Doing the Research

As part of the core seminar for the PhD in Canadian Studies (a joint program between the Carleton University School of Canadian Studies and Trent University), we composed brief discussion papers based on the course readings for the month.  This is part two of three from my second collection of papers from October 2010 on the topics of interdisciplinarity, methods, and strategies.

“It’s like a discipline / Without the discipline of all of the discipline”

In The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, Portelli discussed the process of memory, oral historical narratives, and field encounters. In Do Glaciers Listen? and her September talk at Carleton, “The Afterlives of Stories,” Cruikshank talked about different knowledge traditions, personal oral history narratives of experiences, social memory, and the changes that occur in stories over time. Both Portelli and Cruikshank model certain methods for ‘doing the research.’ They adopt a degree of self-reflexivity in approaching locally contingent oral narratives, memories, and imaginings that they contextualize and quote (from their field observations and collections). According to Code’s argument, “hearing is believing.” Do Poretlli and Cruikshank help the people on whom they report (people who arguably “occupy marginalized and disempowered positions”) to “devise strategies for survival” (Code)?

Considering Portelli’s literary background and Cruikshank’s anthropological approach, how successfully do they answer the Dummitt & Dawson’s call for “historical narratives that can blend analysis with popular forms of storytelling?” Are their articles ambitious and original methods of storytelling that combine analysis and entertainment (Dummitt), “reinvigorated [by an] artful and even holistic style” (Dummitt & Dawson)? If they are, how can we emulate their work? Are there standards for comparing Portelli and Cruikshank? Can Dummitt’s aspirations for the discipline of history be evenly applied across all fields, or is each discipline doomed to insular homogeneity and rampant specialization?

Cruikshank points to how “the alleged universality of one set of concepts [can] squeeze out alternatives that [can] then be disparaged as ‘belief’ or ‘superstition.’” She adds that it is “remarkable is how speedily such new stories take root, displace local knowledge, and gain authority as official ‘common sense.’” Dummitt tells the story of how the ‘beliefs’ of older, retired historians are brought up as benchmarks of current progress in the field of historical research, and new benchmarks are long overdue. Dummitt’s critique of contemporary historical work explains the naturalization of commonsensical attitudes toward the allegedly divergent, cutting-edge, righteous, rebellious, open-minded scholarship that is now the standard in social history. In explaining how the dissemination of work in contemporary social history (‘history from below’) is limited and partial, Dummitt shows that most of the insights developed in inclusive history are restricted to The Academy.

Because to him, public opinion is, for the most part, not in agreement with the ideals expressed in history departments today, Dummit wonders what we can do as academics and “practitioners of a more inclusive history” to shrink “the gap between public and professional conceptions of history.” If it is possible to be too decentered, disrupted, and fragmented (Dummitt), are current approaches to history too postmodern? What are the benefits and drawbacks of the postmodern condition that celebrates hybridity, marginality, uncertainty, multiplicity, non-linear thinking, and pastiche (Dummitt)? How can we prevent a “downward spiral of well-intentioned solipsism” and avoid telling generalized, distorted, grandiose stories while still communicating with the public in a compelling way (ibid)?

Cited:

Julie Cruikshank Do Glaciers Listen?: Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2005.

Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, 1991.

Lorraine Code. “Incredulity, Experientialism, and the Politics of Knowledge.” Just Methods: An Interdisciplinary Feminist Reader. Ed. Alison M. Jaggar. Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, 2008.

Sandra Harding. “How Standpoint Methodology Informs Philosophy of Social Science.” Approaches to Qualitative Research: A Reader on Theory and Practice. Ed. Sharlene Nagy Hesse-Biber and Patricia Leavy. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Christopher Dummitt and Michael Dawson. Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History. London: Brookings Institution Press, 2008.

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