Presentation on theme: "Historical Methods: Doing Time in Social Research Dr. Richie Nimmo"— Presentation transcript:
Historical Methods: Doing Time in Social Research Dr. Richie Nimmo
Historical Social Research Methods Last week: Visual data and visual methods. This week: Historical sources and historical methods. The Roots of Historical Sociology… In its origins Sociology was an attempt to come to terms with a historical transformation – the emergence of capitalist commercialisation and industrialisation in Europe (i.e. modernity). Classical sociology was both a product of and a reaction to this dramatic shift. Therefore classical sociology was thoroughly historical in its aims and scope – it was a historical sociology of modernity.
E.g. Marx was centrally concerned with the historical development of industrial capitalism and the class divisions it gave rise to. Durkheims sociology focussed on the social consequences of the advanced division of labour and the differences between modern and traditional societies. Weber analysed the historical spread of instrumental rationality and the growth of large-scale bureaucratic organisation. But despite the historical consciousness that informed early sociology, historical methods are often missing from social research training courses. As a result, fewer and fewer emerging researchers are equipped with the necessary skills to undertake historical research.
Why study Historical Methods? C. Wright-Mills: Every social science – or, better, every well considered social study – requires an historical scope of conception and a full use of historical materials. (The Sociological Imagination, 1959, p. 145). The argument: Without some understanding of the past and of historical processes, one can only hope for an impoverished understanding of the present. Heraclitus – You cannot step into the same river twice. i.e. Like a river, social life is never static or fixed, but is constantly changing, so everything is always in motion, in flux.
Doing Time: Approaches to history So time (or the temporal dimension) is key feature of social life. But there are different ways of doing time in social research. One key division is between: Research which attempts to understand societies of the past. Research which explores how our notions of the past, and even our perceptions of time, are socially constructed in the present.
Researching Societies of the Past Historical social research can be roughly divided into 2 broad approaches: i) Social History (macro) Focuses upon historical changes in social structure and broad structural transformations. ii) Cultural History (micro) A more ethnographic approach focussing upon the details of everyday lives in past societies and the way that people have created meaning and viewed their worlds. This division broadly corresponds to the structure/agency divide in sociology.
Macro Social History According to Theda Skocpol – Truly historical sociological studies have some or all of the following characteristics: 1. they ask questions about social structures or processes understood to be concretely situated in time and space. 2. they address processes over time, and take temporal sequences seriously in accounting for outcomes. 3. they focus on the interplay of meaningful actions and structural contexts in making sense of the unfolding of unintended as well as intended outcomes in individual lives and social transformations. 4. they highlight the particular and varying features of specific kinds of social change. (Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, 1984, p.1).
Second Wave Historical Sociology The macro historical sociology of the 1970s and 1980s is sometimes called the Second Wave (the first wave was the classical sociologies of Marx and Weber). The second wave was a reaction against the a-historical approach of the structural-functionalism dominant in the mid-20 th century. Key second-wave figures included: Barrington Moore The Annales School Reinhard Bendix Charles Tilly E. P. Thompson Immanuel Wallerstein Theda Skocpol Michael Mann Perry Anderson All these in different ways tried to think about some of the questions raised by Marx and Webers approaches which they had not satisfactorily answered.
Central topics of concern for second wave historical sociologists were: The relationship between social classes and the state. The comparative dynamics of state-formation. The relative importance of politics and economics in structural social transformation. The comparative dynamics of revolutionary social change. So the second wave was a combination of political-economic analysis, structural (macro) sociology, and comparative historical analysis. This approach was called into question by the cultural turn, with its new understandings of time and its emphasis on non-class-based social identities such as ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
From Social to Cultural History The 1980s saw an explosion of macro structural history, which led some to hail the rise of historical sociology (Dennis Smith, 1991) The 1990s saw a shift from macro historical sociology to a new cultural history, as part of the cultural turn across the social sciences (also called the linguistic turn) The cultural turn involved a new emphasis upon the role of language and meaning-making processes in social life and the relationship of language to social reality. The cultural turn also saw the development of different approaches to history and different ways of doing time in social research.
