“Historian. Mom. Knocks on doors and talks politics.” That’s how Lara Putnam describes herself on Twitter. Follow @lara_putnam and you’ll be treated to a real-time microhistory of contemporary American politics as they roil the communities around Pittsburgh. You’ll see exactly how conspiracies spread through Facebook groups for parents, and how social media companies permit disinformation and abuse to toxify their platforms. But you’ll also read, and learn from, uplifting stories of dogged and brave volunteers who use savvy electoral strategies to brighten the future, one localp election at a time. With fellow activist-scholars such as Theda Skocpol, Putnam has written a series of pieces for the journal Democracy examining these processes on the ground.
You may also see something about Latin American social and labor history, the study and teaching of which is Putnam’s day job at the University of Pittsburgh. Her two books were built on hemisphere-spanning archival research; in 2016, she wrote an essay for the American Historical Review that challenged her profession to think through how its archives have changed and the surprisingly profound implications of historians’ reliance on digital sources.1
As a historian and sometime political organizer myself, I wanted to talk to Putnam about both parts of her work: her social media activity and her academic role. (Being a parent came up briefly, too.) As we talked, it became clear that the politics and the history were connected in ways I hadn’t previously appreciated.
I could have begun this conversation with the venerable approach of asking about her career path, but I couldn’t help myself—I started with one of her tweets that teaches us how to be better citizens.
David Singerman (DS): It was late November 2020. You wrote on Twitter, “You and your networks will maximize your impact not by treating yourselves as interchangeable units in anonymous scaled action but rather assessing the scope of your existing relational leverage and identifying the urgent political targets that voters you can reach will decide.” In other words, when millions of Democrats wanted to write postcards to voters in Georgia and flip the Senate, you were telling them that there was a far better way to make a far bigger difference. Don’t listen to campaigns; listen to your neighbors.
How did you get from Costa Rica and the Jazz Age to being an astute observer of Rust Belt woman-led political organizing?
Lara Putnam (LP): Like lots of people, I had previously been a little involved in politics. I had knocked on a few doors. But then, like so many others, in the aftermath of the 2016 election, I went looking to see what more could be done, just in my capacity as a private citizen.
My assumption was, “Well, here we are in this blue city. Maybe people from the city need to go out and help these benighted souls in the suburbs.” I’m in one of these really gerrymandered districts. My ward of Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton, overwhelmingly for Joe Biden. But it’s one of two wards of the city of Pittsburgh that are in a suburban state senate district. At that time, the state senator was a Republican incumbent, a moderate who did not survive the next primary.
And, when I headed out to see what was happening in those suburbs, I realized I had it backwards. There was actually a lot more organizing underway there: bottom up, super smart and super intensive, network based—what the sociological literature calls “relational organizing.”
I was seeing something happening at the grassroots level that I, as a historian, thought was really important. Even if historians don’t fully subscribe to a sort of vulgar base-superstructure model, I think most of us basically think change works something like this: the economic landscape shapes some really big and slow-moving things like demographic trends, employment trends, and the political system, which in turn shapes the regulatory environment, which shapes how workforces are structured, which shapes people’s individual experiences in the workplace and in the home. And fundamentally, over time, that range of life experience impacts what political messages persuade people. It shapes what kinds of connections they have, who they see as trusted sources. It shapes the emergence of organic leaders. That slowly shifting landscape of political possibility then shapes which leaders tend to rise to the top and take advantage of new moments of opportunity and new potential coalitions within the political landscape.
So, there are all these different, interrelated layers, which all interact in different gears, different speeds and cycles, over time.
But as a social historian and a labor historian, specifically, I know that when there are new things happening in social organization in particular—linked to broader economic and demographic and technological trends, sure, but suddenly changing in real time—that can be consequential.
And what I began to realize, too, is that many reporters and political scientists talk about how campaigns matter, but few talk about these interconnected processes—about how campaigns matter in part because of who meets whom as part of them, about the social networks that are shaped by that campaign as well as shaping it.
Also, as a historian of gender and labor, I was really interested in the fact that I saw women doing a lot of the political work that looked to me, observationally, as most impactful: making the calls that got people to the meetings, having the background conversations that kept people engaged, and doing the emotional labor of helping people work through their differences in informal as well as formal ways. That daily reproductive labor or maintenance work tends to be gendered as female. In so many different places and times across history, it’s done mainly by people who identify as women, and it tends to be routinely hidden and ignored because it’s about keeping things going, keeping other people going. And precisely because women are doing it, it tends to be lower status, on balance, and unrecognized.
