The History of Knowledge: An Indispensable Perspective for Contemporary History

Even if scholars are no strangers to the history of knowledge, it sometimes feels as though some cultural and social historians are not very open to the subject, at least not in the case of contemporary history. Questions put forward by the history of knowledge are seen as sidetracking research from “real” work or “important” questions. Although I sympathize with this reaction, I cannot see any way around the history of knowledge. Without renewing the discussion on replacing the “society” in Gesellschafts­geschichte with “knowledge,”1 I agree with Simone Lässig’s inclusive position that the history of knowledge is “a form of social and cultural history that takes ‘knowledge’ as a phenomenon that touches on almost every sphere of human life, and … uses knowledge as a lens to take a new look at familiar historical developments and sources.”2 In some cases, such as when examining the history of the revolutions of 1989–91 from a longer-term perspective, studying knowledge can also offer historians the opportunity to analyze material never before subjected to historical analysis.

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Hurricanes, Climate Change, and Adaptation: The Roles of Knowledge and Memory in Past and Present

This year is not the first time in the United States that climate change became a politically charged, hotly debated topic during a very active hurricane season. A comparable situation occurred in the 2005 season, when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast. Similar to current federal policy, the Bush administration prevented the EPA from informing the public about climate change by actively changing the agency’s reports and suppressing the use of the terms “climate change” and “global warming.” Nevertheless, nongovernmental climate scientists engaged in heated debate in scientific journals and conferences about whether anthropogenic climate change was making hurricanes more destructive, increasingly frequent, or both.1 While this remains a crucial question (particularly in the U.S. context of widespread climate change denialism), the connected and equally central point is whether and how societies can adapt to a potentially unprecedented situation with regard to the frequency and severity of extreme events.

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Some Links related to the Historian’s Profession

“History, Historians, and ‘the Current Moment,'” Perspectives, November 2017

Jim Grossman, executive directer of the American Historical Association, reflects on what historians can do in these challenging times. Not surprisingly, communication is front and center, but his suggestion is more nuanced and very in tune with this period of myriad small publics: “Historians know lots of things that matter in the current moment. Find your niche. Identify an audience.”

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Insights into Loss from the History of Knowledge

This post is part confession and part revelation.

When Simone Lässig approached me about collaborating on migration and the history of knowledge, I immediately agreed.1 I began writing about German scientists and the production of knowledge over twenty years ago, and much of my current work involves migrants.2 Taking part in the GHI effort offered me an opportunity to think more systematically about the production of migrant-oriented knowledge and its implications for my studies of German communities across Latin America.

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Constructing Authority in Early British Aviation

By definition, experts play a vital role in creating, sustaining, and disseminating any particular body of knowledge. But what constitutes an expert? How is authority obtained? Does this change over time? There are no absolute answers, which is to say that the question of who is considered to be an authority is culturally and socially constructed, and therefore interesting to historians. Here, I will consider the construction of authority in British aviation in the early twentieth century, paying particular attention to its manifestations in the public sphere.1 Because aeronautics was the subject of intense media scrutiny, but as yet lacked formal criteria for demonstrating expertise, anyone who wanted to claim the mantle of authority at some point had to come to terms with popular expectations.

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