From the Annual Meeting 2008 column of the September 2006 Perspectives
"Uneven Developments": Theme for 2008
Nancy Tomes and Pete Sigal, September 2006
The theme for the 2008 annual meeting, "Uneven Developments," calls upon us as historians to reflect on historical processes that have resulted in persistent and dramatic material inequalities, as well as in the uneven impact over time of changing institutions, ideologies, religious and cultural practices, and technologies. We live in a world where "goods," whether material resources, medical care, physical security, or political rights are unevenly distributed both across and within regions, often dramatically so. It is also a world where it is widely assumed that such inequalities are the results of historical processes. Actors in the public sphere regularly deploy "history" to naturalize, justify or denounce uneven developments of various sorts.
There is a long and multifaceted tradition in our profession of scholars seeking to pinpoint the causes or origins of these "uneven developments." Recently, however, historians as well as academic theorists from other disciplines have questioned the very validity of this scholarly enterprise seeing the metanarratives that it has produced as supplanting critical engagement. Rising skepticism in the historical profession with regard to unified theories of causation, historicist thinking, and teleological reasoning has made scholars understandably reticent to explore or identify historical processes that explain uneven and unequal developments.
Yet we as historians routinely rely on a series of explanatory narratives in our research and teaching, whatever our theoretical position may be. As professional perspectives become increasingly global in scope, historians need to be even more aware of the explanatory schema embedded in our historical narratives. We need to think critically about how discussions of causes and origins figure not only in our own expert discourse, but also in pedagogy, public debate, and popular culture. Perhaps most importantly, we need to explore the possibility of alternative narratives that move beyond the Eurocentric explanations of the past, and that provide fresh insight into inequities in material, political and cultural resources.
Our intention is to attach a broad range of meanings to the phrase "Uneven Developments." These include the classic economic reference to the material and technological disparities provoked by the expansion of global capitalism, as well as the intellectual and cultural struggles produced by the uneven impact of new ideologies that reconceptualize categories such as race and gender. In both cases this "unevenness" can be seen as a crucial element in historical change in that it reveals contradictions that allow new meanings, critiques, and alternatives to emerge. Furthermore, the concept of "uneven developments" need not be confined to "modern" history; it could also reveal tensions provoked by the spread of Christianity in Late European Antiquity or the expansion of Islam in northern Africa.
—Nancy Tomes (Stony Brook Univ.) and Pete Sigal (Duke Univ.) are co-chairs of the 2008 Program Committee.