So, for example, in my work on the growth of the United Fruit banana empire, I was really interested in how women who were sex workers moved to banana zones. They played a crucial role in shaping the life experiences of men who were transient laborers. That was not part of the supposedly more real and manly story of building banana plantations, but it was integral to what made the system work.
All of this is a super-long answer to say that I was interested in the kinds of political work that I saw people doing after 2016. And I didn’t see an existing set of disciplines or public conversations that were really capturing it.
DS: This is a good moment to note—for any of our readers who have not been to a progressive political meeting in the last five years—that it is amazing, or at least it has been amazing to me, how those meetings have been overwhelmingly organized by and led by women.
There is so much in your answer about what historians do versus what others do. But what I first want to talk about is optimism. As an academic, our attitude is so often critical and ironic and looking for contradictions. And yet, it seems you need a certain optimism to keep going back to these meetings. Did you find that to be true?
LP: For sure. Let me backtrack. So, I moved from just trying to contribute to grassroots politics to trying to write about what I was seeing.
I’m a tenured full professor. I didn’t have to try to gatekeep myself in order to jump through some urgent professional hoop. I was just trying to do something useful and create knowledge in the world. I understand that’s a position of great privilege. But if we’re given privilege on this Earth, we’re put here to use it. So, I tried to use it to create knowledge.
If I were a historian writing about something that happened 50 or 500 years ago, critique would have been my natural posture. But, in this case, I tried to build my analysis of what was happening and then actually describe that to people who were trying to do the stuff themselves. So, I would talk to people about what I saw happening in the systems they were part of. And then they would tell me how wrong I was! Or someone would say, “Oh, yes, that really resonates. But, no, we tried that idea and it didn’t work at all. And here is why.”
Because I was talking to the people who were doing the work itself, and lots of others like them, they would ask me what I thought. And the process of giving advice and getting corrected, being told what was useful and what was completely useless, was revelatory.
Any time I have an opportunity to talk to anyone working at the local level or anyone who is a political professional or a donor, et cetera, I do. And I share my understanding of what’s happening. This has been super useful for me. It hasn’t just shaped my sense of what should be done, it’s also continually reshaped my understanding of how the dynamics are actually working on the ground and nationally.
DS: That cycle of feedback and experimentation is so many orders of magnitude faster in organizing than it is in academia. Academics tend to sit on and ruminate over ideas for years, until we feel they’ve been battle tested or critiqued and only then …
LP: Yes. But, also, we need to ask, who do we trust to do that battle testing? Within academia usually it’s other academics or other specialists. If I’m researching politics, I could be thinking of my only interlocutors as editors of journals of social history or political history or political science. But when my interlocutors are real people in the real world, they turn out to be much more self-aware and useful.
DS: You write a lot about this in your Democracy pieces: that actually talking with the people in your own community gives people a much more realistic sense of what’s possible, and it lets them understand what’s going to work where. That’s not an understanding you can convey in a script for volunteers generated by a national campaign headquarters.
LP: I tweet a lot about “infrastructure,” and about what a healthy infrastructure looks like. My argument is that a healthy ecosystem for a political system—and, for sure, for a political movement or political party—has to include loops by which people learn about what others differently positioned from them know. Those feedback loops—of learning through what happens on the ground—should be happening continuously, punctuated by the hard learning that comes with the result of every election.
Think about campaign operatives. The way campaigns work today, the professionals can only make a living by showing up to a new place every four years, trying to build a campaign-out-of-a-box, and then closing up shop and leaving. So, how are they going to know what’s useful? And conversely, think about when folks on the ground are only being told, “Well, you can write postcards to voters and that would be one thing that would help win the election.” And they aren’t being told, “Actually, here is this other broad range of things you can do that we’re not going to be able to count and it’s not going to be a visible win for us, the political professionals, but actually it’s much more likely to build long-term change in your community.”
If people trying to do politics aren’t hearing about and aren’t understanding the full range of impacts they can have, then you waste effort. No one is having the optimal impact, not the political consultants nor the potential candidates nor the regular people who just want to work together to build change. No one is living their best life.
DS: OK, I’m going to make an awkward transition because we could talk about post-2016 politics for a while.
LP: We could.
