August 2006. Revised May 2007.
“Dialectic” is a Greek term, literally meaning “conversation.” In philosophy, the term describes the process by which thinkers seek the truth by exchanging opposing arguments. Historians use such comparisons of opposites to craft arguments about the past. Indeed, dialectics are what distinguishes mere recitation of facts from interpretive claims about the past. Here I would like to present some of the dialectics used by historians, with the hope that students can follow their examples in crafting original theses.
One common type of comparison juxtaposes the words and deeds of two or more actors or groups of actors who disagreed about some point.
Opposing forces often show up in studies of politics and policy. For example, Alan Taylor’s Liberty Men and the Great Proprietors describes the conflict, in the decades after the American Revolution, between “gentlemen of property and standing” who expected to control large land grants and monopolize political power, and small farmers who believed in spreading land ownership and authority as widely and equitably as possible.
Another common use of the opposing-forces comparison is in the history of technology. Historians often list the pros and cons of two competing technologies or systems, to explain why people chose one over the other. Sacks of grain or grain elevators, wooden airplanes or metal airplanes, and septic tanks or sewer systems—all were debates demanding resolution.
A thesis concerning two opposing forces should explain why people disagreed about an issue and, ideally, how they resolved their disagreement. Taylor, of example, argues that, faced with the conflict between agrarians and elites, “Jeffersonian politicians reframed political ideology in a manner that permitted compromise legislation and defused the confrontation.” Keep in mind that that resolution may have been amicable—compromise or persuasion—or coercive, with one side driven into bankruptcy, chased out of office, or defeated in the courts or on the battlefield.
Not all debates take place between opposing forces. Just as psychologists portray people’s minds as soups of conflicting impulses, historians have traced ways in which people have found themselves torn between contradictory goals.
Michael Katz, for example, identifies four purposes of American social welfare policy over the centuries: “relief of misery, preservation of social order and discipline, [the] regulation of the labor market [and] political mobilization . . .” He then shows that these purposes “have always been inconsistent with each other, and the unresolved tensions between them have undercut virtually all attempts to formulate coherent welfare policy.” Edmund Morgan, in the first chapter of American Slavery, American Freedom, writes that his challenge is “to explain how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders of the American Revolution and at the same time have developed and maintained a system of labor that denied human liberty and dignity every hour of the day.”
Accounts stressing such contradictions must explain how people could hold clashing beliefs or why they seemed to act against their own interests. They should determine whether people were aware of their own inconsistencies, or whether they lived in denial.
Any event may have multiple causes; the historian’s job is to point out the most important ones. In what may be the most famous thesis statement in American historiography, Frederick Jackson Turner argued that “up to our own day American history has been in a large degree the history of the colonization of the Great West. The existence of an area of free land, its continuous recession, and the advance of American settlement westward, explain American development.” This emphasis on geography contrasted with what Turner called “the germ theory of politics,” that emphasized the European political traditions of American settlers. Though Turner thought his readers would know the germ theory well enough that he did not have to elaborate it himself, the strength of his thesis comes from his implied comparison of two possible causes of American political development.
A more recent example of this sort of comparison is the ongoing debate over the decision to use the atomic bomb against Japan. How much were President Truman and other policy makers influenced by the desire to hasten the end of fighting with Japan, compared to their hopes of limiting postwar Soviet power, or their assumption that any weapon, once developed, should be used? Scholars weigh these factors in various ways, producing a lively debate.
A subtle type of thesis compares what people said to what they meant, when that meaning was unspoken, deliberately hidden, or forgotten over the course of years.
Take this thesis from Allan Brandt’s No Magic Bullet: “The basic contention of this work is that venereal disease has engaged a number of social fears about class, race, ethnicity, and in particular, sexuality and the family. Venereal disease—in its social constructions—has been used during the last century to express these anxieties. In turn, the social and cultural uses of venereal disease as a means of controlling sexuality have greatly complicated attempts to deal effectively with the diseases from a therapeutic standpoint.” In other words, on the surface, policy makers and moralists were talking about venereal diseases, while, underneath, they were thinking about how to control sexuality. Readers will have to continue to learn how conscious were physicians and reformers of this hidden agenda, but right from the start, Brandt makes clear his point of comparison.
