Saturday, March 5, 2011

A Meditation on Research Questions

The University - Land of Research Questions
In December, when I was so overwhelmed by life and organizational tactics, my brain said "You need to know your research plan before you can have an organizing plan."  I thought this was excellent advice.

But it only brought on another question, which I tucked away into the depths of my little grey cells - what is my research plan? This is tricky for me because it leaves me teetering on a ledge between the worlds of "history" and "genealogy."
I have mentioned a lottery wish - to research my ancestors and to visit all their places of origin. But then I wondered, then what would I do? I mean what would I do with all that research; how would I share it with the world?  A book was the obvious answer, but what would the book be about? My search for my roots or the lives of my ancestors. The former is a memoir of me; the later would have such a vast scope that it would likely out-Michener Michener. 

Research questions are necessary because they frame the direction of your work. An historian is always seeking to understand why things change, to place events in their greater context. For example, while I did extensive family history research to reconstruct the Scotch Settlement of the early 19th century, I didn't really care about the individual immigrants or their descendants. I used that community as a laboratory to better understand the Scottish Diaspora, which was one of the most significant of 19th century Europe. Social and cultural historians who study the mass of humanity do so to uncover evidence of larger social and cultural movements. If they focus in on one individual, it is to use them as an example of something larger. 

Historical  questions come in and out of fashion, in much the same way hem lengths, and are different depending what country you are in. The Scottish Diaspora is a hugely important question in Scotland, but not so much in the United States. American historians are often much more interested in "ethnic" migrations of the late 19th and early 20th century. Russian studies used to be critical, but now studying the Islamic World is where it's at.

Family historians do have research questions, but they are generally much more limited in scope: "who was my great-grandfather." Once you've answered that question, you move on to the next, "who was his father." Many genealogists do expansive reading and research to understand the world of their ancestors and don't simply fill in the boxes. However, figuring out who your ancestor was, no matter how much fun it is to find out, isn't really answering some larger historical question. You are using historical research skills to create a genealogy or pedigree, not  a history (at least as it is understood in the academic world).

So, this is my dilemma. Part of me feels I need to answer some larger historical questions with my research.  Many of my ancestors will probably fit quite nicely into the greater story of American immigration and/or life in the upland South. Others will fit into the stories of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Scotland and other countries. However, at present they will simply "fit-in", not advance research at all.

On the other hand, I want to know who my great-great grandfather was just like every other "granny-chaser" out there.  I would like to be able to better document and verify the research we have already done or collected.  (Hence, the ever-lasting organization project.) Additionally, I secretly want to see if I can connect up various branches of my family. They say we are all related and most people in small villages are cousins to each other.  In America since our origins are so varied, the cousin thing has begun to fall apart. But, see, my dad's family is, as far we know, almost entirely British and lived in Tennessee and Virginia for over 200 years.  It seems to me that there's got to be connections on his side somewhere. Half of my mother's family is from Lowland Scotland and it is probable that many of my dad's ancestors were from Ulster, and therefore ultimately Lowland Scotland. There might even be a connection on their side as well, although it would probably be in the 17th century or earlier.

It seems likely that for the foreseeable future that I will have to live with the ambiguity of not having a "proper" research question. Perhaps if I keep my eyes open, a research question will appear and I can write a history book of some sort. In the meantime, I'll keep looking  for great-grandparents and keep notes for an outstanding memoir, An Historian Searches - very slowly - for Her Own Past.

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