The New Cultural History The cultural turn has had 2 main impacts upon historical research: i) New understandings of time have emerged. Rather than an objective force moving forward in a linear process outside of society, providing a framework in which society is located, the concept of time has come to be seen as the product of social and cultural processes, and even as socially constructed. ii) New scepticism concerning claims about the past: The notion of historical research as a process of discoveringhow things really were has been widely challenged. Instead the past is increasingly seen as a narrative which is constructed through historical writing.
Taking each of these in turn: i) New understandings of time: It is important to understand that this new understanding of time does not mean that time in the sense of natural processes of change such as the seasons are merely fictional. What it means is that our concepts of time, our understandings of time, are socially and culturally specific – in this sense time is socially constructed. E.g. Our concepts of time emerge from social practices, rituals and ceremonies marking the passage of time, from habits and traditions of remembering the past, from practices of record- keeping and other ways of storing time, from story-telling and from history books themselves. These things not only construct the past as a sequence of meaningful events, they also construct time itself, meaning our consciousness of the passage of time and of how the present is located within it.
Anthropologists have shown that the view of time as a linear and objective force is a peculiarly Western and modern notion. It may be misleading to view all social history in terms of this linear model of time. The argument: Instead we need to understand how past societies have constituted time and how they have interpreted and experienced the passage of time. This shift towards a more cultural view of time has seen traditional approaches challenged by research which addresses the various social practices that construct time. But this is not straightforward – there were many early examples of more cultural approaches, and there are still historical sociologists who pursue a broadly structural approach.
ii) New scepticism concerning claims about the past: This have been associated with post-modernism. Traditionally historical methodology has been rooted in empiricism (reliance upon the facts, the evidence, the sources). Although the role of interpretation was acknowledged, historical research was seen as a process of determining the truth about the past through rigorous scrutiny of the available evidence. This commonsense view of historical methods has increasingly been called into question. After the cultural turn, it has been widely argued that our methods of researching and writing history are not ways of finding the truth about the past, but ways to construct a model or version of the past, which we then think of as real and objective.
History is not just there, awaiting the researchers discovery. Unlike a forgotten poem, the ruins of a cathedral, or a lost law code that might be uncovered, history has no existence before it is written. (Howell and Preventier, 2001, 1) From this perspective, historical writing is constitutive of history, it actively shapes history as an object-of-knowledge (i.e. as something we claim to know). This view has stronger and weaker forms, from the ultra- postmodernist notion that all history is fiction, to the more moderate argument that all historical research is a partial and interpretative exercise rather than an objective representation of the past. But the debate between postmodernists and traditional empiricists has often been divided into two opposing camps.
Despite this polarisation however, the post-modern challenge is less radical than it first seems. Historians have always known that history is slippery, hence the emphasis given to careful interpretation of reliable sources. So the idea that historical writing constitutes or constructs history has not led to the meltdown of empirical history, but it has led to greater awareness of the reflexive dimension of historical research. i.e. how the categories of explanation that we use profoundly shape our view of the past, and how accounts of the past are always bound up with the society, culture and politics of the present.
The Tradition of Source-Criticism Differences over the character of history as a discipline for acquiring knowledge of the past are hardly a recent development. Debates over approaches to knowledge, understanding and explanation in the historical and social sciences have been going on for generations, indeed centuries. recent skirmishes over postmodernism have merely added some new twists to old scepticisms. (Mary Fulbrook, 2002, p. 3) Therefore a balanced view would be that there is no case: Either for a naïve empiricism, which fails to acknowledge that historical research is unavoidably caught up in reflexive questions of interpretation and representation. Nor for a refusal to engage in empirical historical research in the name of philosophical uncertainty. So the skills of source-criticism are still central to historical research.
