Complexity and Context

Complexity and context are two critical hallmarks of historical thinking, and this week’s Readings for March 11 offered us some especially compelling examples of why this is so.

In each of these articles, the historians you read took great pains to show why seemingly simple accounts of the past didn’t actually explain what happened, or ignored crucial evidence, or took evidence out of context. Then, each author offered a more complex account that paid special attention to historical context.

In short, if you want to know what complexity looks like in historical work, you could do worse than to read and think about these articles!

For example, Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz begins her article by confessing that she started with a “seemingly simple question” (404) about how Americans imagined sexuality in the nineteenth century. But while she expected to find a simple conflict between people who favored the frank expression of sexuality and people who wished to repress sexuality, she in fact “uncovered no easily comprehended conflict between expression and repression, but rather four distinct cultural frameworks” in which sexuality was discussed (404). In short, instead of discovering that nineteenth-century Americans were simply more prudish than later, presumably more progressive twentieth-century Americans, Lefkowitz’s attention to historical context revealed a more surprising and complex spectrum of viewpoints—a spectrum that then proved crucial to her explanation of Anthony Comstock’s conflict with Victoria Woodhull.

Richard A. Soloway also exemplifies what historians mean by “complexity” by showing what popular memories of the birth control and eugenics movement have forgotten or over-simplified. As he writes:

The birth control movement for the most part has been depicted as an ultimately successful, heroic struggle of far-sighted reformers to overcome the ignorance, prudery, obscurantism, religious bigotry and moral hypocrisy of the dominant reactionary forces in their respective societies. Eugenics, by contrast, has been seen not only as a failure broadly associated with many of these reactionary elements, but as fashioned by the nazis, a horrific disaster that in retrospect seemed the inevitable outcome of pseudo-scientific, hereditarian determinism run wild (637).

But Soloway shows that both of these simple narratives of progress or decline miss the complex interaction between birth control and eugenics activists in the interwar period. He puts those interactions in their historical context to show why eugenicists and birth control advocates were attracted to each other. But at the same time, he doesn’t replace two simple narratives with another simplistic tale: he pays full attention to the tensions and conflicts between eugenicists and birth control advocates due to their different motivations and interests.

Finally, Esther Katz offers good examples of why taking quotes from a historical figure out of their original context, as many people do with Sanger, tends to oversimplify and distort what historical actors were saying. Simple yes or no questions like “Was Sanger a racist?” don’t do justice to the complexity of her views and don’t take into account the times in which she lived. As Katz explains, the better answer to a question like this, if it must be asked this way, is “yes and no.”

The takeaway points are …

Using these three historians as examples, I think there are several general takeaway points from yesterday’s discussion:

  1. Beware generalizations about “all Americans” over entire centuries. As Lefkowitz shows, viewpoints are often more complex and divided than such generalizations allow.
  2. Beware simple narratives of steady progress over time. Those narratives (from prudery to openness, for exampe, or from marginalization to heroic victory) are the ones that might lead a historian to misconstrue what actually came before. If we think Americans simply became more open about sexuality over time, we miss the nineteenth-century frameworks Lefkowitz identifies. And if we think the movement towards legal contraception has been a steady march by feminists who stood for the same things then that they do now, we miss complex relationships like the ones between eugenicists and birth control activists.
  3. Beware quotes taken out of context. As Katz shows, a standalone sentence taken from a historical text can be made to say almost anything. Putting it back in context may not necessarily make the historical actor look “better,” but it will make him or her more understandable in light of the times in which he or she lived.