Introducing: Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research

Square in Guimarães, Portugal. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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9781138956032I used to think that I alone preferred the discussions over dinner and drinks in conference cities to the conference panels themselves. Don’t get me wrong. I love a great lecture as much as the next guy (wait, the next guy is texting beside me), but after a day or two of listening to twenty-minute presentation after twenty-minute presentation after twenty-minute presentation after twenty-minute presentation (you get the idea), I need a little something. A walk. A drink even.

It turns out that other people share the perspective that the outside of conferences is often more stimulating than the inside of conferences. This book grew from an effort among like-minded colleagues to bring invigorating conference discussions into conferences themselves (after we guiltily admitted to one another, in a conference hallway, our partiality to dinner-and-drinks discussions). We thought that one way to stimulate an excellent discussion would be to focus a conference panel on something we share as academics—teaching, for example, or research methods—rather than on the results of our specific research programs.

When the call for proposals came for the 2014 World Congress of Environmental History, my colleague and friend Stephanie Rutherford and I were both struggling with research methodology. At different archives, we felt similarly frustrated by the historical record available to us. Stephanie didn’t know how she could pay close attention to the roles of wolves in the past when they rarely made it into the archives. And I didn’t know how to contribute to the decolonizing of research when the archive was full to the brim of white male voices and offered next to no Indigenous perspectives on the past. We needed help, and so it seemed an excellent time to enlist the support of Anders Sandberg and propose a roundtable on research methods.

People actually showed up. Many people. Even though restaurants abound in Guimarães, Portugal, people stood at the back of the conference room and around the sides. They put their hands up and spoke of their own research dilemmas and suggested approaches to one another. It was the kind of conference discussion that I had long imagined and hoped for, and so Stephanie, Anders and I decided to expand it into an edited collection.

Methodological Challenges offers insight into how scholars who conduct research on the history of relationships between humans and the rest of the world do and communicate their work. We purposely did not call the book Methodological Challenges in Environmental History Research because we wanted to appeal to readers outside as well as inside the discipline of history, since scholars from a diversity of disciplines and inter-disciplines engage in this kind of research and are contributors to the book. Although disciplinary commitments influence the research questions we ask and the ways we seek out answers, some methodological challenges go beyond the boundaries of any one discipline, and in this collection it is these challenges that contributors address.

How do we approach research on non-human animals, recognizing that humans are certainly not the only actors in history, yet they dominate in archival records? How can research attend to the non-visual senses, to materiality and to affect when many historical sources offer only a two-dimensional, textual version of the past? How can research be part of the process of decolonization when archival sources and their embedded narratives are often not simply colonial, but colonizing? And how has the digital age shaped the work we do and its communication? These are the methodological challenges with which this book engages. We know that conversations about the “how” of research take place in many places, including over dinner and drinks in conference cities, and we are excited to offer this book to that conversation.

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Jocelyn Thorpe

Jocelyn Thorpe is an associate professor in Women’s and Gender Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada. Her interdisciplinary research focuses on the history and legacies of, as well as challenges to, colonialism in the Canadian context, examining how past discourses and relationships of power influence the present. With Innu artist Joanna Barker, she is currently working on a five-year project about the history of relationships among Indigenous and non-Indigenous Newfoundlanders and the territory they have come to share. She is the author of Temagami’s Tangled Wild: Race, Gender, and the Making of Canadian Nature (UBC Press, 2012) and coeditor with Stephanie Rutherford and L. Anders Sandberg of Methodological Challenges in Nature-Culture and Environmental History Research (Routledge, 2017).


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