Scalpel and Prism: Social Science and the Humanities in the Historian’s Toolkit

Zhenhao (Oscar) Yu

Historian Marc Bloch argues that young colleagues should not pigeonhole themselves in the category of either social science or humanities. In his view, historians are quintessential scientists because they collaborate with scientists in other fields and incorporate new methodologies into their studies. They use science as a scalpel to dissect dramatic themes such as geological or linguistic changes. In their role as humanists, historians study not only elites but also everyday people, like rural peasants and factory workers, through a prism that includes all aspects of society. For historians, history thus straddles the fields of social sciences and humanities as both are essential in their toolkits. 

Science: A Scalpel to Dissect the Past

As science permeated many academic fields during the early twentieth century, Marc Bloch predicted that history would also benefit from science’s influence. His contemporaries often criticized historians for being too emotional, preventing history from being a fair, reasonable, and reliable study. Bloch refutes the claim that emotion derails reason; rather, emotion propels historians to study what piqued their scholarly interests. Bloch also draws a comparison between science and history because both are constantly improving. For example, Einstein’s theory of relativity did not detract from science as a whole but rather provided new insights into quantum mechanics. The same also applies to historiography; for instance, the history of the proletariat does not conflict with that of the aristocracy but provides a more holistic view of past events. As a corollary, both science and history are improved on by new generations, who stand on the shoulders of the previous generation and explore prospective topics in academia. 

Bloch insists that historians work with scientists from other disciplines to build closer connections to those fields. For example, hydrologists searched for data about climate change, sea level, and ocean currents to study why Zwin gulf on the Flemish coast suddenly drained in the tenth century. To supplement the hydrologists’ data, historians analyze primary sources about Burges residents who constructed dykes to prevent water from flowing into the Gulf. Based on scientific data and primary sources, hydrologists and historians worked together to explain why the Zwin gulf disappeared in the tenth century. This case shows how history can work with other disciplines to answer fundamental, practical questions. 

Historians also work with linguists to understand how languages have changed over time. Linguists and historians sift through extensive vocabulary in two or more languages for a potentially common word to compare. One example is the word “servus”, which meant “serf” in Latin but later changed to “slave” in English to establish their colonial projects overseas. This semantic variation indicates that words have different meanings depending on different contexts. Based on this discovery, Bloch envisions a new history in which historians collaborate with linguists and other scholars: 

In order to understand and appreciate one’s own methods of investigation, however specialized, it is indispensable to see their connection with all simultaneous tendencies in other fields. 

Bloch’s proposal to study with scholars from other fields was groundbreaking since it requires historians to make efforts to be multi- and interdisciplinary. The subfield of historical linguistics,  which centers on exchanging methodologies between history and linguistics, was one product of scholars answering Bloch’s call. Historical linguists work on projects such as language change in ancient China, where they study the influence of the rhythm of Chinese poetry on language in the tenth century. Based on phonetically similar Chinese characters, historical linguists reread the poems in a colloquial manner, which enabled them to offer new insights. By and large, historical linguistics is one of many interdisciplinary fields in which scholars from various fields work together to reinterpret extant sources.

Humanities: A Prism Sheds Light on the Margins

Marc Bloch asserts that history has long played a central role in humanities. In The Historian’s Craft, Bloch explains that “history” stemmed from the Greek conception of questioning the human past. Christianity is a religion deeply concerned with history, as the clergy designed accurate calendars and kept extensive archives. Since the Greeks and Christians have been recording history for centuries, Bloch acknowledges that history in Europe has a deep connection to the humanities, which also resonates with other regions of the world. 

Using humanities as a prism, Bloch analyzed the power dynamic between the marginalized peasants and their seigneurs in France. During a field trip to survey the topography of northern France, Bloch looked at rural villages and wondered if peasants themselves determined their agricultural lives when neglected by their seigneurs. To answer this question, Bloch then studied agricultural calendars and farm tools such as plows in rural France. With extensive research on the material lives of peasants, Bloch challenges a static history that perpetuates landlords’ dominance. Instead, Bloch argues that landlords appeased angry peasants rather than dominating them:

[The landlords] hoped to favor the acquisition of the land by the little people of the rural area; in preference to the balancing of the budget, they sought the relief of the poor peasants, as a guarantee of their fidelity to the new order.

In this quotation, readers can sense the dynamic between landlords and peasants. If landlords did not establish relief programs and lower prices for peasants, the landlord’s barns would be set ablaze. Using this example, Bloch argues more broadly that dominators often negotiated with dominated people to balance their profits. 

Bloch proposed that young historians should attempt to transcend the boundaries between science and humanities. Bloch frequently consulted with other scientists, from geologists to linguists, to analyze past events. Bloch also zooms in on the study of marginalized people, namely peasants and workers, which provides a more holistic perspective on past events. Rather than claiming that history belongs to the domain of either the social sciences or the humanities, Bloch affirms that science and the humanities are complementary, and both are necessary for studying history. Indeed, this is why a historian’s craft should include heuristic tools rooted in the humanities and critical tools borrowed from the social sciences.

Image: “Painting, Ideas, Portrait, Mixed Technique.” Davide Coroneo. Courtesy Celeste, 2013. 

Zhenhao (Oscar) Yu is a first-year master’s student in the Global, International, and Comparative History (MAGIC) Program at Georgetown University. Oscar studies the history of science, focusing on the tradition of bencao (the study of nature) in pre-modern East Asia.

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