That an argument or event has one meaning need not negate others. John Dower begins his book, War Without Mercy, by noting that “World War Two meant many things to many people.” While acknowledging that some participants regarded the war as a struggle for ideology, an imperial contest, or meaningless suffering, he argues that “to scores of millions of participants, the war was also a race war.” His book seeks to discover this last meaning, often forgotten amid the others.
Uncovering hidden meanings demands careful, critical reading, and heavy research. Brandt supports his arguments with hundreds of examples of ways that reformers took actions that did more to control sexuality than disease, and Dower collects hundreds of instances showing that Americans and Japanese used ideas of race to understand the Pacific War. But if you find a significant, consistent pattern of hidden meanings, you have almost certainly crafted a thesis.
Before and After
All historical dialectics contribute to the central dialectic in historical scholarship: the comparison between the beginning and the end of an event. History has been defined as “the analysis of change over time,” so it makes sense that many historians turn to before-and-after comparisons to provide tension in their work.
A good example is Lizabeth Cohen’s Making a New Deal. In her introduction, Cohen notes that industrial workers “sustained defeats in 1919 and . . . refrained from unionism and national politics during the 1920s. Why did workers suddenly succeed in the thirties as both CIO trade unionists and Democratic Party faithfuls?” The key words here are why(which promises an interpretation), and suddenly (sudden change is surprising).
Cohen bases both her initial comparison and her explanation of the change on thousands of sources, but students can build before-and-after comparisons from just a few documents. For example, Donald J. Mattheisen has presented his students with two narratives of World War II—an American television series from the early 1950s and a British series from the early 1970s. Though Mattheisen does present some external research about the making of the two projects, it is his careful analysis of images, narration, and music of the films themselves that form the heart of his before-and-after comparison.
The before-and-after comparison itself is not a thesis; the thesis is the identification of the intervening event or events that produced the difference. Cohen explains the mobilization of workers by pointing to changes in their daily lives in the 1920s and early 1930s. Evidence for that thesis comprises the rest of her book. Mattheisen suggests that the difference between the two television series can be attributed to events of the Cold War. In the early 1950s, at the start of the Cold War, war against totalitarianism seemed simple. Twenty years later, the ambiguity of the Vietnam War inspired an ambiguous account of World War II.
The value of dialectics are that they force a critical perspective. Comparing a source from 1919 to one from 1936 by definition requires the historian to see things in a way that the creator of the 1919 source could not. Comparing the viewpoints of two historical actors demands a perspective distinct from those of either actor. The magic of historical scholarship is that the historian can know more about an event than did the participants themselves. What power!
For more on developing a thesis, see “Elements of a Thesis Statement” and “A Thesis-Statement Template.” For more on dialectics, see “Professor Sees Parallels Between Things, Other Things.”
 Alan Taylor, Liberty Men and Great Proprietors: The Revolutionary Settlement on the Maine Frontier, 1760-1820 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1990), 5.
 William Cronon, Nature”s Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West (New York: W. W. Norton, 1992), chapter 3; Eric Schatzberg, Wings of Wood, Wings of Metal(Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1998); Adam Ward Rome, The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism (Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001), chapter 3.
 Taylor, Liberty Men, 10.
 Michael B. Katz, In the Shadow of the Poorhouse: A Social History of Welfare in America(New York: BasicBooks, 1996), xi.
 Edmund Sears Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia(New York: Norton, 1975), 5.
 Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History (New York, H. Holt and Company, 1920), 1-2.
 See, for example, Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: Hiroshima and Its Legacies(Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003).
 Allan M. Brandt, No Magic Bullet: A Social History of Venereal Disease in the United States since 1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), 6.
 John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War(New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), 4
 Social Science Research Council, Committee on Historiography, The Social Sciences in Historical Study: A Report (New York: Social Science Research Council, 1954), 24.
 Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939 (Cambridge [England]; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 5