Thursday, January 24, 2008

Selection, perception and bias in the historian's craft

In my last post I used my own thesis to continue my discussion on problems and issues that can arise in the writing of history. I also took the opportunity to check back on some of the things that I had written linked to historiography since I began this blog almost two years ago.

I will do a proper consolidation post at some point, including adding labels to some posts that I have missed. In the meantime, I want to continue this historiographical phase that I seem to be in at the moment by looking further at problems of selection, perception and bias in the historian's craft.

A week or so back in a local bookshop, I browsed what appears to be a new history of NSW. I will not refer to it by name, that would be unfair since I only browsed it, but it does provide a useful entry point to discussion.

In a field that I know well, the first thing that I do with a new history book is to check the index, looking at topics that I am interested in. I then check those elements of the book. If they are either not there or are clearly deficient, I generally don't go much further beyond a quick cross-check scan to look at the book as a whole.

In the case in question, I was left wondering just what "NSW" this writer was writing about. It had some of the same locality names as the "NSW" I knew, some of the people were common, there were some similar Acts of Parliament, even a few common political events. However, many of the events, activities and conflicts that I was interested in had apparently vanished from the historical record.

Bias in historical writing begins with selection.

All researchers and writers select their topics, the things that interest them enough to write about. They then select the evidence, the historical sources that they will use. Finally, they select the questions they will ask of the evidence.

Bias continues with perception. Our perceptions of the world affect topic selection, they affect the sources we select, they affect the detailed questions we ask. They also, and this was a key point I was making in my discussion on the changing meaning of words, affect the meaning we attach to words.

You can see all these factors at play in my own PhD thesis.

I chose to write on my grandfather. I chose to shift the central focus from his ministerial roles to his role as a regional politician, so that the thesis became in part a history of New England. I chose the methodological tools I used.

I did not discuss my selection of evidence in my post, but again choices were involved.

I read very widely.

For example, I became interested in and explored changing attitudes to childhood and to crime and punishment because I saw this as important in understanding what had happened to Drummond, as well as the changes that were taking place in child welfare and public instruction as the education portfolio was then known. I also read everything I could get my hands on about the history of education in Australia, as well as background material on trends elsewhere in the Empire and Commonwealth.

On the other side of the ledger, because of my shift in focus I used less State Archival material than I might have, something that became important later on.

Drummond's ministerial letter books held in the Drummond papers contained copies of every memo he sent to the Department. Coming straight out of a public service environment, I was struck by the sheer volume. I had never known a minister to send so many memos. I also had Drummond's part completed manuscript autobiography, as well his various reports.

I cross-checked this material against other writings, pamphlets, Hansard, official reports and newspaper reports. I looked at all the somewhat fragmentary NSW Cabinet papers. I also checked selectively various school boxes, as well as particular sets of papers such as the inquiry into scandals at the Yanco Farm Home.

As another example of selection and some would argue bias, I did not rely on the Sydney Morning Herald, usually a main source of record for those writing on NSW politics.

Growing up, the SMH was to some degree the enemy paper, one that could always be expected to present a Sydney perspective on things. In its own right, the paper was a player with its own biases and perspectives.

Given this, I used SMH files in part as matter of record, more importantly as a source of alternative views. I needed to know what the paper said because of its influence on politics and public life, especially in Sydney.

In place of the usual reliance on the SMH, I used the Armidale Express and, to a lesser degree, the Northern Daily Leader as a source of local record. I also sampled other papers, although it was quite impossible to check all the hundreds of papers that then existed across New England.

I also used the now quite significant number of UNE theses that had been written on local politics and history in various parts of New England. Then, too, there were all the local histories that collectively provided a view of the past.

Now in all this, you can see how my own perceptions affected my overall approach. It also affected the specific questions I asked of the evidence, as well as the things that I chose to feature in my writing.

I did not, for example, discuss Drummond's changing views on racial issues, nor his role in Aboriginal education since I did not see them as germane to the main thesis. If I were to write the same thesis today I would still exclude the first as out of scope, although I would discuss it in a full biography. However, I would now say something about the second. I simply failed to realise how important the issue was.

I faced a particular challenge throughout the thesis in balancing my own knowledge of and love for the man with the need for objectivity. The thesis is not completely objective. How could it be? I am writing about someone who was a central figure in my life.

Biography as biography can never be objective. In seeking to learn about, to understand, to present a person, all biographers form personal views. The problem is more complex where there are direct personal connections.

What I think historians sometimes fail to recognise sufficiently is that no history is objective. How can it be when you take into account all the issues of selection and perception in the research and writing process? What's more, wouldn't the world be a much duller and less interesting place without differing individual perceptions?

To my mind, part of the joy of history is the way in which differing perceptions inform and deepen our understanding of the past.

