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Response to Review no. 36

It is gratifying to read the sympathetic response of Professor Sutcliffe to Capital cities at war: Paris, London, Berlin 1914-1919. He is after all one of the few people who have had the courage to treat European history as a whole rather than to see it as a subject with indelible national distinctions, to be protected with the same zeal as the Conservative party has exercised in its distate for the Maastricht treaty.

Perhaps it would be useful to elaborate a bit on one point to which Professor Sutcliffe has drawn attention, a difficult and contentious point which has a bearing on many other issues of historical research. The point relates to the nature of collective and collaborative work within a profession which is structurally and temperamentally committed to individualism.

Who would deny that the fundamental ethos of the historical profession is individualistic? Collective venture is daring, risky, and rarely yields the recognition that young scholars in particular need at a time of vanishing university posts and cutbacks in university funding. How do you locate such collaborative work in the framework of research selectivity exercises? Since university jobs are decided on the basis of this individualist ethos, it is unlikely that young people will put their careers on the line by embarking on risky projects in which their personal contribution cannot easily be specified. This must mean that universities will continue to be bastions of individualism in scholarship. The people who can ‘risk’ collective projects are those already established in the profession, that is, middle-aged and tenured. But most of us in this position have found the haven of tenure as individual scholars.

Collective work is as alien to us as it is familiar to experimental scientists.

And yet collective projects are unavoidable when confronting issues of wide historical or contemporary public concern. With certain notable exceptions, no individual can produce by herself a history of most of the major subjects in contemporary history. The documentation is too vast; the issues, too complex; the linguistic skills needed, too daunting. Either we work together, or we don’t work at all on a host of issues. Some such subjects spring to mind easily: Fundamentalist Islam; international migration; urbanization; the information revolution. No one scholar can even keep up with the mountains of documentation produced day by day, let alone add to it in a rigorous manner in academic publications or in other ways.

This is certainly the case within the exploding field of the social, economic and cultural history of the 1914-18 war. A glance at a journal or two will suffice to make the point. For this reason we started this project on the two assumptions (1) that the concept of collective work is not one we can do without; and (2) that most of our colleagues have neither any interest or sympathy with such an approach.

Pulling it off was no mean achievement, due in large part to the synthetic and personal skills of my co-organizer Jean-Louis Robert. We managed to complete it with the project assignments completed and friendships intact. This was due largely to the contribution of a dozen young scholars prepared to contribute to a collective rather than solely to add to their personal curriculum vitae. We abjured the notation that this was an edited book. And with good reason. The book as a whole was a collective enterprise, organized in chapters that were in themselves collective. One name stands before each chapter, but that name is the summarizer, the synthesizer, the collator of writing, data, insights and information provided by others. And when each chapter was done, it was scrutinized by the collective, meeting regularly in different venues, and revised in the light of collective discussion. These periodic meetings were essential, in that they provided momentum for the project and stimulus for the individual authors to meet their responsibilities to the collective.

I dwell on these nuts and bolts not for self-congratulation, but as a plea to those who may read these reviews to open a discussion about the nature of collaborative research and publication in our profession. It is bound to come, whether we like it or not.