Lecture 1: Key Points Summary Classical Sociology thoroughly historical in its approach. Society is always changing, therefore understanding society means taking account of the time (the temporal dimension). This can mean: i) Researching past societies ii) Researching how perceptions of time are shaped by society (or socially constructed) There are two broad approaches to researching past societies: a) Social history (macro) b) Cultural history (micro)
Second Wave historical Sociology (1970s, 80s) focussed on macro- structural transformations from a Marxist-inspired perspective. This was partly displaced in 1990s by a new Cultural History, which was part of the wider Cultural Turn in social science. New emphasis on influence of language on how we perceive reality (associated with post-modernism). The Cultural Turn had two main impacts on historical research: 1) New understanding of time as socially and culturally constructed. 2) New scepticism concerning the truth-claims of historians. This has led to more critical attention being given to the role of interpretation in history. But the skills of source-criticism remain the core of historical social research.
Historical Methods: Working with historical sources
The Challenge of Historical Sources Some historical research is ethnographic in nature, such as oral history, which commonly involves talking to participants about their memories of the past. But where social research involves studying the past that is beyond living memory, it is different from ethnography in that there is no direct access to the phenomena of interest. An ethnographer writes his/her field notes after direct observation of social interaction. This means they are able to continually mould their data and to select what is relevant during the observation/interaction itself. It is very different with historical documents or sources – you cannot interact with sources in the same way as living people.
E.g. In an interview, the researcher can ask questions which relate more or less directly to their research problem, they can steer the interview accordingly, seek clarification or elaboration, etc. The ethnographic researcher can draw upon their interpretative skills to narrow the range of data from the beginning, so that a good portion of their field notes are likely to be directly relevant to their research. It is not possible to do the same with an archive: The researcher has to work with the available sources. Often this will mean having to plough through reams of documents before finding something useful.
Therefore historical research can be very labour-intensive compared to other methods of social research. Contrary to the view that historical research is easy because it does not involve interacting with people, historical research is extremely challenging, involving long hours of sometimes painstaking work in the isolation of the archive. Much of this work will produce nothing that will ever make it into the final research writing. So historical research requires better-than-average reserves of patience, dedication and perseverance.
Types of Historical Sources Historical Sources encompass every kind of evidence which human beings have left of their past activities – the written word and the spoken word, the shape of the landscape and the material artefact, the fine arts as well as photography and film. (John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 1991, 30) But in practice most sources are written documents. This is because: From the high middle-ages (c ) onwards, the written word survives in greater abundance than any other source for Western history. The 15 th and 16 th centuries witnessed a marked growth in record keeping by the state and other corporate bodies, as well as the rapid spread of printing
Documents: Types of Written Sources The main kinds of documents used as historical sources are: Newspapers Records: - State records - Church records - Local government records - The records of private associations and corporations Private correspondence (letters, diaries) Autobiographies/memoirs Novels and creative literature
Newspapers – The most important published primary source for historical researchers. Newspapers are composed with a view to their impact on contemporary public opinion. This can make them quite reliable as long as editorial bias is considered. But as published sources they contain only what is considered fit for public consumption, which may restrict or distort what is printed. Autobiographies/Memoirs – Can provide an insight into personal life but autobiographies tend to recount only what people of the time would have found noteworthy, which may not be what interests us now. State/Government Archives – The largest body of unpublished records in most countries. The oldest surviving state archives date back to the twelfth century. Government records are of obvious value to researchers who want to examine the workings of the state and the machinery of power.
Church Records – The records of the church courts are more interesting than might seem likely at first glance, because so many moral misdemeanours of ordinary people come within their jurisdiction… the records of these courts are therefore an invaluable source for the social historian. (Tosh, 1991, p. 41) Local Government – Enable the social historian to undertake comparative analysis of different geographical areas, or to explore one locale in great detail. Records of Private Associations – These would include the records of universities, guilds, trades unions, political parties, pressure groups, landed families and businesses. These records of civil society increase dramatically from the 15 th century onwards and can be used to supplement church and state records.
