The “People’s Thesis” in Environmental History

The History of Ideas, and its Relevance to Cultural Studies

In the humanistic studies, the chic approach today in analyzing history and/or ideas involves giving a prominent platform to what I refer to as the “people’s thesis”.

For a discipline such as history, the people’s thesis has emerged as social history, which involves narrating history from the perspective of “ordinary” peoples: people who are not in a position of political or economic power. Source documents used for constructing or communicating that narrative might consist of personal letters between friends and family, receipts recording everyday business transactions, newspapers (e.g., readers letters to the editor, crime reports, obituaries, want ads, etc.), popular magazines, church programs, advertisements, or even personal interviews with people who have lived during a historical period (e.g., interviews with World War II veterans to obtain information about how the war affected their lives), and so forth. (It should be of no surprise that social media posts are themselves becoming “data” for scholastic analysis.) This last source, the interview, is particularly useful in uncovering the perspective that people have about their history or gathering the perspective of peoples who do not have a written history: more than likely a people who have a long established oral tradition.

For a discipline such as philosophy, the people’s thesis has emerged as pragmatism. The history of philosophy has observed great figures devising and applying abstract concepts (or concepts borrowed from science) in the study of reality and to some extent, such applications have led to a view of reality that might on first glance seem esoteric or foreign to “ordinary” experience. For example, philosophers of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment, swayed by the explanatory power and experimental successes of Newtonian physics, sought to model human psychology and the workings of society in Newtonian terms. From a Lockean perspective in terms of epistemology, the ideas of sense were responsible for the generation of abstract or general knowledge: for one to have a general idea of “sweetness”, one must have previously tasted particular things with that quality, such as an apple or a slice of cake.

Why was it important for Locke to say something like this? The scientific impulse of his day was to study nature on its own terms, through unbiased observation, and not approach nature with preconceived ideas because such ideas would bias observation. Locke was also responding to figures in the rationalist camps (e.g., Descartes) who believed in innate ideas: that there are some fundamental concepts that human beings are all born with, such as, for example, the idea of space that we readily apply to the world in our cognition of physical objects. Locke’s epistemology had the dual purpose of also applying Newtonian analysis to the functioning of the mind while also giving an account about how we arrive at (or derive) general abstract ideas. If there are no innate, abstract ideas, then how do we arrive at them? The cause of these general ideas is their particular instantiations in nature, obtained through the senses: cause (the object perceived) and effect (the general or abstract idea of that thing), action and reaction. A pragmatist view of reality has the twofold purpose (if we can accept philosopher Richard Rorty’s explication of it) of proclaiming that (1) reality is not something that is to be philosophically pondered (i.e., “ordinary” folks are not really concerned about whether reality exists beyond their experience of it, and (2) reality is simply what people are doing (e.g., coping with the world with sensory, cognitive, and social tools that they have).1 The people’s thesis in philosophy encompasses pragmatism: it is pragmatic simply because abstract philosophic theories are not necessary or desirable for surviving in the world or understanding it: experience suffices.

In trumpeting the validity of the people’s thesis, there are perhaps political motivations on the part of academics: in fact even describing these cases as cases of “the people’s thesis” has somewhat Marxist and/or populist undertones and that would be a correct assessment. In history the people’s thesis is a necessary counter to historical narratives that locate historical causality in “great individuals” (such as political or military leaders, great scientists or inventors, or generally people of the aristocracy) as well as a rejection of historical narratives that treat all individuals within a historical society as mere automatons impelled by greater impersonal forces, such as market economies. In terms of traditional textbook history, Lincoln has traditionally been endowed by textbook historians with greater autonomy and causality than the slaves he presumably freed. Another version of textbook history would see Lincoln himself, in addition to black slaves, as subject to greater forces, such as an emerging global industrial capitalist economy at odds with the institution of slavery. As the global economy in the nineteenth century moved towards a mechanized industrial wage system of work, slave labor was seen as antithetical to slave labor, and competition to wage labor needed to be stamped out. So within this large impersonal force, the emerging, mechanized, industrial, global economy of the nineteenth century lay the seeds of abolition. The people’s thesis, in opposition to a textbook, top-down or entirely deterministic model of historical causality, locates the source of black freedom in blacks themselves and suggest that contrary to notion that Lincoln freed black slaves, slaves were freeing themselves long before Lincoln arrived on the scene by making their own way to freedom or initiating insurrections against the slave system that oppressed them. The people’s thesis therefore provides autonomy and agency to those who are historically seen without autonomy and agency: contra the textbook version of the passively oppressed.

