finding patterns in the literature

A key part of the PhD proposal – ANY PhD proposal, for that matter – is the literature review. This is where the proposer explains what has been done already, and how what they propose to do fits in with that. It’s a way of showing that they’re not repeating what has already been done (which is pretty pointless) and goes some way towards answering the ‘so what?’ question, which every PhD proposal (and thesis) has to answer. In a nutshell – Why should we care? Why is this important to the wider world, not to just a bunch of wierd academics who like examining these things in minute detail!

In the case of the PhD proposal, the lit review isn’t large – the section that deals with it suggests that it should contain around 200 words, which is – for a humanities student – miniscule. The corresponding section on the eventual PhD thesis would be around 5,000 words or so. Big difference between the two! The amount of reading that I need to do for a lit review directly corresponds to the word count – there’s no point in reading 20,000 books and articles for 200 words. At the same time, it is critically important that I am able to demonstrate an awareness of the key texts, terminology, concepts and debates in my chosen field, and that requires a certain amount of reading. A balance, therefore, is required, and finding that balance, determining it, is the difficult point.

Part of it has to begin with defining the field, thinking carefully about the boundaries of it and exactly what I am going to be studying. This is much easier said than done. I can say that I want to study relationships between the clergy and his parishioners in Herefordshire in the early modern period, which is good, as it defines the boundaries in terms of geographical place and in terms of time (1500-1700 or so, although this will need to be majorly tightened up on). Right now the woolly bit is that term, ‘relationships’. Defining relationships is tricky – and moreover, will be largely determined by how much source material there is available on the subject.

More than that though, at the moment, my mind is engaged in trying to establish patterns between the different secondary texts that I am reading at present. One way of doing this is very well described by The Thesis Whisperer, in ‘five ways to tame the literature review‘. The time aspect of this is really covered by the traditional-revisionist-postrevisionist perspective – I just need to figure out what those different positions would be saying about clergy-parshioner relationships, and more to the point, who is saying them. There’s also different types of issues that can crop up between a clergyman and his parishioners – the economic types (usually over tithes, enclosure, that sort of thing), social (for example, later on, clergy begin to take the role of magistrates and that brings a whole host of issues into play), religious (from the godly disliking priests, through to issues over vestments, communion tables, wives, – the potential issues in this area are never-ending) and moral (money, behaviour, etc.). There’s different ways of seeing the relationships – hierarchical, either top down or bottom up, there’s conflict vs co-operation, there’s management strategies – and that’s before you even get into examining power and the different ways that this can work in a parish, hugely dependent on the type of parish you have, the type of roles that are present, the type of people.  I’ve started to write out a spider diagram but it’ll be a while before it gets finished, but at least things are getting down onto paper.

I’m also trying to think in terms of identifying simple words to attach to each article or chapter from a book. Short, direct words, like you find in some cloud depictions, to try to see patterns. I may be overcomplicating that one for this stage of the lit review but it is still helping me to try to get some of the stuff in my head (and my head is starting to pound) down onto paper, where I can play around with ideas, concepts, and patterns. It may be a while before any sort of coherency begins to appear from the chaos, and at the moment I am very much working with preconceived patterns, that have been described in texts that I have been reading in the last five years. Whether I will be able to pick out my own patterns, remains to be seen.

source material – the difference between material from the dead, and from the living

Just spotted on the BBC, this rather lovely article by Adam Gopnik, entitled ‘Points of View: The guilty thrill of reading other people’s emails‘ – and not at all what I thought it would be from the title. Instead, he muses about the difference between reading letters and diaries from people long dead, which he adores, and reading emails from people still living which he regards with a queasy distaste.

Gopnik doesn’t directly address the ethical issues on the difference between them – technically, unless the individual gave permission for them to be published after death – for example, with Alan Clark’s diaries – there should be no difference, although there often is. I, for example, just did a project using the household accounts of Joyce Jefferies of Hereford, and while there is no way to be sure, I suspect she would have been horrified had she known that 450 years later, anyone would be able to examine the intimate details of her life (however, if we were to ban all material that had not been given ethical permission, then much of the study of history would just stop, overnight. This is what I meant yesterday when I said, sometimes, there just are no right answers.).But despite that, Gopnik clearly differentiates between the missives of the dead and the living, exploring the differences between the way each make him feel, touching on the moral (and therefore ethical) imperative behind the two, the uncomfortable queasiness of reading emails from the living, as opposed to the guilty pleasure of reading letters from the dead. As he says: ‘So why does privacy seem essential to living people – and then suddenly seem to vanish as a value when we die, leaving us with an eager appetite for more disclosure?

