Reflections on the Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference

About a month ago, I attended the Radical Histories/Histories of Radicalism conference put on by the Raphael Samuel History Centre at Queen Mary University of London to mark 20 years since Samuel’s death.


This is a somewhat belated report as various things have got in the way since, but I want here to reflect on some of the key themes that I saw arising from the conference. Admittedly the conference’s remarkable eclecticism makes any kind of overall summary difficult. The programme featured standard sessions of conference papers and plenaries, but also topical roundtables, public history presentations, walks, music performances, workshops, and an exhibition space. All of this was only fitting for an event held in memory of Raphael Samuel, and indeed in some respects the conference felt like the physical embodiment of Samuel’s sprawling, eclectic, voraciously curious writings. There is a politics to this eclecticism: in the summative plenary Alison Light reported a plea that had been made to her for ‘more chaotic conferences’ as a form of resistance to the straightjacket of the neoliberal university. Something of the radical inclusivity that Samuel sought to foster in his own work, in all its untidiness, was on display at the conference, as was a willingness to engage in self-critique regarding ways in which inclusive practices fell short.


So any neat overarching summary is out of order. Instead, I want here to reflect on one of the conference roundtables, on history as a tool of political struggle, as it was in this session that a number of the major themes of the conference were theorised and, as it were, writ large. What I mean by this is that radical history is inherently a matter of politics, and foregrounding that politics and critically examining its relationship to the ‘historical’ in ‘radical history’ is to confront the nature of radical history head-on.


Two papers in this session especially were concerned with problems of the relationship between contemporary politics and historical ‘truth’, or at least the past as the historian would reconstruct it following professional best practice. Onni Gust—with apologies to Gust for the following no doubt crude summary of a highly nuanced and carefully articulated paper—spoke on the difficulties of using transgender history as a tool of trans politics. The historical impulse of trans activists, Gust argued, is often to use history as means of saying ‘We exist’. This is history, in Nietzsche’s terms, in the monumental mode. For professional historians, however sympathetic, such monumentalism is often unsatisfactory, as the historian is bound to point out that historical precursors that look similar to modern non-binary trans identity, such as hermaphrodism, are not quite the same thing. What then, is the historians’ role? Gust described having given a paper at a non-binary trans conference that outlined this problem and suggested that rather than digging up apparent precursors, the historian’s role was to articulate how modern trans identity had come into being in the present: not ‘We exist’ and always have, but ­a history of becoming, something like—I use my own words here —‘This is how we have come to exist in the here and now’. According to Gust, this proposal was welcomed by the historians present, but got a rather cooler reception from non-historian activists at the conference. How then can historians contribute to political struggle while maintaining standards of historical rigour?


Similar issues were raised by Laura Schwartz in a paper on responses to the film Suffragette (2015). The film was widely criticised for its all-white cast, and led to considerable debate among both popular commentators and feminist scholars. A photoshoot organised by Time Out London featuring the lead cast wearing white T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I’d rather be a rebel than a slave’—a line taken from a speech by Emmeline Pankhurst—provoked particular controversy for the apparent equivalence it drew between the political disfranchisement of white women in Britain and the enslavement of Africans in the Atlantic slave trade. Again, there is the problem of monumentalist narratives here, in this case coming unstuck when they clash with crosscurrents in contemporary emancipatory politics: the film’s heroic feminist narrative seemed to bring with it a disturbing blindspot regarding race, a dangerous incapacity to deal with problems of intersectionality.


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The View from the Margins: John Pocock and the Antipodean Origins of Four Nations History

I wrote the post below for the Four Nations History Network network in September 2015. The original is available here.


The South Island of New Zealand, half a world away from Britain, might seem an unlikely site for a major revolution in the writing of British history. It was however here, at the University of Canterbury, that J. G. A. Pocock in 1973 delivered the lecture that would become his now classic essay ‘British History: A Plea for a New Subject’, in which he set out his vision for a new history of the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ and its various New Worlds, a history multicultural, multiethnic, multipolar and polyglot.[1] It is from within this ‘new British history’, as it has since become known, that a Four Nations perspective emerges. In this piece I aim to situate Pocock’s intervention within its antipodean context, bringing out some implications for questions of identity and historical perspective.


