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March 01, 2005

Academic vs. "Amateur" History: The Yawning Gap

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The worlds of academic and "amateur" history rarely meet. Prof. William D. Rubinstein - one of the few academic historians to take an interest in "amateur" history - explores the two cultures.

A vast dichotomy exists between the academic and the "amateur" historian, a gap which remains little known to or understood by the outsider, so let me explain.

As they say, an expert is one who knows more and more about less and less. The normal diet of essays, articles, books, and conference papers produced by university historians - of whom I am one - most certainly appears to illustrate the truth of this contention. Absolutely typical papers presented at conferences, seminars, and programmes of research by university historians and post-graduate students have titles such as: King James I and the Landed Gentry of Lancashire, 1610-1625; The Foreign Policy of President Grover Cleveland, 1893-97; and The Rise and Decline of the Pit Prop Industry in South Wales, 1880-1930. As it happens, I have made all of these titles up, but I do not have the slightest doubt that virtually identical papers or book chapters have been written by academic historians. These, by the way, are the vivid and interesting topics: I will not try your patience with a typical list of the boring and tedious ones. Needless to say, I am as guilty as anyone else in my profession of writing this kind of minutiae. Emphatically, I must emphasise, I am not condemning this kind of research: every such topic is a valid contribution to our historical understanding, increasing our knowledge of the past and often helping to change or modify our long-held but erroneous views.

Most non-historians, however, do not realize that microscopic analysis of this kind is built into the post-graduate education of would-be academic historians anywhere in the world. Obtaining a doctoral degree (a Ph.D.), the sine qua non for employment as a university lecturer or its equivalent, centrally entails writing a dissertation of up to 100,000 words, based on original research, demonstrating that one is a capable historian at an advanced level. Almost necessarily, a doctoral candidate writes on a very narrow topic: it is impossible to do anything more in the time at hand. In any case, one's examiners regard the mastery of a narrow field, rather than an attempt to do something more ambitious, as evidence of genuine historical ability. Historians' publications normally grow out of their original research; hence the concentration on the narrow. Of course, some academic historians write wider-ranging books, although few would ever wish to venture out of the limited areas where they regard themselves as experts.

A few academic historians - a tiny percentage of the total number - like, say Simon Schama, succeed at being far more ambitious, in Schama's case doing a television series and accompanying books on the whole history of England. This is almost incredibly rare, and most academic historians would regard his views on times and subjects outside of his own narrow areas of genuine expertise (in his case, early modern cultural history) as unlikely to be truly reliable or to be based on anything more than a perusal of obvious secondary sources. There are about 3,000 historians employed by one or another university in Britain, and no less than about 25,000 in the United States, plus thousands more employed in other ways. A Schama or Niall Ferguson are entirely untypical of the profession. It also goes without saying that academic historians eschew the lurid or "tabloid" history.

Beyond the world of the academic historians, and virtually unknown to them, is the world of the "amateur historian", differing categorically from their academic fellows. (Let me stress as strongly as I can that I am using the term "amateur historian" in a purely neutral, non-pejorative way.) One of the most striking differences is the concentration by the "amateurs" on the lurid and mysterious rather than on the obscure and scholarly. Such topics as the assassination of President Kennedy and other mysterious deaths of famous people, the identity of "Jack the Ripper", the Shakespeare Authorship question, the question of who killed the "little princes in the Tower", and other similar topics, have attracted overwhelming and often obsessive interest by "amateur historians" in countless books and article, societies and conferences, and, inevitably, websites.

What all of these topics have in common, among other things, is that they are wholly or almost wholly ignored by academic historians. Some years ago I did a series of articles on several of these topics for the popular monthly History Today (which I will be turning into a book), and got to know these topic and their researchers very well. As one of the few academic historians to take a serious interest in this area, I am definitely persona grata in such circles as The Cloak and Dagger Club, which meets every few months in a pub in the East End to discuss Jack the Ripper and related topics, and a variety of so-called "Anti-Stratfordian" societies - those composed of researchers who do not believe that the Bard of Avon wrote the plays attributed to him.

Most academic historians would be amazed at how numerous and productive are the efforts of the "amateur historians". I pointed out in the History Today article I wrote on this topic that in the decade 1990-99 alone thirty-nine books were written on the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel in 1888, more than on any topic in British history apart from the two World Wars. The number of books and article on JFK's assassination must number in the thousands, and a glance at or any similar source will reveal more rolling off the presses without diminution. Conferences among "amateur historians" are often attended by hundreds of people. The annual DeVere Studies Conference at Concordia University in Oregon, the largest venue for those researchers who believe that Edward DeVere, the seventeenth Earl of Oxford, wrote Shakespeare's works, attracts over 150 people. (It has recently been renamed the Shakespeare Authorship Studies Conference, to take in other alleged "Authorship candidates" like Sir Francis Bacon).

