01 October 2006

The Participant Historian

I first encountered the term ‘participant historian’ some time ago in a piece by historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He was a Special Advisor to John F. Kennedy in the White House, and he subsequently used the concept to frame his approach to writing his well-regarded book on the Kennedy years. Schlesinger’s term of course played off the concept of the ‘participant observer,’ a basic technique in community studies and anthropology, which was particularly current in the activist 1960s.

Not until much more recently did I appreciate that Thucydides thought of himself as a participant historian: "I lived through the whole of it, being of an age to comprehend events, and giving my attention to them in order to know the exact truth about them." (Peloponnesian War 5.26.5.; Strassler ed., p.316) So the issues attendant upon being both a participant in historical events, and an historian trying to make sense of them, are about as old as coherent concepts of history itself (at least in the Western tradition).

By chance (or perhaps just bad parenting…), I have been involved in several innovative or otherwise noteworthy projects or organizations. One formed the core of a thesis; a few others the basis for articles. I was constantly encountering the issues and perplexities in being both a participant/actor and a historian/social scientist, none of which I pretend to have solved, resolved, (or even in Ackovian terms, to have dissolved).

One of the tropes in the universe of the ‘Infinite Digital Archive’ is ‘Everyman as historian’: the recognition that history is a game that (almost) everyone can play. Even if the individual’s horizon is simply personal satisfaction on some level (e.g., family genealogy), the Infinite Archive offers the capacity to link/integrate/absorb an individual narrative into a more encompassing perspective. The digital historical environment constitutes a new enactment of the Thompsonian ‘history from below.’ In short, the participant historian is not restricted to someone who had an eye to the keyhole of Kennedy’s ‘Camelot’ as Schlesinger did, nor to comparable elite situations. And therefore, the issues which attend participating, researching, reflecting, narrating become widely generalized, even if not widely acknowledged or understood.

That said, an immediate caveat. This blog is in the first instance an artefact of Bill Turkel’s Digital History course, and for the next few months (or more) most of it will be preoccupied with reflections on course readings and assignments. So it will be a while before it squarely addresses the dynamics and dilemmas of the participant historian.

The course context raises an additional issue, that of audience. We band of a dozen sisters/brothers know the readings we are jiving off. But the potential readership of these blogs are not restricted to this group; if it were, I could engage in a lot of shorthand about the readings since everyone else would understand the references.

Hubris no doubt, but my operational assumption is that the occasional reader from the cosmos beyond the course might stumble upon the site and should feel welcome. And so I will endeavor to provide sufficient context (fond hope!) or links for my comments to make them intelligible to those who haven’t read the source documents themselves.