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Why “Taboos”?

OAH-2015-Annual-Meeting-BLACKAndrea Geiger and Lincoln Bramwell are co-chairs of the OAH 2015 Annual Meeting Program Committee. Geiger is an Associate Professor of History at Simon Fraser University. Bramwell is Chief Historian of the U.S. Forest Service. We asked them to discuss the the theme of this year’s meeting: Taboos.

We wanted to identify a theme that would cut across all fields and that complemented the wonderful work that previous program committees have done in identifying emerging trends or areas of inquiry that are deserving of greater attention. What about those areas of historical inquiry, we wondered, where historians are reluctant to tread because we fear that we may offend or that negative consequences may follow? Both of us had wrestled with questions of this kind in the context of our own work and recognized that topics regarded as taboo would vary from field to field. We were curious to learn more about how the reluctance to engage certain questions had shaped, and even distorted, historical narratives in differing fields. What explains our concerns about critically examining certain topics, and what do we miss when we avoid topics that have come to be regarded as taboo? How are seemingly familiar histories complicated, enriched, or transformed when we address issues that have been avoided in the past?

Taboos, of course, are not only historiographical in nature. All societies have imposed taboos of one kind or another on their members at various points in time, and moments when such taboos have been challenged often mark the beginning of important new historical trends.

Equally as important as asking about taboos that deserve to be challenged, we realized, is also to ask whether there are taboos that we’re bound to respect.

We were delighted by the response of other members of the program committee when we proposed this as a topic for the 2015 Annual Meeting, and even more excited by the wonderful range of proposals that poured in, probing questions related to this theme in ways we ourselves could not have anticipated. In the end, it’s those who responded to the call for papers that get the real credit for what promises to be a wonderful conversation about both limits that we historians set ourselves and the constraints that various societies have imposed on their members over time.