This business regarding autonomy and agency also factors into philosophical pragmatism. Almost universally and without fail, philosophers have had a habit of dismissing the views of “ordinary” peoples or people who have not been indoctrinated by academic philosophy. Plato, for example, in the allegory of the cave suggested that non-philosophical folk (i.e., every day people) were sheep governed by their senses who wrongly took the images presented to their senses as the substance of reality.2 Heidegger in Being and Time frowned upon the idle talk of the “they”: those who were inauthentic, imprisoned by the conventions of society and habit.3 Philosophers historically have attacked the non-philosophical populace, “ordinary” people or the “plain man”, as being unreflective and ignorant about reality and how humans come to know that reality. The people’s thesis, as expressed through pragmatism, suggests that people do not require or desire the use of philosophical analysis or philosophical concepts to know reality: we are just simply aware of it through experience. The people are in need of no proof of reality and it never struck them that reality actually required a proof of its existence.

So in history, how does the people’s thesis emerge as a plausible explanation of history? I wanted to briefly discuss an article by Arvarh Strickland regarding the Great Migration of African Americans from the American South to the North during the beginning decades of the twentieth century (just a note: the initial migrations of African Americans to the north began in the 1870s with the Exodusters but the massive migrations began in the first decade of the 1900s).4 The standard interpretation of the causes of the migration was that World War I had caused a labor shortage in the northern industrial centers, due to European immigrants returning home to fight in the war and almost concurrently US immigration restrictions being placed upon European immigrants trying to flee the war. Additionally, the cotton blight in the South wrecked the southern economy and as a result, agricultural jobs were hard to come by and so the perfect opportunity arose for African Americans to move to those northern industrial centers.5

Strickland in his article elucidates the people’s thesis, which identifies the cotton boll weevil as the true liberator/savior of African Americans (or true cause of migration). Strickland particularly uses “liberator” to describe how southern black workers felt about the boll weevil: the insect might have wrecked the southern economy but it also destroyed King Cotton which not only was the basis of that economy but the engine driving Jim Crow. The people’s thesis, applied to southern history, is that the boll weevil was a welcome development for African Americans because in the end, it killed the cotton industry, struck a devastating blow to Jim Crow, while ushering African Americans to move north for better economic opportunities. The way that Strickland describes the workers’ perception of the boll weevil as well as his description of black exodus from the South continually evokes biblical allusions: for it is this exodus that was brought about by God, through the use of the boll weevil beetle, that brought down King Cotton and the institutional evils it supported (namely, Jim Crow): “The boll weevil was both a scourge to the South and a strange liberator from the tyranny of King Cotton for both southern Blacks and whites”: a strange liberator because while the material losses were devastating, the end result was the devastation enabled southern African Americans to move north into better economic opportunities.6 Strickland does not deny the religious undertones of the people’s thesis, for it is clear to him that the Great Migration was a modern instantiation of the Exodus story from the Bible: as God sent locusts to ravage the Egyptians’ crops to break the Egyptians’ bondage over the Israelites, so He sent the boll weevil to break the bondage of King Cotton (and subsequently Jim Crow).7

In recounting the song of a black road worker in North Carolina, Strickland uses this man’s song to sample African Americans’ views of the boll weevil and its role in black deliverance:

A white southerner told of hearing a black man from Georgia singing while working on a road construction project in North Carolina. The words of the song were simple, almost like a nursery rhyme:

Boll weevil here, boll weevil there,
boll weevil everywhere;
Oh, Lordy,
ain’t I glad!

