Question: How many historians does it take to change a light bulb?
Answer: 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.
With the declassification of archives in Eastern Europe, several historians noticed that light bulbs under communism were superfluous, as electricity shortages were the norm.
A group of German historians have also argued that light bulbs in Germany followed a “special path” to the socket that was not replicated by any other European light bulbs.
Modern scholars of the Orient, however, argue that the whole discourse of bulb-changing privileges Western electricity over local customs such as candle light. Typical of such research, questions of changing light bulbs continue presenting the Orient as the savage, backward Other despite inherent inferiority in the Western concept of generating electricity at the cost of massive damage to the environment through fossil fuel burning and nuclear technology.
Latin American scholars have emphasized that light bulb production has historically been centered in the global North, while Latin America and other peripheral regions have provided raw materials like sand, tungsten, and copper. Any interpretation of light bulb changing that fails to acknowledge the structural conditions of regional inequality inherent to light bulb production risks perpetuating imperialist, capitalist relations between center and periphery.
In the Annales school of light bulb changing there are all sorts of structural forces that can’t be ignored. There is no simple accounting of the events surrounding the changing of the light bulb. Instead, there are long-term evolutionary socio-economic-cultural factors which need consideration.
All sorts of misunderstanding could have been avoided if modern scholars had maintained the distinction between the material, formal, efficient (both primary and instrumental), and final causes of light bulb changing. In this sense, the Cartesian turn really screwed up light bulb changing.
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.