His answer is to regard this kind of material much like a crop – it does no good nibbling at it, like a goat does grass – and which will effectively destroy the crop in the long run anyway. Instead, you have to back up… allow the crop to grow, to develop the flavours/seeds/fruits/ that you want, to reach the stage of maturity that you want, and then you can swoop in, knowing that there will be a rich source of … whatever it is you grew it for. As with crops, so with source material.¹

But my favorite bit by far, is this:

In order to have private lives to share in the long run, we need to have private lives kept private in the short run. If we did not have diaries and letters to read then history would be dull indeed. But if we make every diary public and publish every letter now, then life will become dull very quickly. All conversations would be whispered in secret, as they are in totalitarian states. In this sense, the destruction of privacy and the rise of tyranny are part of the same package.

‘history would be dull indeed’. In this, I think perhaps Gopnik doesn’t fully understand the mind of the academic historian, the kind that can take delight in the kind of dry, staid and – to most – boring material that would send non-historians into a coma. But at the same time, historians are humans too, and I fully admit, despite all I wrote about ethical issues the day before, that I too get a little thrill when I learn something new, perhaps something a little salacious, about someone who I admire. It removes them from an unrealistic pedestal, makes them fully human, and rationalises them – if they can reach those lofty heights, even with their peccadilloes, then perhaps I, with all my very human foibles, can surely do the same.

¹ ‘Historians & biographers as gardeners of human life’… hmmm. I quite like this analogy. Although, ‘historians and biographers as farmers of human life’? not so nice, is it? And that alone is an interesting thought, although the latter is perhaps more accurate. Perhaps it’s a reflection of the perceived difference between the two – that farmers are simply more ruthless than gardners, in the pursuit of profit and commericialisation. Although, anyone who truly thinks that has never seen a gardner with a pair of secateurs, on a pruning mission! Perhaps too it reflects the overriding view of both. Farmers are about profiting from the land. Gardening is about aesthetics, beauty, and thus appears, somehow to be more acceptable, less crude. The pursuits of beauty being more lofty than coarse money.


Having not blogged in over a week, I thought a little catch up post might be in order. The lack of blog posts hasn’t been down to no work being done (and ergo, nothing for a blog post). Rather, it has been down to the unending sameness of the days: get up, have coffee, take my partner to the station, get home, pull out the books, start reading/making notes, have lunch, more reading/making notes, answer emails, do dinner, the washing up, watch TV, go to bed. Rinse, and repeat. Bor—ing. Boring to do, much less to write about, even much less to read about, I would imagine.

Yesterday, however, was different. I went into my University’s library for the day, and I had a fantastic day, got to meet a couple of friends for coffee, do some productive work, and come home feeling brighter and more positive. While I wouldn’t recommend it for every day, It was very very clear to me that actually, everything from the day – from driving, parking, walking around campus, through to coffee and socialising, through to actually studying, contributes to a sense of collegiality, a sense of ‘being an academic’ in a way that sitting at home at my desk, wading through the secondary texts… doesn’t. Its easy to get side tracked at home. Less so when you’ve made a conscious decision to go somewhere, for a specific purpose, and you’ve a set time in which to get things done.

I’ve therefore made a decision: from now on, regardless, I’ll be making trips like this to the library (or somewhere else appropriate) at least once a week, and I’m giving serious thought to going to places like museums once a week. We’ll see. Variety is good for me. 🙂

source material – the ethical issues

This morning’s lazy wakeup read through the BBC News website over my first coffee (which I do every day, as part of my wake up routine) made me sit up in startlement this morning. The BBC was reporting that The Sun had published a clip of the Queen, as a child, larking around in the garden, with her mother, sister and uncle, and who had, along with her mother and uncle, given the nazi salute. It was in 1933, at the time of the Nazi Party’s rise to power, and she was around six to seven years old.

Regardless of whether The Sun was right to publish this or not, or the public response, as historians, the whole issue – and The Sun‘s approach to it – raises important questions about source material – the the appropriate use of it, and what we, as historians can learn from the incident.

