Tuesday, October 18, 2011

New Directions in Political History - Post-Conference Observations

Last week, I attended a great conference on Canadian political history, held at York University (full disclosure, I was one of the organizers). About a hundred participants discussed a truly dazzling array of topics, ranging from the new citizenship guide to the welfare state, from gender to food policy, from the civil service to nationalism, from gun control to taxation. The participants approached the concept of Canadian political history from a very wide array of perspectives, ranging what might be considered "top down" studies of politicians and government mandarins to gendered and cultural analyses of political movements and state policy.

I'm sure that not all of what was covered at that conference would be considered "political history" by some people's definition, but I'm pleased to see a broadening of the field, and the interactions between different types of scholars. It was really refreshing to see people who consider themselves to be social historians, cultural historians or women's historians engaging with the foreign policy and constitutional scholars thanks to a shared interest in the functioning of the state. I also think it is important to see how there is an increasing dovetailing between the approaches taken by scholars in different fields, so that a person like myself might incorporate some analysis of gender in my studies of language policy, or a scholar of gender might spend more time considering how social policy and government action played a role in the cultural phenomena they are analyzing.

One observation struck me in particular though, which is the issue of the extent to which academic historians, as a profession, feel qualified to comment on contemporary public policy, or are even invited to do so. The two roundtables that bookended the conference really drove this home for me. The opening session, which centered around the perceived politicization of the Discover Canada citizenship guide, featured five scholars who were all eager to comment on the content of this very contemporary government document, which led to a stimulating discussion (with very ideological perspectives). Conversely, the five panellists on the concluding roundtable on the study of the welfare state expressed a certain reluctance to comment on contemporary issues, when the question was posed to them explicitly by Craig Heron. I'm not sure whether this was simply a reflection of the particular panellists, or an issue connected to the subfield (which generally hasn't tackled much post-1960s history so far, with some key exceptions). I'd really like to see more engagement by academic scholars on the whole in public life, particularly on important political topics like welfare state development. I understand the fears of being misrepresented by media outlets or quoted out of context by journalists or having one's complex analysis oversimplified. But I think that Canadian historians do have a public duty to think about the contemporary ramifications of their research, especially if they study relatively recent history. This is not to say that historical topics cannot be studied for their own sake. But if there are aspects of one's research that can and should inform contemporary discussions, it would seem to me that as good citizens we should be engaging in these debates and at least trying to put our knowledge to good use.

I think that this conference might serve as a great kick-starting to an ongoing series of thematic conferences about the history of the state and Canadian political history more broadly. Here's hoping we can build on this momentum.

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