DS: But I actually think there are lots of connections between the political work we’ve just been talking about and the article you published in the American Historical Review in 2016, called “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable.”
Most of our readers, I’m afraid, won’t have read it, so I’ll do my best to summarize without flattening a piece that has many layers, and bring it back to the politics. You point out that, just as historians in the global North have gotten more interested in “transnational” stories, huge volumes of primary sources from around the world have been digitized. And you argue that we need to think a lot more carefully than we have done about the implications of having this stuff at our fingertips. Because it’s not just that we have more information available than before, which sounds delightful, it’s also that certain types of sources are now relatively more visible than others, and certain forms of research are now easier than others.
As you put it, the “topography of information” has changed. All these digitized documents make it look like historians no longer need to travel physically to archives where information is kept on paper. But you remind us that a lot of what we learn about a place and its history doesn’t come from the documents, but from the “friction” that happens around the archive—like talking to a bus driver or an archivist or a local scholar—and also from the physical search process itself, like seeing what else was in the newspaper while you flipped through to the article you thought you wanted.
All this seems pretty far from political campaigns but, to switch metaphors, maybe another word for that topography could be “infrastructure.” A thematic connection here is that in both cases you’re talking about how, if you don’t think about the systems that are bringing you some information and hiding other stuff, you are not going to achieve what you set out to achieve.
To bring this to a question: Why do you think it took so long, until you published this article, for people to realize that this method we’ve all acquired for doing research has such potential pitfalls?
LP: I think this topic gets to the core of what’s unique about historians’ practice, as compared to other disciplines. We don’t own the past. Economists use time-series data that track change over time. Political scientists, geologists—anyone can write about the past. Working on the past is not unique to historians.
What’s unique to historians is having a method for understanding sources of information as contextualized in their moment of creation and preservation. Why are certain documents in certain archives and not others? Because, of course, not all sources are preserved equally. If you want to understand the past accurately you need to be thinking about what sources have survived and what sources haven’t made it to us. This multifaceted understanding of the creation and preservation of information, how that changes over time, how we can make use of our knowledge of who is creating sources for whom, what’s getting preserved—all that helps us understand more accurately a particular dynamic located in a particular place and time.
It’s the opposite of, let’s say, taking a Google Ngram and thinking you can tell something crucial about the past by looking at how many times this word appears in the Google corpus, without worrying about what might be shaping the sources that go into the corpus.
I’ve heard entirely smart people say that historians are going to be sidelined now that more and more primary sources are digitized, because anyone can just look for themselves at the truth about the past in these primary sources. OK, historians may or may not be sidelined. But it’s not going to be because a single digitized document gives you the accurate understanding of the past that historians at our best should be able to provide. How do we read that document in context? What can it tell us and what can’t it tell us?
DS: You’re articulating—and compellingly defending—historians’ process, but one thing your article highlights is that it’s not a formal process and it’s often not even an articulated process.
LP: It isn’t articulated or theorized or recognized. In an analog world—a world in which information is held and moved in physical rather than digital form—historical research meant going through multiple steps. In order to find sources, you needed to know where to look; in order to know where to look, you needed to read through a lot of contextual information. And, in practice, you did a sort of internship in the history of a place. Being able to search digitized sources cuts out these experiences that were both really inefficient and really important. And because these experiences were undertheorized, unarticulated, there was not an easy way to notice that important stuff was getting cut.
DS: Going back to even your first book on the banana zones and migration, you seem to me to think about data and information in general—not just campaign data—more methodically than many other historians. Where does that relationship with ideas about data come from? I wonder if that helps explain why you, rather than someone else, wrote this article.
LP: I’m not a quantitative historian, but I really love finding new kinds of information that I can add to what I’m pulling out of other sources, to be able to move between individual lives and bigger pictures. Historians who think of themselves as quantitative historians are vastly more sophisticated and better at math than I am. But I’m just a dogged Excel user. In the big picture, was the vote swing between Biden and Trump more tightly correlated with education levels or more tightly correlated with poverty levels? I’m not going to declare either poverty or education to be the driver, or develop some kind of formal statistical model, but it helps me understand the context of these individual stories that I get from talking to people or from reading reporting on how the campaign looked in this county as opposed to that county.
So, I claim zero expertise. I’m just willing to be a bad user of quantitative data and that has actually carried me pretty far into interesting places.
DS: What a good way to put it, right? We should be willing to be, well, bad at a new set of tools for a while.
