Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The changing meaning of words and the historian's craft

My last post discussed the way in which the changing meaning of words affected our view of the past.

I used three examples to illustrate my point. Two, time and distance, were neutral words. The third, assimilation, was deliberately chosen because in the current Australian context it carries a variety of emotional overlays.

Neil's post in response rather neatly illustrates the point. Neil's post also includes a link to an interesting US discussion on the meaning of the word assimilation. Part of the reason I like drawing Neil is that his responses usually contain interesting material that extends my own thinking. It's kind of like having a personal research assistant!

So still sticking with the word assimilation for the moment, this is clearly a word with a number of different meanings depending on the context. It is also a word where the emotional overlays attached to the word vary over time and between countries.

These varying and changing meanings create two quite distinct problems for the historian's craft. They can impede our understanding of the past. But they also affect the way our readers interpret what we write, because they impose their own meaning upon our words.

We know this, but we do not always understand it.

I first really became aware of the problem when I went back to the University of New England full time to try to complete my biography of my grandfather.

When I first studied history, I was living in my own society and culture looking out. In saying this I do not mean the broader Australian society and culture, but that holding in my own immediate world with its own history and rhythms. I took this for granted as a secure base.

I was 36 when I returned. The thesis topic I had chosen meant that I was involved in an exploration of my own past, of the society, culture and history of that world I had once inhabited. However, that world had changed and so had I.

Those who had remained in my past world were not really conscious of the scale of change.

While there can be dramatic changes, most social change happens in small incremental steps. People adjust to changes as they happen. New people entering the society take the society as is at the time they arrive, not as it was. They then add their own history and experiences to the mix.

To me as a returning expat, the scale of change in just 15 years was noticeable and quite profound. A very small example to illustrate.

I found that some of my younger History Department colleagues typed me as a member of the local gentry. I laughed. When I told my father he was appalled. When I told my mother and aunts, they roared with laughter.

This post is not an exploration of social class across the broader New England. The reality is that there were considerable variations from area to area in the way people perceived social structures.

The world of the New England Tablelands itself was marked by complex social structures in which the big grazing families formed one peak.

Within the University at the time I first went there, there was an old joke that on the Tablelands society consisted of the Whites, the Wrights and the Frights. Another variant said that Jack was as good as his master so long as they went to the same GPS (Greater Public Schools) school. You can get a somewhat jaundiced picture of all this from some of the writings of Judith Wright.

Now my History Department colleagues were placing me firmly in the top group of this now attenuating complex social hierarchy.

My father, the son of a Lancashire coal miner turned Primitive Methodist Home Missionary who had grown up in New Zealand before entering academic life, was appalled because the classification breached his deeply held egalitarian view of the world and of the Belshaws' place within it. He was even more appalled when I suggested to him that he, too, was now seen as a member of the local establishment!

Mum, my sisters and I all laughed because we thought that it was just funny. By accident of history we could mix across groups, but the very accident that allowed this meant that as a family we belonged to no single group.

Yet there was also a degree of truth in the classification in that time was erasing previous distinctions, merging groups. The fact that we were a well known family because of past activities with town, gown and country connections, was of itself sufficient to place us in the top group in the minds of my quite recently arrived colleagues.

If New England had changed, so had I.

Working in Canberra I had put aside some of my previous interests. I had also been working as a professional economist and policy adviser at reasonably senior level, so I returned to history and to the history of my family and area with a very different mind-set, as well as a new set of analytical tools.

All this meant that I ended up approaching the task of writing the biography of my grandfather in a very different way. This is where the link between the changing meaning of words and the historian's craft comes in.

I had intended and indeed was expected to write about the public life of my grandfather - politics and his role as a political leader and an activist minister for education. This was the conventional and indeed safe view of the world in professional terms.

If you look at much of the writing on the history of education, you will find a focus on the interaction between education and the broader environment. So much of the interpretation of Drummond's career as minister and of the changes in the education system focuses on systemic change as a response to ideas and events. However, because Drummond was such an activist minister, writers are forced to some degree to address his personal role.

In contrast to previous writing, my thesis was a biography, not a history of education. This meant that I was interested in what drove Drummond to behave the way he did, in the way this affected his public life.

This took me in a very different direction. Quite quickly, I formed the view that you could not understand Drummond nor his role if you did not understand the interaction between his disturbed childhood and his role as a regional politician. One created a need to belong, the second gave him a place in which to belong. In turn, this lead me into thinking and writing about the regional movements and the history of New England.

