Last week I blogged about a little experiment I performed on the annals of the American Historical Review and the Journal of American History. Inspired by the word’s prominent occurrence in a debate between Jonathan Chait and Ta-Nehisi Coates about the “culture of poverty” thesis, I decided to compile all the uses of the word “fatalism” (or any of its inflections: fatalist, fatalists, fatalistic, fatalistically) in the back issues of these two journals and see what kinds of patterns, if any, emerged.
The first and most obvious one I reported on last week: there is a huge absolute increase in the number of incidences of “fatalism” after 1970, with each decade from 1970 through 2010 ticking upward incrementally—44 (1970s); 46 (1980s); 58 (1990s); 61 (2000s).
Now, this is an interesting trend because it seems as if it may partially confirm an argument made by Tressie McMillan Cottom, that attributions of “fatalism” have been used repeatedly to rule out of bounds many of the political and moral critiques of African-American intellectuals. The coincidence of this massive increase in the usage of “fatalism” after 1970 strongly suggests that it was in part a response to a new sense of crisis in the discipline based on the emergence of new histories from below—the new labor history and women’s history, among others—as well as the establishment of African-American and ethnic studies programs and the growing power of revisionism in core subfields such as the history of foreign relations and intellectual history.
But what kind of response was it? Was it simply a way to deprecate the new scholarship as pessimistic? Continue reading