How did you become interested in this topic?
I’m interested in why anybody outside of Britain should study British history. For a generation now, imperial history has offered a compelling answer to that question, but how else might we persuade deans and departments of the value of our field? When I read my colleague Barbara Weinstein’s AHA Presidential Address, “Developing Inequality,” I became interested in the role that British history played in modernization theory during the 1950s and 1960s. This outdated theory can’t say why anybody should Britain today, but it does point to why some people studied Britain in the not-too-distant past: because it purportedly blazed the trail to modernity that other nations must follow. Walt Rostow’s blockbuster polemic, The Stages of Economic Growth (1960), is often cited as the classic statement of this position, but when I read it I found that, not only did Rostow not make that claim, he repeatedly disavowed it. Britain, for Rostow, was not exemplary but peculiar. So I set out to understand, first, what role Britain actually played in Stages; second, how we had come to associate the book with something else entirely; and third, what is the significance, for historians wanting to make a case for studying – and staffing – British history, of the fact that this canonical text disavowed the applicability of the British case. I conclude that Rostow’s use of Britain offers a model after all: not because he (or we) could assert that all nations follow Britain’s path, but because he (and we) could use the British case to think about world historical development without recourse to that Anglocentric claim.
Did you encounter any unexpected problems or difficulties with your sources?
The main difficulty was the refusal of Stages to yield the answers I wanted. I was trying to write about how British history structured this influential scheme of world historical development, only to find repeated disavowals of that position instead – until, walking home one day having failed yet again to produce an NACBS paper, I realized, oh, right: that’s the article.
Does your project engage other disciplines? If so, which ones, and how?
The article aims to engage US historians, by drawing a distinction between American exceptionalism and American egocentrism: Rostow indulged the former but not the latter, since he could not conceive of world historical development without seriously engaging Britain. And it addresses intellectual historians, especially historians of Marxism, by analyzing modernization theory as a historically specific (namely, Cold War) effort to replace “class” with “nation” as history’s primary actor. I am grateful to Nils Gilman for helping me to see that.
Do you have any advice for graduate students and early career professionals as they begin research projects or embark upon the writing process?
Begin conference papers not with a date, but an idea; organize articles not around facts we don’t know, but problems we can’t explain; remember that topics don’t make arguments, authors do. I co-edit the journal Twentieth Century British History, along with Helen McCarthy and Adrian Bingham, and we often ask authors a version of this question: How do your specific findings change the way we think about some more general concern? Even though we all know it’s coming, most of us still need pushing to answer that one.
What did you find to be the most challenging part of the project?
Responding to the readers’ reports. For months I moaned about the impossibility and irrelevance of their demands. Little by little, though, I worked to address their criticisms, until finally realizing how much their generosity had improved an embarrassingly thin submission. Much credit goes to the editors of Modern Intellectual History, especially Charlie Capper, for seeing something worth encouraging in something pretty raw.
What are you working on next? Will you be pursuing related research questions or turning to something completely different?
I’m finishing a book on urban planning and the welfare state, Thatcher’s Progress. It asks why Margaret Thatcher’s government, before privatizing a single nationalized industry, set out to dismantle Britain’s pioneering new towns program; it argues that Thatcher recognized what historians have not, that the new towns constituted the spatial dimension of the welfare state. Structurally, the book follows Thatcher on a driving tour around Milton Keynes on the morning of September 25, 1979. Her hosts wanted to persuade her to continue the new towns program, and the book pauses at each stop to examine what happened – in successive chapters – to transport, planning, architecture, community, consulting, and housing in late-twentieth century Britain.
Guy Ortolano is an Associate Professor of History at NYU.