Friday, August 29, 2008

Whither labor history?

As Professor Bierce readies himself to celebrate the long weekend honoring the blue and pink-collar workers who make his life easier, he must ask (but not answer) this perplexing question. Whither labor history? The field, so hot in the 1970s and 1980s, seems to attract few of the best and brightest younger scholars. Is it that the generation of historians who came of age in the 1960s believed in the redemptive power of labor? Were those historians closer to the working-class than the pampered students who are increasingly the only who can afford today's exorbitant tuition bills, even at our best public universities? Or is labor history in need of an infusion of new methodologies, the analogue to the transformation wrought by the cultural turn in the once moribund field of diplomatic history? Your gossipy friend wonders. In any case, at a moment in our history when working-class issues have moved to the forefront of national politics, the field of labor history seems overdue for a revival.


Mr Punch said...

Certainly a political outlook that privileged the working class and organized labor contributed significantly to past interest in labor history; the substantial discrediting of Marxism, and the decline of the labor movement, have made a difference.

I doubt that the immediate background of today's students and young historians matters much, as even preppies like Jesse Lemisch once studied labor history -- but I suspect that members of that generation were closer to a family history of labor activism than is likely to be true today.

As to the change in approach -- yes please. A lot of labor history has been in effect "community studies," usually focusing on labor successes limited by time and geography. However good the individual works may be, they quickly become repetitious, and they don't add up to much.

Some would say, of course, that we've already had the "cultural turn" in labor history, with E.P. Thompson.

Richard said...

I might suggest that labor history is suffering from several issues: the decline of working-class organizations (unions), a need for new methodologies, and a broader and deeper understanding of what labor history is. Right now there is really good labor history being done. But, it is done in and as other fields: urban, African-American, immigration, gender, women etc. .... Happy Labor Day!

Sean said...

I would argue that labour historians, under the influence of Thompson, were among the first of the new social historians in the 1970s to emphasize the importance of culture.

Good opportunity to plug the new award-winning book by my supervisor and friend Bryan D. Palmer, a long-time "Thompsonian" labour historian.

See James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, University of Illinois Press, 2007.

Cheers, Sean

Anonymous said...

Labor history is alive and well, having been folded into the newer, more analytically satisfying "history of capitalism." Younger scholars don't think labor and capital can be understood apart from each other.

Anonymous said...

I thought labor history got folded into Whiteness studies.

Anonymous said...

Too many academics are uncomfortable with the topic of class.

Jay said...

Great read, a very different contrast on the point of political views back then.