The Hierarchy of Sources Primary Sources – These are original sources produced during the period of interest. They are further divided into published and unpublished primary sources. Secondary sources – These are what historians have written about the past (the historians may not be from out own time, e.g. they could be much closer to the past they write about). Traditionally historians have seen primary sources as superior to secondary sources, and unpublished sources as superior to published sources.
This traditional hierarchy of sources has recently been challenged on the grounds that it is too simplistic… It assumes that some sources are closer to the truth than others, but a more sociological approach would acknowledge that all sources are bound up with the social relations of the time they were produced in, so that no source is more true than another. Instead all sources are partial (or biased) in different ways.
Locating Sources: Knowing where to look Given the range and scope of historical documents in existence, especially from the 18 th century onwards, archive fieldwork can be daunting. You will need a roadmap to help you to locate useful sources. The first thing to consider is the various kinds of archive: Copyright libraries - The British Library, Cambridge, Oxford: Legally entitled (since 1757) to a free copy of every book or pamphlet published in the UK. Published sources can usually be found here. The Public Record Office – Located in Kew, set up by Act of Parliament in 1838, now the largest archive in the world, with over 80 miles of shelving.
County Record Offices – Since 1963 every county has been required to maintain a county record office which gathers together local records. Their collections extend beyond official documents to local businesses, estates and associations. Local Studies Libraries – Hold mainly published material of local interest, including local newspapers (which can be very useful), official reports, and family history. They also hold the reports of local Medical Officers of Health (MOHs), which are full of socially significant data. University Archives – Hold various specialist collections. Private Collections – Widely dispersed geographically and may be difficult to track down, but the Historical Manuscripts Commission has worked to compile a map of all private archives.
Using Archives: Approaching Sources Key Questions for Historical Researchers: Why was the source produced? For what reason was it written? A document is not a neutral window on the past - the purpose for which it was produced will shape and influence everything it contains. The historical researcher must take account of this. Why has the source survived? Why has it weathered the hazards of fire, flood, neglect and political upheaval? The reason for the survival of a document can tell the historical researcher a great deal about its significance, and about the society which produced it and kept it safe.
Documents and Power Documents and Power The very fact of a documents survival very often suggests it is a document of power (i.e. that it has been produced by the powerful, or in the interests of the powerful, who have been able to ensure the documents survival). Walter Benjamin – All documents of civilization are documents of barbarism. Documents (especially official documents) very often reflect the perspectives and worldviews of the dominant political and economic classes, rather than of ordinary people. The sociologically minded historical researcher must try to take account of this by adopting a critical approach to sources.
Historical Methods: The skills of source-criticism
Approaching the Sources In historical research the difficulty which confronts the researcher is a special one: How to deal with the sheer unmanageability of the massive array of documents. How to deal with the muteness of the sources - how to make them speak to the research question. Few research questions will be answerable in terms of what is directly communicated in the sources. There are 2 main ways of dealing with these problems: i) The Source-Oriented Approach ii) The Problem-Oriented Approach
The source-oriented approach: The researcher takes one primary source or group of primary sources which fall into the area of research interest (e.g. the records of a particular association, trade union, or court) and then searches for whatever is of value, allowing the content of the sources to determine the nature of the enquiry. The problem-oriented approach: After consulting secondary sources a specific research question is formulated. The relevant primary sources are then examined for their bearing on this specific question, with their relevance to other issues being put to one side. In this way the researcher proceeds as efficiently as possible to the point where they can some conclusions.
Both approaches have strengths and weaknesses: i) The source-oriented approach May yield an incoherent jumble of data. Narrowing this down to a meaningful body of evidence is impossible without the use of theoretical principles. If the researcher has a set of theoretical assumptions then it might be better that these are made explicit. ii) With a problem-oriented approach, It can be very difficult to tell in advance what sources are relevant to the specific research question. The most improbable sources can prove illuminating, whilst the obvious ones can be disappointing. This can mean ploughing through many sources which turn out to be of no use.
