Thursday, 30 July 2015

On Pigeonholing

Next week I will be taking up the post of Lecturer in the history of the Royal Navy (not the snappiest title, I will admit). This has got me thinking, because, as many of you will know, I am not always comfortable with being called a naval historian. This is mostly because I started out as an imperial historian, but also because the types of history I do (social, cultural, peacetime) don't always fit what most people would initially think of as naval history (rightly or wrongly). Yet it is undeniable that I am a naval historian in part at least.

Yet, if we take this year as an example, I have presented at a naval conference, and a geography conference, and will (hopefully) be presenting at a sports history and a history of science conference before the years end. This is nothing special, I realise, we are all interdisciplinary now. Yet, I work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. Whilst many academics will not like being pigeon holed into discrete categories, we undeniably work in a field which does have sub-disciplines. And the health of these sub-disciplines (and I realise that is hard to diagnose) does matter. I also sit on a editorial board for a maritime journal, and recently had a discussion about this. Go to a maritime conference these days, and you will find a myriad of different subjects, approaches, and disciplines. Yet many of these scholars would never identify as maritime historians. This is, of course, fine, but if these scholars are not writing for maritime journals, and lay outside the field in a professional capacity, does the field look to be in poor health? What are the effects of this? Will projects not attract funding? Will positions not be created? Will the subjects not be taught? Moreover, will the field be seen as archaic, and innovative and important work dismissed?

I wonder if I am over thinking this, but it does seem as if there is perhaps a paradox here. In becoming more interdisciplinary (and I have no doubt that is a good thing) are we inadvertently causing some sub disciplines to wither?


  1. I can relate to this! - Maybe it's a natural predicament for anyone who is essentially an imperial historian? Sometimes I find it hard to explain if I'm essentially a historian of China, ...of Tibet, ...of Information Networks, ...of Boundary Studies, or a Historical Geographer - hence, in some ways, 'Imperial Historian' seems to cover most of these vaguely enough to be comfortably precise!

    I'd not thought of it before in terms of the questions you've raised, but this is interesting - particularly with regard to the naming of job titles and academic posts. Especially seeing that so much of academia is now increasingly gearing itself towards being interdisciplinary; but then, isn't that interdisciplinary angle the thing which is now most commonly used as the criteria for measuring success?

    I'm not so sure if it's necessarily about sub-disciplines being in danger of withering, but rather being in danger of diversifying to the point where they are harder to delimit and categorise?

    Maybe I'm just coming at the same piece of string from the other end, semantically?

  2. These are really good points. I think that perhaps interdisciplinary goes too far, and perhaps this makes us lose focus?

    With sub disciplines, perhaps the problem is that some traditionalist do not see interdisciplinary as 'proper' and thus divisions are created between scholars