Methodology: when "sideways" is the only way you can go

In the discussion of Marla Miller’s Betsy Ross and the Making of America, a book about a woman who left no trace in the historical record that survived, Susan commented that “I think the whole issue of how we go sideways into a topic that does not want to reveal itself is fascinating. And since I think I’ve spent most of my career working obliquely, it’s one I think about a lot.”  Miller offered some more thoughts in a recent e-mail exchange on the question of why she wrote a biography of Betsy Ross, and sidles up to some of those “sideways” methodological issues:

On the “why not til now” question, I’ve given that a lot of thought.  Your theory about the masculine slant of early American history is certainly part of it — I’d never thought of it quite like that, but I think the point is spot on.  Also, of course, when women’s history emerged in the 1970s and 1980s, the antipathy toward Ross was palpable; undertaking any serious scholarly inquiry into her actual life would almost certainly have been a career-ending move.  I really think that it’s not til now (or at least lately) that she’s become “safe” for scholarly study.  And of course there’s the technological angle:  the appearance of powerful databases like Early American Imprints, America’s Historical Newspapers and even Google Books makes possible research that I wouldn’t have lived long enough to do, even five years ago.  I feel like I was just the right person in the right place and the right time — not just being someone interested in women’s and labor history, but having the intense interest I do in the nuts and bolts of early American craft skill, and also the public history orientation that helped me know how to approach the historic house museum’s resources.  The whole time, I felt like the project was a tremendous privilege.

Miller’s point about biographies and/or taking Betsy Ross seriously in the 1970s or 80s would have been seen as unserious is a good one.  Women’s historians in that foundational era were concerned with getting far beyond token women like Pocahontas, Betsy Ross, Sacagawea, and Mrs. O’Leary, who were seen as more appropriate for grade-school American history pageants than as subjects for serious study.  And as some of you old-timers may recall, this was the era of the rise of hard-core cliometric social history, in which articles were composed mostly of charts and graphs.  I don’t mean to disparage this era–it was very earnest, and many historians created huge databases and complex histories from tax rolls, vital records, and plantation records from which they could get at the experience of people who had neither the education, leisure time, nor cultural capital to create and preserve documentation of their own lives, and we still rely on their work today for the valuable portraits of early American society they wrote.

In the 1990s, cultural studies (led by literary types, with their Jacques Derrida and their close readings) helped social historians use textual sources again and allowed us to imagine histories that weren’t just publications of charts and graphs, but that told stories.  This turn gave us the tools to employ both social historical research and textual sources to write sophisticated stories like Betsy Ross and the Making of America(At least, that’s what I think I learned in graduate school, ca. 1990-96.)  And as Miller notes, powerful research tools that permit word-searches of thousands of publications or documents are of enormous help.

As far as I can tell, the most innovative histories of the past decade have been written by historians who leave no archive unvisited, no book unopened, and no legend unexplored.  The promiscuity of possible sources and methods for reading and using them makes history very exciting to read and to write these days.  I don’t get the impression that there are too many historians out there who say, “you can’t do that” any more.  (I could be wrong–but those nay-sayers would be even more wrong, in my opinion.)

What do you historians (or other cultural studies types) think?  How have you gone about researching and writing “sideways” about subjects or topics?  Where do you think history and methodology are going these days?

0 thoughts on “Methodology: when "sideways" is the only way you can go

  1. Well, people do say “You can’t do that” still; it’s just that they say it about different types of history than they used to. In my field, more conventional histories (political, economic, diplomatic) can be done in the literal sense, but they are relegated to the category of “you can’t do that” because they are rarely sexy enough to generate interest on the job market or in the publishing world.

    But as to the real question of the day about going sideways – the first step to any sideways project is believing it is possible. Historians were told for decades that we couldn’t write women’s history or queer history or even history of the poor because these groups didn’t exist in the sources. Going sideways to me means rejecting the thesis of invisibility, which has been amply demonstrated by all the historians mentioned above (and as Historiann points out). Women didn’t exist until – voila! women’s historians looked in different kinds of records and discovered them. I always teach my students about Important Female Author (who lived at the same time as male authors they’ve actually heard of), and I get great pleasure in pointing out she outsold them all. We thus don’t study her “because she’s a woman” but because she’s an important historical actor if we want to look at “popular” culture. I get really angry at these accusations of “revisionism” (always launched like an insult) for the “insertion” of women, queer folk, people of color, etc into the historical narrative, as though we were just making them up. What fascinates me is how many previously invisible historical subjects are uncovered in the most old-school kinds of sources (criminal records, lawsuits, wills) that sometimes seem played out but are really only beginning to be mined.