This was dangerous territory in professional terms because my core focus now was not on Drummond's public life, but on the interaction between the man, his history and area, and his public life.

I faced a second danger as well, one that I was not properly aware of at the time. I was in fact writing history as an economist. Obviously I was aware of using analytical techniques and approaches derived from economics. However, I was also using terms derived from economics.

An example to illustrate.

Just prior to returning to Armidale I had been working on issues associated with the decline and potential regrowth of Australia's manufacturing sector.

For reasons I set out in an earlier post, I had become completely dissatisfied with the inability of conventional analytical tools based on comparative statics to provide meaningful answers. This dissatisfaction led me to ask new questions, to try to develop new approaches focused on development processes themselves.

Then when I came to further research Drummond, I found that tariffs and fights over tariffs protection were one theme in Country Party politics. At the same time, I was trying to understand the causes of the rise of the capital cities, the decline in country areas, because this was one of the drivers of the activities and views I was concerned with.

All this proved to be two sides of the one coin.

Drawing from the economic theories of free trade areas, I suggested that the adoption of tariff barriers after Federation had redistributed income and hence people from country to city, from the smaller states to the industrial states of NSW and Victoria. This, while not the only cause of regional decline, was a major driver.

The analytical tools and concepts that I was using were not available to Drummond and his colleagues.

As a simple example, the 1924 Cohen Royal Commission on New States attempted to assess the financial implications of New England statehood. The concept of the multiplier, the way in which one dollar of spend creates further dollars of spend, had not then been invented. While the built in biases in the Cohen process might still have led to a negative conclusion, application of the multiplier would have significantly changed the outcomes because of the way in which transfer of certain Government spend from Sydney to New England would, through multiplier effects, have increased New England incomes and hence tax revenues.

While Drummond and his colleagues lacked the analytical tools to properly analyse or fully understand the dynamics involved in things like tariff protection, they could certainly see the results.

The movements that they were involved in were not simply reactions to change, but dynamic responses intended to address problems while also redressing grievances. While the movements had many positive outcomes, they also failed at some levels because they were responses to symptoms and did not properly address the poorly understood causes.

In looking at all this, I had to try to break through to understand the meaning not just of past words, but of the world views and constructs associated with those words.

I could use my own experiences and knowledge of the people and the area to inform my judgements about Drummond and his colleagues. But I had to go further than this to try to understand the views of people with related or different attitudes, some of them very different to my own, across a very wide canvass.

To some degree at least, I think that I achieved this. Where I failed was on the other side of the equation, the meaning attached to the words I wrote by the reader.

I wrote my thesis as a story, narrative history. I wanted the reader to understand the man and his times. I wanted to bring Drummond alive, at least the Drummond I had discovered, to the reader. The methodological underpinnings were there, but I was telling a story.

I knew that there were risks in this. I was writing outside the main stream, presenting an alternative view. I was writing biography, something not always well liked in an academic thesis. And I was using a range of concepts drawn from other disciplines.

I tried as best I could to compensate for this through external critique in the writing process.

As an external student for a lot of the time, I had two supervisors. Bruce Mitchell in the Department was my external supervisor. Externally, Grant Harmon and then Colin Hughes were my supervisors. They read every chapter through multiple drafts.

My father read the whole thesis before submission. A friend in the History Department read much of it. In Canberra two friends worked with me in the final stages. They checked and re-checked stuff, draft chapter after chapter.

For night after night we sat there. They would check and correct drafts. We wrote up hundreds of cards on individuals mentioned so that we could check factual consistency. We looked at consistent style. They asked me questions about facts and ambiguities.

In all this, the thesis failed. Don Aitkin and Allan Martin liked it. Heather Radi did something of a hatchet job on it. It then went to a fourth external person who came down against it on a whole different set of grounds, including the danger that Drummond was of insufficient importance to warrant a PhD.

Obviously all this is important to me in a personal sense. Years later, I am still trying to work through the issues raised so that I can finally put the matter behind me. However, I am really using it as an example in this post to illustrate some of the problems in the historian's craft.


ninglun said...

Added afterthoughts to my post in the light of this.

Jim Belshaw said...

Thank you, Neil.I have posted a brief comment on your post.

Lexcen said...

Semantics in history, sociology, politics of academia, economics...Jim my head is spinning.

Jim Belshaw said...

I sometimes feel the same, Lexcen!