Source-Criticism: Interpreting Documents Once the sources have been located and the approach decided upon the next step is to evaluate and interpret the documents: Principles of Source-Criticism: There is always the danger of reading documents in terms of cultural assumptions rooted in the present. Therefore sources must always be put in context, which can require further historical research (using secondary sources). There is always the question of bias, i.e. the reason why the document was produced, the motives of the writer, and how this may have influenced its content.
Source-Criticism: Beyond Bias Bias is misleading, because it suggests that wholly neutral sources exist, and that a wholly truthful account is possible. Few historical researchers would now support this suggestion. However spontaneous or authoritative the source, very few forms of writing arise solely from a desire to convey the unvarnished truth. (Tosh 1991, p. 62) It is therefore better to assume that all sources are biased, and to acknowledge that the aim is not to find non-biased sources, but to be aware of the bias and take it into account in interpreting the document. The bias may even prove to be useful historical data…
Oblique Methods of Source-Criticism Sociological historical research is less likely to be concerned with establishing the facts, and more concerned with what historical sources can tell us about the social life of a particular historical period, or what light they can shed on a specific sociological problem. Therefore, sociological history needs to go beyond traditional empirical questions of reliability and bias. It can do this by adopting oblique methods: 1. Reading Sources Against the Grain. 2. The Regressive Method
1. Reading Sources Against the Grain: Sources can be read for traces of information that the author was not even aware of setting down, and which was incidental to the purpose of writing (e.g. clues about attitudes, assumptions, mode of life, morality) Historians alert to the unwitting testimony of the sources can go beyond the intentions of those who created them. (Tosh, 1991, p. 68) 2. The Regressive Method: This method involves using what is known about a later period in order to work backwards and piece together aspects of an earlier period. It is often used in cases where there is a lack of primary sources. E.g. African history. The regressive method is of course always risky, but to some extent all historical research draws upon later periods in explaining earlier ones. This method can be very effective if carried out carefully.
Narratives: The Oral History Tradition Historical research based on oral evidence takes 2 main forms: i) Oral Reminiscence – i.e. the first hand recollections of people interviewed by a historical researcher. ii) Oral Tradition – i.e. the narrative accounts of past events which have been handed down by word of mouth through the generations. Both methods depend heavily upon memory, which is unreliable. For this reason, oral histories are most effective when they treat recollections not simply as reports on the past, but as narratives constructed in the present. The nature of these narratives may then become the object of sociological interest.
Oral history is particularly effective for research into the recent social history of everyday life (e.g. Oral History) Especially working class life in the family and workplace. Oral history can provide insight into the lives of people who would never have considered writing their experiences down. In this way oral history can counter-balance the tendency of written documents to reflect the perspective of the powerful. Ordinary people are offered not only a place in history, but a role in the production of historical knowledge, with important political implications (Tosh, 1991, p. 212)
Problems with Oral Evidence Oral testimony is not an objective window on the past. Memories are always filtered through subsequent experience. They will always be distorted by nostalgia, re-interpretation, etc. Memory is unreliable, it is fundamental to historical research, but is also notoriously selective and unpredictable. It can often have more to do with the present than the past. Social reality comprises much more than the sum of individual experiences. Therefore the social-historical researcher must grasp processes and structures which are over and above the experiences of individuals recounted through oral history. The personal vividness of oral testimony can lead the historical researcher into too close an identification with the interviewees and their perspective on things.
Final Points to Remember Society is always changing, the social life of the present is continually emerging out of that of the past (re: Heraclitus). Therefore some sense of historical development is essential for sociological research. With the cultural turn in the social sciences there has been a shift from macro-social history to micro-cultural history. This has involved new understandings of time and new ways of doing time in social research. Even with the post-modern challenge to empirical history, the tradition of source-criticism based on careful scrutiny of primary sources is still at the core of historical research. Archive fieldwork requires a carefully planned approach in order to navigate through a large quantity of documents.