When Pocock’s essay was reprinted as the theoretical centrepiece of his 2005 collection The Discovery of Islands, it came prefaced by an autobiographical chapter that reflects upon and contextualises the conditions shaping his initial plea.[2] Recalling his schooling in 1930s New Zealand, Pocock comments that he was of the last generation to learn Latin ‘because that was the way to become educated and had been for a thousand years’. To this remark is appended a wry footnote declaring that he was ‘neither astonished nor oppressed by this experience, and found ways of profiting by it’. This gentle dig at the contemporary reader, for whom such education perhaps sounds rather stuffy and antiquated, is followed on the very next page by a whole litany of Maori words and concepts: waka—the boats in which Maori migrated to New Zealand from the central Pacific; te moana—the great ocean they crossed to get there; whakapapa—genealogy; tangata whenua—the Maori name for themselves as a people; and pakeha—the name given to the European, mostly British, settlers who came after them. [3] All of these are commonplace to New Zealand or Pacific historians, or indeed to anyone who knows contemporary New Zealand today. But the mass of non-English, non-European words on an early page in the collection is very likely—and, one senses, is deliberately intended to be—more than a little disorientating to readers who might pick up a volume subtitled ‘Essays in British History’ with complacent expectations of its contents.


Pocock thus declares his meaning in the form of his autobiographical essay as much as in its content. In the juxtaposition of the two languages—of European high culture on the one hand, and of the Polynesian voyagers who populated the last of the Earth’s unpeopled lands on the other—he announces the mestizo nature of New Zealand history and society, allowing that condition to stand as a token for his vision of a British history of hybridity and transcultural crossings. Yet he also describes the prevalence, in the now disappeared New Zealand in which he grew up, of more homogenous ideas about culture and history. This New Zealand was one ‘able to construct a historical narrative in which Maori played no independent part after about 1870’, the three decades of frontier conflict now known as the New Zealand Wars having come to an end in 1872. [4]


Pocock’s New Zealand is that of the South Island, a land of wide green plains, of icy, unforgiving mountains, of a grey, sodden West Coast and of massive, spectacular cliff-lined fjords. The genteel, self-consciously English garden city of Christchurch—Christchurch in the region of Canterbury, mark the names—evokes Cambridge. It was here that Pocock was raised, and here that he returned to deliver his 1973 lecture. Further south, where Pocock completed his first book, [5] the Scottish settlers of Otago called their city Dunedin after the Gaelic name for Edinburgh, and sought to replicate the Scottish capital’s distinctive mixture of neogothic architecture, wide Georgian boulevards, and rambling Old Town backstreets. Nearby Invercargill, capital of the Southland region, likewise takes its name from Gaelic, after the model of Inverness.


The would-be cultural and historical homogeneity that this New Zealand sought to construct for itself in the days of Pocock’s youth was always, despite its best efforts, partial and precarious. The South Island itself reproduced some of Great Britain’s own internal variety—geographically inverted, appropriately enough—with a new England in its north and centre, and a new Scotland in the south. These areas were then and remain today characterised by strong regional identities of a type common in Britain, but unusual in Australasia. Beneath this was the ever-present awareness of cultural dislocation, common to all of Anglophone Australasia, of the inheritance of a British culture familiar yet distant, at once one’s own and foreign. And though Maori could be written out of historical narratives, they and the memory of their displacement were never fully erasable, even in the South Island where their numbers were relatively few.


It is this cluster of tensions that pervades Pocock’s writings on the New Zealand experience. The immediate context of Pocock’s plea for a new British history was the addition of the further tension of Britain’s turn in the early 1970s from the Commonwealth to the EEC. By arguing for recognition of a kind of reciprocal ‘equality’ amongst the ‘Atlantic archipelago’s’ composite parts, and between the United Kingdom and the ‘neo-Britains’[6]—a network of relationships in which each part was envisaged as another self of all the others—Pocock aimed to problematise a metropolitan and Anglocentric parochialism that had made possible Britain’s abdication—as Pocock saw it—of the history it had shared with its Empire and Commonwealth.


Discussion of the context of Britain’s turn to Europe has been a stock feature of commentaries on Pocock’s proposal. [7] It has largely been left to Pocock himself, in his own subsequent writings on the theme, to balance discussion of this event with a comparatively greater emphasis upon how an ‘antipodean sense of distance and ambivalence’ not only gave the European turn its operative importance, but bore a perspectival significance in its own right.[8] The original proposal arose, Pocock wrote in 1999, from ‘the need to affirm my own historical being’.[9] In that proposal he had remarked that the historian, in order to adopt a ‘pluralist and multicultural perception of British history, … would virtually need a tangential sense of identity’, rather than one committed to a ‘single and unitary point of view’.[10]


An antipodean identity is one type of tangential identity. But the history of Britain, both great and ‘greater’, is replete with tangential identities. A Four Nations perspective, as a variety of the ‘new’ British history, offers ways of making sense of such tangentiality, and of its unequal distribution, within the ‘Atlantic archipelago’ itself.


[1] First published in The New Zealand Journal of History 8 (1974): 3-21; reprinted in The Journal of Modern History 47, no. 4 (1975): 601–21.

[2] J. G. A. Pocock, The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), chap. 1 and 2.

[3] Ibid., 3–5.

[4] Ibid., 4, 7.

