Reverse Engineering for Historians

August 2011

Reverse engineering means taking something apart to see how it works, how it could be improved, and how it could be adapted to other uses. Historians must be able to do with each other’s works, so they can evaluate those works and build on their strengths to produce new scholarship.

Historians can even reverse-engineer reverse-engineering, by reading book reviews to see how scholars read critically. What follows are some examples of reverse engineering by historians, showing some issues that historians typically consider as they read works of scholarly history.

Agency: Whose story is being told?

History is the story of the interaction of many people, and the historian must often choose whose perspective to emphasize. Read the account with special attention to the subjects of sentences to figure out which individuals or groups dominate the account. Whose decisions are being explained? Or, to use a bit of jargon, who has agency in the story?

Example: the historian tells the story of people who have been neglected

Goluboff’s book puts African American sharecroppers, tenant farmers, industrial workers, and those who became their advocates and attorneys at the center of the story. The judiciary and its decisions are not ignored, of course. With insight and intelligence Goluboff explores the implications of Lochner-era jurisprudence, but she puts the strategy pursued by the liberal attorneys housed in the Civil Rights Section of the Department of Justice and those in the NAACP front and center. Her book is therefore based not only upon the archives of the main civil rights litigator of that era, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (the Inc. Fund), but also the highly active NAACP branches, the files of the Department of Agriculture’s Bureau of Agricultural Economics, the Department of Justice, the records of the Committee on Fair Employment Practices, as well as a truly exhaustive reading of the judicial opinions and legal literature of the 1940s.[1]

Example: the historian privileges some perspectives over others

Although Duncan includes the voices of Unionist civilians and Union soldiers and officers, he focuses on the perspective of Confederate civilians. When Duncan writes of "Southerners," he means white Confederate Southerners. He refers to dissident whites as "Unionists," without even using "southern" as a modifier, rendering Unionism an almost foreign presence with his frequent juxtaposition of "Southerners" and "Unionists." The chapter titles reflect the perspectives of Confederate civilians. "A Taste of Humiliation" covers Union occupation under Banks. "The Brute: General Robert Milroy" does not account for the Unionists who firmly supported him. While Duncan provides some attention to white dissidents, he leaves black dissidents as largely marginal figures. Slaves constituted sixteen percent and black Southerners thirty-two percent of Winchester’s population in 1860. The town contained approximately one-third of Frederick County’s slaveholders. Duncan’s discussions of slaves are just as frequently—if not more frequently—written from the perspective of slaveholders than of slaves. In his passages on slaves and slavery, slaveholders are often the actors and slaves the object. Duncan’s silences are byproducts of the silences of the historical record. He draws upon a large volume of primary sources, but he tends to interpret these primary sources from the authors’ perspectives, without attempting to transcend their limitations.[2]

Sources and methods: how does the historian tell the story?

As these examples show, the choice of sources both reflects and shapes the historian’s understanding of agency.

Ask, therefore, what sources did the historian find and how did she deploy them? Did she use the sources only to tell the story of their creators, or was she able to read the sources critically? What sources did she not use?

Example: the historian makes clever use of sources

The strength of Franz’s book emerges in her third and fourth chapters, where she gives life and voice to the ebbing wave of inventiveness that Thomas Hughes and others have noted in aggregate for this period. Drawing on extensive original research into one hundred auto-accessory patents and two hundred letters that amateur inventors sent to the Ford Motor Company, Franz shows how a self-help industry of patent lawyers and technology publications nurtured the myth of emulation and invention well into the period of corporate R&D and encouraged the increasingly quixotic efforts of motorist-inventors.[3]

Example: the historian emphasizes some sources over others

Garb could have investigated the Chicago real-estate professionals who literally wrote the early-twentieth century textbooks about appraising property values—although that would mean extending the end of her study past 1919, into the 1920s and 30s. There could also be further exploration of the worker’s perspective as well as the reformers’ views—although Garb does attempt this, especially in impressive close work with property-tract records.[4]

Example: the historian reads sources in novel ways to answer new questions

No simple rendering of “the facts,” the author’s story centers on three fascinating tropes—testimony, the collected writings, formal and informal, of those involved in the study; testifying, a “speaking out loud about a set of truths and beliefs that are usually part of a self-revelatory experience” (7); and traveling, an examination of the sometimes competing narratives of Tuskegee by physicians, scientists, reporters, authors, and, most importantly, African Americans themselves. Reverby correctly points out that her aim is the deconstruction, construction, and reconstruction of images, expectations, relationships, and responsibilities.[5]

Periodization: When does this story take place?

Real life is seamless; there is always a before and an after. But historians must make choices about when their stories begin and end, choices often indicated by a date range in the subtitle of a book or article. Like the choice of sources, the periodization of a story both reflect and shape the analysis.

Example: The historian begins the story earlier than other accounts of the same trend

Invisible Hands tells the story of how businessmen built the modern Right; it depicts opposition to social democracy as their core animus. Whereas most studies of conservatism concentrate on the years when it acquired a mass national following (the 1960s and 1970s) or when its intellectuals set to work in earnest (the 1950s), Phillips-Fein reaches back much further, with revealing results.[6]

Scope: What did the historian include and leave out?

