Are things getting better?

An argument you sometimes hear is that the profession is smoothly becoming more international in its focus: that our curiosity is expanding past the traditional topics of Europe and North America to encompass the rest of the world. The American Historical Association is well-placed to examine this claim, for the US-based profession at least, since it keeps membership data on a very large number of working historians across a considerable period of time. In September 2011, AHA deputy director Robert Townshend published a fascinating article on the “rebalancing of field coverage” in American departments. His findings, based on the self-declared interests and specialisms of more than 16,000 historians (overwhelmingly based in the US), suggest that, in the five years between 2005 and 2010, there was a 3.1% drop in the proportion of historians working on Europe, and a 3.8% drop in those working on the United States.

The full essay is worth reading in full, but here we’ll excerpt one chart that indicates an apparent shift away from ‘traditional’ regions over the past thirty years. This breaks down the regional interests of historians from the 2010 version of the AHA directory according to when those historians received their Ph.D. -- the old-timers (relatively speaking) who completed their doctorate in 1980 or earlier are in blue; those who finished their Ph.D. between 1981 and 2000 are in red; and those who finished between 2001 and 2010 are in green.

In some ways, the AHA data is much more useful than ours: it encompasses more than six times as many historians, and it dates back decades. But our data has two advantages: first, it gives us a reasonably broad picture of historians working across all three countries, allowing for comparisons between the profession in the UK, US and Canada; second, it’s based on our careful assessment of published output. This means that our figures closely track research publications rather than (sometimes rather optimistic) aspirations or future plans. 

With all this in mind, our survey looks a little different from the AHA picture. We’ve arranged our figures for wider-world history by seniority, on the assumption that most assistant professors are close to the start of their careers, and most full professors are more senior in years and experience. Full professors are on the left of the graph; associates in the middle; assistants to the right. If the AHA pattern is true throughout the countries we surveyed, you’d expect to see a steady upward line from left to right in the results...

...whereas actually the picture is considerably less clear. The line for the United States suggests considerable hiring in wider-world fields in the 1990s and early 2000s, but a relative slackening off more recently. The Canadian story conforms best to the AHA projection: a steady increase in wider-world history at associate and assistant level. The UK figure is the most alarming: here, there’s a marked decrease in wider-world hires from the senior lecturer/reader level to the lecturer level (the latter being the equivalent of an assistant professor). These results would suggest that, far from being inexorable, the shift towards the wider world may actually be reversible. To put it bluntly, we may lose interest in the rest of the world before we’ve even acknowledged its diverse histories.