ICHG 2015: Explicit Methodology

Livingstone Monument at Royal Geographical Society, London. Source: S. Kheraj

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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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Sean Kheraj is the director of the Network in Canadian History and Environment. He's an associate professor in the Department of History and associate dean of programs in the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York University. His research and teaching focuses on environmental and Canadian history. He is also the host and producer of Nature's Past, NiCHE's audio podcast series and he blogs at http://seankheraj.com.

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