Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Going Fishing (A Tale of Two Research Methods)

Okay, I suppose that yesterday´s post requires a bit more elaboration.

I´ve decided there are two ways** to embark on a new project. The first is to cast about in the documents until a pattern emerges, and then write about that pattern. This is what I did with my dissertation-cum-book: I had a vague idea of a topic I wanted to study, and decided more or less arbitrarily*** on a collection of documents that would be "mine." I dove into these documents, gathering up everything that was vaguely related to my topic, then began arranging them into various patterns until I had a dissertation. Then when I wrote the book, I went back and rearranged those same things. This meant that both times, I ended up tossing out a lot of material that I had collected (Anybody want to buy a discursive footnote or two?) because it didn´t fit my chosen pattern. In other words, I cast a broad net, which meant that I caught a lot of fish I didn´t need.

The second way seems to be to have something very specific in mind. In the case of Shiny New Project, I have one "core" document that I find really interesting, from which I have drawn a list of about two dozen people I need to find in the archives. So the net isn´t as broad. this time, I know exactly which (fairly obscure) fish I´m angling for.

The problem is, the ocean is just as big.

**Likely more, or more variations on these two themes, but these are the two that I´ve encountered so far.

***Okay, so what I actually did was to start where the microfilm stopped. I hate working with microfilm.


Susan said...

Hmmm. That's really interesting. My approach is always that I have some question (or questions), and I start digging around for a way to explore it. Then the question changes as I find stuff.

One thought: if the sources on the people you really want to know about are VERY slender (i.e. can't stretch to anything like a book) you might look at people like them. So if one's a butcher, you might do a little thing on butchers more generally that will place your person. A way to expand the net...

But of course, that's probably irrelevant to Shiny New Project!

Good Enough Woman said...

Needles? Haystacks?

Anonymous said...

I'm using a similar approach with my second project - I know what I want to study, which leads to looking at a few specific figures. But they aren't easy to find (like, oh, I'm going to study slander, so I'll look in legal documents, etc) and are scattered within a few subgenre. I've already discovered that one area I thought I would find something, it turns out I haven't; whereas, another genre altogether now looks promising, though it may change the way the project is shaped. For me, this is the most exciting and most frustrating part of research. We all know the thrill of a "find" as well as the agony of "holy sh*t there's nothing here!!! Now what do I do!!"

Anonymous said...

PS Thank Goodness that many archives have computerized search engines/databases, so a search by name is not impossible. And of course sometimes in a smaller archive, the archivist (if he deigns to be helpful) knows one of the people. I was working on a project in a provincial cathedral archive (think, thick stone walls, inadequate lighting, no heat, no xerox machine, no other researches, open 3 hours a day) and the archivist knew what I was working on. He happened to have himself written an obscure article on one of the figures tangentially involved (even though I did not at the time know of the connection) and handed me a copy of his article, which proved very helpful.

Anonymous said...

Weirdly, I had never thought about this question till I came up against it in a book of interviews with prominent historians of a certain stamp called The New History: confessions and conversations, ed. Maria Lúcia Pallares-Burke (Cambridge: Polity 2002). There the question, do you go to the archives with an idea or do you find your idea in the archives? seems to have been one she asked all the participants, though not all of them addressed it. The only one where it makes an answer by itself is the interview with Daniel Roche, who dodges it rather:

"I see the question as follows: using one's imagination is very important when working with archives, because one needs to have a good nose to deal with documents.... The problem, then, is how to develop this intuition. The only way is by using the archives!"

Now actually I've found that I did this by accident, unthinking, simply because of time. When I was a carefree Ph. D. student— no hang on, that never happened. When I was a Ph. D. student with no money but lots of time (that's better) the only thing I knew to do to research my area was just to swallow whole documentary series, because how could one know what was odd or changing unless one also had the rest of it? And the sources I met then were so rich that they've pretty much carried me through much time-poorer periods when all I could do was the directed enquiry: 'I want to answer this question, which means looking up these particular people and seeing how they specifically fit in with what I already know'. I by now rather need to swallow some more sources. But if I'd tried to do it the other way round, even assuming I'd had the time, I'd have written utter rubbish that subsequent documents would have undermined every time I looked something up, whereas as it is that only happens, say, one time in five... :-/

I actually though the best answer to the question in that interview volume was given by Robert Darnton, whose work I have a lot of time for because he's so interested in people and what made their individual lives tick. Rather than dodge it he answered through the question, saying:

"... you go to the archives with conceptions, patterns and hypotheses, having, so to speak, a picture of what the past was like. And then, you find some strange letter that doesn’t correspond to the picture at all. So what is happening is a dialogue between your preconceptions and your general way of envisaging a field, on the one hand, and on the other hand, this raw material that you dig out and that often does not fit into the picture. So, the picture changes and you go back and forth between the specific empirical research and the more general conceptualization."

And I think this is the stage I'm now at with my material, but whenever you start with new material you may have to go back to the beginning of the process. I don't know where you are on this map but maybe these countries on it are ones you recognise.

undine said...

Interesting question. It seems impossible NOT to do a little of both.

undine said...

Since I didn't want to hijack your comments, I wrote a response over at my blog.