Monthly Archives: November 2012

‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research’

Historical Geography Reading Group 28/11/12

Session 3, Semester 1

Reading:  Moore F.P.L. (2010) ‘Tales from the archive: methodological and ethical issues in historical geography research,’

It is coming into that busy time of year again and although we had a small group than usual, we still had a very interesting and enjoyable session.  The topic of our discussion was a paper by Francesca Moore on the methodological and ethical concerns within historical geography research.  Moore speaks from her own experience of her PhD research on abortion in 19th and 20th Century Lancashire.  Through this, she explores the ethical dilemmas faced as a result of going work on sensitive subjects and sheds light on the potential for politics in the archive.  She also brings attention to the ways in which the aims and objectives of the academic researcher may conflict with the opinions of the local community.  All of us found this to be an excellent paper for discussion as we could all relate to our own research.

Much of the subsequent discussion was formed as a result of our individual experiences of doing historical research, and we began by considering what Moore intended when she spoke of the potential conflict of interest between researcher and local historians.  Some of our group agreed with Moore’s suggestion that if an archive is largely used for local and family history research, then investigation of more sensitive topics, particularly those that might highlight unsavoury practices within a local area, might encounter a greater deal of resistance.  This opinion was countered by others’ experiences of working in an archive where there is often very little contact with the local historians, and feelings of resistance were rarely, if ever, felt.

We moved on to discuss whether we, as researchers, have the right to investigate something like historical abortion practices that were deliberately conducted in secret.  It was put forth that such research puts us in a position to decide whether to maintain such secrets or expose them.  We agreed that the researcher has to make some very careful ethical decisions regarding sensitive subjects, particularly if investigating within a small community.  It was suggested that the authors’ proposal of changing the names of individuals that were named in the archives might not be sufficient to guarantee complete anonymity within a tight-knit community.  It was also noted that we have a responsibility and duty of care and respect to friends and relatives of dead individuals’.  This also brought up questions of how our ethical standpoint has the potential for change with regard to the dead and living.

We briefly digressed to consider the politics surrounding ownership and housing of archival material.  It was suggested that the various interests and intentions of collectors and archivists may have an impact upon where a collection is stored, or how it is catalogued.  This led us on to the point raised by Moore in which she described how it became necessary to re-frame her research aims in order to locate particular documents in the archive.  Many of us were able to relate to this issue and noted how contextualisation of our research interests, or how we explain them to others, may change depending upon the situation.  It was remarked that such approaches might cause the researcher to unintentionally (or in some cases, intentionally) ‘hide’ the true objective of their research from archive custodians in order to find the necessary documents.  This comment brought us back to discussing the ethical responsibilities of researchers and whether we should focus on a broader ethical horizon with regard to collecting information.

All in all, the session was extremely interesting and engaging, and provided ample food for thought.  As we were a smaller group, we had the opportunity to share some of our own project concerns and queries, which made for particularly helpful discussion.

Thanks to all attendees and to Paul for bringing along the sweets!


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HGRG Practising Historical Geography Conference

Official Summary:

The 18th Annual Practising Historical Geography conference took place at the beginning of November 2012 at the University of Hull, and was attended by 36 delegates and speakers from 13 different institutions. Four Glasgow University post-grad geographers attended, as well as one staff member. The conference provides postgraduate students of Historical Geography a taste of the breadth and vitality of work in the sub-discipline, as well as providing a welcoming environment for students to learn, experiment and expand their own theoretical and methodological skills to further their own research.

Furthermore, the conference also serves to provide a friendly environment for students to network and converse about their shared experiences of working and studying in Historical Geography.  This year, this was started the night before the conference, when many of the students and academics met for a meal. This was a fantastic way to spend the evening, as most people were in Hull that night anyway, and it provided the perfect opportunity to meet fellow Historical Geographers in a relaxed atmosphere.

Again breaking from tradition, this year the conference started with two small-group practical workshops. This year, these were facilitated by Hilary Geoghegan (UCL), who helped us engage and explore our passions for the research process and work dissemination through her session “Loving Historical Geography: enthusiasm as part of the research process”, and Kevin Milburn (University of Nottingham) who opened up the possibilities of different research sources and methods through his session “Sonic Histories and Aural Geographies”. These small-scale workshops help open up dialogue between students, allowing engaging and interesting discussions to unfold, as well as learning a little more about a number of different topics.

This year, the keynote papers were given by Uma Kothari whose paper was titled ‘Contesting Colonial Rule: politics of exile in the Indian Ocean’, (University of Manchester) and Elizabeth Gagen who presented: ‘From muscular health to emotional intelligence: historicising governance in mind/body relations’, (University of Hull). Both speakers gave empirically rich, substantive and thought provoking papers which together demonstrated the diversity of historical sources and approaches available to students. This was further evident in a fascinating short presentation given by recent undergraduate dissertation prize winner Tom Crawford (University of Bristol) titled ‘Production, Power and Performance in the Atlas Novus of 1645 by W. and J. Blaeu’. Tom’s presentation covered a range of theoretical areas, and was empirically rich and was extremely well presented, many people urged him to continue researching within the field of Historical Geography, as he clearly has a real flair and passion for the subject.

The day also includes a postgraduate voices session, a question and answer forum which allows current postgraduate students to listen to recently completed PhD candidates on all manner of their experiences. This year’s speaker was Cheryl McGeachan (University of Glasgow) who spoke about different opportunities and tools available to students to help boost their academic profile and learning experience, from teaching, to reading groups, to writing workshops. Cheryl’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it was great to have the opportunity to hear about different skills that could be gained throughout the research process through various, often creative, methods.

The day as a whole provided an opportunity, over lunch, refreshments and in sessions, to engage with Historical Geographers, and Historical Geographies, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all of the speakers for their interesting presentations, Carl Griffin (QUB) for providing some funding for the evening refreshments, and a special thanks to Lucy Veale for both chairing the sessions, and organising another fantastic Practising Historical Geography conference.

Kim Ross (HGRG Postgraduate Committee Member)

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