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Past, Present, Future

Last modified: 2005-04-16 by phil nelson
Keywords: vexillology (history of) | smith whitney | orenski peter |
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Znamierowski says (my translation from the French edition): "In 1962, Whitney Smith founded the Massachusetts Flag Research Center, the first professional vexillological institute in the world. He invented the word "vexillology" (from Latin "vexillum"), now fully accepted and used in several languages.

However, the word "vexillology" seems to predate 1962, since Smith himself wrote: "While the use of flags goes back to the earliest days of human civilization, the study of that usage in a serious fashion is so recent that the term for it (vexillology, coined by the author of this book) did not appear in print until 1959."

I can't totally agree with Smith, who seems to mean "there was no vexillologist before me". It is quite clear form that "Flaggenbuch" is a masterpiece of serious vexillology, even if Neubecker was primarily an heraldist. In science, the "serious fashion" to study a given topic depends on the general evolution of knowledge and methodology. The early flag charts are indeed bristled with mistakes and approximations, as our site probably is, but we should not ignore the contribution of the early compilers to modern vexillology.
Ivan Sache, 14 April 2002

Znamierowski doesn't say here that Smith invented the word vexillology in 1962, but that the MFRC was founded then, and that Smith also invented the word.

The tone of Smith.'s statement may be a little self-serving, but his words don't constitute a claim that there were no vexillologists until 1959--only that they didn't call themselves that. Until someone comes up with evidence to the contrary, I'd say that Smith invented the word--but not the field of study--in 1959. Clearly, Neubecker was a serious flag scholar, as was LeGras 80 years earlier. Which is to say that Smith oversells his point about how recent the serious study of flags is. (Well, OK, recent compared to how long flags have been around, but really...)

The reference to Neubecker raises a question in my mind: does the German word for vexillology, "Flaggenkunde," predate or postdate 1959?
Joe McMillan, 15 April 2002

The Dutch term was (is?) 'banistiek', the study of 'banieren' - banners. According to Sierksma - Vlaggen - symbool - protocol, 1963, banistiek predates the newer term 'vexillology', although the book lacks precise data.

My Dutch dictionary lists:
- Banistiek
- Vexillologie
- Vlaggenkunde
as synonyms.

Jarig Bakker, 15 April 2002

In 1963 Sierksma writes: Like the wapenkunde was given a foreign name, derived from the heraut or herald - heraldry - so for vlaggenkunde a expressive name exists in /banistiek/ , which is connected with the word banner, baander. English-speaking countries know the more recent vexillology, which was derived from Latin vexillum: Flag, standard. (Translated in part.)

Since Flaggenkunde and vlaggenkunde are constructs (you could attach "kunde" to any topic to indicate knowledge of the topic), the concepts will predate the recorded use quite a bit. Eg. though Sierksma in 1963 tells us "banistiek" is older than "vexillology", and uses "vlaggenkunde" as a common word (and uses both words in Sierksma as well), neither are in the Van Dale of 1961, and only the former is in the Van Dale of 1975. (Van Dale being the major dictionary in The Netherlands).

However, Siegel and Neubecker both appear two write from a position of being the only authority on flags at the time, and as Sierksma indicates, interest in flags blossomed after the second world war. I expect the concept of the study of flag is from after the war, with the Germanic version coming first, simply because they "were already there". And they said "vlaggenkunde", and there was vlaggenkunde.
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 5 May 2002

The word "Vexillology" was first coined by Whitney Smith in the first half of 1957. It first appeared in print in The Arab World magazine (Vol 5, No. 10 - October 1958, pp. 12-13). Full details of the origins of Vexilology is published in my book VEXILLOLOGY - A 25th. Anniversary and A Bibliography of Flag Literature (1989). Ralph Bartlett, 17 April 2002

Present Issues

Editorial Note This discussion is based upon an article "Time for new terms in vexillology?" by Whitney Smith (Flag Bulletin, XL, No 6, 202, 2001) where he proposed the following categories for flag enthusiasts:

  • Vexillologists- those engaged in the scholarly study of flags;
  • Vexillophiles- those interested in flags as a personal hobby; and
  • Vexillographers- those who design flags.

