Some historians must proceed through research in tidy fashion: frame research question, gather sources, develop argument, write up narrative and argument. A quick survey of guidebooks on historical method shows that to be the accepted order. Yet my own experience has never been so neat. I’m more likely to find some situation curious, to have vaguely-formed questions of different magnitudes in my head, and then identify interesting source material to roam through. In that roaming, some questions come to seem more relevant, important, or productive than others. Others fall away entirely. And my writing is similarly non-linear, as I move between pieces of narrative, using writing as a way to test out what I am arguing, what glues the pieces of the story together. I often work backwards toward the big questions I want to address.
To research my dissertation, ultimately titled “Schooling the Metropolis: Educational Inequality Made and Remade, Nashville, Tennessee, 1945-85,” I started with a bunch of questions about desegregation in Nashville – why did black students ride buses more, and longer, than white kids? Who was to blame? Was this about planning, or power, or what? Was Nashville’s heavily “post-industrial” economy relevant to this story? – and worked my way backwards to the big question I ended up addressing – how the politics and economics of growth feed educational inequality (Erickson 2010).
I suspect I am not the only historian who feels that they are engaged in the work of research and writing unsure of what their final product will be. I recall standing at the snack machine at an archive alongside a senior historian embarking on a new project. She sighed, and said that she had forgotten how hard it was to be back at the point where you don’t know anything yet. Some of this uncertainty seems to me to be central to what we do as historians, as it means we are genuinely guided by our sources. Yet, how do we proceed to do research –the real nuts and bolts of it – if we acknowledge this uncertainty?
Here I tell the story of my own dissertation research process. I use my own experience as the base for this essay because that is the story I know. I do not claim to have been a model historical practitioner or to have done anything cutting edge in my research. This is an example, hopefully one that can prompt some discussion. I will first lay out how I organized my research process and how this process related to my thinking and writing. Then, I’ll venture some connections between that research process and questions in the social history of knowledge and the scholarship of the archive – questions about the making and impact of categories in thought.
In the summer of 2006, I had a viable dissertation prospectus, and was about to embark on the first of my research trips. And, simply, I was scared that I would forget things. I knew what it took to manage the information involved in a seminar-length paper. I had filled notebooks, pages of word-processed text, and then flipped through them as I built an argument. But what of a project that would extend over years of research and writing? I needed something that would back-stop my own memory, allow for flexible organization of my material, and yet be accessible to lots of different kinds of searches, to make sure I didn’t lose material. I also wanted to make sure I was seeing information in the context of the source it came from, and taking notes in a way that clearly distinguished between what came directly from the sources and what was my own analysis.
I turned to FileMaker Pro, a common database program. In my graduate program, a few students had already made use of this technology, as had one of the junior faculty, so I had some examples to work off of. (There are now newer, still powerful yet more user-friendly and streamlined database programs that probably suit our work better – Bento is one example, and other historians have used qualitative research software like AtlasTI.) I created a FileMaker layout that looked like this. I had one screen for each source, and then another relational layout for notes from that source. No doubt, it was not the most elegant approach, but it reflected what I thought I needed at the start of the project.
Guessing at what my needs for analytical categories would be before I had done much research, I put in a few features that I hoped would let me sort notes efficiently. I added a keyword field, for example, where I set up about 15 key terms that I expected to show up a lot in my research – state, for state-level policy, for example, or vocational, for vocational education, or McGavock, for one high school that I thought would figure prominently.
In trips to several archives over a year, I collected tens of thousands of pages of documents. I read and took notes on a portion on-site, in those collections that prohibited digital copying or charged exorbitantly for physical copies. Most of my notetaking happened once I was back at home, as I read digital copies on one screen, like this:
while entering direct quotes, my own observations and questions, and tentative analysis, into the FileMaker layout on the other screen like this:
The vast majority of my notecards were descriptive, but when I had a thought about how pieces connected or another general idea, I made a new notecard, titled “memo to self,” and then these entered the digital stack as well, tagged with keywords.
