Geertz Serious!


THE DISCUSSION in my Tuesday night section on the Civil War and Reconstruction figured to center on that week's reading, Eric Foner's analysis of the Republican Party, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. But the discussion quickly turned from Foner to Clifford Geertz, a cultural anthropologist that none of the dozen or so history concentrators assembled in a Mather classroom had ever heard of.

None of us having ever heard of--much less read--Geertz, the discussion came to a fairly abrupt conclusion, all of us noting with interest that Geertz's influence showed not only in the work of Foner, a new-left historian, but also in the concept of ideology argued by the more conservative Bernard Bailyn. To the 12 of us, Geertz was a footnote--even though he is something more than an incidental theorist to the historians we are supposed to read.

The instance brought home a problem in the History Department which seems fairly severe. For while historians routinely base their analyses on the writings of social theorists such as Geertz or Gramsci, Harvard history concentrators are not taught any social theory at all, Alexis de Tocqueville being the sole exception. There was a time, I suppose, when social theory was not something historians drew heavily on. That time passed long ago.

THAT THIS should be the case is not surprising. As the historian David M. Potter points out, unlike the biographer or the psychologist, the historian deals with people not as individuals but "in groups--in religious groups, in cultural groups, in ideological groups, in occupational groups, or in social groups." Theorists of social groups no doubt have useful insights for a historian.

But while historians can take advantage of those insights--indeed must take advantage of those insights if they are to say anything intelligent--history concentrators here must rely on citations to discover that cultural anthropologists, as surely as 19th century newspapers, are valuable sources.

In addition to the fact that concentrators aren't learning how to do history the way historians do it, they also can't analyze a history text as perceptively as they might if they were introduced to social theory.

For instance, our section leader told us that Geertz formulated his conception of ideology by studying pre-industrial, largely oral cultures. Yet Foner uses that same term, and in the same way, (at least Foner says he does), to describe a culture in which the mass media was the prmiary means of communication.

How approriate is it for Foner to apply Geertz's formualtion to the Northern United States in the years just preceeding the Civil War? And furthermore, is he even using Geertz's conception of ideology in the way Geertz intended? Such questions, ones that Foner himself no doubt had to confront, are ones which history concentrators cannot broach.

It is an odd fact that Harvard does not teach its history concentrators social theory. The school's educational philosophy, as embodied in the Core Curriculum, is meant to teach modes of inquiry as opposed to a set body of knowledge. But in the History department, one aspect of historical inquiry--its theoretical basis--is left a mystery.

And while the Department's failure to teach social theory may simply be a result of history itself, the incorporation of such thinkers as Geertz into the History Curriculum would not be difficult. In some Sophomore tutorials Gramsci is taught as part of the unit on Historiography. That unit could easily be changed to one on how historians use social theory. Or, as a less drastic measure, a course on historiographical uses of social theory could be made a departmental elective.

IT IS difficult for me to argue that social theory might be of use to history concentrators--not having read much of it as a history concentrator. But when one finds terms such as hegemony popping up in virtually every text on 19th century America, and citations of social theorists lurking in nearly every history book, it seems clear that historians read social theory, and therefore, that historians to be should at least be introduced to it.