It’s an important question, the Cooter questions big brother. For many people working on the sexy HPS subjects it may well be an easy one to confront. I once challenged a friend of mine who works in the history of psychology that my thesis was cooler than his, to which he replied “It’s the brain!! Who doesn’t care about the brain!?”. True. And mine is about plants. If you sit down anyone with half a brain and tell them that you are studying the history of agricultural science they will say how interesting it is, and obviously how important it is and how the uncertainty of the worlds agricultural future is such a vital contemporary topic. Now in no way do I think these people are lying, all those points are very (very very very) true, but they are true in the same way that the history of banking or textile manufacture are important. Nothing about the surface of such topics invites you to engage with the characters involved, or unpick the nitty-gritty of policy review or explain how such changes are the result of culturally dependent assumptions etc. etc. At the heart of this is of course our old friend the pure/applied science distinction. I for one always feel much more at home trying to unpick the intricacies of a scientific theory, one created by a dead guy whose work has either gone on to be massively influential (for interesting and surprising reasons) or completely sidelined (for interesting and surprising reasons). Doing the cultural stuff is like an added bonus, giving my work flavour and depth and making it relevant to contemporary discussion. Because of this instinct I have been struggling to find ways to get people not just interested but invested in my topic.
My thesis is really the ideal type for any PhD. I have an institute that has been almost entirely overlooked, with vast archival material that has not once been given the HPS gaze, which directly relates to contemporary concerns about food security. There is a job to be done, and it’s down to me to either do it well or poorly. The National Institute of Agricultural Botany was established in 1919, and most importantly for the sake of this blog post, was meant to be an applied institute. I say “meant” because the question of what it actually was is proving to be a difficult enough challenge in itself. I shan’t get into all that here though, it’s not the right forum. What I do want to discuss are the ways in which I am trying to make it as relevant as possible to as many people as possible, and whether or not this overcomes the ‘history of banking’ problem. I am also aware that many people may well think such a problem doesn’t exist, or exists only for simpletons who can’t see the connections between past and present which make historical study compelling. To such people I stick up two fingers and make a fart sound with my tongue before walking away thinking about boobs.
- I am very fortunate in that the core social concern of my thesis, food security, is currently a very hot topic and looks to stay that way. Therefore one of my best bets is to say “look what we are dealing with now, and how we are doing so. Is this the best way? What did we used to do?”. I can get quite a lot of mileage out of this manoeuvre, provided of course people are already invested in the food security issue. If they aren’t already then all I have to do is come over all four horseman of the apocalypse on them and bingo, lips bitten and tears held back, “listen, for he is a prophet!”.
- As much fun as the first option is, I can’t always use it. There are many forums in which people expect you to excise contemporary issues and stick to the history. This was something I confronted when presenting a paper on inbreeding at the postgraduate BSHS conference. Inbreeding had been all over the news in one form or another for a few weeks prior to the conference, but I was wisely advised to leave it to one side and get on with my story. This wasn’t problematic though as inbreeding is most certainly a sexy topic so I was fine (well, I got through it without looking too big a pillock). What to do with agricultural science? The easiest thing to do is to piggy back on those who have already considered similar or related institutes and say “NIAB too!” This is inherently valuable if only on the grounds that it fills in blanks in our historical narrative, but as I say, is easy, and if I am honest, quite lazy. Even if I am careful to point out cases of “NIAB not too!” it’s still a relatively simple exercise. More importantly it can lead to the construction of unnecessary or even false boundaries. For this reason I try to keep it to a minimum, and much prefer…
- Playing God. I can’t think of a better way to describe it. As long as I write as though I am all knowing, without lying of course, I can make my topic exceptionally interesting to virtually anyone. It’s a posture that when I sit down to write I have to deliberately adopt. It allows me to be as creative as possible with my arguments and therefore use the entire tool-box in the war against the ‘history of banking’ problem. I repeat, I don’t lie! But often obsessing about whether or not memorandum A really fits into the general argument you want to make about the motivations of Committee B can fuck things up. Of course you never forget these nagging insecurities, that’s why so many of us self-medicate with beer or things that aren’t beer and are harder to get hold of. It’s the putting these insecurities aside that makes for an interesting presentation or thesis chapter. One day I may of course be forced to eat these words, “how could he have missed that they were all Nazi’s!” (as far as I know no-one involved with the establishment of NIAB was a Nazi, I repeat, just a joke, no Nazi’s). I suppose it comes down to how you view your work. I do what I do, as well as I possibly can, so that I can continue studying HPS and engaging with things that interest me over and above anything else I have ever come across. If you do this because you are making our understanding of the past truer, option three might not be so attractive.
Anyway, that’s a start, but I’d be interested if anyone else could suggest some better tactics or wished to take issue with mine.