Fifty Years of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History. To celebrate, we sat down with two of the esteemed journal’s editorsRobert I. Rotberg, founding coeditor of JIH, founding director of Harvard Kennedy School's Program on Intrastate Conflict, and president emeritus of the World Peace Foundation; and Ed Freedman, JIH’s managing editorto discuss the journal’s impact on the field of history and what they have in the works for the anniversary volume.



The MIT Press began publishing journals in 1970 with the first volumes of the Journal of Interdisciplinary History (JIH). What do you view as the most significant contributions JIH has made to the field of history in the past fifty years?

The JIH was established to foster and publish research that brought social science and other innovative methods to bear on the analysis of human events in the past. To that end, the JIH has published path-breaking examinations of how information from colonial American inventories, the reconstitution of early modern English populations, and trans-Atlantic slave trade manifests could shed shiningly bright light on events hitherto exemplified only by narrative expositions. The JIH pioneered the application of scientific methodologies to a reconfiguring of climate’s role in history. Some of the same innovative approaches helped to alter the ways in which historians looked at industrialization, the role of railways, the nature of elections, and the origins of war. The JIH even tried to bring new methodological sophistication to the study of material culture and to the role of the visual and musical arts in molding history.

The JIH’s geographical ambit has been wide, publishing articles about, for example, Ottoman tax farming, Egyptian agriculture, Brazilian modernization, African mining, Oceanic seafaring, and ancient Chinese (and Taiwanese) kingdoms, alongside articles on American farming and European bread riots.

In terms of subject matter, too, the JIH has welcomed research on the origins of the Black Death and other plagues, on malaria and its impact on human development, on smallpox, and on many pestilences that shaped the course of human history. In its early decades, the JIH also published a number of important articles on psychobiography and psychohistory, employing new evidence and Freudian and post-Freudian methods.


With that history in mind, I am sure there are big plans for the 50th volume of the journal. What can you reveal about the anniversary articles that JIH will publish this year?

The commissioned articles (from editors and close supporters) for our 50th Anniversary year effectively emerge out of the publication record for our first fifty years. They draw on what we have been doing, extend it, and advance a research agenda for the next fifty (or at least the next ten) years. The list below of articles in volume fifty of the JIH is representative of many (not quite all) of our concerns.

Anne McCants’s contribution to this series is important because she will edit the journal from volume fifty-one forward. Also of note is Sir Tony Wrigley’s summation of a lifetime’s historical demographic leadership, Michael McCormick’s building of critical constructs on the foundation of the JIH’s attention to climate and history, and the two articles by Myron Gutmann and Steven Ruggles on the JIH’s five-decade-long advances in quantification.

Quantification has a special place in the journal's evolution, but as several of the special articles demonstrate, it cannot operate in a vacuum. Just as rhetoric is a poor source of evidence on its own, numbers by themselves cannot tell a whole story. Even if pure narrative may not be sufficient in the JIH's purview, qualitative evidence may well be a necessary complement to the journal's primary interests. The reconciliation of abstract calculation to life as lived is an age-old problem. Take the case of ethics. In a positivist scheme, ethics largely disappears because it is not amenable to quantification in any easy way. But as Anne McCants demonstrates, values and ethics create the oft-neglected glue that holds the disparate elements of society and economy together.

In their thematic variety, the special 50th year articles reveal the strength of the JIH's mandate, as well as the breadth of inquiry that it has fostered, none more so than Peter Burke's entry, which testifies to an interest that co-founding editor Theodore K. Rabb brought to the journal. Ted's appreciation of art, in all its forms, as worth mining historically for evidence brought both erudition and added dignity to the journal's fifty years.


The articles:

  • Michael McCormick, “Climates of History, Histories of Climate: From History to Archaeoscience” (Vol. 50, Issue 1)
  • Peter Temin, “Words and Numbers: A New Approach to Writing Ancient History” (Vol. 50, Issue 1)
  • Anne Hardy, “The Under-Appreciated Rodent: Harbingers of Plague From the Middle Ages to the Twenty-First Century” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Peter A. Coclanis, “Field Notes: Agricultural History’s New Plot” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Steven A. Epstein, “Environmental History in the JIH, 1970-2020” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • George C. Alter, “From Data Scarcity to Data Abundance: The Role of Demographic Models in Historical Demography” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Steven Ruggles and Diana L. Magnuson, “Quantification in History: The Journal of Interdisciplinary History as a Case Study” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • E. A. Wrigley, “The Interplay of Demographic, Economic, and Social History” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Myron Gutmann, “Quantifying Interdisciplinary History—The Record of (nearly) fifty Years” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Anne McCants, “Economic History and the Historians” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)
  • Peter Burke, “Art and History, 1969-2019” (Forthcoming in Vol. 50)


What were some of the greatest challenges you have dealt with over the years with JIH? What are the best things about editing the journal?

Editing academic journals is no mean feat at the best of times. Editors must maintain standards and strive constantly to focus on quality over favoritism. They cannot become contained in comfortable ruts. So editors of mission-oriented journals, like the JIH, must constantly innovate, explore, seek out new writers and the most intriguing of new ideas, and be willing to risk the occasional failure. Thus, as historical research patterns have changed and evolved, the JIH has had to adapt, but also to lead—witness our many special issues that sought to stimulate new kinds of research among historians and social scientists. Those efforts were unusually successful in the areas of climate, historical demography, family history, art history, and music. We also published two volumes on “the New History,” a special issue on social capital and one on the American Revolution.

Over five decades of publication, the editors of the JIH have opened their arms to young, less established scholars, to foreign researchers from almost all corners of the globe, and to unorthodoxy of many varieties. The JIH has also advanced scholarship through review essays on striking topics and books, by encouraging research notes on methodological breakthroughs and promising techniques, and by establishing a large and thriving review section where books might come from outside the historical canon. The journal also recruited social scientists and other non-historians as reviewers.


What plans do you have for the future of JIH?

The JIH will move forward under new but experienced leadership as it begins its second fifty years. The future of the journal will respect its legacy but also push the envelope of innovation. New methodological insights—medical, climatic, astronomical, archaeological, and so on—will certainly arise to deepen our understanding of times past.

Already, we have articles planned for volumes 51 and 52. Several build upon our focus on climatic stresses and their impact on history. Others focus on European modernization. Several reinterpret, using quantitative evidence, such American staples as Progressivism.


Any favorite JIH articles for general history enthusiasts?

The highlights are many and varied.  But they certainly include Faisal Husain's “Changes in the Euphrates River: Ecology and Politics in a Rural Ottoman Periphery, 1687-1702” (Summer 2016), winner of the 2017 Ömer Lütfi Barkan Prize for Best Article in Turkish and Ottoman Studies; Linda K. Salvucci and Richard J. Salvucci's “Cuba and the Latin American Terms of Trade” (Autumn 2000), winner of the 2001 Conference on Latin American History Prize for Best Article; and Barbara Keys' “The Telephone and Its Uses in 1980s U.S. Activism" (Spring 2018), winner of the 2018 Charles DeBenedetti Prize from the Peace History Society.



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