In the end, using FileMaker in this way did accomplish the most basic of my goals. It proved a reliable and convenient way to keep notes and contextual information in the same place, and it helped address my most basic fear of forgetting by allowing me to search for information in myriad ways – titles, content of my notes, direct quotations, keywords, dates. Once I sat down to write, though, I came to appreciate more how fully text-searchable databases allowed me not only to follow my original questions, but to explore ones that I hadn’t anticipated at the start of my research.
Once I had read through nearly all of my documents, I had nearly ten thousand note cards. I used FileMaker to help me organize my notes to get ready for analysis and sense-making. I first ran large searches based on my keywords: hundreds of notecards on curriculum, for example. I would organize these cards chronologically – which FileMaker does instantaneously – and give them a quick read-through in that order. As themes or patterns began to emerge, or there were connections to other sections of my research that weren’t under the “curriculum” heading, I ran separate searches on these, and would incorporate that material into the bin of quotes and comments I was building by cutting and pasting into a new Word document.
(I am sure that FileMaker’s report function would do a better job of this, but I never invested the small amount of time it would have taken to figure out fully how this worked).None of this, process, of sorting information into relevant groups, has to happen with a database. But it happens more quickly and more easily with a database, by my lights.
Once I had identified the pool of notecards I wanted to work with, I began to write. I begin writing before I am sure of exactly what the structure of the argument is. This is how my brain works – I often don’t know what I’m missing, whose perpectives are in or out, until I’ve tried to sit down and write a basic narrative. I try to keep moving in my writing by thinking, “who did what, and when, and with what result?” Then, why? (For more on this see, “Keeping the Writing (and Thinking) Going”). As I write in this fashion, I often need bits of information that may not have made it into the first batch of notecards I was working with, so it was easy to flip back to the database and get those pieces when I needed them.
Beyond the benefits of convenience, I think that the fully-searchable, digital mode of notetaking I chose allowed me to see things as I wrote and thought that I would not have seen otherwise – likely only because of the difficulty of tracking things down without such a database. Let me illustrate this with an example, in which the database helped me to quickly trace the how various participants used the phrase “inner city,” an inquiry that helped me to sort out how geographical labels related to divisions of race and class.
One central problem in my work has been understanding the multiple layers of inequality at work in Nashville’s desegregation story. There are of course salient and central differences by race and by class, but these divisions were often expressed in the language of geography. By the mid-1960s, residents, planners, and educators used the phrase “inner city” to indicate predominantly black neighborhoods, or neighborhoods where planners anticipated that the black population would continue to grow. I had noticed this pattern in my own reading, and captured examples of such language and other descriptions and imaginings of geographic space and with a key word – cognitive map, as I chose to label it. When I went to read about this phenomenon, I read through all of my “cognitive map” notes, in chronological order, and over several iterations of papers and chapters developed an argument about how what I called pro-suburban bias was informing Nashville’s busing plan. In early versions, I seemed to imply that in Nashvillians’ cognitive maps, the correlation between suburban space and white residents, and urban space and black residents, was absolute. But I wondered about whether the boundaries between these cognitive maps of the city and of racial residential patterns fit that tightly. What could I do to test this? It occurred to me that I could read all of the instances where my sources used the phrase “inner city.” Of course, I may not have not written down every single instance, as I did not imagine this textual analysis to be a part of the project from the outset. Nonetheless, I had enough to provide a basis from which to work.
When I read my sources in this way – some of which I had labeled as about “cognitive maps” and some of which hadn’t made it into that category – I saw something that I hadn’t seen before. Among the critics of schooling in the “inner city,” and the smaller group of its defenders, there was a case that proved that the identification of urban space with black residents wasn’t complete, at least for some city residents. I had made earlier notes about, but had not remembered to come back to, the story of a central-city school that was historically segregated white, remained largely working class, and had a local council representative fighting to retain the school in conjunction with what he labeled its surrounding inner city neighborhood. William Higgins, the council representative, asked, “You’re taking children from the inner city and busing them to suburbia. Why place the hardship on them? Why not bring children from suburbia to the inner city?” and later proposed that “All new schools … should be unified with the inner-city, otherwise the city finds itself a lonely remnant, disunited and eventually abandoned.” (Ivey 1977 and Higgins 1979).