Well I think there are three problems:

1. Whitney Smith (in this article) does not draw the line between vexillologists and vexillophiles as being between those "scholarly studying flags" and those "interested in flags as a personal hobby". Most of us "study (scholarly or not) flags as a hobby", and do not earn our living from this study. What Whitney Smith defines as vexillophile, is more a person "collecting flags and/or flag-related information". He does not use the term "hobby" in this context.

2. However, for an article introducing "new" terms, Whitney Smith does not clearly define these terms. The difference between a vexillophile and a vexillologist (in his sense) is far from clear. I would say, anybody collecting, discussing, publishing "flag information", might be called a vexillologist, provided he/she wants to contribute to the common knowledge on flags. Anybody "only" collecting flags (similar to collecting stamps), or collecting some "flag information", but not sharing this information with others interested, by publishing in a flag journal or FOTW, or the like, might be called a vexillophile. I want to make the difference between those "sharing the wealth" (vexillologists) and those just "collecting for their own enjoyment" (vexillophiles). A problem we certainly frequently encounter in vexillology, is the publication of ill-researched information or dubious information without stating the sources. One of the mainstays of scientific method is to clearly state, where one's knowledge comes from. Is it own observation, own experiment, a written source or an archival source? The reader of any vexillological publication (in print or in the WWW) should be able to trace down the way of all the information presented.

3. The most difficult question, however, had been asked in an earlier article by Peter Orenski (Flag Bulletin no. 200) with the title Quo vadimus? An essay on the state and future of vexillology". As far as I know, we have not discussed this article here, although I think we should do that. Peter's question was: "Is vexillology a science?" Peter Orenski states that

  • - vexillology is not a science (although claiming to be one)
  • - vexillology could be a science,
  • - if we stop just "hunting and gathering" flag information and start "making hypotheses" about our data.

Whitney Smith and Peter Orenski define vexillology as a discipline (and would-be science) in the framework of the social sciences. I have some problems with placing the vexillology somewhere in the social sciences, as there are much more stronger ties of vexillology with history (no "science" proper sensu Orenski, but belonging to "arts and humanities") than with the social sciences. In fact, most vexillological research is some kind of historical research (most articles by Whitney Smith are, for instance). In my very humble opinion, finally, it would be a great thing if we start to develop hypotheses out of our data. However, I think we do not have enough data yet for developing a hypothesis that we could test afterwards.

For instance a (seemingly) simple question: why are some German cities and municipalities using "normal" horizontal flags, others hanging vertical flags? In the Southern Bavarian context at least there is some evolving pattern (proximity to Munich leads to an higher probability of using horizontal flags), but I don't think I have enough data for either proving or falsifying an hypothesis (it could be mere coincidence as well). In other regions it would be probably different. The main problem is (in this and many other cases): the "hunting and gathering" is simply not that quick and easy, but rather time-consuming.

So, let's discuss it: What is vexillology?
Marcus Schmöger, 29 May 2002

Without pretence to try to answer this definitely, I would dare to disagree in some points with both Whitney and Peter.

This is probably the question of classification of the studies in general, and probably difference between the US and Europe, but I would not put vexillology in 'social studies', but rather among 'auxiliary historical studies'. These include, among others paleography (on ancient writings), diplomatics (on old documents), chronology (on ancient calendars and dating), heraldry (on coats-of-arms), sfragistics (on seals), genealogy (on heritage), numismatics (on money), metrology (on measures and weights) and so on... If 'social studies' above are equal to what's in Europe sometimes called 'humanistic' as opposed to 'technical and natural sciences', then of course, auxiliary historical sciences come into this super-group.

Regarding the "making of hypotheses", I dare say that there is a number of works in vexillological literature that is exactly this kind - trying to figure some general "rules" among number of flags. Many articles give systematizations, explanations, classification of flags of certain area and time. The more so with large amount of data available, as per FOTW. Of course, much more of the work is "hunting and gathering" as this is the base for any further research.

If I may use my own examples, I could easily say that my "Album 2000" and "Flaggenbuch" series might be considered with making of hypothesis, the two being as a rule "Album 2000 is correct" and "Flaggenbuch is correct". With the (what I would like to think of as) correct scientific methods I try to compare data there from with data available elsewhere, with the help of others, though discussion (which is also a valid scientific method) etc. This enables me to conclude sometimes that this is correct, something else is incorrect, and some questions remain open. It would not be difficult to make similar description of other larger or smaller projects made by numerous FOTWers, and also by contributors in a number of vex-bulletins.