Although (as at the Concordia University conferences) university academics may be present and present papers, the overwhelming majority of those with a keen interest in these fields are highly intelligent "amateurs" rather than academics. For instance, so far as I am aware not a single one of the hundreds of books written on JFK's assassination has been written by a university academic. All, or virtually all, of their authors have been drawn from an incredibly wide variety of backgrounds - doctors, lawyers, schoolteachers, and so on. This applies as well not only to those who are attacking the officially accepted view that Lee Harvey Oswald shot Kennedy acting alone, but to defenders of the official Warren Commission view like Gerald Posner, a lawyer turned professional writer whose anti-conspiracy book Case Closed (1992) is arguably the best work ever written on the subject.

What centrally drives virtually all "amateur historians" in my view is that each one of them thinks that he or she will be clever enough to outsmart the "experts" and the orthodox apologists, and make the breakthrough discovery which will lead to the mystery being solved. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this, and a similar motivating factor is probably behind much academic historiography as well. What all of this shows, however, is the enormous gap between the two worlds, ironically at a time when many academic historians bemoan the lack of interest in history among the person in the street. They do not realize that it is there, waiting to be tapped, and that in so doing they have nothing to lose but their footnotes.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales - Aberystwyth. He will shortly be writing a book on "amateur" history entitled Shadow Pasts.

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Why is it that to obtain a PhD in History, the candidate must research and write a work of history? Usually a monograph that nobody but the author's mother would wish to read.

To obtain a PhD in Literature, the candidate need not write a novel. Science students are required to conduct an experiment, but, AFAIK, these are for the most part, cut and try exercises, usually one data set from his sponsor's laboratory's continuing operation.

I can't believe that the history students of the world would be worse off if the disertation requirement were changed to be a review essay of the historiography in a reasonably decent sized field.

Certainly, the world's librarians would be thankful.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at March 2, 2005 07:04 PM

Prof Rubinstein is right in general terms; I'd just add that the proof is in the exception. I have been struck by the fertility of cross-research where overlap does exist.

Studying the economics of the Royal Navy as part of an MA, I was struck by the quality and depth of the relevant amateur historical research. The Royal Navy is an exciting and emotive topic, yet not only were amateurs willing to write accounts of battles and other dramatic events, but they were prepared to do lots of grunt-work. They catalogued the careers of ships (important for understanding the composition of the RN, the merchant fleet and privateers, as well as issues of technological diffusion). Moreover, they have bought up, preserved and study huge stocks of log-books and other paraphenalia. In an area where technology was very important, the depth of knowledge about weights of metals involved in ship-building (vital for understanding industrial behaviour, esp. during wartime) and other such tiring and difficult topics are dealt with utterly meticulously.

Posted by: Chris Cook at March 7, 2005 11:59 AM

The subject reminds me of my aunt accusing J. Edgar Hoover of complicity in the Kennedy assassination. I argued:"There's no proof Hoover was involved", to which my aunt replied "AND THERE'S NO PROOF HE WASN'T". I said:"There's no proof SANTA CLAUS wasn't!"

Posted by: Steve Burstein at September 17, 2005 02:17 AM

Professor. Rubenstein is correct in a broad sense, however the question of why professional historians do not attempt these question must be answered, could it be that there is simplty not enough physical evidence to prove fact in these questions, I know the world loves a theory but there are some things even historains professional or otherwise cannot prove. And it is proof not disproof that is required.

Posted by: michael adams at December 14, 2006 02:28 PM

@ Robert Schwartz: I can't speak to the Arts subjects so much, but I assure you PhD in a science subject requires original research which makes a contribution to the field; anything but a list of 'cut and try' exercises.

This is a very interesting article. The gulf between professional and, shall we say, 'non-professional' (I prefer it to 'amateur') research has infinitely widened over the last two centuries, before which a keen mind (and a wealthy sponsor) could equip one for the academic world.

I feel that the major difference today is in terms of quality control and peer review: non-professional research can absolutely be of professional quality; but finding those examples through the poorly-written and ill-considered majority of non-professional works (websites, blogs, self-published books and so on) can be nigh-on impossible.

However, I have to suggest - as a 'professional' in my own field - that the responsibility for bridging the gap should surely be on those paid to explore and promote their field, rather than the hobbyist (though in reality it is often the hobbyist who evangelises the more effectively). It is the responsibility of scientists to not only 'do science', but also to communicate it to the wider world - a responsibility still only partly met, with posts such as 'Professor for the Public Understanding of Science' now appearing, and scientific media correspondents actually being qualified scientists.

Seems to me History as an academic subject has some catching up to do on that score; and engagement with the serious non-professional communities would be the perfect place to start.

Posted by: Nucular at July 13, 2011 05:08 PM
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