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Robert A. Schneider
Editor, American Historical Review

Last modified: Tuesday, July 10, 2012

American Historical Review: Scholars re-assess the concept of ‘turns’

July 10, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- In the latest issue of American Historical Review, six historians share perspectives on "turn talk," the preoccupation with dramatic or decisive changes in understanding that has characterized scholarly work in the humanities and social sciences for a generation. The essays are included in an AHR Forum titled "Historiographic 'Turns' in Critical Perspective."


The AHR cover illustration signifies "no correct turn," alluding to the view that the very nature of historical turns, or dramatic shifts in scholarly thinking, is open to dispute.

Print-Quality Photo

The forum, including four essays and two comments, examines the cultural and linguistic turns proclaimed at the end of the 1980s along with related developments, such as the transnational turn, the spatial turn, the moral turn, the emotional turn and the digital turn:

  • In "When Was the Linguistic Turn? A Genealogy," Judith Surkis provides a counter-narrative to the usual view of a 20th-century linguistic turn in which humanities disciplines came to focus on the relationship between language and philosophy. She illustrates the difficulty of identifying a single coherent turn as ever having taken place.
  • In "From Optic to Topic: The Foreclosure Effect of Historiographic Turns," Gary Wilder argues that the analytical openings created by linguistic and cultural turns were foreclosed by a process in which new "optics" gave way to routine research topics that reaffirmed traditional practices.
  • In "The Kids Are All Right: On the 'Turning' of Cultural History," James W. Cook examines the cultural turn and contends that the focus on a specific turn has made it harder to see the shifting contours of cultural history.
  • In "Another Set of Imperial Turns?" Durba Ghosh shows how the imperial turn in scholarship on the British Empire is both the product and source of other historiographical developments having to do with the global, postcolonial and archival.
  • In their comments on the essays, Julia Adeney argues for going beyond turn talk to develop a "new materialism" that confronts challenges such as climate change and environmental crisis; and Nathan Perl-Rosenthal examines the way in which the work of many younger scholars is framed by a pragmatic approach that features a renewed interest in histories of communication, transportation, material culture and political economy.

Also in the June issue, Clifford Rosenberg examines a debate over standards of scientific truth in "The International Politics of Vaccine Testing in Interwar Algiers." The article concerns the 1920s conflict between microbiologist Albert Calmette and the League of Nations Health Committee over a clinical trial for a TB vaccine. The dispute, involving a major drug company, international regulators and poor test subjects, anticipated moral problems raised by AIDS research in contemporary Africa and Asia.

The American Historical Review is the official publication of the American Historical Association. Its editorial offices are at Indiana University Bloomington.

The American Historical Review is published five times a year by University of Chicago Press. Highly regarded among scholars of history, AHR has for several years had the highest "impact factor" among history journals, according to Journal Citation Reports, which measures how often articles in a particular journal are cited by peer-reviewed journals in the Thomson Reuters database. For more information, including JSTOR links to articles in the current issue, visit the American Historical Review website.