When approaching my first experience of a geography conference, I wondered what would stand out the most. Methodology!
Many of the papers I saw provided meticulously detailed descriptions of research methods. This is where the social science characteristics of geography stood out most. While there were certainly several papers that told clear stories, narrative was not a central approach to communicating research findings.
Explicit explanations of databases, sources, theory, and methods of analysis drove many of the presentations I saw on the first full day of the conference. I saw many advantages to this approach. The presenters exposed their processes and nothing was opaque. If they showed a map or a chart, they explained how they went about making these data visualizations. They took apart each source and laid it out for everyone to see just how they reached their conclusions.
By the end of the day, Catherine Hall’s plenary talk, “Freedom and slavery re-visited: or what is a man?“ reminded me that narrative still very much played a role at this conference. Rich, elaborate prose fully animated her discussion of eighteenth-century British slave owners and their paradoxical ideas of liberty and enslavement. Rather than revealing the process by which she reached her conclusions, she used storytelling as a way of conveying her findings and persuading us of the truth of her arguments.
What then can envionmental historians take from these two approaches to presenting research findings? In being explicit about methodology, geographers seem not to hide much from their audiences. No smoke and mirrors. However, the absence of strong narratives in some of the papers left me unsatisfied. Narrative itself is an important tool for communicating meaning about the past and, of course, it is central to historical practice. While I think devoting attention to methodology is helpful, I wouldn’t want to lose track of the story.
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Another interesting piece, Sean. It seems like environmental historians should have to be more methodologically transparent than other historians, simply because they often draw on methods borrowed in part or whole from other disciplines. I wonder if that’s still the case, though. Maybe these borrowed methods have now been “naturalized” in the field, such that they require little up-front explanation. Books like *Method & Meaning* suggest that we could be more transparent still about our methods in our narratives.
One thing I’d love to hear your take on (perhaps in a subsequent post) is the different ways in which environmental historians and historical geographers understand and deploy concepts of space/place in their research.
Thanks for the feedback on these posts, Tina. I really like your point about the importance of methodological transparency from environmental historians who use interdisciplinary methods.
Regarding the space/place question, it hasn’t been a point of emphasis in the papers I’ve seen yet, but I will keep an eye out and try to report later.
Or course, Catherine Hall has spent her career working in history departments, so it isn’t surprising that her presentation style resonated with you.
Yes, that’s right. I’m revealing my inner historian, I suppose. I will, however, take Tina’s point and learn to embrace the methodological transparency.
I appreciate your posting about the contrasts between the fields and have also found the explicit discussions of methodology/sources/conclusions to be a big difference at social science conferences. However, I wonder if there is research about the effectiveness about the two styles. The main purposes of academic presentations are to present research in ways the audience remembers, convince the audience of arguments and have conclusions challenged by experts. Does anyone know the research on whether these are more effective with a social science style presentation or a humanistic narrative, since that would be worth learning for historians generally.
This may get me fired/shunned, but I confess I never knew how to respond to the question “What is your methodology?” “Well, I read stuff that’s old, maybe look at some visual stuff that’s also old, think about it, and try to figure out what it means.”
I loved the premise of Method & Meaning, but I’m an historian already. Students weren’t wild about it, mostly because most of them didn’t want to be historians (at least, not yet). They want to know what happened, not what their profs do when they’re not in the classroom, and not even the processes of creating the story of what happened. We talk about this, of course, but their reaction is, “Get to the good stuff.” And to be honest: I kind of sympathize. I can’t get too excited about “explanations of databases, sources, theory, and methods of analysis” either if compared to “So what happened?!” And many of us have seen historiographical or methods classes sell about as well as the New Coke.
I do think that we’re seeing an evolution of historical practice, because of technology but also in the different subfields. While some colleagues still ask, “What archives do you use?” – go to location X, peruse a fonds, write – environmental history, especially, invites in so many other kinds of materials.
Maybe what makes history distinct is the spectrum of practice – some people are really keen on process and method, and some people are keen on storytelling.
I can’t say that I have read any research on the effectiveness of these two styles. I expect that it depends on the particular research projects and topics.
I may have informally made a similar remark this week: “My methodology was to go to an archive and read old documents and then think really hard about them.” But then I realized that I was actually spending a bit of time explaining how I composed some charts and what sources I used to compile those charts. Maybe I am a geographer!
Entering a geography department two years ago I had similar concerns about method/methodology but quickly discovered that “archives” sat comfortably along side “semistructured interviews” and “remote sensing” as an acceptable answer.
During the questions after her paper, however, Joan Schwartz made a strong call for us to engage more with “archival methods” and particularly how the archives we use come into being. Less Foucault and Derrida, more archival practice.
Geographers like manuals and handbooks and a few years ago British historical geographers put one together on archives that is worth looking into.
Safe travels Sean and thanks for these posts!