Five(ish) Questions: A Conversation with Dr. Susie Pak (St. John’s University)

Dr. Susie Pak, a historian from St. John’s University in New York, is coming to campus next week to discuss her recent book, Gentleman Bankers: The World of J.P. Morgan, “a study of the complex web of financial, social, and political relationships among Wall Street’s aristocracy in the early twentieth century.” During her talk, she’ll address how her use of network analysis allowed her to understand Morgan and his world and, in particular, “the challenges and rewards of studying historical networks from archival sources.” This week, we spoke to Dr. Pak about how her interests led her to Morgan, and where they’re going to take her in the future.


What is your scholarly background and how does it motivate your teaching and research?

I went to graduate school because I wanted to understand the historical persistence of racism, particularly as it related to the history of Asians in the United States. If history is the study of change over time, why and how does racism endure? At Cornell, I completed a comprehensive study of Asian American historiography (1850 onward) where I wrote about one important expression of racism that is a dominant theme in the literature, particularly after 1950—the characterization of Asian as foreign to and different from American. For my dissertation, I chose two topics central to Asian American history—immigration and empire—because they were two subjects in which foreign and domestic issues were also inextricably linked. Unexpectedly, this project generated another set of questions about the relationship between race, empire, and capital. That is how I arrived at the study of J.P. Morgan. To me, trajectory of the project speaks to the way in which history is also the study of relationships and connections, and it is an example of how those ties should be broadly defined because the answer to the question may reside far beyond one’s initial scope of interest.

What has been your favorite project to work on and why?

In general, historical research is a combination of discovery, translation, and analysis because historical evidence is, by nature, incomplete. I have spent so many years in archives that they are like a second home, but the research for Gentlemen Bankers required another level of endurance. Two projects in particular—the translation of the Morgan syndicate books and the creation of the geographic maps—stand out because they were very experimental and their analysis involved many separate steps over the period of several years. Though they turned out to be quite important to answering the book’s question about the relationship between Anglo-American and German Jewish bankers, there was no guarantee they would be useful, but the process of translating them had to be done if even just to test my assumptions about how the Morgans’ networks were organized.

The study of these particular sources also created many other different kinds of problems, and in order to address them, I had to learn skills in new content domains that I had not learned or even thought to learn, such as statistics, ArcGIS, social network analysis, and economics. After many years, the process of doing this research taught me how to look at a piece of qualitative data and translate it into quantitative form, which has fundamentally changed the way that I see, understand, and interact with historical evidence. This is also something I never planned or anticipated, but now it has become part of the way that I think. Much of my lecture will talk about the process of analyzing these primary sources.

How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in academia and beyond?

As a historian, I am not trying to formulate contemporary political or economic policy, but I can see how the stories in Gentlemen Bankers would resonate with current issues, such as the government regulation of finance, the importance of trust in business, and the persistence of economic inequality. For example, the book argues that economic agents are not separate from their society. Their relations, including those that create cooperation and trust, are not confined to the boundaries of the financial world. This would suggest that fundamental reform of economic inequality is also dependent upon substantive social change. Yet because society seems to change very slowly, it is often discounted as a variable in economic analysis—“Ceterus paribus”. What if the relationship to the variable “holding things constant” or “all things being equal” is actually what we should be investigating? And how would we do that given the fragmentary nature of much qualitative historical evidence? The book offers a historical example of an investigation into these kinds of questions.

What projects or people have inspired your work?

My work draws from many different fields ranging from economic history to comparative literature to sociology to cultural studies. I have too many heroes to mention, but I can say I am most inspired by work that investigates the history of the normal (narratives we take for granted and do not question), and I tend to be drawn to work that explains the process of analysis and the nature of the evidence in great detail. These days there are few things that impress me more than when someone has a good research question and systematically and rigorously collects diverse evidence in a transparent fashion.

What projects are you excited about working on in the future?

I am very interested in the study of crime, including financial crime, and I am working on a paper right now on the 1980s Savings & Loan Crisis with Jana Diesner, a professor of computer science at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign where I am a research fellow for the next year. Our study incorporates the use of text and social network analysis to study the structure of social and economic networks using historical, digital open-source data. In the long term, it will form part of manuscript project on the history of banking in the United States.

One impetus for the project had to do with the changing nature of historical data. It is not just that I want to avoid the pain of handcoding thousands of pages of archival data because I am sure that will still happen, but one hundred years from now, historians will not be searching through the papers of banks and individuals as I did in Gentlemen Bankers. Much of the data will be stored electronically. If we are to be prepared for the future study of history and also teach it to our students, we must engage with new technology and to understand how future historical data will be stored, archived, and accessed.

Like Gentlemen Bankers, this project is very experimental and it requires a different kind of skillset and engagement with the field of computer science—text mining and natural language processing. We will be presenting part of our work at the American Historical Association in January 2015, and I am very interested to see how historians will respond to this kind of computer-assisted historical analysis. It is becoming more common in fields like literature, but I think it is still fairly new to the study of history. There’s a lot of math behind it and learning about the science has been like learning a new language.

Given your newest project, what do you think the role of the digital methodologies will be in the humanities, long term?

Theoretically speaking, digital methodologies are no different from non-digital methodologies in that they are both about critical thinking. What distinguishes them is the type of evidence with which they engage. The role of digital methodologies in the humanities thus depends on the kinds of research questions that are pursued by the field and also on the state of the evidence in those projects. For example, I could not use text mining to study the Morgan syndicate books, but maybe one day, the library will digitize all twelve books and optical character recognition software will become more common and future scholars will do just that, which would be very interesting.

As a question of pedagogy and professional development, it is fairly clear that unless one has some awareness of digital methodologies, it would be difficult to grasp the possibilities or opportunities or challenges they can offer to critical analysis. Future students could learn it more systematically, if the desire is present in their graduate schools to implement those types of courses as part of the curriculum, or they could go about in the very organic, haphazard way I went about studying the social science methodologies for Gentlemen Bankers. The disadvantage to the latter method is that it took much longer (and it was a process fraught with anxiety), but the advantage is that it was entirely driven by the research question and the process of figuring out how to answer the question became an integral part of the process of learning. For future projects, it was not just the answer to the question but figuring out how to answer the question that was valuable in the long term.

In one sentence, what is American Studies to you?

American Studies is interdisciplinary.

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