But, as said, the "hunting and gathering" is base of the scientific work. If I may compare it with numismatics, it also consists mainly (and probably even more) of "hunting and gathering", but nevertheless it produces a number of scientifically accepted works.

However, both Smith and Orenski rise two important questions in vexillology, which maybe could be paraphrased: 1. how to defend vexillological science from quasi-science, and 2. how to enable/encourage scientific research from voluminous gathered data by better availability.
Željko Heimer, 29 May 2002

Whether or not we call flag-designers "vexillographers", and flag collectors (if that's the intention) "vexillophiles", has little impact on the field as a whole. These are more indications of activity then a classification, if that was the intention.

However, I find vexillology is much more in need of a standard terminology in its field, then of terminology for its field!
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 29 May 2002

I must disagree- he does use the term hobby. To quote from the article: "For example, collecting flags and/or flag-related information (vexillophily) is recognized as a legitimate hobby..."

The article says "Those vexillophiles who pursue flags for their own enjoyment often amass large collections of flags, join vexillogical associations, and [emphasis added] sometimes write articles or deliver papers on a special area of interest.". So clearly the article intends for a stricter criteria to apply to vexillogist than willingness to share information.

In the article Dr. Smith said "...the premise was made - which has always been adhered to since then - that vexillology must aspire to be an auxiliary discipline within the social sciences."

I admit I'm a bit biased on this, since my training was in History, and I have worked in the field, but I believe a discipline based on a historical model can certainly be as rigourous a branch of scholarship as one based on a social sciences model.

I consider myself only a vexillophile, but there are a number of people on this list whom I consider vexillologists.

What are some of the criteria which I consider make one a vexillologist?

  • -sustained effort to familiarize oneself with all the relevant sources (of course not necessarily for the entire field, but in the area in which one is specializing) and to uncover new sources
  • -ability to analyze conflicting evidence to reach a logical conclusion (or to conclude the evidence is insufficient to support any other conclusion)
  • -willingness to submit one's conclusions to peer review (including frank acknowledgment of all contrary evidence)
  • -ability to logically defend one's conclusions, and a willingness to revise them when appropriate.
Ned Smith, 30 May 2002

The concepts that Whitney Smith and Peter Orenski have made in Flag Bulletin regarding whether vexillology is a science and whether there needs to be a differentiation between vexillologists, vexillophiles and vexillolographers is one that is of interest and should be debated. Several months ago, I began to work on an article which addresses the problem of vexillological scholarship - namely what should be considered as the basis of vexillological research, both from the traditional "hunter-gatherer model" as noted by Orenski and the statistical model that Orenski and Ted Kaye used in their recent surveys.

Almost two years ago I responded to a query on one of my own articles published in NAVA News where I took exception with the idea that all vexillological material which is published is scholarly - the number of footnotes does not guarantee that an article is scholarly rather the relevance and correctness of the information.

If I were to look up the term vexillology in the dictionary I find that there is not mention of the concept that it is a scientific or scholarly discipline.

As to whether we can determine if vexillology can be a "science" in the traditional manner by which we research and present data, I doubt that we can come up with any predictable data. As I note in my article "A prime example is the flag of the territory of Nunavut in Canada (unveiled and hoisted in 1999). In the days prior to the formal creation of the territory, and the unveiling of the coat-of-arms and flag, numerous flags, purported to be the one that would be adopted, were sent to the FOTW mailing list, all asking if anyone had heard if this was the new flag. These were based upon speculation, proposals that people had made and or speculative and erroneous information. All that could be predicted was the presence of an inukshuk somewhere on the flag." /1/

What Orenski and others have been attempting is to provide insight into what vexillology could achieve. But there are questions to be asked there as how to acquire and utilize the data and assure that the research is not contaminated, especially in an Internet environment.

The responses to the question of "what is vexillology" have dealt with the fact that flags are historical objects. They are also objects related to the sociology and psychology of a culture, ergo they are not limited to historical or historically related disciplines.

/1/ unpublished article

Phil Nelson, 30 May 2002

I'm not going to try to answer directly to the question, I'm just going to point out a few facts that I hope can become part of the discussion.

