Sunday, May 02, 2010

Further reflections on the writing of history

There was a rather nice quote on the Resident Judge of Port Phillip from  J. G. A. Pocock:

…the historian is not concerned to show that belief systems are ridiculous, but to discover why they were not ridiculous once.

To achieve this, you have to get your mind into that past mode, to get inside people's heads as best you can. However, it is very hard to do this without developing at least some form of sympathy for those involved and hence losing a degree of objectivity. One of the joys of biography as compared to history is that the constraints are, to some degree at least, relaxed.

In researching and writing, we all select topics that interest us. I know that seems self-evident, but it generally means that the topics we select have some form of fit with our interests and values. This affects the way we look at the past. It makes it somewhat easier to get inside people's heads, but it can also blind us to alternative views. One side-effect is that the history we study often has limited impact on the way we think and feel now.

Should events force us to move outside our normal interests, the effects on our own thinking can be quite profound.

Sometimes it can reinforce or re-ignite past interests. At school and university, I was a strong supporter of self-government for New England. However, this was an emotional rather than intellectual commitment. Certainly I accepted the arguments and used them to debate and to try to persuade, but I was an insider looking out. After the loss in the 1967 plebiscite I lost interest. I still supported self-government, but it had become remote.

When I returned to the issue years later, it was in the context of the biography I was writing on my grandfather. This required me in part to look at the history of the New State Movements, to analyse the arguments put forward. Looking now at the evidence from the perspective of an economist with experience as a senior policy adviser, something unexpected happened.

In relating the arguments put forward by the Movement to underlying economic and structural changes as well as the way in which governmental systems worked, I became convinced of the overall validity of the arguments in an intellectual sense. In turn, this re-ignited my emotional commitment to the Movement, something that was to have quite significant effects on later thought and actions.

Sometimes a move outside our normal interests can be quite discomforting. Take, as an example, my own research and writing on Aboriginal history.

I started writing on Aboriginal policy issues in December 2006. I did so with a degree of reluctance because the area had become such a minefield. In doing so, I looked at my previous work in the area and also started looking again at Aboriginal history with a special focus on New England. This started me on an often uncomfortable journey that affected my life as well as my thinking.

Last night I went on a Sydney Harbour cruise. There, talking to fellow guests, I found to my surprise that they too had a long connection with and interest in Aboriginal issues. In the three and half years since my first post and that harbour cruise, I have written some two hundred posts on issues connected with Aboriginal policy and history and have also spent twelve months doing contract work for an organisation concerned with service delivery to Aboriginal people.

My impact at policy level has been at best peripheral, although I do think that I have articulated some of the reasons why so much policy has failed. I am simply too far outside conventional modes of thought and structures to be really effective.

I think that my role has an historian has been a little more effective, because here I have begun to provide information that is not readily available in current writing. To this point, the greatest impact is in small things, conversations with people, provision of links.

The gaps in Aboriginal history and the knowledge of that history are significant among both Aboriginal people and the broader community. Yet there remains a constant discomfort in research and writing. It's not just issues connected with the treatment of Australia's Aboriginal peoples, although that can be discomforting. It's also all the assumptions and values that surround this type of research.

Let me take an example to illustrate. I am presently writing a piece on the distribution of Aboriginal languages across the broader New England. This is a straight historical piece, drawing together evidence as best I can. The discomfort that I face in researching and writing can be summarised thus: some Aboriginal people appear to believe that a non-Aboriginal person should not write about a topic such as language; some people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, believe that if one is to do so, then approval must be sought from respective sets of elders; finally, I have to be conscious that what I say and write may become a factor in current Aboriginal politics because questions of language boundaries and indeed of names can be important to people living today.

I should note that these types of problems are not unique to Aboriginal history, but can arise in many areas where past and present are shaded together in a current emotional mix. In such cases, the writing of history itself can be driven by, controlled by, current politics and concerns. In these cases, discomfort can discourage research, especially where this challenges accepted views.

One of the joys for all historians is to find people who are actually interested in what one says. By its nature, historical research can be an isolated and even isolating task. We all find our special topics fascinating, whether it be fifteenth century Florence, the history of New England, gay rights, our families or the history of a Canadian maritime province. There is the joy of investigation, the discovery of new material, the act of imagination. Yet the reality is that our joy is rarely shared by others outside those with an interest in the topic. We work alone, but yearn to be heard.

One of the things that is so fascinating about the internet is the way it has affected historical research and interest in history. Yes, there is a lot of misleading rubbish on the internet, but it remains true that never before has there been so much historical material available to the ordinary person.

