August 23, 2007
By Robert B. Townsend
As the dustup last fall about the deletion of “psychohistory” from our membership taxonomy indicated, inclusion on the AHA’s list of membership categories can be highly political—serving in many eyes as a mark of standing in the discipline.
Unfortunately, this sets up two competing problems. The taxonomy needs to be open to the emergence of new areas in the discipline, but it also needs to be functional in a variety of contexts—for members trying to identify themselves, historians trying to find a specialist for a meeting panel, or members of staff trying to offer a coherent profile of the membership. With 297 different options in the taxonomy (and an open field for still more specific subjects of “current research”) many members complain that the taxonomy proves quite daunting and unwieldy.
So after a decade of dealing with requests for new categories on an ad hoc basis—and more recently trying to delete a couple categories with only a small representation on a similarly ad hoc basis—the Council adopted the following formal policies for adding and deleting categories in the future, effective June 4, 2007:
Policy for Adding Categories
Adding new categories requires a petition from 10 members in good standing requesting the addition of a particular category. Staff will review the membership status of the petitioners and the current selection of related topics in the open “Current Research” field, and submit a recommendation to Council. If a majority of members on Council agree, it will be added to the taxonomy.
I hope that the opportunity to add a few new categories will be less contentious and more open to the kinds of conceptual and categorical changes that help to keep the discipline fresh. Such applications may be submitted to my attention consisting of a list of the members making the request, with supporting e-mails from the ten members.
Policy for Deleting Categories
Any category selected by less than five members two years in a row may be deleted from the taxonomy or consolidated into another topic. Staff will make such recommendations, and due notice will be given to all those selecting the category and in the pages of Perspectives. If after another year the category is still selected by less than five members, and subject to Council’s final approval, that category will be deleted or consolidated.
Given recent experience, I expect the latter policy will be the more contentious of the two. This is not intended to make a statement about the relative merits of a particular subject or area of inquiry, just to assure that the taxonomy offers a proper reflection of the broad contours of the Association’s membership. If a particular category cannot elicit a selection from at least five of the 14,000-plus members of the Association (who can select up to three categories that interest them), it seems reasonable to assume that the subject lacks a significant constituency in the AHA membership (not, I would emphasize, that it is any less significant as a field of study).
Based on the most recent annual snapshot of the membership, the new policy stands to affect 17 categories, most of which cover very early periods of history or specific nations (See Table 1. Figures in the right two columns represent the number of members who selected those categories over the past two years).
Most of these categories will not be deleted, the will simply be merged into another associated category. The early Japanese history categories could be combined into a “Japan: Prehistory to Nara Period” for instance. And in the case of smaller states with only two or three selections, we would create a combined category—“Modern Burma, Cambodia, and Laos,” for instance. We will consult with specialists in the field before making such adjustments.
I recognize that some changes will not be quite so easy. The simple solution for the small number of specialists in the history of New Zealand, for instance, would be to create a combined Australia and New Zealand category. But I regularly receive angry e-mails in response to the “Australia: Our Neighbor Down Under” portion of our G.I. pamphlet series that suggest at least some New Zealanders are quite sensitive to this kind of lumping.
And perhaps more worrisome is the recurrence of psychohistory on the chopping block once again, given the letters and comments. Curiously, we received more letters opposing the change (five in all) than we currently have members selecting the category (now down by one over the past year).
It was with that in mind that I added the clause about publicizing the possibility, and inviting members to vote with their renewal notices about whether they want the category perpetuated.
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