Point # 1 - Although this discussion thus formulated is a first in FOTW, as far as I can remember, we have discussed it great many times before in partial discussions about FOTW itself. Whenever we were trying to establish the focus and the topic and the structure and the parameters of FOTW we were in reality discussing what, in our differing views, is vexillology. This is the case of discussions about vexillology vs. heraldry as well, also common in FOTW. So, I think it would help if we dug up these discussions from the past of our list, tried to strip them off some verbal incontinence they sometimes led to and use them as starting point, or at least valid contributions for the discussion.

Point # 2 - Is vexillology a science? Well, what is a science? In my opinion, we'll have to answer the second question before we can even try a response to the first. And the answer to the second question is not as simple as it may seem. An example is the "gathering" attitude I think Marcus accused vexillology of having, putting it against the theoretical nature of real sciences (sorry if I misquote). Well, it is true. Vexillology does focus almost exclusively on gathering of information and has had in the past very little inclination to treat this information in a scientific manner. But then again, all sciences begin their existence like that. I'm a biologist by education, and in that field of study the hunt for information has been historically and still is a very major part of the work, complemented with efforts to organize and systematize it into a coherent whole. Only as recently as the middle of the last century theory became an important factor in everyday biological studies, despite the existence in biology of older and very important theories. This can be perhaps better put thus: while in physics it's common to have the theory first and then try to come up with the data to support it, in "less exact sciences" like biology, you often first have the data and then try to come up with a theory to explain the data. This is changing, with an increasing use of mathematical modeling in all biological subfields, but is still like that to some extent.

Social sciences are even worse in this aspect. Since accurate experimental data is very difficult to come by (if at all), they tend to be highly speculative and based more on intellectual analysis (and to some extent in some degree of subjectivity) than on what natural sciences would describe as really scientific methods. This is why it's difficult to define clearly what's a science and what isn't. Many people in natural sciences look at work made in fields of humanistic sciences as mere second rate imitations of real scientific work. Historians, psychologists, sociologists and so forth have, of course, a different view. And anyway, scientific method and mathematical instruments are being increasingly used in all these fields.

So, is vexillology a science?

Vexillology probably needs a bit more of theoretical work to become a real science, at least by the standards of humanistics. We've seen here from time to time attempts of theorizing a bit, but these attempts are regarded by the majority of people here (and even by the editorial board - I've never seen any of them put in the pages of FOTW) as irrelevant speculations, bits of waste in time that should be better used in other things such as drawing the latest batch of flags from Whereverland. Some topics attracted some more interest (and I remember my own little essay about the differences between vertical and horizontal flags), but since it is quite demanding of time and effort to pursue them further, they tend to be dropped pretty soon, even by those that pick them up in the first place (and I remember again the same little essay of mine).

The major problem (and this is perhaps point # 3) is amateurism. We, vexillologists, are in the same position of most of the natural scientists in XIX century - we do our studies in whatever time we find after our days spent working for a living in other things, and even when we do the best we can, our limitations are obvious. Even because today there's not that many people living lives of boredom and living of their richness... On the other hand, I'm sure that there is very valid work done by professionals of other fields we know next to nothing about, because it is published in specialized magazines we don't have access to. I'm sure there has to be work somewhere about the sociology of flags, for instance, and how flags impact on our societies (I think that in historical studies flags are secondary and IMHO we shouldn't expect many novelties coming from there).

In the end, it all comes down to a question of attitude: if you report your findings openly to an assembly of your peers, your are being scientific. If you criticize other people's work with good fundamentals, you are being scientific. If you accept criticism as an inevitable part of the development of knowledge, you are being scientific. If your reports include all the information needed to be checked, you are being scientific. If you doubt systematically, you are being scientific. If you present your stuff as the definite and undisputed truth, you are not being scientific. If you regard criticism as personal attacks, you are not being scientific. If you withhold information to sell in your bulletin or to publish the ultimate book on this or that, you are not being scientific. If you accept uncritically all information coming from all sources, you are not being scientific. If you falsify you are not being scientific. And I could go on and on and on.

We have both kinds. And most of us act scientifically sometimes, and non-scientifically in other times. And the field is the people that work in it...
Jorge Candeias, 31 May 2002