Why Start This Now?

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At the beginning of any venture, I find that it is helpful to ask the question: Why should I start this now? This at any rate will be the question that I hope to answer in this, the opening post of the CHESS blog. The CHESS workshop was created to spur the development of interdepartmental thinking about historical events relating to the social sciences and humanities. Surely bringing together intelligent people in order to exchange opinions would be reason enough to consider this a worthwhile venture. Stimulating intellectual discussion in an incredibly talent rich environment together with free food makes a winning combination.

As enjoyable as academic discussion for its own sake may be, there exists a deeper and more important reason behind the origin of CHESS. The increasing compartmentalization of academia has created a situation where scholars from different fields or those who study different topics have little to talk about to each other anymore. An anecdote about a previous workshop experience will help to illustrate what I mean. In this social science workshop participants spent most of the time discussing the author’s methodology, pulling apart the paper under discussion piece by piece. Why did we do this? Because we all studied vastly different subjects with little overlap, our shared methodological standards constituted the only thing that we could discuss. It would simply take too much explanation by the author or background knowledge on the part of the audience in order to engage intellectually with the paper’s substantive ideas.

So it is with most of the subjects covered in the academy of today.  The start of the CHESS workshop represents a movement away from this academic balkanization. We must build bridges across the gaps that divide us instead of accentuating them and reject the notion that scholars from different fields using divergent methods have nothing to say to each other. It proudly affirms the fact that the academic community is not as separated as it sometimes appears to be. While we may read different journals, attend different conferences, and belong to different professional associations, we do not need to talk past each other. The problems that we address about what the contemporary world is like and how it developed in this way connects researchers and provides them a basis for common communication. Perhaps we can even learn something from one another.

The past can serve as the glue that binds us together. Events embedded in the historical timeline do not have a disciplinary disposition. They are not members of an academic department and they do not run regressions, survey experiments, conduct archival research, or perform interviews. We, the academic community, do that to and about them. We must stop and realize that before we turn these events into data of various forms, we all study a common history, even with its complexities and ambiguities. Once we realize that history connects us we can start a genuine conversation with one another about it.

This does not mean that we should check our disciplinary backgrounds at the door. The CHESS workshop aims to be an interdisciplinary workshop, not an a-disciplinary one. I am a proud sociologist and I will bring the perspective of a sociologist to any historical discussions I have with a historian, political scientist, or anthropologist. We must learn to relish our distinctive academic tradition, while realizing that conversations about topics of mutual interest can still occur by those who do not share it. In the end, this is the motivating principle behind the CHESS workshop and the guiding light behind this CHESS blog. To use an analogy, each of us may play a different instrument, but it takes all of us to form an orchestra to play a symphony.  May the academic orchestra we form now inspire those who hear its songs for years to come.


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