27 June 2011
I’ve written a few posts on this blog which could be described as theoretical (see What is History?). As historians, we collect a mass of data from our own research and from reading what other historians have written. When we come to write up the results, we have to make sense of it all. What do we include, and what do we leave out? How do we make it interesting and relevant? How do we organise what we’ve discovered so it all logically fits together?
I’ve always liked the idea that (in the opening words of L.P. Hartley’s novel, The Go-Between) "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." We can explore the past in the same way we travel to a new and unfamiliar country or city. We may have a map or a guide-book, or we may prefer to wander around and discover things for ourselves. You could say a historian is like a tour guide, trying to explain to a group of travellers what makes it interesting and relevant; or like a travel writer, describing their own experiences and discoveries to those unable to visit the places themselves.
Taking the analogy a step further, the study of History is similar to Anthropology. Anthropologists observe customs and practices in strange and unfamiliar places and try to describe and interpret them so they make sense to those back home. One noted cultural historian, Peter Burke, has written that he and his colleagues "would confess to having learned much from anthropologists," though he stressed that they now treat all cultures as of equal value, rejecting the old anthropological notion that some were ‘primitive’ or ‘backward’.
‘Thick Description’ is a term used by the distinguished anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In an essay on: ‘Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, he explained that his understanding of the culture of a people was not their "total way of life" or "a storehouse of learning", let alone their art, music or literature, but ‘webs of significance’, writing that:
"Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning."
Geertz described how he had taken the term ‘Thick Description’ from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who distinguished between a ‘thin description’ of, for example, a physical action, and a ‘thick description’ which includes the context: when and where the action took place, who performed it and their intentions in doing so. For example, the same physical act of someone "rapidly raising and lowering their right eyelid" could be a nervous twitch, a deliberate wink to attract attention or communicate with someone, or an imitation or mockery of someone else with a nervous twitch or winking. It all depends on the context, the aims of person the performing the action, and how these were understood by others.
This implies there is no clear distinction between description, explanation and communication. All descriptions of human actions and behaviour, except the most trivial, do more than simply relate what happened. They include judgements, assumptions, and explanations of why people behaved as they did, what they were trying to express or achieve in doing so, and for whom. All historians know that the sources they use, typically written documents but also artefacts, images, customs and practices, need to be evaluated not only in terms of what they say, but why they were created, with what intentions, and for whom.
I have long believed that historical sources ‘speak for themselves’ and that a sensitive and intelligent reader or listener can work out for themselves from the text what assumptions or judgements the authors were making. Or if this is not clear, they can at least ask the question and realise that without additional information, the source could be read and understood in different ways. This is one of the things that makes history interesting: there is no one right answer and what happened in the past can be understood and interpreted in different ways.
Most anthropologists seem to believe that despite differences between societies, the human mind is essentially the same and deep unchanging structures of meaning can be discovered if specific behaviour is examined in sufficient depth. Geertz wrote that the aim of the anthropologist was not so much to "capture primitive facts in faraway places and carry them home" like a ‘primitive’ mask or carving to be placed in some ethnographical museum of mankind, but to "draw large conclusions from small" and attempt to explain "what manner of men are these".
As a historian, not an anthropologist, I’m not sure I would go so far. As the name of this blog suggests, I subscribe to the view that the role of history is to discover and reveal the past ‘how it really was’. There is a danger in over-interpreting our data, and the end result can then reveal more of our own prejudices and assumptions, than how people thought and acted at the time. But I do think we can go beyond a simple narrative of the facts (whatever they are) and describe human behaviour – what people thought and did - in context, together with an attempt to understand and explain their motivation, their aims and intentions, and how these changed over time, in response to the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Perhaps this means that writing history can be thought of as ‘thick description’, that places events in context and explains human behaviour through reference to aims and intentions, (what it signifies as some anthropologists would say). If so, what are the implications for how we research and write about our subject? I don’t know the answer to this, but as a start, here are my thoughts on some issues I’ve had to consider, when researching and writing about people’s aims and intentions:
- Whose aims and intentions are worth studying? Some people were more influential than others, but it is not always obvious who the really important and influential people were in any situation. Some may have influenced events through providing information to those who made the decisions. Others simply did what they were told.
- Some exceptional people did not do what they were told. We may have studied the aims and intentions of the policy makers, only to find that the policy was ignored by those responsible for carrying it out.
- Their stated aims and intentions, especially in accounts written or told many years after the events they relate to (such as personal memoirs or oral history interviews), may not have been the real reasons people acted as they did at the time. It is easy to be wise after the event and claim the intention matched the outcome.
- Reasons given at the time for acting in a particular way, (for example in personal correspondence, speeches, official papers or articles in newspapers), can also be misleading and may not reflect the authors’ own views, as they may have said or written what they thought their readers or listeners wanted to hear.
- People may have acted in accordance with unspoken assumptions, which even they were not fully aware of. For example, on several occasions I have come across references to people saying they did ‘what they believed was right’ without elaborating further.
- People may have acted in accordance with the values they held, which in turn were based on their personal and family background, social status, education, moral or religious beliefs.
- People may have acted in their own interest. As the saying goes, you can always find many more good reasons for doing what you want to do, than doing what you don’t want to do.
- People may have acted the way others expected them to act, in accordance with social conventions and expectations, which may vary from one group to another.
- People did not always act rationally. We cannot assume people acted for a particular reason because that now appears, to us, to be the logical thing for them to have done.
- Every individual is unique and it is impossible to understand and describe everyone’s individual motivation. To what extent can we generalise and assume all those in a group shared the same aims, for the same reasons, or explain behaviour through reference to social rather than personal factors?
Peter Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997)
Clifford Geertz, ‘Thick description: toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture’, in The Interpretations of Cultures (London: Hutchinson, 1975)