On Process

Giving a recent talk, I wanted to convey where the paper fitted into my broader project on witchcraft in France from 1790-1940.

So I gave a taster of the big ideas, mentioned some surprising findings, did a slideshow with some compelling pictures from the wider research… and a screenshot of a spreadsheet.

Image shows the bottom 30 rows of a large spreadsheet, with condensed column headings and a mix of numbers and text entered into different columns.

It’s the Big Spreadsheet I use to try to tame this unwieldy project. I have a lot of feelings about Big Spreadsheet.

The column with 1000 rows and only three have any data! The time I realized that because of how I entered and then added up data on gender, the sheet was miscounting it systematically. The difficulties devising counters to translate the words people themselves used to describe their work into HISCO categories for occupation. Probably there are courses on social and economic history degrees where they teach this. I just made it up by guessing.

The Big Spreadsheet measures one thing more reliably than anything else: my hubris. I keep pretending that there is a cutoff at which point I won’t need to add any more information to it. CA1039 in the image above adds up the total number of pages of archival documents I have for all the cases on the project. I’ve read over a third properly.

I try not to think about the ones I haven’t.

Fundamentally, not hugely compelling stuff, I often assume, unless you are heavily invested in the psychodrama of Will Pooley’s professional life.

And yet this audience liked the spreadsheet?

Look: I promise this wasn’t an audience at the Microsoft Excel World Championship.

They were (mostly?) historians, with interests in law and history, from graduate students through to professors. And at one point I thought I was going to have to get the sheet out and take them through it. Thankfully for everyone, I didn’t.

So what is the appeal?

Some schadenfreude, perhaps. Thank God I didn’t go down that rabbit hole! Or, perhaps the close but opposite relative: solidarity, a commiseration over our shared foolishness, the Historian’s insatiable desire to get it all.

And then there’s the fact that a great many historians like counting things, even if the counting doesn’t add up to much. Scale remains one of the most revisited problems of historical analysis, and I think a lot of cultural historians who also see themselves as social historians share a sense that we should be able to say how numerically important something is, or be able to give an idea of its reach, dimensions, significance.

But the most important reason – I think – that an audience might like to see the spreadsheet is that historians are notably – but not uniformly – coy about process.

When I say research process, I do not mean methods. If methods are recipes, process is cooking. As anyone who’s done any historical research knows, it’s impossible to start with a method and then simply apply it to an example. Most historical research consists of trial and failure, often guided by specific methods, but rarely dictated by them.

A file ordered by mistake, a realisation that records don’t record what you hoped they would, the sheer overwhelming quantity of materials, the serendipitous reading, the meaningful conversation over coffee with a colleague or friend, being taught new things by archivists and researchers, an idea that came to you while walking home at night, learning to give up, refusing to give up. Process.

There’s a rapidly growing body of work on historiographical reflexivity, or what Carolyn Steedman refers to as an autoethnographic turn. Since Landscape for a Good Woman Steedman herself has often reflected on her the development of her own ideas in her books and articles, telling the story of research process as well as the story of the histories she is exploring.

And yet the balance between process stories and argument or narrative about the past is very different in most published history from most oral presentations.

In seminars and talks, and when historians discuss among themselves, they are much more likely to take pleasure in these stories of things going wrong and getting righted, or research unfolding in the same way a bus ticket unfolds in the wind and flies from your hand never to be seen again.

There are lots of good intellectual reasons why historians might want to be more open about process, but I suppose this whole post is just a very longwinded way of saying: ITS FUN.


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