With Halloween coming up, it is an ideal time to think of the significance of our research in a new light. Tom writes about the opportunities to give voice to those long gone…
Anyway, I have been thinking recently about a group of people who are nothing less than crucial for my research, but whom I very rarely consider my research subjects. For the most part, this is a bunch of dead people, although I do very occasionally come across a reference to a person whom I’ve met (at which point I often have to fight the urge to ask them why they’re not dead yet). Despite their lack of breathing, moving, fighting life, they’re certainly adding some pretty crucial life-force to my research, bless ’em. Sometimes I just feel like a conduit (woah, fancy word alert!) for some people who once led somewhat more exciting, more important lives than me, and sometimes I feel privileged to give them a voice, to pick their ideas and anecdotes out of the ether and present them to the world. However, it is admittedly true that I very rarely look at my work and think, Hmm I wonder what my research subjects would make of all this? Is this chapter really doing them justice?
What has brought on this sudden cri de coeur (ooh lala, French words alert!), I hear you ask? Well, something odd happened to me last week. I was sat in the archive (seriously, some of the best days of my life have been in that small reading room), and I came across an article by a social worker talking about her difficulties in helping an abandoned child. She talks about feeling paralysed in her work, about realising that there was nothing more to be done, and, perhaps most importantly, that it was somehow simultaneously nothing to do with her, and also all her fault. She was just one women trying, and occasionally failing, to do her job.
I slumped back in my seat, and started into empty space (there’s a lot of empty space in that reading room). I knew, I just knew, that I could never do justice to this social worker’s experience. Yes, I could contextualise it, I could argue about why and how it happened, I could add it to the qualitative and quantitative data I had already amassed about a vast number of people alive in twentieth-century Britain. But I could not reply to this specific woman, I could not tell her that her plea had been heard, that someone in another century was moved by her words. She was to my PhD just a faceless character in an on-going story, but to me she was, for just thirty seconds on a grey Thursday morning, a companion on a seemingly never-ending journey. I could only guess at what she might have been through just so I could copy her words down and deploy them in supervisions, conference papers, casual banter over a pint. As melodramatic as it sounds, I felt like she might deserve a better researcher than me. But I’m all she’s got to pass on the message that, once upon a time, she tried to change a life for the better, and later felt disgusted by her eventual failure.
Wow. This all started out rather humorous, and then got pretty deep. You can see why I have been away. This type of experience is obviously not uncommon in the humanities, arts, and social sciences. We all have research subjects, and we all want to get at something nuanced, important, something worth telling to the world. Whether we can or not is a question we ask ourselves from time to time. As for the scientists, well, I don’t know. I wonder whether the researchers at CERN were spurred on by a desire to do justice to the Higgs boson, to allow it to tell its story of giving mass to generally ungrateful particles. Perhaps Newton just wanted to speak for falling apples everywhere and across time. Of course, all this goes a step deeper still, to the human stories behind the research.
I think I’ll stop here. Tuesdays should be for laughter, not self-reflexive soul-searching. Me, I’m heading back to the archive. There are some people I need to spend some time with. They don’t hear me, but I can’t stop listening to them.
Text credits: Thomas Bray
“A Warwick student since 2006, a postgraduate since 2010, in 2015 completed a PhD in the Department of History on post-war English welfare and social work. Originally from Cambridge, I like cycling, squash, and playing with cats.”