Synthesizing Matters

It is with a rare and intense joy and delight that I find a really good historical* synthesis, and when I do I usually end up buying at least one hard copy to keep forever and ever and use until it falls apart. Why? Because writing a really good synthesis is amazingly difficult and requires a breadth of knowledge and experience in the field that is becoming rather rare.

A good synthesis history usually starts with an overview of the field, what has changed since the last synthesis was written, and why this one is needed. It usually also tells the reader about major works in the field, or schools of thought, or what the author has come to see in new ways. This is also where the author lays out his argument and how it fits, or doesn’t, with the rest of the field. And then he pulls together all the small studies, other monographs, and associated information into a coherent whole to tell a broad story that gives readers a sense of “that’s out there” as well as of “what happened.”

I’m currently reading a brand new economic history of China. The author is fluent in Chinese, Japanese, and English, and draws on works from all three languages. He begins with the Shang Dynasty and works forward, and thus far (I’m up to the Tang) has done a great job of pulling together the various research monographs and articles to paint a broad view of things. You might say that he’s taking all the pixels and making a single picture out of them. It’s a rare gift these days.

Why rare? Because of how we historians are trained and what we are encouraged to do. We are encouraged, if not forced, to  focus more and more closely on a single sub-field and to know it in increasing levels of detail. In theory, academics who teach are supposed to emerge from that sub-field on occasion to look at the broader general sweep of things, but who has time to read widely, even in US history for example, when there are so many specialty articles about Native American history and political power and cultural expression that have come out in the past 10 years? If my goal is to write books and articles so I can be published enough to get promoted, I need to know those other books and articles in my sub-field, as well as doing all my research, and teaching upper division courses (if necessary). That does not leave much time to keep up on larger trends outside Native American history at best.

In an ideal world, the university is a place where an academic is sheltered from certain outside duties so that she has the time and resources to read and be conversant with a broad range of ideas. She then pulls these ideas together and presents them to other people in a way that helps them understand, or learn, or yes. And she contributes to the advancement of knowledge broadly defined inside and outside her specialty. Ideally, a university is where students go to learn more about the big sweeping picture and then specialize from there. Ideally. And departmental duties, and faculty meetings, and inter-departmental meetings, and required ‘awareness” sessions, and “public service outreach” to the right sort of public don’t eat up all the time not occupied by research, teaching, and “life.”

In the last five years I think I have read three excellent syntheses and a few decent (useful) ones. Three of the total are older works that I stumbled into because of reading outside my field. The problem? Too much demand for specialization and not enough people willing and able to read widely and digest what they’re read. Even regional or time-period studies are becoming overloaded with sub-specialist detail rather than looking at larger pictures, as authors write for other academics instead of interested lay-readers.

I’m battling through what could be a fascinating book about the collision of cultures and climates in what are now the ‘Stans, western China and Eastern Europe. It is a slog because the author loaded it with theory and in-field jargon, turning a possible synthesis into another specialist monograph. If I had not read the critical monograph about the main area of focus, I’d be lost. As it is I’m reading an economic history of China instead of this thing that I started almost a year ago, because the economic history is much better written and far more useful at this moment in my life. Yes, I’ll finish the other book. And possibly try a second one about that region that seems more promising. AND I will pick back up my idea about writing the same thing myself, because this author has not produced the book I wanted or was looking for – a true comparative study of global frontiers. No, I don’t have the academic creds to do such a thing, BUT I have the interest, the breadth of knowledge of where to look for things, and the skill to start pulling ideas together and see if they float.

It is not a good synthesis. It is not intended to be, I don’t think. If it was supposed to be a synthesis, it is not showing it, at least not yet.

I’m coming to suspect that the ideal historian to write a good, broad-brush overview is someone who is old enough to have had time and training to read widely, who teaches (thus forcing them to keep from hyper-overspecialization), who is curious, and who has the ability to step back and look around for applicable information. It is someone with the luxury of time, which does not describe a lot of young to mid-career academics. Or even older academics, alas.

*This rant/meditation also applies to other fields. In fact I’ve found more readable scientific syntheses than historical, which suggests some less-than-happy things about the state of the field.

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7 thoughts on “Synthesizing Matters

  1. I sometimes suspect a lay person is more likely to write a good synthesis than somebody specializing in the field. Because a lay person is more likely to develop a broad overview of knowledge while one who works in the field tends to have an in depth knowledge of the particular area their work involves, and when they study more they tend to concentrate on that area that will help with their work.

    If you are learning just out of your own interest rather than for your day job, you are more likely to develop a wider knowledge base.

  2. It’s the publish or perish mentality… Get ‘something’ out once a year, it doesn’t have to be ‘good’, just published… sigh

    • And published in the “right” journals. One article in _The Journal of Environmental History_ = three in _State Historical Quarterly_ or _Regional Association Journal_ or _Science Museum Quarterly_

    • And once tenure is achieved, many an academic has acquired reassigned time away from classes, not to pursue research in a field, or write, or do outreach, but to spend time on things like the university social justice committee.

  3. I sympathize with your frustration. There are a lot of areas of interest where I simply haven’t found a good synthesis. Sometimes used entry-level textbooks in the field combined with reading scholarly articles is enough to makes some progress, sometimes not.

    Take historic trade, for instance. I can find plenty of scholarly anthropology and history articles dealing with specific trade routes and networks, results of recent archaeological work showing that goods A from X and B from Y were found at settlement in M or shipwreck in Z, and books (both scholarly and not) on trade in particular regions, or of a particular good.

    A paleo-anthropology topic I’d love to see a good synthesis on is the spread of humans through the world. I’ve not seen a good one, merely scholarly articles about specific finds, a few books regarding certain species/subspecies (depends on splitter vs. lumper) such as Neanderthals, and molecular anthropology articles attempting to deduce from genomic evidence.

    I’ve had a lot of luck with topics in computer science; many articles, theses, and dissertations are available free online, and have a good literature review section in them. A few of the works on computer-generated city models included better overviews of some human geography concepts than I’d been able to find searching human geography sources!

    • I’m about to start Barry Cuniliffe’s peopling of Eurasia book. I’ll post a review if it’s worth anything. I also need to go finish _Vermeer’s Hat_ about world trade.

      You might look at some of Brian Fagan’s books, like the one on sailing ( a world history) and _Fish on Fridays_ about how religion and culture shaped ship-building and exploration in Europe. His other non-academic books are good, too.

      • Thank you. Fagan’s “People of the Earth” was used as the textbook for lower-level anthropology course I took, and I could swear a couple of his articles popped up in upper-level anthropology or archaeology courses, but I’d never even looked at his non-academic writing before. Checking Amazon, I see he does have quite a few books covering topics I’m interested in. Cool.

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