When I read the first passage, in the first year of my research, I had managed not to tag it as about “cognitive maps,” and thus it would not show up in that search when I began my writing over two years later. But, because I could use a broader search based on a phrase laden with meaning and insinuation, I found this instance. It was one that ended up being quite important in my understanding how these categories of race, geography, and class overlapped, and where they diverged, in my story.
Later, I found that the database allowed me to reframe an initial research question about school location into a broader one about the distribution of public goods – schools and otherwise – in the metropolis. Such a topic links my work to the broader matter of what political and economic structures support metropolitan inequality.
From the start, my dissertation was centrally concerned with why schools were built where they were, how locations got chosen, to meet whose interests. I understood that in this way schools were a kind of good being struggled over in political and economic terms. But it wasn’t until I was through the process of analyzing the local politics of school construction that my story was not just about schools, but about the distribution of public goods generally in the metropolitan area.
I had been tracing how urban renewal funds subsidized school construction, and how, in the context of a metropolitan government, such subsidies could allow a municipality to shift more of its own tax revenues to its suburban precincts. I suspected that this use of urban renewal dollars to reduce the local commitment to supporting city areas in favor of suburban ones was visible in other areas of city services as well. How could I illustrate that, provide some evidence for this broadened claim? I could see what my sources – planning reports, maps, records of community meetings– said about another kind of public good, to see if the dynamics were similar. I knew that I had made some notes about the building and repair of proper sewer lines for the city and surrounding suburbs, but I hadn’t expected to write about them, so I hadn’t made them a keyword. Text searchability of the database meant that I could very easily track down everything I had about sewers, organize it chronologically, and test if the pattern I saw for schools fit for sewers as well. Without fully searchable notes, I would have been looking through stacks of notecards, organized to fit another set of categories entirely. I may not have felt I had the time, at least at this stage of research, to expand my original question to a broader one.
In each case, the database helped relevant information jump out of noise of 18 months of research, and helped make that information available relationally, easily connected to other information. It’s possible that I am overvaluing what the program did, however, as my appreciation of it comes from my contrasting its use with other approaches I have used before. That is, I am not able to reckon with the ways other researchers have kept their own systems of information-gathering flexible. I can only compare this method to others I know.
Categories and the making of historical knowledge
Whether or not this specific database tool is useful broadly, I do think that reflecting upon it has led me to what I think are some interesting questions about how we think about our research practice and how we understand the relationship between how we research and what we learn.
Recent works in the social history of knowledge and the history of the archive share a core interest in categories – where they come from, what assumptions or values they represent, how they can be reified on paper or in practice. I think these interests are relevant to our thinking about research methods. In the writing of my dissertation, I felt fortunate to be able to set out initial categories of analysis, but to have technological tools that made it possible, at no great expense of time, to throw these out. Sometimes I used my initial keywords, and sometimes I skipped over these to evaluate new connections, questions, or lines of analysis. If I had used pen-and-paper notebooks or a set of word processing documents, regrouping information would have required a great expenditure of time. I would have been less likely, then, to consider these new avenues, and thus my earlier thinking about categories of analysis would have been more determinative of my final work, even though those earlier categories were set out early in the project when – like that senior historian – I really didn’t know anything yet. As it cost me virtually not time at all to try out new questions, I could do so easily and in an exploratory fashion, without commitment. That is, thinking about how FileMaker works and how it helped got me thinking about how historians construct, use, and rely upon categories in our own thought and analysis.
It makes sense that we historians would think about categories, as we encounter them in many ways in our work. A few quickly come to mind: as new graduate students, we learn to identify ourselves by sub-field – “I do history of gender,” or “I’m an Americanist,” for example. Then, we’re trained implicitly and explicitly to organize information and causal explanations into categories of analysis – race, class, gender, sexuality, politics, space, etc – when in fact these categories are never so neat and separate, whether in an individual’s life or in a historical moment. Then, we research in archives that establish and reify their own categories – legal records divided by plaintiff or defendant, institutions that keep their records with an eye to confirming the institution’s power or reinforcing its independence. And, to make sense of sometimes overwhelming volumes of fact, all of which needs to be analyzed relationally, we rely on categories that we create as we research and analyze – like my database keywords.