I think the first thing that can be learned – or, perhaps, re-emphasised – is that as historians, we largely deal with source material pertaining to people, and that it is important to consider, when we use that source material, if we are doing so ethically. Journalists work to a different set to criteria (arguably, including ethical standards) but as historians, it should always be asked: are we behaving in a way that is ethical? Certainly my own university, and, I would imagine, most others, have a set of ethical standards, which, as academics, we are bound to comply with. To use an image like this in one’s research, several important things would need to be satisfied, but amongst them must be authenticity and context. While the figures in the video are recognisable and there is no doubt that it is them, every historian must be aware that audio-visual material can always be edited to imply a different story than the original. I remember as a first year undergraduate being shown photographs that showed quite a different impression when viewed one way, than if you viewed them in their original setting. Context is crucial, as is critical questioning of that context. The full context of the video (and its source) is unknown. The Sun itself admits in it’s editorial that it believes the Queen and her sister were ‘larking around’, and, having viewed the video, it is entirely possible that the Queen Mother, seeing the Queen wave to the camera in a way that mimiced, inadvertently, the nazi salute, picked up on that and mockingly gave it as well – and that this was then laughingly joined in with, by the Queen and her uncle, the man who would go on to be Edward VIII (and, if you believe The Sun, a Facist sympathiser). The editorial of The Sun suggests this… but their headline ‘Their Royal Heilnesses’ – does not suggest this at all.

Context is everything.

But, perhaps, more importantly, is the concept of ethical use. All Historians, but particularly historians working with the more recent past, have to remember that the material they use often comes from people. Sometimes, those people are either themselves still living, or people who have close family members still living, and it is important that source material is not used in ways that harm those people. Academic historians conducting this kind of research have to abide by a complex set of ethical rules handed down by their university. This does not necessarily mean that source material like this should not be used – as the Guardian has explained, this video is of genuine historical interest and could be crucial for someone exploring, for example, the social impact in England of the events in Germany in the 1933-39 period. For a historian researching this, how would they ethically deal with the video, so as to use it in their work?

Let’s, for argument’s sake, pretend for a moment that the video is of a middle class, suburban family, with no journalistic sensationalism attached to who they are. In this case, the historian would have a number of options. Assuming the historian knew who they were, and had traced modern day descendents, then he/she could obtain written permission to use a still from the film, perhaps with the faces anonymised. He/She could obtain permission to refer to the film, but the actual film or images from it, not to be included in any written work arising from the project (e.g. a thesis or journal article). Or permission could be refused, and that would be that.

[To demonstrate how scrupulously academic historians abide by the no permission element, there are actually oral histories (that is, people talking on audiotape about their memories, their life experiences) on file at a number of institutions that cannot be transferred to digital media because the original participants have since died, and the original agreement that they signed did not ask for permission for their recordings to be used in a different format or to be made public, e.g. on a website. Although agreements now are including this kind of permission, to allow for different formats/use in future, it doesn’t help those old recordings – since the original particpants have died, nothing can be done except looking after the old tapes as best as possible.]

If – again, for argument’s sake – a social historian was wanting to use this clip, of the Queen and her family, having come across it in the royal archives at Windsor, and it had not been published before, what would they do? Ask permission. Offer anonymisation, as above – it could quite easily be anonymised and presented as a family from “the aristocracy” and still demonstrate the impact that the nazis were having in the west – this was never made public at the time, so in that sense, this is a private family responding to public events, exactly as it would be if it was Mr and Mrs Suburbia, and can be reflected so in any argument – who they were, prescisely, is, to a certain extent, irrelevant. And if it was denied, again, that would be that. End of.

Having said that, now that the material is in the public domain, what now? As ethical researchers, should we shy away from using the material because it was (possibly) obtained and published in ways that are less than ethical?

Here, the answers are less clear. Someone researching the role of the media in affecting the image of the royal family, for example, or the impact of the phone hacking by the News of the World, cannot really ignore material that was less than ethically obtained – it is, after all, the whole point of their research. How, then, as an ethical researcher, can you ethically research these types of question? [and which tips into the field of ‘using unethically obtained data, ethically – and this is a well studied subject – as a simple google will show.]

Perhaps the best way to do it is to take extra care to use source material ethically. Yes, the material is in the public domain, but this does not mean that it has to be used unethically yourself. It would certainly be possible to quote them, reference them (as public domain material), but not use images yourself in your work. You could even try to obtain permission for one or two images to be used – from both the copyright holder AND the person in the photograph, although you may be less than successful at that, as they may fear issues being dragged up again – this is, after all, the basis on which EU citizens have a Right to be Forgotten). But even this is not always possible. Images of people who are dying, for example – the faling man or the falling soldier. How do you behave ethically then?

Sometimes, it may not always be possible to meet the ethical standards as completely as one might wish. Sometimes, there just aren’t any right answers. But I do believe that it is possible to at least personally behave ethically. For example: part of the research ethics standards concern treating people with respect. Even if you don’t have the permissions to use material in your research (and, I freely admit, I do not have any permissions to refer to any of the material I have supplied links to here, although everything is in the public domain) you can write about people with respect. This can be as simple as referring to people correctly, with respect – with their title, instead of their given name. I think most researchers would do this instictively anyway – academic language and the way of thinking as you write – usually does not allow for informalities in which disrespectful references to people might creep into one’s work (at least, that is the case for me).