That said, in managing my own biases the rule I try to apply with varying degrees of success is to make my own thinking, my sometimes biases, my sources, clear to the reader. To me, the distinctive feature of good history is that it should be capable of refutation.

Did I achieve this in my thesis? Perhaps, perhaps not. I think that I did, but I cannot be fully objective about my own work.

I want to finish this post by returning the examiner's comments on the thesis, again focusing on the issues of selection, perception and bias.

All history PhD students should know that selection of examiners is critical to success. This should not be the case, but is. Both I and my Armidale supervisor failed to recognise this properly.

Our first choice as examiner was Don Aitkin. We chose him because of his knowledge of the Country Party. He was also a biographer in his own right with his biography of Mick Bruxner, so had some understanding of the issues involved in writing biography.

I was actually a little nervous about this choice. I had a great admiration for Don, had used his work, but was presenting a story that differed in important respects from his work. I was not worried about questions of bias on his part, simply that I might have got things wrong.

The second examiner was Allan Martin. I had not met him, but had read some of his work. Again, he was a very good historian who was also a biographer.

As it turned out, both Don and Allan liked the thesis and for similar reasons.

Our mistake lay in the selection of Heather Radi as the third examiner. We chose her at Bruce's suggestion because of her knowledge of NSW politics of the period. This was a bad error of judgement, something that really should have been clear to me.

Heather was a well known left historian. She had written on and had admiration for the Labor Party and especially Jack Lang. I was writing on the Country Party, the separation movements. A significant part of the thesis dealt with the turbulent events of the Lang period, and not from a pro-Lang perspective. So now we were asking her to make judgements on a piece of work written from a totally different perspective to her own.

Let me be clear here. This is not an attack on Heather. I am talking about a dumb judgement on our part.

Take my own case. Asking Heather to be examiner on my thesis is like asking me to be an examiner on a thesis suggesting that Paul Keating was the central figure in positive change in Australia. Because of my gut reaction to Mr Keating. I would be sitting there with the red pen ready.

I am not suggesting that Heather's reaction to the thesis was equivalent to my own reaction to Mr Keating. All I am saying is that it is impossible to expect an objective judgement on quality when the argument that is put forward runs counter to deeply held views.

In Heather's case, she did not attack my core thesis. Rather, she suggested that the core of my topic should be Drummond's public life. Given this, the thesis failed because of, among other things, inadequate use of archival records.

Facing this split among examiners, the University sent the thesis to an adjudicator, one of Australia's most prominent historians.

You will note that in neither the previous nor this post have I mentioned his name.

Still alive, he is an an emeritus professor who has made a major contribution to Australian history. I prefer to regard what happened in my case as an aberration, something not to be featured in public, because I still regard it as an outrageous breach of professional standards.

I do not have his report in front of me. I hope that I still have it, I think that is is in storage, because one day I am going to publish all the examiners' comments in their entirety as an example of the difficulties in setting objective standards.

Accepting that I am working from memory, the good Professor's advice can be summarised this way.

He essentially accepted Dr Radi's definition of the topic, thus supporting her focus on State Archival information.

To support his point, he mentioned my failure to mention Dr Richard Arthur, someone he had written on. For those who do not know Dr Arthur, he was a medico and NSW parliamentarian who for a three year period was Minister for Health in the same Government as Drummond. Arthur and Drummond's interests overlapped, so my failure to mention him was a problem.

For the life of me, I still do not what the relationship was between the two. They must have met in the cabinet room. There were some common interests, so if I researched the relevant topics I might find connections. But in the seven years I spent doing the thesis, I did not come across a single reference to Dr Arthur in any of the things that I was interested in.

He then suggested that the thesis was the type of story that any grandfather would be happy that his grandson had written. Fair enough, but it ignores all my related arguments and hypotheses.

Finally, and I have mentioned this one, he suggested that there was a danger of Drummond being of insufficient importance to warrant a PhD thesis. Just what planet did this man belong on?

To begin with, the big man school of history died some time ago. The issue is, with any thesis, what the story tells us. Then, too, this is the story of a region, and remains (I think) the only broader regional history. And, just focusing on education, it is the story of the man who has been described as the outstanding Australian education minister of the twentieth century.

Obviously, I am still bitter. However, in these posts I am using the thesis as an example to bring out some of the issues in the historian's craft. In the next post, I will ask and possibly answer the question as to why historians are so frightened of methodology.

A final point. How can you judge something if you do not know it?

I still have a copy of the thesis on disk, somehow minus a few pages. If you would like a copy, email me so that you can make your own judgements. Just remember, it was finished twenty years ago. It is, I think, a reasonable read despite its thesis format.

Actually, Neil, you might like a copy. The material on the history of the NSW Education system might provide a helpful context to your own family material.

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