[5] J. G. A. Pocock, The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law: A Study of English Historical Thought in the Seventeenth Century, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987 [1957]), xiv–xv.

[6] A term Pocock borrows from the New Zealand historian, and now Beit Professor of Commonwealth and Imperial History at Oxford, James Belich. Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 194.

[7] E.g. David Armitage, ‘Greater Britain: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis?’, American Historical Review 104, no. 2 (1999): 444–45; Richard Bourke, ‘Pocock and the Presuppositions of the New British History’, The Historical Journal 53, no. 3 (2010): 751–55.

[8] Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 21.

[9] J. G. A. Pocock, ‘The New British History in Atlantic Perspective: An Antipodean Commentary’, American Historical Review 104, no. 2 (1999): 493.

[10] Pocock, Discovery of Islands, 39.




Why humanities citation statistics are like Eskimo words for snow

‘X percent of journal articles in the humanities are never cited.’ How often have we seen this claim made? Much like the fabled Eskimo words for snow, the clue that it’s probably bunkum lies in the fact that X varies wildly depending on who’s speaking. And in that it doesn’t really matter to the speaker what X is, as long as it’s a lot.


Some recent(ish) efforts to claim that most journal articles in the humanities are rarely or never cited by other researchers have led me to consider the completeness of available citation data, and some of the unspoken assumptions that inform interpretations of what data we have. As it turns out, there are good reasons for treating existing statistics with extreme caution at the very least.


Claims about low or non-citation rates in the humanities generally have their empirical bases in studies conducted in the sciences that examine citation rates across a range of disciples. Recently, similar data have also come from the Google Scholar Metrics h5 index.


One study, conducted at the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI) in Philadelphia

and reported in Science in December 1990 and January 1991, suggested that either 93% or 98% of humanities journal articles go uncited, depending on how one cuts the data. The latter claim was recently recycled by Steven Pearlstein in the Washington Post; in response, Libby Nelson in Vox Education pointed to the 93% figure as the original researchers’ preferred calculation.


The second source, Google’s h5 index, is a complicated metric that I won’t go into here, but according to Patrick Dunleavy, Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics, it appears to show humanities scholars citing one another’s work at a paltry fraction of the rate of those in the sciences, especially the medical and life sciences.


Other figures arise, frankly, from hearsay. In 2014, Dahlia Remler of the City University of New York sought to debunk a 90% non-citation figure—for all disciplines—that had been doing the rounds online. Sure enough, it had no examinable basis, having been claimed by the editor of the magazine Physics Today, who took it from a presentation he once attended that could not be reproduced.


In the blog post, however, Remler also claimed that 82% of humanities articles go uncited, even though the figure does not in fact appear in the source she gives for it. To be sure, her source, a paper published online by two Canadian academics, does show low humanities citation rates, but these are hedged around by so many caveats as to suggest that, for the humanities, the figures are basically meaningless. In her post, Remler did note good cause, of the sort discussed below, to be careful of the statistics she gave. This has not stopped the 82% figure, as an absolute non-citation rate shorn of such qualifications, gaining a lease of life of its own among academics and others who have been less than careful in examining their sources (one such even takes the liberty of rounding the figure down to 80%). In seeking to head one myth off at the pass, Remler inadvertently generated another.


Citation figures that have a proper empirical basis typically come from examinations of article citations in other journal articles over a five-year window following publication. On this front, the h5 index is less generous than more conventional measures, allowing publications only up to five years to be cited, at the time of writing up to five years prior to June 2015.


Crucially, citations of articles in books are always excluded. Citations are also counted only in selected journals. The ISI database covered only the ‘top 10% of all scientific journals published worldwide’, while the h5 index excludes publications with fewer than 100 articles published over 2010–14, which, as Katie Barclay of the University of Adelaide pointed out on Twitter, means a great many humanities journals are not counted.


The significance of other limitations notwithstanding, I focus here just on the exclusion of books and the five-year citation window. These seem to me to be the major shortcomings of the existing datasets. Both are likely to be seriously underestimated by non-humanities scholars who approach citation statistics from the disciplinary norms of the natural or social sciences.


The five-year window, perhaps appropriate enough for disciplines in which knowledge develops rapidly and just as rapidly becomes obsolete, is inadequate for the humanities. Long humanities publication lead-times mean many citations fall outside this window; at the same time, much humanities research has a much longer shelf-life—better measured in decades than years—than that in other fields.


The exclusion of books from citation data is similarly likely to give any humanities scholar pause. The difficulty though, precisely because of that exclusion, is that we don’t know how different the data would look if books were included. Does leaving books out mean that we should subject citation statistics to a caveat, or does that exclusion fatally undermine the representativeness of the data?


