American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 10


Peter Conn
Thomas Crow
Ernest S. Frerichs
David Hollinger
Sabine MacCormack
Richard Rorty
Catharine R. Stimpson

Categories of Analysis? Not in My Book

Barbara Jeanne Fields
Columbia University

I should admit at the outset that I may not have been an appropriate choice to serve on this panel [Contemporary Challenges to Traditional Categories of Analysis in the Humanities], because I have no intention of speaking on behalf of any “categories of analysis”—traditional, contemporary, or otherwise. I must say, in fact, that the phrase itself—categories of analysis—has a dry, ugly sound to my ears. It brings to mind a bore starting to read a paper at an academic meeting, clearing his throat as he settles in for the long haul, knowing that the audience has no choice but to sit there. When I encounter the phrase “categories of analysis” in the opening pages of a book that I am not professionally obligated to read, I put the book down immediately.

Parents who want their children to be accepted in polite society should see to it that the children are well-dressed, well-disciplined, and well-spoken. And that is what the humanities have a right to expect of the parents of new—or, for that matter, old—categories of analysis. So I am taking the liberty of reversing the question I was asked to discuss and talking instead about the challenge posed by the humanities to categories of analysis—whichever and whosoever they may be.

I speak as a historian; and in practice, all historians know who the usual suspects are in discussions of this kind: race, class, and gender, the mismatched troika that appears so often in the titles of conferences or of sessions at annual meetings. The reason for the troika is easy enough to identify and surely worthy of approval: it is meant to draw the attention of historians to neglected portions of humankind. And, in truth, no history deserves the name that relegates large portions of humankind—let alone a majority—to oblivion. Only one agenda entitles historians to count ourselves among the humanities, the only social science that has a muse. That agenda is the highest possible development of humanity’s potential—all of humanity, not just one privileged part of it or the part of it that happens to be most familiar or closest to home.

That is more than a statement of moral preference—though I admit that it is my moral preference. Nor is it the Baskin-Robbins principle: that we must study 31 flavors of humanity to make sure everyone’s favorite is included. A serious intellectual issue is at stake. Men and women, the familiar and the alien, the wretched of the earth and the privileged of the earth, are alter egos; you cannot understand the one if you do not understand the other. Just as you cannot map the area occupied by the continents without knowing the area occupied by the oceans, so you cannot map the space occupied by any portion of humanity without knowing the shape and dimensions of the space occupied by the rest. One of the most perceptive accounts of slaves that I know of appears in the biography of a slaveholder. Similarly, a recent book about plantation women in the Old South offers a profound analysis of men in the Old South and of men and women in the North as well.1

“The highest possible development of humanity” is not the same, however, as “the highest possible development of categories of analysis.” Categories of analysis must look out for themselves, and I confess that I cannot arouse in myself a passionate interest in what happens to them. If not kept strictly in their place, they get above themselves and go masquerading as persons, mingling on equal terms with human beings and sometimes crowding them out altogether. When categories of analysis do that, they have forgotten their manners and need to be taken sharply in hand by their parents and reminded when it is appropriate and when inappropriate for children to be seen and heard.

Categories of analysis are surely seen and heard inappropriately when they become a shorthand referring to people, as when the phrases “paying attention to class,” “paying attention to race,” or “paying attention to gender” are taken to mean studying and writing about working people, Afro-Americans, or women. Writing about gender is not the same as writing about women. Relations that link women with other women or women with men are not necessarily gender relations. Let me offer an example. A male slaveholder who took sexual advantage of a female slave not only was not involved in a gender relationship with her, but acted as he did precisely in order to sever sex from gender.2

Nor should race stand in as shorthand for minorities. (Minorities, by the way, is itself an invidious and illogical euphemism that should be discarded, since those thus collectively referred to—people of Asian, African, Latin American, or Oceanic descent—constitute, in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s phrase, “the two-thirds world.”3) If my colleague Eric Foner disagrees with the chairman of my department—an Englishman—about departmental policy, everyone would call that a professional or collegial matter. (I hope I need not say that this is a purely hypothetical situation.) If I have the same dispute with the chairman, does the matter automatically acquire a racial or gender dimension, simply because I am female and have a brown face? If a working-class, male, Irish-American student disputes the grade I have given him on the mid-term examination, is that automatically a troika conflict race, class, and gender?

Human beings can never be reduced to the categories of analysis that may (or may not) help us to understand them. We not only demean them and ourselves but we botch the intellectual task at hand when we forget that. To the extent that the world around us habitually does the same thing, it is our job to call it as well as ourselves to order. Let me give you two examples.

