Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: There is a great deal of debate on this issue. Up until the mid-20th century, the accepted answer was ‘one’: and this Whiggish narrative underpinned a number of works that celebrated electrification and the march of progress in light-bulb changing. Beginning in the 1960s, however, social historians increasingly rejected the ‘Great Man’ school and produced revisionist narratives that stressed the contributions of research assistants and custodial staff. This new consensus was challenged, in turn, by women’s historians, who criticized the social interpretation for marginalizing women, and who argued that light bulbs are actually changed by department secretaries. Since the 1980s, however, postmodernist scholars have deconstructed what they characterize as a repressive hegemonic discourse of light-bulb changing, with its implicit binary opposition between ‘light’ and ‘darkness,’ and its phallogocentric privileging of the bulb over the socket, which they see as colonialist, sexist, and racist. Finally, a new generation of neo-conservative historians have concluded that the light never needed changing in the first place, and have praised political leaders like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher for bringing back the old bulb. Clearly, much additional research remains to be done.

[This is from historian David Leeson, shared on Facebook]

22 thoughts on “Q: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?

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  2. As an engineer, I’d like to express the light bulb wasn’t shining because Historians don’t understand the fact electricity requires a circuit.

  3. And remember please that the meanings of the terms lightbulb, socket, change and historian are all contingent on historical and spatial contexts. Western hegemony masks the particularities and distinctness of subaltern notions of illumination and lightbulb changing. We should refer to this as Electricity 1 and Electricity 2.

  4. You’re also forgetting that the idea of progress implicit in “changing” the lightbulb is a very illuminocentric view of the world. Someone needs to tell the story of the darkness.

  5. Recent work in digital history has clearly (and scientifically) demonstrated a relative decline in the role of the ‘historian’, and the rise in that of the ‘lightbulb’. This is believed to encode a ‘power law’ reflecting a natural relationship between light and history, with a significant cross over in the frequency of word occurences following the 1963 publication of E.P. Thompson’s seminal article the ‘Lighing the Industrial Revolution’. This phenomenon is under active investigation by several well funded research groups. See http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=historian&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share= and http://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?content=lightbulb&year_start=1800&year_end=2000&corpus=15&smoothing=3&share=

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  7. Reblogged this on thehistoricalimperative and commented:
    In perhaps the best opening gambit for a paper on public history, Rebecca Conard introduced us to the concept of the historiographical joke (just the mention of which was enough to elicit laughs). This is the joke she introduced us to. Funny for insiders but pointing, like a lot of good jokes, to something more substantive. If this is what history looks like, how can we ever make sense of it for outsiders?

  8. Brilliant, Alix! (pun intended) If Jonathan Dresner stumbles upon your blog, he will be surprised and delighted. But your follow on question is even better.

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  11. How many Germans does it take to change a light bulb?
    We are efficient and have no sense of humour.

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  14. In Canada we are told that in both Calgary and Toronto it only takes one person to change a light bulb. He just holds the bulb up and lets the world revolve around him.
    Of course it only takes one psychologist as well. But the bulb has to really want to change.

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