LP: Yeah, I’m not competing in the Olympics here, I’m just trying to understand the world a little better.
DS: What did you hope the response to that American Historical Review piece would be and what has it been like? Of course, it’s been discussed, but has anybody come up to you and shaken your shoulders and said, “Thank you for saving me, I was about to write a misguided, shallow transnational history?”
LP: When I was writing that piece, I was wandering around the house announcing to my children that I was either writing something super obvious or really important and I couldn’t decide which. I still think both of those characterizations are accurate.
In part, that piece came out of writing my second monograph, going back to the Biblioteca Nacional in Costa Rica with a laptop beside me that was connected to the web. If I saw something interesting in the microfilmed newspapers I was working with, I was able to pull up secondary sources and decide if I wanted to follow a thread or not. In Trinidad, I was reading physical newspapers, looking at the whole page and seeing contextual things like patent medicine ads, while the Jamaican Gleaner was digitized online, so I could search for individual names and see patterns of travel. In that sense, I had different experiences of trying to do historical work using different technologies to study very similar sources in different places, and that made the impact of these mundane technological changes very visible. So, I wrote about it. I think it resonated because many people had a similar intuition from similar experiences—especially midcareer folks like myself who began doing historical research before the internet.
I wrote it first as a conference paper and posted it on our university’s institutional depository. A woman named Eileen Clancy, who is an archivist and digital historian and super-interesting thinker based in New York, ran across it. God only knows how. She tweeted about it and so a couple of other digitally inclined historians commented.
Meanwhile, I was not yet on Twitter and had no idea this paper was being discussed. At some point, I needed to look up something about that paper and the easiest way to find it was just to Google it. So, a tweet comes up from some woman named Clancy. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh, that’s crazy,” and I emailed her, saying, “Thank you so much for these critical thoughts. I would love to hear more.”
Eileen is a super-generous human being. She sent me a whole bunch of reading suggestions, including things written by archivists or digital historians, who, of course, were already much further along than I was in thinking through the impact of digitization. So, my understanding of what I was doing in that piece really shifted. Originally, I thought, “Oh, here I am saying new things.” Then, I started thinking, “Oh, there is this whole body of literature by people who are not necessarily in dialog with transnational historians, who have interesting insights themselves but who don’t know about this relevant set of conversations among nonhistorians doing digital studies.” So, I was just creating a little space for these folks to come into dialogue, and that was a helpful contribution.
The article is about how fortuity and learning that happens in the physical, analog world can be erased by digital shortcuts. But, of course, the converse is true, as the story of the paper shows, right? There are new kinds of fortuity and new kinds of connection that can come out of digital searches and instantaneous communication as well.
In Praise of Search Tools
DS: The image of the laptop in the archive is such a positive image of what digitization could afford historical practice. There are so many things that are genuinely possible now, or more possible now, because sources have been digitized, because it doesn’t take you a whole day to find some tiny item in a big volume. You can get it very quickly and you can incorporate it into your work very quickly.
Not to keep forcing the parallel to the organizing world, but there are also amazing things that you could do even if you just had access to publicly available data on individual voters when you knock on their doors. In both cases, digital stuff can create lots of possibilities if it’s used to augment the physical world.
LP: Yes, but/and—for both of those realms it doesn’t make sense to think about technology as existing in the abstract and having predetermined consequences. You have to ask: What’s the labor system that it’s being inserted into? What is the range of economic and institutional incentives and possibilities that are shaping what people are actually doing with the set of technologies they have in front of them?
To go back to history, I don’t doubt that graduate students would still love to spend two years in the field, but, at the vast majority of institutions, over the course of the 2000s, time to degree was getting shrunk and there was much less money for language study. Yet our discipline was increasingly demanding that graduate students do more with less. Do more, cover more of the world, pull together big pictures, do dissertations that might allow them to compete for one of a small number of jobs, while having only nine months of field work, in which suddenly they’re expected to cover archives in three different countries.
So, it’s crucial to ask where the resources are, who has access to them, and under what circumstances. The technology doesn’t do that itself. Technology shifts the landscape of possibility, but then, equally fundamentally, so do funding decisions and institutional mandates. And those things interact to shape how academic disciplines work.
DS: One point you make is that if the pressure to do transnational projects means the number of citations to archives in different countries keeps expanding, then researchers will gravitate towards shallower projects—not through any fault of their own, just because of institutional pressures.