  2. I *love* going into a topic sideways! Indeed, sometimes I perversely alter the focus of my writing a little, just so that I can avoid asking a question that I know I can answer very easily, or avoid sources that I know explicitly address a topic head-on. (I recently wrote about this, among other things, here: ) When faced with that sort of easy congruence, I tend to twist my question a little, or else I find the research and writing too boring.

    I like to ask questions or pose problems that are based on non-native categories. In other words, I don’t hold to the historical approach that says it is wrong to analyze data in terms of categories that don’t exist in the culture one is studying, that one must always “let the sources speak for themselves” in their own, original terms and taxonomies. I do think it’s my responsibility, when writing up my research, to be explicit about what I’m doing, though. But this way of working inevitably means a sideways approach.

    Lastly, another problem I’ve struggled with lately is asking a question that’s almost too obvious. It’s something fairly universal and commonplace, hence not often described in detail. I’ve had to design some very creative lateral approaches to find answers for this one…


  3. With brow furrowed slightly in confusion, I wonder whether it’s even possible to do history today without going at it sideways–that is, taking in as many sources and methodological approaches as possible. Sometimes that’s a matter of necessity because of the subject; I wrote a MA thesis on a small community without an archive, so telling the story of that past required all sorts of imaginative approaches. But shouldn’t we be doing that for all of our subjects? When I approached one of my advisers with my dissertation project, his first question was, “is there an archive for that?” There just so happened to be a big archive, but…so what? It’s not as though I could responsibly rely on that one archive, no matter how extensive. Telling good (meaningful, informative, accurate) stories about the past requires gathering up as much evidence as possible and looking at it from as many angles as you can imagine.

    It seems to me that if there’s a story that needs to be told, we have the wherewithal–in terms of technology, source availability, and methodologies–to tell it.


  4. “Going sideways” has been one of the most important changes that allowed more complicated histories of minorities, women (of all races), and queer folk.

    Still, the graph and charts folk also had a key intervention, which was to avoid glamorizing any one particular person. Their focus on community is one that is worth remembering and there remain dangers of focusing on the “exceptional” figures.


  5. GayProf–yes, the cliometricians provided lots of great information and showed us how to use quantitative data. (I’m still glad that charts and graphs are no longer the stuff of academic articles, but rather are relegated to appendices.) Miller’s book, for example, is nearly as much about the community of working artisans in Philadelphia ca. 1760-1830 as it is about BR in particular. The general background gives us the opportunity to measure the particular more accurately.

    I really like Perpetua’s formulation of “rejecting the thesis of invisibility.” I disagree, though, that people aren’t still writing history in very traditional ways. (Speaking for American history only, that is.) My editor at one point in the loooong process of writing my book complimented me on how innovative and interesting it was. I scoffed, and he said something like, “you have no idea about the number of manuscripts I reject because they’re just a biography of some puritan minister. That’s what a lot of people are still writing about in your field.” Apparently these projects at least clear the Ph.D. thesis hurdle–publication may be another battle entirely.

    Geschichte Grad’s point is a good one–“if there’s a story that needs to be told, we have the wherewithal.” But, getting the wherewithal is still a challenge, especially for many younger, unemployed and/or untenured folks. Even those of us with paychecks don’t have much of a travel or research budget any more. (I’ve written before about what I see as a disturbing lack of familiarity with archival source among younger scholars, perhaps in part because archival work is expensive and Early American Imprints can be searched in your jammies at home.) Maybe, sadly, that’s where history is going, not for intellectual reasons but because of the cost of doing archival work. If this is indeed the case, then Squadrato’s idea of twisting accessible material around a very different kind of question may be one solution.


  6. In my field of literary studies there’s still a lot of “death of the author” stuff going on, and a reflexive resistance to any claims about the importance of a writer’s biography, or his intentions, etc. There’s good reason for this resistance, of course — lots of terrible literary scholarship is naively biographical (“Shakespeare wrote his great tragedy, Hamlet, because he was so broken up about the death of his son!”) — but claims of intentionalism can be thrown at even good, responsible scholarship that grounds itself in biography.

    At the same time, lots of scholarship that’s actually on early autobiography is awash in exactly these kind of naive readings — probably in part because most work in early life-writing focuses on women and other marginalized groups, an there’s often an investment in claiming that diaries, family histories, etc., give us the “real” voices of these previously unheard-from individuals. But the assumption seems to be that there’s no conscious authorial crafting of these works, or no circumstantial demands that might have determined their particular form and content.

