard. Economic historians of the United States, Latin America, or Asia provide a good example of the involved: likely to have substantial formal training in economics, staying in contact with economics and economists, and interested in extending their knowledge of social science. The frustrated are those with little previous social science training who have come to think that it is vital to their own work: social historians of the Americas tend to fall into this category. While in this case everything depends on the definitions, it would not be outrageous to label a fifth of the historians answering our questionnaire uninterested, another third involved, and nearly half of them frustrated.

A fairly standard life cycle of research also appears in the findings. Within the sample the men just getting started tend to have heavy teaching loads, course assignments alien to their research interests, and poor support for their research. Those who are farther along begin to acquire funds, time off, and greater control over their teaching assignments, but also begin to feel the pinch of administrative responsibilities and outside commitments to writing and public service. The most senior historians are less likely to be involved in large and expensive research, although they continue to bear the burden of administrative and outside commitments.

The more distinguished the institution and the closer the affiliation with a research institute, the earlier the historian achieves the perquisites of seniority.

Finally, some features of the historical landscape are changing with time. Judging by age, year of acquiring the PhD, or academic rank, we find senior historians concentrated in the traditional fields of North American and West European history (especially diplomatic, intellectual, and political history), and junior men in the newer specialties of East European, African, Asian, and Latin American history. These latter fields include very few scholars who earned PhDs before 1945. In recent years Eastern Europe appears to have lost favor, but all the others have more than their share of PhDs earned since 1962. So the very fields that involve their practitioners most heavily in the behavioral and social sciences are the ones that are growing and are currently staffed with junior men.

The younger men have a different outlook on their profession. In answer to our (leading) questions, “Do you think of yourself as a social scientist, humanist, or something of both? Why?” a senior historian at a Midwestern university gave this thoughtful answer, characteristic of the older generation:

“Principally as a humanist because I believe history is principally made of the ideas and actions of men, oftentimes unpredictable, and cannot be measured in statistical or ‘scientific’ terms.”

One of his more irritable West Coast colleagues added, in capitals:


On the other hand, an Asian specialist from the Midwest said:

“I consider myself a social scientist. I was trained as one and view my work as a historian as developing and testing social science theory and method with historical data.”

A young historian of Latin America replied flatly: “As a social scientist,” but then added this comment on historical method that few humanistic historians would disagree with:

“I do not think that the method is different, but the application of the method by historians certainly differs from that of, for example, sociologists or anthropologists. I think that the historian is generally more penetrating in his search for evidence, and is more rigorous in his application of the method.”

The correlation of outlook with age and (more particularly) specialty is strong, if not perfect.

As new fields of inquiry flourish within history, the division of opinion is changing, and the genteel poverty of historical researchers may change as well. An increasing number of historians are working in fields that bring them into interdisciplinary research centers and other forms of contact with more favored disciplines. Since they are better financed and equipped than their fellows, they inevitably produce a kind of demonstration effect among them.

Some conclusions and recommendations

“What we are proposing, to both audiences, is a bigger and better bridge.”

Historians—at least many historians—have not yet learned to live with these uncomfortable intruders on a world of art, intuition, and verbal skill. Hence our concern to stress the fact that we speak here for just one branch of the historical profession and that the changes we recommend are complementary to, rather than competitive with, other branches of historical scholarship. Social scientific research will make history richer, more exciting, more valuable, more relevant (that much overused word!) to contemporary concerns and problems. But it is not alone in possessing these merits, and much of what it has to contribute is dependent on its incorporation within the discipline of history. The flow of knowledge and insight here runs two ways. History has always been a borrower from other disciplines, and in that sense social scientific history is just another example of a time-honored process; but history has always been a lender, and all the social sciences would be immeasurably poorer without knowledge of the historical record. The social sciences are not a self-contained system, one of whose boundaries lies in some fringe area of the historical sciences. Rather the study of man is a continuum, and social scientific history is a bridge between the social sciences and the humanities. What we are proposing, to both audiences, is a bigger and better bridge.

