Accidental Roses I am

October 26, 2003

Accidental Roses

I am often amused at the way that unexpected items become important to us. For example, consider the roses around our house. Before July I rarely thought about roses, and when I did I generally did not care for them. They had their place - we knew a nice rosarian in Virginia and for a while I grew a miniature yellow rose on our kitchen window sill, but roses were something that other people grew.

The new house has rose bushes around it. There are five of them, two red and three in shades of pink and peach. There are also some gaps in the front landscaping where azaleas once stood. I have become obsessed with finding the right two roses to add to that spot. Just a few months of caring for roses, reading about roses, and talking to rose people has gotten me hooked on a new gardening bug. Now that we have a house that has roses, I will continue to add roses to the house. (Current thoughts are to add a Dream Yellow and a Dream Red to the front of the porch and grow an Iceberg up the side railing of the porch. If I could fit yellow miniature roses into the garden, I would. I might still put a tiny rose in a pot on the porch.)

The story of the roses illustrates two of the core concepts behind the history discipline, concepts that Annie from The Same River Twice commented on in an email: Contingency and Path Dependency. She had previously encountered path dependency in the Matrix movies, movies that I have still not yet watched. These are important ideas and should be more widely spread and more clearly spread. While I have not seen the Matrix movies, I do read Eric Flint's science fiction, and one of the reasons I like his work is that he is very aware of contingency, path dependency, and change over time. Of course, he was trained as a historian before following his ideals and going into labor organizing, which he did for years before switching to writing science fiction full time.

I want to blog on the core historical concepts, if only to get the ideas clearly phrased so that I can add them to my syllabus for next semester. I will briefly explain Contingency, Path Dependency, Change over Time, and Agency.

Contingency is one of those simple ideas that we never think about. It is a philosophical truism that at any moment we could do one of many things. You could stand up and start singing the Marseilles, or you could keep reading this, or you could move away. One of these is highly unlikely, two are fairly likely. Historians try to find contingent moments, moments where either influential individuals or society as a whole had two very different choices, both of which were fairly likely, and picked one of them. By looking at that decision moment we learn more about the universal human condition as we decide, more about the particular people and culture who were making that decision, and we gain insights into nuances and details of that particular decision.

Thus Eric Foner argues that Reconstruction, that period between 1865 and 1877 when the United States was trying to bring seceded states back into the union, white southerners into political society, and freed blacks into citizenship, was a contingent moment when the nation might have created a biracial society based on equal rights and citizenship. We failed, but the promises of reconstruction resonated down the years and shaped both the turn of the century movement towards legalized segregation and the long-continued black movement against legal and social repression.

Path Dependency is another simple idea. Once we start doing one activity or set of activities, it can be hard to change to doing another set. We use path dependency any time we pick one design element or one scheduling element and then work around it. So, once I made the contingent decision to keep the roses, I went onto a path that was dependent on landscaping around roses. For a less banal example, consider the British Navy's decision to switch from coal to oil at the start of the twentieth century. From then on they had less need for convenient coaling stations located all around the world, a need that had caused all the European naval powers to colonize or seize bits of land; they had a large need for continued secure access to oil fields and immediately maintained a much larger presence in Persia (now Iran). Once started down the oil path, their foreign policy needs, ship design requirements, staffing requirements and, operational philosophies all had to adjust to the new technology.

Contingent moments and path dependency combine to create Change over Time, the third of the big ideas. People change, institutions change, the physical world changes, the ways we understand the world change. Changes come from human decisions, often multiple human decisions, often in feedback loops where one person's contingent moment creates a path that shapes the choices available to another person. For convenience we sometimes refer to waves of similar decisions as movements, trends, or revolutions. The Industrial Revolution was the result of a few people coming up with technological innovations (remember that organizing a work force is itself a technology, just like a clever machine is a technology), innovations spurring innovations, the new systems and new machines altering other people's conception of time, labor, and self-worth. The whole process can be described on a macro level with big words like industrialization, proletarianization, and embourgeoisment. It can also be described on a micro level through case studies, individual narratives, or the glimpses into workers lives afforded by Parliamentary commissions.

This brings us to the final big idea, an idea that many undergraduates struggle with: agency. Agency is historians' jargon for who makes the decisions that the historian will be studying. We can tell the tale of industrialization from the perspective of Arkwright and the factory owners, emphasizing their contingent decisions and telling the tale of the way that industrialists responded to and shaped their society. We can cover the same years from the perspectives of the workers, emphasizing their decision to move from field to factory labor, their attempt to control their work time and work place, the communities they built in factory villages, and so on. Here the workers have agency; we look at their contingent decisions. Agency is in part a narrative decision, in part an evaluation of what "really mattered" in a particular time and moment. As a demonstrative exercise I sometimes go through a simple event, usually a child being born, and show the students how many possible narratives might include that event as crucial evidence: the mother's biography, the father's biography, the child's biography, the story of medical care, the story of demographic trends, the story of migration and settlement, and so on.

To return to my story about the roses in front of my house, I give myself agency as I tell the story - I am the person discovering the plants, learning how to care for them, and making the decision to buy more. I do not have total control over these decisions, I had to negotiate all of them with J, but as I told the story at the top of this long rambling rant the narrative was about my adapting to my new surroundings. For change over time, well the front of the house has already changed dramatically over the last five years as the old owner died, the house went through estate, the previous owner bought it and landscaped the front, and I then bought it and started making my own changes. The porch remains much the same, but the decorations have changed and the uses we find for the space have changed.

But maybe I want different roses. There are not a lot of 3 to 4 foot tall yellow roses.

And so it goes.

Posted by Red Ted at October 26, 2003 10:11 AM | TrackBack