    It’s a weirdly contradictory situation, and one that’s vexed me as someone who is deeply interested in the way certain kinds of published texts reflect and respond to their authors’ personal concerns — and especially concerns that, for political and other reasons, can’t be expressed fully.

    So I rely a lot on biography, but try to refrain from making anything that sounds like a claim about a writer’s personality, temperament, or “real” beliefs. I point instead to what the texts are both saying and doing — to any weird recurring patterns, significant omissions, tangles and contradictions, and things that get edited out or changed from one version of a work to the next. The texture of a piece of writing does tell us an awful lot about a writer, but not always in the terms people want or are expecting.


  7. Historiann – it definitely varies by field. I can see that US history would be one particularly prone to the Great White Men biography, partially because there’s a popular market for US history books as well as an academic one. My field is the playground of academics only, and political-diplomatic history isn’t getting much love on the job market (or even more conventional social histories); it’s all people on the margins these days – not that I’m criticizing this trend, just describing where things are where I sit.

    You’re so right about shrinking travel budgets, though I can’t imagine producing archive-free scholarship. I’m dependent on it, and thus my colleagues and I have to suck up a lot of our own research costs. Even more disturbing than shrinking budgets (to me) is the lack of time and space for research. The idea that serious research can and should be done during the summers only is absurd, and we all know how hard it is to get a fellowship. (Public) universities are super stingy with terms off, and seem to prefer course reductions, which are fine if you’re writing, but can make travel difficult.


  8. In medieval history, it really depends on where you stand, and who you’re standing next to. I can immediately tell you that someone who studied with so-and-so is going to produce archivally dense research, while someone who worked with Other Famous Historian is going to look at every last record of one tiny manor and produce a narrow but detailed study. My own approach is the bastard child of two graduate mentors with two very different methodologies and approaches to the sources.

    For those of us who work in archives, the kind of history we write is dictated by the sources available for our period, area, and topic. People working on land tenure on a c. 14 English manor have more at their disposal, so seem to tend to stick very close to an accurate reportage style, whereas people who work on, say, early medieval Iceland, have less to work with, and thus have to devise more creative methodologies, and thus are probably more aligned with what’s normally called cultural history.

    As for “sideways,” I think, like squadrato, I’m being dragged sideways into my topic. I just can’t see it yet.


  9. The other piece that I think about working “sideways” is that I’m always paying attention to incidental things in the archives. So in court records I can be just as interested in where people are when they see something happen — women washing clothes together, or men and women talking together outside church, or who is in a shop. This is one of the ways I’ve tried to find out about things so obvious in the past that no one talked about them.

    I’ve done both detailed village studies (including some family reconstitution) and more “cultural” history; both approaches are helpful in asking questions the sources were not meant to answer. Like Squadrato, I do not think we need to be bound by the categories of the past as we do our work.


  10. Susan writes, “we don’t need to be bound by the categories of the past as we do our work.”

    Hoo-boy, is this ever true right now. I think there’s been a kind of sea change in my field, and it’s making it difficult to teach introductory graduate historiography classes. The categories that I think are important now are completely different than the ones I learned in grad school. And even the subject has changed too–or at least is being nudged beyond its Atlantic littoral and English-only sources. If my graduate professors could see my graduate syllabus of 2010 back in 1990, it would have looked to them like a message from outer space, I think.

    I think you’re right that new subjects and topics emerge when we pay attention to the details. It helps if you’re already researching an under-documented topic in history (women, for example), because it’s likelier in those cases that you’re able to write every detail down about women. (Less so than if you’re writing about better documented issues.)

    The difference in approach (thick description versus innovative readings of fewer sources) that Notorious pins down are probably characteristic of most fields. In my field, of course, slavery studies are damnably difficult, compared to every nosehair and toenail clipping issued by the Continental Congress.

    Flavia’s comment is interesting–and it gets to how historians’ work might be used outside of our discipline. I think she’s right to be cautious in her use of biography–some will disagree, but historians are getting more comfortable in admitting the epistemological limits of our discipline. That’s not something that those of us who work on underdocumented people will be afraid to admit. But those who have subjects or topics with row after row of papers–most of them tend to be more rote empiricists.

