The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview
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Chapter Fifteen
THE POSSIBILITIES OF ANALYTICAL

POLITICAL HISTORY

Ira Katznelson

WRITING IN 1956 with the authority conferred by three path- breaking books, Richard Hofstadter, the most important polit- ical historian of the United States in his generation, bemoaned the unfilled cavernous space between historical narratives and focused monographs. “Authors of narrative histories,” he observed, “rarely hesi- tate to retell a story that is already substantially known, adding perhaps some new information but seldom in systematic fashion or with a clear analytical purpose,” while “many a monograph . . . leaves its readers, and perhaps even its author, with misgivings as to whether that part of it which is new is truly significant.” Seeking an alternative, he counseled more attention to the insights and creative possibilities proffered by the social sciences, whose use “promises to the historian . . . a special kind of oppor- tunity to join these two parts of his tradition in a more effective way.” By disturbing fixed historiographical routines and tendering a fresh stock of ideas, the social sciences, he believed, could offer historians access to concerns in the wider culture, a larger stock of methods, more rigor in argumentation, and, most important, the “ability to open new problems which the historian usually has ignored.”1

It is worthy of note that Hofstadter did not endorse a literal-minded application of social science theory or technique, nor did he restrict his attention to the quantitative side of the ledger. He hardly wished that historians would either ascend to the region of grand theory or retreat to the zone of relatively focused, even small, questions where such tech- niques might best apply.2 Entreating historians, rather, to address insis- tently large and relatively comprehensive questions—“eventually,” he wrote, “the historian must deal in such categories as the Reformation, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution, with wars and social upheavals, with the great turning points in human experience, still tantalizingly unex- plained or half-explained, still controversial”3—Hofstadter appealed to his colleagues to renew history as a vocation by developing

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