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Asia as a Marginal Category

Posted By Jonathan Dresner On 8/23/2007 @ 7:18 pm In Academia,English,General,Historiography | Comments Disabled

Here we go again.

The American Historical Association has proposed new rules for adding and eliminating membership categories, those “areas of scholarly interest” which allow university presses and conference panel organizers to find us when they need us. The last time they tried to eliminate “psychohistory” they got slammed, and these procedures are a response to that, an attempt to assuage feelings of persecution by creating a “fair procedure.” The process for adding a category is only slightly absurd: ten members in good standing have to sign a petition and, after verifying the good standing of the signatories, the association “staff” will make a recommendation to the Council (our highest muckety-mucks, the ones we vote for) regarding the inclusion of the category in the taxonomy of professional historians.1 The procedure for eliminating a category is a very impersonal one, by contrast: when the number of members picking a category drops below five for several years in a row, and warning people in Perspectives doesn’t change that, then “subject to Council’s final approval, that category will be deleted or consolidated.”

The categories are already a bit odd, frankly: revision wouldn’t be a bad idea. Take my own taxonomic position:

First area of scholarly interest: 258 Meiji Restoration, 1868-1912 (Japan)
Second area of scholarly interest: 710 Demography, Population, and Social Life
Third area of scholarly interest: 250 Japan

The first thing, of course, is that 1868-1912 isn’t the Meiji Restoration, but the Meiji era, and there isn’t a “19c” category to cover the growing scholarship on the transition. Second is that “Demography” is one of many choices I could have made to cover my study of Japanese labor migration to Hawai’i, including

705 – Asian American
726 – Labor
759 – Diaspora Studies
760 – Immigration
711 – Diplomatic/International

I actually was expecting to find a “transnational” category: “708 – Comparative” doesn’t quite cover it, and very little of what I do qualifes as “diplomatic history.” Third, of course, is that you’re only allowed to pick three categories, so my interest in Japanese colonial migration would have to be expressed in one of the following:

259 – Taisho and Early Showa Japan, 1912-1941
260 – Rise of Militarism and World War II (Japan)
275 – Colonial Korea, 1910-1945

There’s no category for “imperialism” or “colonialism” generally.2 Moreover, picking one of those would mean that I’d have no way to indicate “Japan” generally as something I’m interested in: clearly some form of nesting tree structure would make more sense than completely discreet categories.

Taxonomy Categories Vulnerable to Consolidation or Elimination, 2007OK, now let’s take a look at the categories which would be vulnerable to elimination under this system (their list is on the right). Twelve of the twenty-two categories (only seventeen of them are immediately endangered) are Asian, and four are African. Two are Byzantine and there’s Numismatics and Psychohistory (again).

They say that “This is not intended to make a statement about the relative merits of a particular subject or area of inquiry, just to assure that the taxonomy offers a proper reflection of the broad contours of the Association’s membership.” That sounds good, but I have another reading of this, one which goes beyond the grossly outdated database functions the AHA is using to keep track of us. I think that this list indicates that the AHA is failing to actually attract and keep as members those scholars who teach outside of the core Western fields. It’s certainly not done all that well attracting Asianists to the national meeting, though I think they’ve done better lately with the American Historical Review. Nor has the AHA, for all its talk about public history and expanding the definitions of historical practice, attracted archaelogists or other scholars of physical culture. How could numismatics, one of the earliest fields tieing archaeology and history together, be on the cutting block? How could a dozen Asian fields, most of them pretty healthy as scholarly endeavors, be out of the AHA, if the AHA were really working to represent and to serve the entire historical community? Asian studies is not a secondary field, but the study of the bulk of humanity and of some of the most interesting history. When will the American Academy start treating it as such?

  1. Do I have a better idea? Yes: allow people who pick “599 – Other” to include a short description (I would expect the database could handle a couple of dozen extra characters) and staff could monitor those. When a number of “others” listing something similar reached a certain level, then the Council could consider acting. This would also have the benefit of allowing people whose taxonomies have lapsed to continue listing themselves under their old categories []
  2. My neologism “Colonialogy” hasn’t caught on yet, but we might be able to correct that []

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