    I often think that biographers who are writing about people who left reams and reams of personal papers behind are not in fact fortunate–they may be dupes who fall prey to the attempts of the subject to control hir historical memory from beyond the grave. Those of us working with little or no insight into the inner life of our subjects are blissfully free.


  11. As a rhetorician/compositionist–aka, my PhD is in English–who’s writing a biography, I have a couple of thoughts. First, being trained as a rhetorician instead of a historian gave me some good sideways triangulation skills; I can read a text lots of different ways. At the same time, we didn’t learn enough about historical research, even though my PhD program trumpets its strength in historical work. (Qualitative research methods covered it some, and that was required.) Historiography courses should be required, IMHO, for aspiring historians in any field. And rhetoric courses for historians.
    Re subjects attempting to control their historical memories beyond the grave: my subject burned all of her personal papers and letters, hoping to do just that. The main reason she did so, I think, is common to women who lived through Krafft-Ebing’s pathologizing of female intimacy: she didn’t want to reveal her relationships with women. This dearth of info does NOT make it easier to write about her.
    One more thing: as an independent scholar, I’m finding it near-impossible to get the access I need. No institutional funding, no access to university databases, no grants to employed scholars, no grant/fellowship money if the funding goes to a college and not an individual. I’ve gotten more creative–turns out there’s a LOT on the Net I’d never found when I had a faculty position…but all in all, it’s hurting my ability to do my bio subject justice. If any of you are independent scholars, can you share some tips?


  12. Ignatz, are you located anywhere near a public college or university? Most schools allow limited borrowing privileges to local (usually county) residents, and you can use most databases right there in the library. I know that I use the collections at Local Bigass Research University (about 35 miles away) several times a semester, to fill in the gaps at my own Uni library.

    As to the rest, the difference may not be so great as you think. Many of us working for public universities get little or nothing in the way of research funding (though we *do* have access to interlibrary loan and databases and the like). What I do is whip out the credit card to pay for my overseas research trips. This means that I am 10K deeper in debt now than when I started this job. Of course, that kind of debt-accumulation is a lot easier to justify when I remind myself that it’s a job requirement; for an independent scholar, the equation is undoubtedly different, and I don’t know what to tell you there.


  13. I work on Byzantium, so archives aren’t an option, but I’m learning to extract everything I can from sigilliography, paleography, archaeology….all the ologies, plus numismatics. Non-textual sources require some special training, but it’s well worth the effort.

    It does surprise me how much some of the other grad students (and occasionally faculty) look down on using anything that isn’t printed on a dead tree or animal skin.


  14. On the “reams and reams” of personal papers phenomenon, I’m not sure it always or even often means the creator of the papers is trying to exercise control, because often the “ream-i-ness” of the archive is the result of the work of some low visibility consolidator who has rounded the prodigious output up and made it “available.” But unquestionably, it can tempt scholars to skate along on the surface of the resulting mountain of evidence, making small or large interpretations the distinguishing characteristic of the work. I don’t mean anything invidious by “surface,” but not everybody is tempted to go “sideways” into the crevices, nooks, and crannies that the papers present.

    This does leave a lot of opportunity lying on the table, to do “sideways” work–even on great vertical mounds of previously well-worked canonical evidence–with the energy and investigational techniques/habits that might otherwise tempt us to whip up a few graphs and charts!


  15. Indyanna–agreed. I didn’t mean to suggest that historical figures have an invidious interest in controlling their historical reputations–just that I think it’s a typical trap for biographers to fall for their well-documented subjects and take their side, becoming partisans of the subject rather than analysts. This is especially the case when a subject is not just prolific, but an engaging writer and very intelligent.

    We all would control our historical memories, if we thought anyone might care!

    Rustonite, I’m rather surprised at what you say. I’ve always thought of ancient types and medievalists as people who were (necessarily) much more comfortable with interdisciplinarity, at least because they have to be. Maybe my department is odd, but I’ve never heard it held against job candidates that their work is interdisciplinary and/or that they incorporate objects or linguistic evidence into their research. Quite the contrary, in fact–but that may have to do with the fact that we have so many environmental historians, and they’re people who are used to looking to and borrowing from the work of different disciplines. So forge ahead with your interdisciplinary research.

    Ignatz–I’m rather amazed by the stuff that’s available on-line, but I hear you about being cut off from subscription databases (and ILL too, don’t forget.) Maybe you can borrow a login ID and password from an affiliated friend, or maybe you can get alumni privileges from your grad institution? (Some of my former M.A. students who are working in the area have library privileges somehow at Baa Ram U.–both borrowing privileges and electronic access privileges.) You might check in with your advisor about this–it strikes me that the faculty who trained you could make the case that it’s in your institution’s best interests if you publish your work.