A recent article in The Columbia Spectator began with the following sentence:

[The] Reverend James Forbes, Jr., a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary, was recently named Riverside Church’s first black senior minister.4

Churches designate their leaders by many titles but neither Riverside Church nor any church I have ever heard of uses the title “first black senior minister” So the unthinking identification of the person with his supposed category of analysis has produced a ludicrous piece of misinformation. Worse, it has produced an insult that is, in the strictest sense of the word, racist. Had the Reverend Dr. Forbes been white, he would have been identified by his most striking qualification and the sentence would have read this way:

The Reverend James Forbes, Jr., a professor of preaching at Union Theological Seminary who is described as “electrifying” in the pulpit, was recently named senior minister at Riverside Church.

The second example comes, I regret to say, from the Secretary of Agriculture, Mr. Clayton Yeutter. During his confirmation hearing, Mr. Yeutter warned the members of the Senate Agriculture Committee that the drought in the midwest would drive many rural families off the land. But, in his tendentious phrasing, these families would be obliged to “diversify their economic base.”5

That last example should remind everyone that the troika categories are not the only offenders. Economy, free market, monarchy, presidency, demography, ideology, variable, and similar abstract nouns do the same kind of damage when permitted to wander at large among human beings, as though they were active and sentient just as human beings are. Yet more egregious are those abstract entities that are not even full-fledged nouns, but adjectives wearing noun camouflage: pluralism, socialization, modernization, urbanization, ethnicity, republicanism, and their kin.6 These abstractions are a convenient shorthand for denoting the patterns we detect in the decisions human beings make and the actions human beings carry out. But when the abstraction acquires a mental capital letter and is alleged to “take on a life of its own,” as a fatuous but very common formula has it, then a metaphorical conceit has gotten out of hand. We have no business personifying these abstractions, apostrophizing them, and attributing to them not just life, but life everlasting—something that no real living thing on earth possesses and no human hand has ever fabricated.7

The primary task of historians is to try to understand the past, to explore its meaning for the present, and to help others do the same. It is not the elaboration and vindication of models and theories—which are the means rather than the end—or the microscopic examination of our own subjectivity. Whatever our motives or purposes for undertaking a particular investigation, whatever our wrestling with the tools needed for the work, yea and whatever our categories of analysis, we should be drawing our audience’s attention to the past, not to ourselves. What belongs on display is not the categories of analysis, but the new understanding of the past that our categories of analysis have guided us to.

If I contract with someone to do the plumbing in my new house, I surely hope that the plumber is fully conversant with tools, materials, and sound technique. But when I show the new house to my friends, I do not expect the first exclamations to be: “What glorious solder! What uncommon flux! What stylish elbow fittings!” Categories of analysis are the tools of our trade. But when they live and breathe and jostle human beings in our finished work, we are inviting our guests to gape through holes in the walls of the new house and marvel at the pipes and fittings. In that case, we have not only forgotten what the tools were for, but why we wanted a new house in the first place.


1. Drew Gilpin Faust, James Henry Hammond and the Old South: A Design for Mastery, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press (1982); Elizabeth Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household: Black and White Women of the Old South, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (1988). [Back to text.]

2. Fox-Genovese, Within the Plantation Household, p.374. [Back to text.]

3. Barbara J. Fields, Humane Letters: Writing About Human Affairs in English Prose, (forthcoming). [Back to text.]

4. The Columbia Spectator, February 13, 1989. [Back to text.]

5. The New York Times, February 3, 1989. [Back to text.]

6. Fields, Humane Letters, discusses this offense against logic and style, common in writing by historians, social scientists, and journalists. [Back to text.]

7. The error, it should be unnecessary to emphasize, lies not in using abstractions, which are essential, but in using them naively or taking them literally. Mountain, ocean, and tree are abstractions; so is equator. But they are at different levels of abstraction. Mountain, ocean, and tree abstract from the unique, individual characteristics of physical entities to emphasize the characteristics they all share. Equator is an imaginary concept, useful in making sense of the physical landscape as long as we do not confuse the one with the other. Human being and class or race or free market, similarly, are abstractions at different levels. Class, race, and free market are imaginary concepts that we use to map the human social landscape. The usefulness of these concepts ends, like that of equator the moment anyone is naive enough to confuse the imaginary concept with the landscape itself. Treating class, race, free market, and the like as abstractions on the same level with human being is as elementary an error as believing that you can crash a car into the equator as you can into a tree. [Back to text.]