What caught the white man’s attention and disturbed him was that the black man seemed genuinely glad. There was, he said, “a note of genuine gladness, almost of exultation in the voice singing it, not unlike the note one hears between lines in the Old Testament songs of Jews triumphing over the downfall of their enemies. It seemed a song of emancipation.”8

This is perhaps where the people’s thesis can get us into trouble. Scholars sympathetic to groups that have been historically oppressed want to allow these groups to discuss their history (after all it makes sense that their stories about themselves and their history matters) but people’s versions of their own history can be riddled with myths or folklore that might not be true. Above, the people’s thesis, southern African American views of divine deliverance through the boll weevil beetle, would seem to suggest that in cases of oppression, a divine force inevitably eradicates human systems of oppression or eradicates human evil. Yet it seems that just by looking at one’s history through the lens of religion or mythology can distort it and make that history conform to assumptions or biases that are not scientifically testable.9

But what if the people’s thesis or rather the primacy of a social group’s historical narrative about itself and the world does conform to the most updated scientific and/or practical knowledge? We have the example of pre-colonial and colonial Iroquois cultures in which various species of crop vermin are characters in their narratives. Generally these vermin were regarded by the tribes as evil beings. These beings are persons in these mythologies since the Iroquois with their anthropomorphic view of nature viewed all living things as persons. Sadjawski, in the story “Deoyadastat’ he and Hadjowski” refers to an “old man” but in terms of his physical features, he was a “thousand legged worm” who was “unfaithful to his wife and eventually killed.”10

“The Thunderer” recounts a story in which a giant malevolent grub (the cutworm) is destroyed by the “Supernaturals” by a lightning strike. This last point is important because it factors into how the Northern Iroquois, acutely aware of the destructiveness of the cutworm, practiced horticulture. The Iroquois burned the underbrush of forests or previously farmed fields that had lain fallow in order to destroy insects, like the cutworm, which feasted on their crops. Preparing fields in this way is partially effective because it destroys insects at or above ground level although for insects below ground level, it is ineffective. The Iroquois only burned limited areas (they could not control or manage fires for large areas); additionally, the fires set were not of an extended duration so the soil which harbored caterpillars and grubs did not overheat to the point of killing insects below ground. Other horticultural measures used by the Iroquois included crop rotation but this also was only partially effective since some species of insect, such as the army-worm will migrate to adjacent fields when their food supply is exhausted.11 Yet these two horticultural practices, brush burning and crop rotation, are still widely used today. In places like Florida, brush burning is primarily used to control forest undergrowth in order to minimize the forest damage that would occur through lighting strikes or human carelessness. Crop rotation, moving back to the story about the cotton boll weevil’s devastation in the South, was one of the successful practices used by southern farmers to combat the boll weevil (as well as recover profit): a practice that led to the peanut as a profitable Southern agricultural staple.12 So the people’s thesis or the people’s narrative seems valid, although scientists would probably not regard caterpillars and grubs as “persons” but their malevolent character would foster no disagreement.

So is the people’s thesis valid only if it agrees with scientific and/or practical knowledge? Or more importantly is a people’s story about its history and its reality valid only if it corresponds to scientific knowledge? The current impulse in academia is to deny objectivity to science and to claim, per historians of science such as Thomas Kuhn or sociologists of science such as Stephen Shapin, that science is an endeavor that is burdened by its own cultural mythologies so it has no more claim to objectivity about history and reality than do non-scientific narratives.13 Moreover, top down theories about history, theories that erase or deny the agency of ordinary people from history, provide a one sided account of history and make these people passively subject to larger forces: be they larger than life political figures or impersonal macroeconomic currents. In terms of philosophy, the impetus among philosophers sympathetic to “ordinary people” or to use philosopher J.L. Austin’s term “the plain man”, is to deny the relevance of philosophical abstraction and reject the idea that philosophers have a special insight into the nature of reality that not only sets them apart from the culture in which they have emerged but an insight free of the mythological assumptions of their culture: a culture which includes “the people”.14 Perhaps one problem with the people’s thesis is that “the people” might not at all refer to a monolithic body of persons who all share the same beliefs and values or the same mythologies. If these things are not shared, how then can we plausibly talk about their being a monolithic thesis or narrative that a people have about themselves, their history, and their place in the world? Also, what is it to be “ordinary” or “plain”? I’m almost certain that no person, regardless of their class or station in life, would use those terms to describe themselves.