    Notorious: I think it’s time for you to start advertising on your blog, or direct fundraising. I’m mortified to hear about the extent of your self-funding, although I agree with your larger point, which is that it’s far from unusual these days.


  16. Pingback: The Women’s Historian and West Point, Part III: On Being Cast as the Token “Where are the Women?” Person | Tanya L. Roth

  17. I think the readers of this blog today will be interested in a book that is just coming out this month:
    Contesting Archives: Finding Women in the Sources, edited by Nupur Chaudhuri, Sherry J. Katz, and Mary Elizabeth Perry (University of Illinois Press). Many of the contributors discuss exactly this approach in doing women’s history in a wide variety of times and places.
    Some of you might have heard a selection of some of the contributions at the AHA or Western Association of Women Historians in previous years, so you know what an interesting and useful set of materials are found in this book.
    A link to the publisher’s page (if I may do a bit of advertising! – I am not one of the editors, so I will have no monetary gain from the sales!):


  18. Also, for Ignatz and others, if you aren’t already, think about getting involved with the National Coalition of Independent Scholars – They have been doing some great work advocating for independent scholars, many of whom face exactly the problems of access that you describe. These issues come up frequently at their H-Net listserv, H-Scholar,


  19. Kathie–thanks for all of those helpful links–really great stuff for Ignatz and the rest of us, too.

    Maybe some of us feminist history bloggers should do a round-robin discussion of Contesting Archives, a la our discussion of Judith Bennet’s book last year. . .


  20. I think one of the most important changes that’s happening in history, period, is the widespread use of digital cameras to capture reference-quality images of sources, which gives us the ability to do differently wide-ranging work in primary sources. Obviously, this varies depending on subfield and time period, but as I’ve written elsewhere, it’s a major unsolved methods problem for my approximate cohort of PhDs. I think it’s particularly important for women’s history, since the questions we like to ask lead us to sources that aren’t always in the big primary-source databases, or the subjects we’re interested aren’t always included in the official subject headings for physical collections.

    My dissertation’s a history of birth certificates and compulsory birth registration in the US, roughly from 1840 to the present, and there’s just no way I could have done it without digital photography (and subsequently indexing the materials I found to help me answer my idiosyncratic research questions.) This strategy gives me the ability to answer a set of questions about ordinary women’s interactions with government identity-documentation systems, at a scale that wouldn’t have been possible on my limited research budget. I use the US Children’s Bureau papers, which is a huge and relatively unindexed collection (and that lack of proper archival processing isn’t likely to change soon.) Shooting and indexing my own images of women’s letters in that collection has been a major part of my methods (and a major organizational headache, but I digress).

    Based on my experience working with the Children’s Bureau papers, I’m also beginning to believe that women’s-history scholars should build better tools for crowdsourcing publicly-available primary sources in digital form. (If I’ve shot images of one box and you’ve shot images of another box, and we’re both transcribing some percentage of those images into text for our own purposes, there’s no reason anyone else should ever have to do that again. We just need tools that’ll make that sharing and metadata-generation easy.) For collections that don’t have pesky intellectual-property concerns, I think this is the wave of the future. (Readers who are interested in such things should feel free to contact me at the email address listed on my website.)


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  22. Katie, thanks! And I might as well plug a good book which I have an essay in: “Local Histories,” from U. Pittsburgh Press. Each writer discusses the complexities of archival research in comp/rhet as well as the fruits of the research itself.


  23. I think a blogger mash-up on Contesting Archives, a la the Bennet event, or really anything on archival research practice, would be a valuable thing. It’s still pretty much one of the black holes of graduate training. My cohort years ago they dropped us at the corner bus stop and told us the address of the local historical society and that was about that. Of course, that was before the place was charging $500 a year for unlimited “free” visits by members in the gold key category. That kind of a number is a big bet on more theory and less data in the 4G scholarship space.


  24. Kathie – Thanks for the heads up on Contesting Archives. Studies like that are valuable to archivists as well as historians. Any time we archivists learn a new way that historians use sources, we can improve our service and guide researchers to collections that they might not find otherwise.


  25. I really like Indyanna’s idea about “really anything on archival practice;” I’d be interested in reading other people’s posts about the nitty-gritty of archival research in women’s history. (And maybe even writing one myself.)


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