Before anything else, I want to wish everyone good luck or congratulations on their end of semester work–which ever option best fits your own situation. After having done my best to diagram the historical craft in my previous post and postulate what such observations might mean for the study of Mormon history, I have decided today to tackle the role of theory in historical inquiry. Once again, I am treating an extremely complex topic, but I hope to present my ideas in a clear and concise manner. As such, I will probably oversimplify some concepts for which I profoundly apologize-this topic has proven much more difficult than I initially thought.
To begin this discussion, I would like to define “theory” as a set of ideas or a concepts that influence and guide the ways that historians make assumptions either about the forces that drive history or how to piece together the past. Historians employ theory to stock their analytical toolboxes and to reflect critically upon the stories they tell. Thus, they have generally drawn their theoretical suppositions from the traditions of both social and critical theory. Social theorists seek to create understanding about the ways that a society functions. This theory often comes to historians via other disciplines such as Sociology, Anthropology, Cultural Studies, and Psychology. Historians draw on such social theory to help them understand what historical factors have caused change over time in the societies they study. Critical theory, on the other hand and in a very narrow sense, focuses more inwardly on the craft itself. Critical theorists focus on the nature of truth and objectivity; they focus on the process of historical inquiry and the assumptions and biases embedded in these academic pursuits. Some historical traditions, such as post-colonialism and post-structuralism seek to influence both veins of theory. The following paragraphs offer a small taste of how both theoretical approaches have been debated and utilized by historians as well as their tensions with devotional history.
Social theories often help historians identify what will be the object of their historical analyses. For many years, historians focused primarily on what have been termed “great men.” This was probably the predominant approach to history at the turn of the twentieth century and still remained influential in the academy until the 1960s. It focuses on politicians, intellectuals, and artists as the principle movers and shakers throughout history and plays little attention to the common man. This approach has been challenged over the years by Progressive historians that touted the importance of economic motivations and technology as principle factors driving social change over time. Marxist historians, in their many iterations, have claimed that the most important factor along the path of history has been some variation of class conflict. More recently, in correlation with identity politics, historians have employed the constructs of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and empire as important intellectual tools for discovering the secrets of the past. While I don’t have time or space to outline how each of these approaches works, I will offer two rather simplistic observations about how social theory has affected the historical craft. Over time, historians have generally moved theoretically from a perception of history as teleology (the linear progression or digression of the human race) to a conception of history as contingency (life is full of chance and chaos). They have also left examinations that speculate about single causative factors to favor more complex and layered causal analyses.
Critical theory has also played an earth-shattering role in the historical profession-especially over the last twenty or thirty years. I would argue that the idea of scientific objectivity was one of the first theoretical approaches in the modern historical profession. The American students of Germany’s preeminent historian Leopold van Ranke tried to import his ideas about scientific objectivity in the study of the past into their quest for professionalization in the late 19th century-ignoring the fact that the construction of narrative always involves the subjective interpretation of the historian. The roots of this wedding between science and history emerged when Enlightenment thinkers began to push and exploit the depths of human reason and understanding to comprehend the ways that the world and its peoples function.
Nevertheless, theorists have devastatingly critiqued the idea of scientific objectivity by pointing out the imaginative and performative components of narrative creation. Scholars like Michel Foucault and Edward Said have ably demonstrated scholars’ inability to escape the prevailing discourses (ways of thinking/dominating societal assumptions) entrenched in the societies in which they live. Jacques Derrida has shown how all scholarly writing holds examples of societal assumptions especially binary relationships, and how omissions to the historical record often reveal more than they unveil. Post-colonial scholars have argued that studying the margins of empires is essential for understanding centers of power. They also have questioned the inclusiveness of archival records which favor the rich and powerful. Transnational scholars have critiqued the role of historians in the creation of nationalism, and have looked to write histories that transcend the artificial boundaries of the nation. All of these theorists profoundly question the possibility of historical objectivity and the ability to capture historical “Truth” for a variety of different reasons. Some even go so far as to claim that the search for truth itself is futile.
Now, having outlined what theory is and some of the questions with which it is concerned, I would like to give some reasons why theory is important and necessary in the creation of history. First, evidence can lend itself to a variety of interpretations. Theory often helps the historians bring coherence to the chaos of the archive. Second, there are always gaps in the historical record. Theory gives historians analytical tools for filling in those gaps in an intelligent manner. Third, theory helps us create authority through community. The existence of theoretical communities limits the usefulness of ad hominem attacks and allows historians to build their own analyses based on the credibility of more than just their individual understanding. Theory also offers historians a bridge between their politics and their craft. By utilizing theory to identify what went wrong and what went right in the past, historians hope to influence political choices in the future. Finally, theory helps historians understand and acknowledge the consciously constructed nature of their craft.
Most of the theory that historians use emerged from the rational traditions of modernity based in the Enlightenment or are reactions to this modernity. Although the thinkers of the Enlightenment did not categorically reject organized religion, it seems that this intellectual movement, in part, was a reaction to the religiously inspired violence of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe. Men like Locke, Diderot, and Rousseau hoped to introduce reason over faith as the primary lens for understanding the world. Such were the roots of secular history.
There are several aspects of secular historical theory that make many church members uncomfortable. First devotional history, especially Mormon devotional history, is almost always envisioned as teleological. We want to see the hand of God guiding the Church and the affairs of men toward the end of the world. This represents a historical tradition that hearkens, in many ways, more towards vision of history demonstrated by the scriptures and St. Augustine. We are uncomfortable depending strictly on reason-we are told to study things out in our minds and in our hearts. We learn to trust feelings, visions, dreams, and blessings which in many ways are both unquantifiable and unverifiable. Whereas, modern critics would admonish us that the Truth is unknowable, members of the church routinely testify that they know that the church is “True,” that Jesus Christ is “real,” and that they have a Heavenly Father that loves them. Religious “truth” and historical “truth” are really talking about two very different things-though the tension between devotional history and modernity often rises out of assumed parallels and contradictions between the two endeavors.
Sorry that this post is so long. I think this is a weighty subject, and I still probably haven’t done it justice. I would really like to know what theoretical approaches invigorate your pursuit of Mormon history. Do you agree with my analyses? Is it so overly simplistic that it misunderstands the role of theory in historical inquiry? Do you feel the same tension between social and critical theory and devotional history that I do? Am I too skeptical about objectivity and “Truth”? Bushman seems to think that there is room for faithful history in a post-modern world, what do you think?