I think most of all this incident shows that as historians we need to keep thinking about these issues, periodically pull them out, examine them, ask ourselves the difficult questions – and where necessary, adjust the way that we research and write accordingly. Perhaps, in the end, that is the true answer to the question of whether it is ethical to use unethically obtained information – to keep examining, to keep discussing, to recognise that there are always exceptions to the rules, and that utimately, the world around us does not share our ethical standards – but that does not mean that we should be lax ourselves.



Part of the process of studying at this level is gaining a great understanding and mastery of self, in a number of different ways. This can mean things like the skills that you will gain that are transferrable to other situations (e.g. research skills). It can also mean a greater understanding of what makes you as a person, tick, and gain more self-confidence and selfworth.

I think I wrote before that a request for communication support for a conference had been turned down last week. While that situation is still not resolved, I finally realised last night quite why that has affected me so badly (not helped by two nights of very bad, fitful sleep). It very much ties into imposter syndrome: when you’ve spent years quite convinced that at any moment the uni will write, regretfully, that a mistake was made, that you have to leave, anything that provides a setback plays into that. That is particularly the case with this, which is connected to my deafness. There is a very long history of deaf people being told that we cannot do things (we can’t read, we shouldn’t sign, as doing so makes us look like performing monkeys, and so on), and being told “no” in such a way really plays into that history. In addition, it comes at a time when I’m waiting to hear whether a journal will take my first article and when I’m trying to pull together a PhD proposal. Right now, I’m getting achingly close to being able to achieve my dreams. When you’ve spent so long, and worked so hard on, trying to achieve those dreams, the thought of actually not achieving them is incredibly threatening. I really cannot overemphasise that.

Understanding this is half the battle; I am now putting things into place to try to stop it having quite such an effect on me, including having the above picture on the wall above my computer. What also helps is that yesterday I received an email from a contact in Herefordshire, asking me to come and deliver an hour long talk on an aspect of my research into Leominster’s history at their AGM in November, to 60 people. This will be the first time I’ll have spoken this long and it was with a lot of trepidation this morning that I wrote the email accepting his offer. And yes, I have declared my deafness (although I think they knew already). There will be room for questions afterwards so I had to. I’ve given them two options, one fun and informal (and cheap!), the other costly and more formal. We’ll see which they go for.

So today has been taken up with admin this morning, chasing people for various things, and this afternoon I’ve been getting into civil war politics in Coward. Fun! One foot in front of the other and keep b*ggering on, as Churchill would say.

Sometimes its all you can do. Pick yourself up after the knock downs.. and.. keep b*ggering on. I should have that printed on a T-shirt!

struggling a bit

Part of the problem with studying like this is the isolation. Perhaps it’s self-imposed to a certain extent. I mean, I could choose to go into the university library and work there but I’ve never liked working in libraries very much. I prefer to get what I need asap and get home again. But at the same time, I do need a certain amount of human interaction – which puts a fair bit of pressure on my partner to be nice when he comes home, and if he comes home all tired and grumpy (as last night) then I can rapidly wind up spiralling into a down mood.

After a weekend off, yesterday was spectacularly non-productive in studying terms (productive elsewhere though). Today has been a tad better; I proofread a really good introductory chapter for a fellow MA student, and then did some reading around the issue of communication support at conferences; this is a particularly hot topic at present given that the International Congress for the Education of Deaf People has, once again, not supplied deaf delegates with interpreters. You would think, 135 years after the 1880 Milan Conference that slammed the door shut on the use of sign language for educating deaf children, that nothing has changed. Well, perhaps it has – changes are afoot and that can only be a good thing, and I watch with interest.

I also signed up for an online discussion on the subject of public participation for researchers, they have a panel which they will ask a range of questions from the audience and which they are filming, all done through google’s hangouts. A sort of combination of TED and AMA. Very cool, all done through I contacted the organiser to ask about deaf access, she offered – at the very least, the transcript (which I was happy enough with) and, prompted by a new awareness, started digging into technological solutions that might help to improve access for deaf people. Makes me feel better about the academic world when I get a response like this – a ‘Can Do!’ rather than a ‘will not’.