This matter of categories connects to at least two fields of scholarship. Scholars of the history of knowledge like Peter Burke have examined the organizational schemes embodied in curricula, in libraries, in encyclopedias, and have shown us how these structures and taxonomies represent particular ways of seeing the world. Burke shows us that such schemes reify or naturalize those ways of seeing, thus helping to reproduce the view of the world from which they came. They also make some kinds of information more, or less, accessible. Think, for example, of the encyclopedia. We are accustomed to it’s A to Z organization of topics, but this structure in fact represented a break away from previous reference formats that grouped subjects under a structure of classical disciplines. The alphabetized encyclopedia came about at a point when the previous disciplinary categories were no longer so stable as to be able to contain growing knowledge, and a new, more horizontal or less hierarchical model took their place, a model that allowed readers access to information by topic, outside of the hierarchies of a discipline (Burke 2001, 184-7). Burke is pointing us to the importance of how we categorize information, where these categories come from, and how those categorizations then affect our access to and experience of information.
Anthropologist Ann Stoler comes to the problem of categories from a different perspective. Stoler thinks of the archive as an active site for ethnography, and seeks to understand how archives are live spaces in which the colonial state built, among other things, social categories. In Dutch colonial Indonesia, she traces how colonial administrators through their archiving categorized, and assigned particular rights and privileges to, people with different national heritages. As they categorized, they made some peoples and experiences of the colonial state visible and obscured others. Stoler writes that categories are both the explicit subject of archives and their implicit project: “the career of categories is also lodged in archival habits and how those change; in the telling titles of commissions, in the requisite subject headings of administrative reports, in what sorts of stories get relegated to the miscellaneous and ‘misplaced.’” She then frames the archive as a place to understand “how people think and why they seem obliged to think, or suddenly find themselves having difficulty thinking,” in certain ways. (Stoler 2010, 36, emphasis in original).
As I stepped back to reflect on my own research and writing process, I came to think that the work of scholars like Burke and Stoler poses important questions about our own research process. Burke’s work suggests that we investigate how categories of thought, either between disciplines or within them, affect our work. Think of academic sub-fields, for example, which many of us are intentionally writing against, yet which still shape the literatures we read, maybe the archives we pursue, and whether we think of particular questions as in or out of our domain.
Stoler raises a different kind of question. At what points in our research, out of pragmatic necessity, out of a desire for intellectual order, or for whatever reason, do we set out categories of evidence, of thought, that end up influencing what we see and what we don’t see? What kinds of tools could help us be more aware of these categories, or have the flexibility to move beyond them when we need or want to?
I hypothesize here that tools like FileMaker offer a flexibility in working with notes, that allow us to create and recreate categories as we work. That flexibility means that we can evaluate particular ways of categorizing what we know, and then adapt if we realize that these categories aren’t fully satisfactory. When I think of building categories as part of what I am doing when I research and analyze, I am reminded to evaluate those categories, those ways or organizing or thinking, for how they help or what they leave out. I have the flexibility to adjust my categories as I know more about my sources, about how they relate to one another, about how they relate to the silences I’m finding. I have tried here to illustrate this by talking about keyword versus textual searching.
This idea of flexible categorization touches upon another strand of scholarship about archives, this one a debate among archivists about what postmodernism has meant for their work. Their question is how to link the growing understanding of archives as space in which certain kinds of power are codified and justified, and where information has to be understood relationally, to the actual practice of archiving. One archival theorist, Terry Cook, contends that finding aids and item descriptions should be constantly evolving, adapting to new relevant knowledge about the items’ sources and its relationship to other archived and unarchived materials. I think that as a historian I am striving for a way of taking and adjusting and organizing my notes that achieves this same level of flexibility and relationality, and am interested in considering what those tools might be, FileMaker or otherwise (Cook 2001).
