Sunday, September 19, 2010

Can we use social science methods to study historical social life?

I was surprised to see that Kristin Luker mentions historians in her book, Salsa Dancing into the Social Sciences (18, 25). I have been wondering, in an amateur way, how research methods from the social sciences may be applied to historical social life. For those who are interested in contemporary social life, which is unfolding today, my curiosity may seem pointless. Consider, though, that contemporary social life is often historical already, encountered just after the fact. Consider, as well, that contemporary social life could be an image or performance of a reality that no longer exists. (Think of someone who, for example, goes to a social event that is boring or unpleasant because he or she did so in the past.) We are always slightly downstream, so to speak, from the "contemporary." When we study social life, we are studying history.

The consequences of being downstream may be minor, particularly in the case of ethnography. Yet many of our research methods involve memory. Interviews, focus groups, and questionnaires depend on the memories of our subjects: historical circumstances, events, relationships, and feelings. Are memories of recent events more reliable than memories of old events? How do we weight the difference, if there is one, between the memory of last week and the memory of last year? To complicate matters further, if we're interested in the distant past, then many people whom we may wish to interview are dead. If we want to compare the present to the distant past, then there's a good chance that our research methods are going to look like apples and oranges. Should we, in that case, restrict our study of the present to methods that can be used to study the past?

Of course, dead people leave traces. We can examine census data, insurance maps, letters, business records, and ephemera by means of text or discourse analysis. We could also use quantitative methods. But historical records, or "life documents" in Luker (25), represent only a fraction of social life, and the records that remain often survive for reasons that have nothing to do with objective record-keeping. They survive for political reasons, institutional reasons, personal reasons, and accidental reasons. Those reasons can change over time. Moreover, the history of books shows us that many records change over time: words are altered, sections are added or deleted, translations are made, and so on. Finally, those who have studied literature are familiar with the 'unreliable narrator' whose performance of a narrative hides as much as it reveals. The problems of historical documents are analogous to the gap between researchers and subjects that plagues surveys (43). Does our 'reading' of a document match that of its creator? Does a document really answer the questions that we ask?

Can we use social science methods to study historical social life? To a certain extent, we have no choice. The cost is that our methods may seem excessively rhetorical and our generalizations excessively presumptuous. At the same time, it seems important to remember that the problems associated with historical research, problems of memory and documentation, are not just problems for historians.


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