I also did some thinking about how to address the question, which almost inevitably will be asked, in response to my PhD proposal, why should we fund this, given that there are already existing studies covering the same subject in different areas? What is different about yours? I realised that I can’t answer that in the sense of “its different because the results will show XYZ” – because, clearly, I can’t do 3 year’s research in several months. But what I can do is to examine the differences between the counties that the existing studies have focused on, and Herefordshire, and try to ascertain if there’s something special, unique about Herefordshire, that may allow me to reasonably argue that the outcome will be different. So. That’s another thing to add to the to-do list – bone up on Herefordshire, everything from the landscape to the underlying geology, economic structures, people, cities/towns…. and so on.

And now to collect my partner from the station and then come home and do dinner. Another day almost gone…!

one step in front of another

I’m finally at a point in Coward where I feel like things are falling into place much better. The big questions of the period – Was the Civil War inevitable? What were the causes? – are becoming apparent, and the principle theories are slowly revealing themselves. What is also slowly revealing itself are the reasons why I have struggled with this period previously. Before now, if anything was mentioned post 1603, my mind just shut down, and I stopped thinking, learning, engaging. Anything to do with James or Charles or Cromwell or the Civil War.. nup. not interested. Bye bye….

And now all I can think of is how incredibly short-sighted I was. I think part of the problem may have been Children of the New Forest, the 1847 classic by Captain Frederick Maryyat. This was a much loved book as a child, and I always condemed the nasty roundheads for taking away the Beverley children’s home and parents, and killing that heroic King Charles! It firmly prevented me from even wanting to understand the parliamentarians, much less the Godly (aka Puritans), and I never really looked past the stereotype of kill-joy, aescetic boring bible-thumpers.

However, I’m now pushing that to one side. I understand the Godly better, why predestination was so key to them (which always seemed slightly ridiculous to me, the whole idea of the Elect and the Damned, it just didn’t seem to give people any kind of incentive to behave well, you know? and now I get it – if you behaved badly then you were the Damned anyway, because the Elect would never behave in that way to begin with). More importantly I understand where it came from, from Ephesians II:8, in a letter by St. Paul: ”For it is by His grace that you are saved, through trusting him: it is not your own doing. It is God’s gift, not a reward for work done’. I understand why the Elizabethan and Jacobean Church was so Calvinist and how this got changed to become the Church of England that we know today. Reading of the battles that they had over the moving and railing off of communion tables, from a central location to the east, where they are now, understanding how that happened, its led a lot of things to fall into place and I feel somewhat happier as a result.

More importantly, I’m starting to fall in love with this period. There’s always a certain element of a hump for me to overcome when I first start researching something. When everything is new and it’s hard work and then all of a sudden you’ve got the basics down, and further reading is about slotting things into that framework and it becomes much easier. I find the fascination, it becomes less of a chore and more of a joy. Today marks the point of the joy (although the chore may well return) and I fell in love with the Stuarts. I’m at that point where I don’t want to put my book down. I’m engaged with the people, the events, and I want to keep reading to find out what happens next. That curiosity.. that is what always drives me as a historian. I want to know – what happened to that little guy who got swept up in the big events? What happened to his wife and children? Why did this happen? What did he think about it, was he supportive, completely behind it or was he forced into action? What did his wife think? The other people around him? Did they agree? History is made up of the decisions of individuals, the beliefs, actions and relationships of people and it is that that fascinates me. That actually brings me on to what I think the other reason why I may have failed to engage with this period before now is to do with how it got sold to me as a child: previously, it had been a very high politics approach – Kings, court, politics. Nothing wrong with that – its that that grabs me about the Tudor period – but … I don’t know. The Tudor period is full of women in one way or another, from around 1509, and it was those that I engaged with – the Stuart period, by contrast, is much more devoid of women. James and Charles just didn’t have the same glamour, the same bling, I suppose, to a restless, hyperactive intelligent child, as Anne Boleyn and Elizabeth I. It was their relationships that I adored – Anne’s with Henry, Elizabeth’s with Robert Dudley. Yes, I’m a romantic at heart, I suppose!

I had a lovely email too today from a fellow historian, who is working in the medieval period. He’d actually been chatting to a friend of my mother’s who got totally the wrong end of the stick about what I’m doing and what my primary research interests are, and I got a very garbled message to contact this chap on this address about a conference. Although I had to put him straight on what I actually was doing a lovely conversation has developed out of that and he’s now reading some of my work, which makes me happy.

I’m also one month into the two month or so wait for news on whether the journal will accept my article This has developed out of work done for my undergrad dissertation, but substantially improved since then, and I am very hopeful it will succeed (and if it does, it will be published in October). It is also the same subject I am delivering a paper on at the conference in November so .. fingers crossed!

Right. time to have an ice-lolly and write my shopping list – a trip to the supermarket beckons as the fridge is getting a bit empty!