The following recommendations sum up those offered throughout the report:

  1. That departments of history diversify and enrich the present program of instruction: by building more courses around analytical themes (war, population, urbanization, etc.); by providing training in the techniques and concepts of social science (including quantitative methods and computer analysis); and by adding to the instructional staff, on a part-time and full-time basis, specialists in these techniques and concepts. Training in these areas should be required of those students intending to specialize in social scientific history; but all history concentrators and graduate students should be required to do a substantial portion of their work in some other discipline or disciplines.
  2. That universities and colleges, with the support of public and private funding agencies, increase the support available for graduate study in history to a level commensurate with that found in the other social sciences. In particular, support is needed for the extra time required for training in related disciplines and quantitative techniques; for the application of these methods in research (equipment, computer time, photographic work); and for a more flexible arrangement of field research.
  3. That departments of history organize a substantial part of graduate education, for those students who desire it, around the continuing workshop-seminar. Such a seminar would be an analogue to the teaching laboratory of the natural sciences. It would have its own premises, its own specialized library and store of research material, its own research equipment, and it would unite faculty, staff, and students in a changing variety of individual and team research projects built around a common interest, more or less broadly defined. The members of such a seminar could also serve as the staff for undergraduate courses in its area of interest, thereby gaining experience in teaching as well as research.
  4. That universities and colleges, with the support of public and private funding agencies, make it easier for historians to continue learning and research after the doctorate. Specifically, we recommend a loosening of leave arrangements to allow for both shorter and longer leaves than those currently permitted; the establishment of the postdoctoral research appointment as a normal option for first step on the academic ladder (as it already is in other disciplines); a program of retraining grants in combination with the establishment of interuniversity training institutes in fields important to historical research (statistics, computer programming, psychoanalysis); and increased support for such research centers as the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and the creation of new ones, both in this country and abroad.
  5. That universities and colleges, with the assistance of public and private funding agencies, promote those forms of cooperation that will enrich their programs of instruction and facilitate research: specifically, interuniversity research consortia, conferences, discussion groups, collaborative teaching, joint degrees, division of labor in the acquisition of equipment and materials. All these forms of cooperation are already established in various places on both an ad hoc and standing basis; but there is still a great deal that can be done, particularly on an international level.
  6. That public and private funding agencies promote cooperation between American and foreign historical scholarship by linking counterpart grants for foreign scholars to American travel stipends; and that American scholars working abroad similarly promote cooperation where possible and appropriate by affiliating themselves with foreign academic institutions, by involving native scholars in their research, and by communicating their techniques and findings to the scholars and students of the host country.
  7. That the federal government commit itself to the maintenance and growth of our major libraries and archives as a precious national resource; and that it develop additional regional libraries so that colleges and universities throughout the country will be within convenient reach of a major repository. Further, the federal government should finance the preparation of a machine-readable union catalogue of all library holdings in the United States, including eventually articles in periodicals and collective works—entries to be retrievable by subject as well as by author and title.
  8. That libraries, archives, and museums widen the range of their collections to include those everyday records and artifacts that are now disposed of and destroyed but that will one day be the staple source material of social scientific history; that historians join with librarians and curators in developing a program for the systematic collection, storage, and retrieval of such material; and that public and private funding agencies finance both the planning and implementation of this expanded curatorial function.

This program of reform would obviously open paths to social scientific work in history which simply do not exist within the traditional confines of historical teaching and research. More important, it would enrich the study of every variety of history.


This essay is comprised of excerpts from the report of the History Panel of the Behavioral and Social Sciences Survey. These selections are reprinted (with minor changes) by permission of the publisher from History as Social Science, edited by David S. Landes and Charles Tilly, to be published on March 19, 1971 (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Spectrum Books, Prentice-Hall, Inc.). Copyright © by Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1971.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 25, Issue 1 in the spring of 1971. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.

Posted on October 4, 2016