LP: As with questions of how political campaigns get run, it’s not that they’re bad people doing bad things. It’s that people are doing their very best to navigate systems that don’t allow the kinds of learning that would be really valuable for everyone.
DS: What would you like to see historians do, individually, collectively, organizationally, to inoculate themselves against the dangers you’re warning about?
LP: It was long the case that in a world of analog search you needed to learn a lot about how the Russian Ministry of Agriculture worked in order to make sense of the grain price statistics that you were getting. The analogy today is that you need to know how Google works, how algorithms work; you need to know how the infrastructure shapes what we’re seeing and how we’re seeing it.
As I described to you, the birthright of historians is not actually studying the past. Instead, the core value added by history as a discipline is thoughtful analysis of the context of production, preservation, and access of information, so we can work with that information well.
That would suggest that we should keep doing this, intentionally. And that means that, in the 21st century, training students to think about digital information flow and retention and access is as important as thinking about archives and the grain ministry was and continues to be.
That also suggests that historians have an important role to play not just in covering historical topics that we have long covered, but also as interlocutors in urgent conversations today about disinformation and the consequences of the fact that our social contact and economic processes increasingly flow through digital channels. If historians see that our theorization of our own research practice is relevant, and kind of unique, then we can push conversations about information closer to the forefront of undergraduate and graduate training in history.
We should be preparing graduate students and others to do research on historical topics in the present, now-digital world. And that should also prepare us to be important contributors to conversations about what’s happening in our societies right now.
These conversations include ones around how to disrupt disinformation flows, which is a topic that’s become front and center for me—not as an academic, but because I see disinformation happening in the communities around me.
DS: I’m glad we got here, because it lets me bring up the screenshots you post of Facebook groups from your area of Pennsylvania. It’s like you’re shouting at progressives on Twitter: “Do you actually know what people think about these issues, or what kind of misinformation they’re getting and how it’s spreading?”
LP: Absolutely. Though I’ll note that I used to post screenshots from public groups, blacking out the usernames, and then I pulled back from posting even that. Even though these messages are posted to public groups, I recognize that these people have an expectation of privacy—but also an expectation of a right to public speech. It’s complicated! The line between public and private has become blurry. Facebook groups are today’s critical public sphere, but that sphere is under private ownership. Facebook could erase it anytime they wanted to; group organizers could erase it anytime. As a historian, that’s terrifying.
DS: At the end of your piece “Middle America Reboots Democracy,” you write: “Middle America’s mothers and grandmothers … see the work to be done and are well into accomplishing it.” And at the end of “Rust Belt in Transition,” which is more recent, you write: “volunteers are acting with the conviction that new political coalitions are achievable in the former industrial heartland. Sooner or later they will be right.” So, how’s your optimism level doing since those early days of 2018, 2020?
LP: As an academic, I’m not on Team Democrat. I’m on team democracy-with-a-small-d. There are really significant threats to that democracy. And anyone working to shore up an inclusive and rights-based democracy needs to be bringing their A game now. So, it is super frustrating to see lots of missed opportunities in the broad center-to-left of the political spectrum, a lot of stakeholders whose incentives are such that they are not investing in building small-d democratic ecosystems or infrastructure. I see missed opportunities to do politics better. That really worries me, because I see sources of leverage that are being more effectively deployed by actors who are not on team democracy.
Am I optimistic? There is a lot of work to be done and there are people working really hard. And there are ways that people could be making better choices.
DS: I phrased that question so poorly. Since 2016, when people ask me what I think is going to happen, one of my major coping strategies is to say: “I have no idea what’s going to happen. But I’m just going to go knock on some more doors and that will make me feel better.”
LP: What is pretty clear is, at the end of the day, people knowing other people and learning how to do things with them, that’s cash under the mattress. No matter the vicissitudes of the political system, knowing other people and having built up some mileage together, having some history together, learning how to get through difficult conversations—that’s really crucial, no matter what. It is only good. It is never not helpful to have that.
That’s the bottom line. Anything that gets people out of the house, off Twitter, doing something together with neighbors or friends and learning from that experience is helpful to us all for whatever lies ahead.
This article was commissioned by B. R. Cohen.
- Lara Putnam, “The Transnational and the Text-Searchable: Digitized Sources and the Shadows They Cast,” American Historical Review, vol. 121, no. 2 (2016). ↩