A (or an) historian muses about history and the Ig Nobel Prizes

Historian William G. Pooley, in his blog, muses about history and the Ig Nobel Prizes:

Who cares about the funny little people you spend your time researching? What do you think people really learn from studying the family lives, emotions, or sexuality of our ancestors, beyond soft ideas of cultural relativity or platitudes about the importance of tolerance, reason, and understanding? Whose life are you saving with your ‘research’? Who will even read it? ….

[My thoughts wandered] to the one of my favourite annual silly stories: the igNobel awards. These alternatives to the Nobel science prizes, in the words of their website, honour ‘Research that makes people laugh, and then think’ .

I think there would be quite a lot of interest in a similar kind of thing for history (or indeed other humanities). Just think of the number of times people in social situations comment to you about how ‘specific’ your research is, often meaning irrelevant and unimportant. Yet when I tried to think of a list of works of ‘bad history’, I quickly found my brain racing to find explanations for why apparently inconsequential topics are actually vitally important.

Think of the weird mind of the sixteenth-century miller, Menocchio, which Carlo Ginzburg used to probe how humble people in the Renaissance read books, and how oral and print cultures mingled in the worldviews of ordinary people.

A different example: forty years ago, who would have been interested in the bizarre records that nineteenth-century schools, prisons, and other institutions kept about waist and height measurements? But the booming field of historical anthropometrics has revolutionized historians’ understanding of poverty and exploitation in the recent past by using these records to work out how well-fed and how healthy men, women, and children were….

NOTE: Happy news for investigator Pooley! The Ig Nobel Prizes are in fact given for achievements, not just in science, but in any field of human endeavor or happenstance. Here’s the complete list of winners.