Yet I think there are at least two cautions to think of, as well. One comes from the flat-ness of databases like the one I created. In Burke’s terms, that database is not a reference text organized along disciplinary lines. It is more like an A – to – Z encyclopedia. Without hierarchies that keep each fact locked in relationship to others – through the structure of earlier historiography, for example, or through the original order form of an archive – the historian has to be more intentional about seeing information in its context. If we can look across all of our notes at a very granular level, and make connections across categories that we or others created, it becomes to easy to look at these bits of information devoid of context – a danger visible even in my own way of cutting and pasting out of my database, which linked bits of notes only to a source code, meaning that they could be read in less than direct connection to their origins. Digital bits seem very easily severed from their context.
More importantly, despite its usefulness in helping see things we might have otherwise forgotten or missed, no database does the work of analysis. That work still happens in our own heads, where other implicit categories of habits of thought might be shaping our analysis. Here we decide whose stories to tell first, for example, or prioritize one set of historical drivers over another. Some of these habits reflect the deepest-held of assumptions and beliefs. It’s less easy to talk of these, and certainly less easy for an author to identify their own, than it is to talk about notetaking and notekeeping. But, maybe if we are thinking about the mechanics in this way, we can be prompted to be more reflective about the conceptual, too.
In this way, I think we come full-circle to David Thelen’s article about the Journal of American History review process, an article that was one prompt for this set of essays (Thelen 1997). The center of that special issue was a submission by Joel Williamson, in which Williamson recounted his failure to perceive the centrality to, and the origins of lynching in, American and southern history. Two reviewers received Williamson’s piece with shock and dismay that he could have missed what they had known, had appreciated as central in their field, for years. Despite this disagreement, or perhaps because of it, Thelen saw Williamson’s piece as issuing a challenge to historians to “think about what we see and do not see, to reflect on what in our experience we avoid, erase, or deny, as well as what we focus on.” For me, this thinking about categories is part of that effort.
In Thelen’s introduction to that JAH issue, he explained that historians don’t talk much about method and writing process because it is very hard to do so well – hard to ensure that “the personal rises above the individual,” in Thelen’s formulation. I don’t know if I’ve managed to overcome that problem, but I do hope that some of this story might at least raise questions for you about your own.
Burke, Peter. A Social History of Knowledge: From Gutenberg to Diderot. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000.
Cook, Terry. “Fashionable Nonsense or Professional Rebirth: Postmodernism and the Practice of Archives.” Archivaria No. 51, Spring 2001, accessed at http://journals.sfu.ca/archivar/index.php/archivaria/issue/view/428/showToc, Sept. 12, 2010.
Erickson, Ansley T. “Schooling the Metropolis: Educational Inequality Made and Remade, Nashville, Tennessee, 1945-1985.” Ph.D. Diss., Columbia University, 2010.
Higgins, William. “Suggestions for Development of Guidelines for a Unitary Plan for the Metropolitan Board of Education,” 1979. Kelly Miller Smith Papers, Vanderbilt University Special Collections, Box 69, File 8.
Ivey, Saundra. “School Closing Plan Draws Fire.” Tennessean, Nov. 23, 1977.
Stoler, Ann Laura. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.
Thelen, David. “What We See and Can’t See in the Past: An Introduction,” and other essays in the Journal of American History, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Mar. 1997), accessed at http://www.jstor.org/stable/2952898, Aug. 20, 2010.
About the author:
Ansley T. Erickson completed her Ph.D. in U.S. History at Columbia in May, 2010, and is Assistant Professor of Cultural Foundations of Education and History (by courtesy) at Syracuse University. She thanks Jack Dougherty for the invitation to reflect on research practice, and for good feedback on this essay, and Courtney Fullilove for helpful reading suggestions.
How to cite this page:
Ansley Erickson, “Historical Research and the Problem of Categories: Reflections on 10,000 Digital Notecards,” Writing History: How Historians Research, Write, and Publish in the Digital Age, October 6, 2010, http://writinghistory2010.trinfocafe.org/2010/10/06/erickson-research/.
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