A small experiment suggests itself. Though the experiment is very modest and only exploratory, the results hint that, despite the extraordinary richness of modern scholarly databases, citation rates in the humanities remain extremely uncertain. Both the exclusion of books and the five-year window begin to look like serious impediments to ascertaining any meaningful statistics.


My experiment involves choosing a single article and tracking down all the citations to it—both in journal articles and in books—that I can find, and comparing these with the citations listed in Google Scholar (note: the Google Scholar Metrics h5 index is based on the Google Scholar database, but is further narrowed down by the exclusion of books and, as above, certain journal articles; Google Scholar is however a good indication of what Google’s algorithm is capable of finding in the first instance, before these further exclusions are made).


I chose Olive Anderson, ‘The Political Uses of History in Mid Nineteenth-Century England’, Past & Present 36 (1967): 87–105. I picked this article mainly because I am familiar with it from my own research, and I know that it continues to be widely cited today. Its age would usually see it excluded from the body of articles subjected to citation quantification, but there are reasons for choosing an older article that I will come back to below.


Using a combination of my own research knowledge and notes, Google Scholar, and keyword searches in Google Books and JSTOR, I found a total of 49 sources citing Anderson’s article, 14 in journal articles and 35 in books (these are listed below). As of March 2016, Google Scholar lists just 27, or around 55%, of these citations. It identifies all 14 article citations that I found, but just 13 of the 35 book citations, around 37%.


The severe limitations of Google’s dataset are apparent. While Google Scholar is good at identifying journal article citations, its hit rate for book citations is only around a third, and its ability to identify even these seems often to rely on publishers’ ebooks, where these exist. There appears to be only limited linkage between Google Scholar and Google’s own OCR’d Books dataset.


I make no claim for the completeness of the list. It is very likely not exhaustive, since my method of finding citations beyond those listed in Google Scholar relies mainly on keyword searches in databases that are not themselves exhaustive. It is instructive that I have been able to include Peter Mandler’s History and National Life and Jeremy Black’s Using History only because of my own reading. Neither citation appeared in my online searches, probably because both are set to ‘no preview’ in Google Books. There are no doubt other sources with which I am not familiar. Any additional found citations would only further downgrade Google Scholar’s hit rate. The incompleteness of the Google Scholar data described here is a best-case scenario.


Scholars who use Google Scholar as a research tool therefore need to be aware of its inherent strengths and weaknesses. As for citation statistics based on the h5 index, Google’s weakness on book citations is a moot point, since as noted above the index excludes these anyway, but the overall balance between found book and journal citations is suggestive.


Precisely because of the exclusion of books from datasets we cannot know if Anderson’s article is representative; more systematic studies would be welcome. But if it is more or less typical, and something like 70% of citations (in this case 35 out of 49) are in books, this would cast serious doubt on the meaningfulness of any article-only citation metric. In his blog post on the h5 index, Dunleavy claimed that its supposed completeness had put paid to ‘we can’t be compared with STEM’ special pleading in the humanities. It has done nothing of the sort. In a disciplinary context in which book citations appear to be, at the very least, more common than journal article citations, citation metrics that ignore books are at best dangerously misleading and at worst next to useless.


Finally, I come back to my reasons for choosing an older article. What is significant here is the slippage, greased by assumptions imported from the sciences, between not being cited within five years and never being cited. These assumptions are often made explicit when citation metrics move from a research to a journalism or a marketing context: ‘never cited by another researcher’, ‘not even cited once’ and ‘fail to get cited at all’ are the sorts of phrases then used.


In this regard, it is worth noting that of the 49 identified citations, not one of them is in research published in the five years after 1967. The earliest is in P. B. M. Blaas’s Continuity and Anachronism, published 11 years later. This continued shelf-life is invisible if we base calculations only on research published within the last five years. Had five-year citation windows been imposed in the early 1970s, Anderson’s article would likely have been written off as another entry in the dreaded ‘never cited’ category.


All of this suggests that, for the humanities, citation statistics need to be taken with a very large dose of salt. There is no universal database from which such metrics can be extracted. The best we have, Google Scholar, is drastically inadequate. Those who argue for extremely low humanities citation rates are guilty of an unfounded reversal of the onus of proof. Overconfident of the completeness of their data, they mistake an absence of citation evidence for proof of non-citation. The resulting willingness to believe that a wide discrepancy between humanities and non-humanities metrics reflects a problem with how the humanities is carried out rather than with the methods of comparison seems to reveal an implicit (and sometimes explicit) belief that most humanities research is a trivial, unnecessary luxury anyway. The possibility that humanities scholars might be doing their jobs perfectly well, according to the norms and standards of their respective disciplines, seems too often not to enter into the equation. Such perspectives do the humanities a grave disservice.


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First entry

This a new space where I'll occasionally post reflections and short pieces on history, higher education, and PhD life. More to come soon.

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