Periodization is a particularly important application of a broader set of decisions about what topics to include and which to leave out.

Example: The historian combines stories that had been told separately

It is in Baker’s decision to chronicle all three major parts of the Grant County story—the strike itself, the gender transformation, and the filmmaking—that this book distinguishes itself from other labor histories. She has produced a revealing historical analysis of the intertwining worlds of labor, race, culture, and politics in Cold War America that the film Salt of the Earth so movingly captures.[7]

Example: The historian emphasizes some stories over others

Brandt does not compare this government-industry symbiosis with that in other developed countries but notes the supreme irony that this settlement left the industry able to market freely outside the United States. Thus a growing global tobacco problem subsumed the defeats of the domestic market. Brandt aptly describes the political negotiations of the settlements and the machinations of the industry in safeguarding its export markets. However this argument says nothing about the longer history of the world tobacco industry. The latter was hardly new to the 1990s and beyond, and was one in which American marketeers were prominent in purloining their product as far back as the nineteenth century. As in so much else, globalization is not as new as it seems.[8]

Causality: To what does the historian attribute various events?

People make their decisions in response to countless stimuli; it is often the historian’s task to determine which factors were most important in shaping people’s behavior. This is a matter of nuanced interpretation and emphasis, about which scholars can disagree.

Example: The historian emphasizes one causal factor over others.

Capozzola makes a convincing case that those who fought to impose loyalty on war dissenters drew on the values of a nineteenth-century political culture more concerned with "obligations" than with individual rights. This emphasis, however, produces a picture of the American home front that is largely devoid of principled political discussion about the nation’s war aims. Those brave enough to resist the public demand for loyalty appear to stand on principles, but the ideological commitments of the vast majority of Americans who supported the war are less clearly drawn. Many longed for the comfort of national unity in a time of world cri- sis, and some lashed out against dissenters with a suspicious and furious passion. But the author’s focus on the majority’s attempt to impose loyalty leads him to pay less attention to the principles and ideals that animated those who were inspired by Wilson’s crusade to remake the world in America’s image.[9]

Debate: With whom does the historian agree or disagree?

A work of history is often part of a longer conversation among scholars. It is helpful to understand if the historian seeks to offer a new interpretation of familiar events, or is applying methods from one body of scholarship to new events.

Example: The historian offers fresh perspective

Just ahead of the War of 1812’s bicentennial, Alan Taylor, professor of history at the University of California’s Davis campus, has published a book on a conflict remembered by both sides as a series of setbacks climaxed by a famous victory. Almost no one before Taylor saw it as a characteristically savage civil war.[10]

Example: The historian disagrees with previous accounts

Besides the obvious aim of turning exceptionalism on its head, the book makes a few historiographical interventions. In the most notable of these, Smith-Rosenberg rejects the arguments of “consensus” historians like Rogers Smith (whom she specifically mentions) that early republic Americans lived easily among competing, often contradictory, intellectual traditions, opportunistically adopting and adapting these traditions to meet their needs. Smith-Rosenberg does not buy it (her argument does not allow it): rhetorical contradictions exacerbated the social and psychological instability that resulted in otherizing.[11]


[1] Nelson Lichtenstein, “Recasting the Movement and Reframing the Law in Risa Goluboff’s The Lost Promise of Civil Rights,” Law & Social Inquiry 35, no. 1 (January 1, 2010): 249.

[2] Susanna Michele Lee, “Locating the South During the Civil War and Reconstruction,” Reviews in American History 39, no. 1 (2011): 110.

[3] Kevin L. Borg, “Tinkering: Consumers Reinvent the Early Automobile (review),” Technology and Culture 47, no. 2 (2006): 437.

[4] Elaine Lewinnek, “City of American Dreams: A History of Home Ownership and Housing Reform in Chicago, 1871-1919 (review),” Journal of Social History 42, no. 4 (2009): 1083.

[5] Michael A. Flannery, “Examining Tuskegee: The Infamous Syphilis Study and Its Legacy (review),” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 41, no. 3 (2011): 480.

[6] Nancy MacLean, “Invisible Hands: The Making of the Conservative Movement from the New Deal to Reagan (review),” Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas 7, no. 4 (2010): 87.

[7] George J. Sanchez, “Ellen R. Baker. On Strike and On Film: Mexican American Families and Blacklisted Filmmakers in Cold War America.,” The American Historical Review 114, no. 3 (June 1, 2009): 791.

[8] Ian Tyrrell, “Allan M. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall, and Deadly Persistence of the Product That Defined America; Pamela E. Pennock, Advertising Sin and Sickness: The Politics of Alcohol and Tobacco Marketing, 1950–1990,” The American Historical Review 113, no. 3 (June 2008): 782-785.

[9] Ernest Freeberg, “Christopher Capozzola. Uncle Sam Wants You: World War I and the Making of the Modern American Citizen (review),” The American Historical Review 114, no. 1 (February 1, 2009): 177.

[10] Desmond Morton, “The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies.,” Canada’s History 91, no. 2 (April 2011): 42.

[11] Jonathan M. Hansen, “Carroll Smith-Rosenberg. This Violent Empire: The Birth of an American National Identity (review),” The American Historical Review 116, no. 2 (April 2011): 406-408.