And how does this observation pertain to our current culture? “We the people”, in the preamble to the American Constitution, the foundation of our democracy (or what is left of it in an age in which corporations and special interests pull the levers of government), suggests a unified narrative that Americans all share, a common history, and a common purpose. Yet in so many stories that dominate the headlines, we see that “the people” is not a unity, and that different groups of people vie for political power, often at the expense of marginalizing other groups or people who do not agree with their narrative about how things are and how things should be. I’m not sure that the people’s thesis is a viable scholastic concept, simply because within groups, there are divergences that make a unitary narrative impossible, and if there are similarities, they are few. For example, in terms of the Great Migration, the story of African American migration is a south to north trajectory although great numbers of African Americans travelled west to Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico: areas that had already endured the boll weevil’s wrath. The peak of the Great Migration ends with the Harlem Renaissance, which is considered by many historians to represent African American high culture, but what about the stories of African Americans in the southwest and their stories, or their cultures? To hear their stories would suggest a divergence within the Great Migration narrative as a south to north migration into northern industrial, culturally affluent, urban environments. Social histories that try to tell a people’s narrative from the people’s perspective will largely fail if they ignore the divergences within that narrative: people even within the same national, socioeconomic, racial, or gender categories have experiences that might not fit the narrative of the group.

For pragmatism, the philosophic expression of the people’s thesis, with its soapbox allegiance to the “plain” person or the “ordinary” person (i.e., “the people”), is simply at a loss to explain what it means to be plain or ordinary and why the people who they admire would regard themselves in those ways. Neither can pragmatism entirely dismiss the speculative impulse; it seems to be a bit of self-denial to claim that people have no regard for pondering reality. This we find ourselves doing on a daily basis: wondering when the evening train will arrive, pondering whether it would be a good idea to drink coffee on an empty stomach, or even wondering whether there is a divine intelligence overseeing the universe. Nevertheless, we need to be careful about generalizing experiences or suggesting that persons who share accidental features all think or behave the same way or perceive the world in the same way.

  1. Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979) is probably one of the most important indictments of the discipline of philosophy on pragmatic grounds (Rorty here and in other places just did not think that philosophical problems were useful) but certainly not the first; Bishop George Berkeley thought philosophical problems were either pseudo-problems or language problems and that he was siding with “the vulgar”: i.e., the “plain” or “ordinary” person in philosophical debates. []
  2. See Plato’s Republic for the cave allegory. []
  3. See Heidegger’s Being and Time and his discussion of everyday “Dasein” which stands in opposition to the authentic self. []
  4. Read Exodusters: Black Migration to Kansas after Reconstruction by Nell Irvin Painter. []
  5. The list of college history textbooks that tell this story of the Great Migration is endless but for one of the most widely used textbooks that make this case, I refer the reader to Eric Foner’s textbooks on U.S. history of the Give Me Liberty series. []
  6. Arvarh Strickland “The Strange Affair of the Boll Weevil: The Pest as Liberator” in Agricultural History, Vol. 68, No. 2, pp. 157-168 []
  7. Strickland, pp. 165 []
  8. Strickland, pp. 166 []
  9. Philosopher Karl Popper (1902–1994) famously argued that for a belief system to be valid (i.e., scientific), then it has to be testable and falsifiable. See his classic essay ”Science as Justification” []
  10. William A. Starna, George R. Hamell and William L. Butts “Northern Iroquoian Horticulture and Insect Infestation: A Cause for Village Removal” in Ethnohistory, Vol. 31, No. 3 (Summer, 1984), pp. 199 []
  11. Starna et al. 200-202 []
  12. Strickland, pp. 157 []
  13. See T.S. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Stephen Shapin’s A Social History of Truth []
  14. See J.L. Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia []

Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is working on his dissertation in history at Florida State University. He has taught US history, Western Civilizations, and Modern Global history at Tallahassee Community College, Northern Virginia Community College, and Howard Community College, the history of western science at Florida State University, symbolic logic at Ohio University, and digital multimedia and graphic design at Sanford Brown College in Boston, MA. Read other articles by Harvey.