Military historians a few decades ago would have shunned the methods that Ronald H. Spector is using to study the Vietnam war.
Spector, the Navy's director of naval history, is delving into the war from the bottom up: Did the men who served in it believe they were winning? In what situations did they kill their prisoners or run from battle?
And he is combing through statistics, comparing kill ratios, casualty counts and numbers on "enemy-initiated assaults."
But Spector is also using long-established techniques that fall within the grand tradition of historical research: documenting major battles, for example, and studying the records of military commanders.
Spector's methodology illustrates what many scholars say is an important new development in their discipline, a synthesis of old and new approaches that could produce a new style of history.
The result could be historical literature that, like the venerable volumes produced years ago, focuses broadly on military, diplomatic and political events and figures. But scholars say the emerging history will also be unmistakably influenced by the "new" or "social" history -- emphasizing the lives of common people and relying heavily on statistics -- that has had a major impact on the discipline in recent decades.
"The best people writing, and most people writing, are trying to merge the new history with the old, to make a story readable, to make it relevant," said Michael Kazin, who teaches history at American University. "History from below and history from above . . . you have to show how the lives of these two groups intersected."
The change may be felt beyond the confines of academia. Textbooks in California are being rewritten to present what is being called a "total history." As Spector's work indicates, there may be a revival of military history, traditionally a narrative field, in literature and on campuses. And scholarly publications, which a dozen years ago were of limited interest because of their narrow focus and statistical flavor, are now more likely to appeal to a broad audience, returning academic research to the public realm.
"It used to be that certain historians were known to an educated populace," said Kazin, citing Charles Beard and Henry Steele Commager. "That rarely happens now . . . . Part of the return to the narrative has been trying to make history relevant again."
From the time of Herodotus, history was typically written in the form of a narrative, a chronological story that was dominated by military, diplomatic and political events, usually focused on the actions of generals, presidents and others in power.
But 30 years ago the discipline began to change. New methodology was developed that relied more on analysis of demography, land records and other quantifiable information. And the focus shifted to "history from below," an examination of the lives of those previously ignored by historians -- often oppressed social groups, including blacks, workers and women.
Scholarly work on social and cultural topics still dominates the field, evidenced by the American Historical Association's (AHA) annual convention here last month, at which presentations on politics and diplomacy were outnumbered by those on women, gay people and social issues.
"I don't think you will see an abrupt abandonment of social history," said Spector, who is on leave from his teaching position at the University of Alabama. He predicted a revival of the narrative in traditional political biography, diplomatic and military history, which was known as "elite history" because of its focus on figures of authority.
"But it's never going to be able to be as elite as it was," he said, because of "a consciousness-raising of the new social history that has had a lasting effect on how people approach history."
As an illustration of the evolution in history, several scholars pointed to the work of social historian Nell Irvin Painter, a writer and history professor at the University of North Carolina.
Painter began her career a decade ago in the heyday of social history by writing a book, "Exodusters," on the most narrow of topics, a movement of southern blacks to Kansas over a three-month period in 1879. But last year, she published "Standing at Armageddon," a narrative on the events of four decades around the turn of the century, focused both on national political figures of the time and the working class. The work is chronological and political but also shows how the relationships among classes led to political change.
"I did try to write 'Standing at Armageddon' as a synthesis," Painter said. "I tried to write a book that regular people would read and that wouldn't embarrass me among historians . . . . I realized I now had some ideas on the nation as a whole that had percolated from the bottom up."
The incorporation of social history into a broader, more traditional framework is seen by many as a reflection on the state of the country. The historical focus on oppressed groups overwhelmed the discipline in the 1960s and '70s, at the height of the civil rights and women's movements, and may be receding as changes brought by those movements are incorporated into the national mainstream.
"There was a long period in which younger historians coming into the profession wanted to write about things they approved of . . . and to neglect things they didn't favor or like, and they didn't favor war," said C. Vann Woodward, retired Yale University professor and editor of a multivolume history of the United States. "That's one reason they neglected military history."
But much of the change is attributed to a realization among social historians that their work, because it was not written in an accessible style, did not have a wide audience. Even one of the most noted social historians, Princeton Prof. Lawrence Stone, wrote a 1979 essay in a British journal calling for a revival of the narrative.
Like all academic communities, historians vigorously debate the trends that roll through their discipline, and the question of new-versus-old-style history is no exception.
"Social history has won," said Ira Berlin, a professor of history at the University of Maryland. "It's not a battle to continue to refight . . . . Nobody will write what we call political history the way it was written a generation ago."
Others would quibble with the notion that social history has "won," but there is general agreement that the pendulum should not swing all the way back.
It is "absurd" to treat women's history or the history of the poor as if it were separate from the larger political, military movements, said William H. McNeill, former AHA president and a retired University of Chicago professor. But he added: "To take the advances of the past 25 years and somehow put them together" with the more traditional history, "this is the great challenge before us."