This has good and bad effects. It allows instant access to knowledge on a whole variety of historical topics, encouraging interest. However, it can preserve and promote raw sores that might otherwise pass into the past. It can also lead to greater critical scrutiny because so much more is available.

At a purely personal level, the thing that I find most interesting is the way the internet can bring together both those with a general interest in history and those with interests in particular areas. Suddenly, the isolated historian is no longer alone.

This can be quite a slow process. It is really only in the last twelve months that I have started to see it.

I know from my current knowledge of history related blogs that quite a bit was already around. I just hadn't discovered it. Now that I have a better knowledge, I gain enjoyment. However, I also find that the combination of blogs with other on-line sources has greatly accelerated the research process. It also forces me to check details that otherwise I might have blurred over. There is no excuse when you know that the material is there.

Beyond this, has been the discovery of people who actually share some of my historical interests in whole or in part: I have books sitting on my shelves that people have sent me; I know from feedback that at least some value at least some of what I have written; and I get questions and comments on specific topics.

While nothing can remove the burden of core research, of writing and thinking, my own writing and thinking has become deeper and richer as a consequence.

This is not always a good thing. I have only so much time and that is already stretched. In the end, I have to draw a line and just write, so having more bits to deal with can be a problem. Yet I know that what I am writing now is just so much better in terms of content than it was a mere two years ago.

I think of my historical writing as a panorama. You have to paint the scale and pattern of life and events in a way that the reader will understand, but then you also have to be able to go to key detail to bring out that special richness.

My original aim was to finish a first draft of my major project, the history of New England, last month. I am no where near this. However, I hope that the final will be better for the delay.         


Anonymous said...

Thank you- I enjoyed reading this. The issue of sympathy for the person as opposed to acceptance (or non-acceptance as the case may be) of their ideas is an interesting one, as is the shift between an intellectual and emotional response to an issue.

I believe (or at least TRY to believe) that in life people operate by what they perceive to be a coherent and relatively consistent framework for them. I guess it's one of my fundamental beliefs about how the world is. But it's sometimes hard to see this coherent worldview from the outside- especially an outside that is as incomplete as the one we often have to deal with as historians.

Of the constraints you have felt over your work on Aboriginal languages, the one that I think I would find most daunting is that uses can be made of your research that take it far beyond your own intent or confidence. I feel uncomfortable about the loss of control of my work.

Jim Belshaw said...

Hi RJ.

I am sure that you are right on the second point. We all have mental constructs that we use to simplify and clarify the world around us. This was explored by a US economist whose name escapes me for the moment. Semiotics deals with the same type of issue.

It is fairly easy to analyse thought structures at an intellectual level so long as the evidence is there. However, I find dropping below that to determine emotional content and how people saw things quite difficult.

The example I use to illustrate this is travel time. Travelling by foot or horse, the immediate world is far vaster and more detailed. This has all types of effects on thinking.

Yes, the use to which my work might be put is the thing that also makes me most uncomfortable. Years after completing my original honours thesis on the economics of traditional Aboriginal life in Northern NSW, I found that it survived as one input into lands right cases and heritage studies.

While it was nice to think that an honours thesis done in 1966 was still being quoted 40 years later, I was uncomfortably aware that in writing I was writing just as an honours student in blissful ignorance of the future. Now that I am more aware, I have suddenly become much more conscious of the need for care in conclusions and the use of evidence. This can have a quite constipating effect.

None of us can control the use to which our work and writing is put, the way it is interpreted, once it goes public. I don't think of this as loss of control of work; we still control what and how we write. I try to focus on that.

Anonymous said...

Ah, yes! Constipating is the word!!

Kelly's "Personal construct theory" was one of the theories I remember from my dim past about people's creation of their world view. I'm wary of roaming into psychological theories in dealing with my own research (I know that some historians have) and have decided to stick with the content of my judge's worldview rather than the psychological processes and forces that brought him to it. Events, influences and prevailing attitudes yes, but deeper psychological imperatives I recoil from.

Although sometimes I wonder if I'm blocking myself off from a methodology that would help me to understand him better, on the basis of what I believe methodologically I "should" or "should not" do.

Jim Belshaw said...

I understand your hesitation, RJ, at getting into psychological theories as such. In writing biography, I don't think that you can avoid the why views developed as well as the what views were held. However, the problem with use of theories is that you end up squeezing your character to fit the theory.

I did read some of the stuff that was around when I was doing my PhD, but mainly as background. The test I used to determine relevance was a simple one: did it help me understand Drummond.

There is also a very particular danger for history students in using some of this stuff. It can get up examiners' noses, and then you have a problem.