From the From the President column in the May 2013 issue of Perspectives on History
Three Old Boxes: Lessons from Research Gone (Partly) Awry
Kenneth Pomeranz, May 2013
Writing a new lecture last week, I went looking for some old notes—and found the academic equivalent of a cold case file. There were three big boxes—stuffed full of photocopies, handwritten notes, and a couple of CDs—labeled "BXYJ project." BXYJ is my abbreviation for Bixia yuanjun, a popular Chinese goddess (for lack of a better term) worshipped in various ways and under various names for centuries across much of northern China. Twenty-two years ago, I got funding to write my second book on how the goddess and her devotees had changed from the 16th century to the mid-20th. This vein has yielded four articles and various shorter pieces (mostly reviews of books I might not otherwise have read). But there is not (yet) a book, and certainly not my second book. Therein lies a tale, and perhaps some lessons.
I had found a number of references to the goddess and interesting controversies over her place in the pantheon while doing my dissertation/first book. But that book was about agricultural change and environmental degradation, changes in Chinese statecraft in response to imperialism, and village-level social structure—so I filed these notes away for the future. With the first book almost finished, I started reading about popular religion in north China, making guesses about how "my" goddess might bear on that literature. Once I saw that there was almost no scholarship about her in English, and not too much in Chinese or Japanese, I had a plan. Better yet, this seemed like a project that could mostly be done in North American libraries, with just a short trip or two to China—crucial since my wife and I had a two-year-old, wanted another child, and my wife also had a career.
It seemed too perfect, and it was. There was some great material in published sources, but less than I'd hoped; meanwhile, I was learning about more material that might be available in China, but not on a quick trip. Family matters got more complicated: our "second child" became twins, while our older one (and, eventually, the twins, too) turned out to have developmental differences. A sufficiently long trip to China was thus receding far into the future.
As that path to a second book began looking like a long slog, an alternative appeared. A publisher asked for my thoughts about a world history book series, and then invited me to do one of the books. I jumped at the chance, and wound up working on familiar themes—economic development, states and markets, resource issues and environmental change, imperialism—albeit on a much larger geographic scale. The book got attention, and led me into related debates and the field of "world history." On my CV, the path from first to second book looks logical, and perhaps it was. I return periodically to the "BXYJ project," read new material, and write another article; but it has never again been my main focus.
Yet the detour has lessons. One is that this project has been productive, though not in easily measured ways. I am certainly a better graduate advisor than I would be without having tried a different kind of history, and probably a better teacher: grappling with different theoretical literatures, different kinds of sources, and so on has been very useful. My periodic returns to this subfield have the sort of reenergizing effect for which sabbaticals were created. Leaves that let me work more intensely on my more typical subjects produce their own satisfactions, of course, including more publications. But they don't provide the same kind of revitalization.
Second, working intermittently in a very different kind of history seems to me very helpful for thinking about how to make (and when to refrain from making) links across different kinds of human activity. This is something we do all the time in our teaching and in writing for the general public, where the implicit model of a "society" (a grouping, often a nation, in which politics, demography, high culture, economics, and everything else are sufficiently interconnected to form an organic unit for analysis) still tends to be the default mode. But it is much less the case in the publications we address to each other. While we are hardly alone in speaking more cautiously to our fellow specialists than to others,1 this difference raises awkward questions about why "rigor" seems to mean different things in different settings. Thus there are benefits in testing, at least for ourselves, to what extent we feel able to treat very different kinds of material in similar ways. Unless we want to abandon any ambition to move "from social history to the history of society"—as Eric Hobsbawm asked years ago2—such exercises are very important; for me, having an ongoing project that is hard to connect to most of my work provides a good way of thinking about these issues.
Third, having a project left unfinished for many years has been a good lesson in how all history is at least partly contemporary history. One story line the project started with was about an increasingly interventionist state, culminating in 20th-century "anti-superstition campaigns" by both Nationalist and Communist regimes; while this story still makes sense at a very general level, the explosion of largely tolerated popular religion in the last 20 years makes it much messier, providing a good object lesson in the tentative nature of big narrative arcs. Other story lines have also waxed and waned with both historiographic and "real world" trends, affected by everything from contemporary Chinese birth control policy (the goddess had long been said to be able to determine the sex of fetuses, which took on added significance with the "one child" policy) to the increasing prominence of private wealth in China today (even in imperial times, the goddess seems to have had fewer merchant patrons than some other superficially similar deities).
But all those virtues notwithstanding, my career might look very different if I had remained dependent on a book from this project to get to full professor. So, seeing those boxes of notes also makes me think about more practical issues: about second projects, promotion standards, and mentoring. After all, many people in their 30s and 40s (especially in two-career couples) face family issues that rule out long research trips; yet this is something we rarely talk about, at least openly, in counseling people about research topics. There are, I think, ways that we could do better in helping each other formulate second projects that are right for our personal as well as intellectual circumstances; an era in which graduate programs are shrinking, while long-distance communication gets ever easier, may be a good one for thinking about ways to systematize and improve mentoring, making use of many talented scholars who will have limited opportunities (or none at all) to train younger scholars on their own campuses. The problems of second book projects in particular also intersect interestingly with the rise of "world history"—a research field that is relatively accepting of non-archival historical scholarship. These practical issues deserve a column of their own, however; this one is about the goodies those three boxes represent, rather than ways to avoid their frustrations.
—Kenneth Pomeranz is president of the AHA.
1. For instance, Judea Pearl has an interesting account in Causality (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000) of how the term "cause" has been almost banished from physics journals, while remaining part of the common-sense way that the same physicists discuss things in less academic settings.
2. Eric Hobsbawm, "From Social History to the History of Society," Daedalus 100 (1971): 20–45. Geoff Eley's A Crooked Line (Univ. of Michigan Press, 2005) reposes the question in light of post-1970s trends in both history and historiography.