Sources: building on circles of trust

I completed my undergraduate degree in Aberdeen and Erlangen; in the period that I was in Aberdeen, I was active in the radical left-wing Student Christian Movement and in that context met a philosophy student at Edinburgh, Clare Thornley, who was active in the Edinburgh branch of SCM. We kept in touch after our graduations, and a few years later we both found ourselves returning to academia to write PhDs: Clare wrote her thesis at Strathclyde University (in philosophy and computer science, on questions of meaning in e.g. search terms – I think!) whilst I wrote mine in Edinburgh. We’d meet every six months and moan about how awful it was to be writing our PhDs, whilst being very clear that there was probably nothing we’d rather be doing. 🙂

Clare is now living and working in Ireland, and we are still in touch. She recently contacted me as she is a researcher for an international project looking at how academics use sources, in particular electronic ones, and how trust in sources is established. She came to visit and interviewed me about my usage of sources, asking general questions and then using references in an essay I had recently published as a case study. This was an interesting experience, and I want to offer some reflections on my usage of sources: being interviewed by Clare not only helped her research, but also has also helped me to reflect on these questions.

Firstly, many of my primary sources are manuscripts and are not stored electronically. Digitisation of manuscripts makes little sense for most institutions: there are simply not enough readers of most of these sources to warrant the cost of digitisation. Some archives, such as the Israel State Archives, are pursuing this, but mostly for sources that are used far more frequently than, for example, the hundreds, nay, thousands of pages of church mission committee minutes and other documents that I have used for much of my work. There is also a problem with digitisation, in that it doesn’t necessarily capture everything that is important. This might involve studying signs of wear (the way a document was folded can be of significance, but there are also more prosaic examples of wear), or less visible marks: in February I was in Aberdeen University Library examining a passport issued in the late 19th century, permitting the bearer travel to the Ottoman Empire. Being able to see the physical document meant I could see the embossed receipt, which provided me with interesting information about when the fee for the passport was paid. This is not something that a digitised version could easily capture – in fact, it took me some time to even notice the receipt, and I had the passport in my hands! Of course, archivists have long dealt with such matters, and perhaps solutions exist that I am not aware of. And yet: there is something tangibly intangible that is added to the experience of working with a manuscript that has, in the case of this passport, travelled from London across Europe to Egypt (and probably Turkey) and back to London and then to Scotland – and that was more than 130 years ago. Perhaps I’m just a hopeless romantic?! 🙂 Another issue that arises with digitisation is understanding size: where digitised versions of documents exist, they don’t always have indications of size: even placing an archaeologist’s centimetre ruler next to the document when it is photographed would help, but my sense is that this rarely happens and so a ‘feel’ for the document is lost. There are further issues that arise around the digital indexing of documents, but I won’t go into that here.

Secondly, with regard to secondary sources, these fall into two broad categories. Journal articles are almost always now in electronic format, though I often print them out as I find it much easier to read paper items. Regarding books: my university library has taken the (in my view) bad decision to always try to buy ‘ebooks’ if these are available; I much prefer real books. My notes are partly kept on scrap paper in my books (try doing that with an ‘ebook’!), in notebooks, and partly in a digital reference manager system (I use Zotero, which I strongly recommend – it is free, was created by humanities scholars and works well for in that context, and it is very good at ordering all kinds of sources).

When it came to the essay that Clare examined with me, I offered her two or three pieces, and she chose an essay that had recently appeared in an edited collection edited by Hilde Nielssen, Inger Marie Okkenhaug and Karina Hestad Skeie: Protestant Missions and Local Encounters in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. The central theoretical focus of this essay was based on a short article by Michel Foucault entitled ‘Of Other Spaces’(1) that I had first encountered in a presentation in my own department about fashion in a postcolonial setting by Prof. Gen Doy of De Montfort University. As I sat listening to her, it quickly became apparent to me how Foucault’s ideas on heterotopias could help my thinking, and after the presentation I went and read his essay immediately. I then used it to argue my case, deploying examples from my study and knowledge of Scottish missions to the Middle East to discuss historicisation processes. Having explained this context to Clare, she then picked random footnotes that pointed to secondary sources, and asked me how I had located them.

The first reference she picked identified a book I thought I had used in my PhD and several times since (actually, on checking later, I hadn’t used it in my PhD: it had just been published as I was finishing the thesis). This is Ann Laura Stoler’s brilliant Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. Stoler is a well-known scholar in postcolonial studies, and I know her book well. I have also used other articles and essays that she has written.

The next reference Clare chose referred to an article by Hélène Gill that analysed Foucault’s thesis. This appeared in a French studies journal that I would normally have no reason to peruse: Modern and Contemporary France. I had found this article by searching for “heterotopias” on Google (not Google Scholar); I had to access it through the university library as it appeared in a closed-access journal. Reading it helped explain key points that I wanted clarifying. I do not know the author, but I found her argument convincing.

The next source Clare chose related to an interpretation of heterotopias that enabled me to make a particular point: Foucault lists a number of criteria that constitute heterotopias, and I was arguing that it was not necessary for all of these criteria to be fulfilled for a space to be heterotopic. In a meeting with my then head of department, Prof. Bill Marshall, I mentioned that I was working on an essay about heterotopias. His immediate response was to pick up a book he had written about the film director André Téchiné and say: “I’ve written about that, see this section…” And there he argued precisely my point: that not all of Foucault’s six criteria needed to be fulfilled for something to be heterotopic. Excellent: I could use this to strengthen the argument I was already making.

The next source Clare picked up on related to an example that had been drawn to my attention by one of the book editors, Karina Hestad Skeie. She had noted a similarity between the topic I was seeking to address and a context that she had written about when describing certain aspects of a Norwegian mission to Madagascar; her essay had appeared in an edited book. I read her essay and I found I could further substantiate my argument using her examples – just as she had thought I would be able to do.

Clare and I concluded our meeting with a discussion about canonicity: there are clearly some texts that I use that I think it is reasonable to assume other scholars working in similar fields will have read. Of course, sometimes these are not even texts: I can point to ideas, knowing that other scholars in my field of postcolonial studies will have read the relevant texts. For example, on p312 of the essay I point to opening up ‘‘more authentic’ Spivakian understandings of the periphery, of the subaltern.’ Most of my readers will know what I mean by pointing to Spivak – she wrote a famous essay on the ‘subaltern voice’ and I do not need to cite it directly.

So what am I to make of all this?

Of the sources Clare had chosen to look at:

  • one had come to me via a presentation (Foucault/Doy)
  • one I had used before (Stoler)
  • one had come via a search engine (Gill)
  • one was from a colleague in my department (Marshall)
  • and one came via my editor (Skeie).

So: Gill’s essay was the only one I had “found” myself for writing this essay. Of course, there were other secondary sources in this essay that Clare had not chosen which I had “found” by myself, but it is interesting to note that I had a personal connection to a number of the key sources in my essay.

In our concluding discussion, I told Clare about an article I had once read about identifying sources. A older professor was quoted, saying that he no longer even tried to keep track of the important new articles in his field: “If it’s important enough, it’ll find it’s way to me.” What he meant was that he could rely on colleagues to forward key essays or book suggestions to him, rather than spend a lot of time searching for things himself, or using the numerous email notifications that virtually every journal seems to offer.

I think there is something to this. The vast amount of information bombarding us each day via email and Twitter and web-services and so on makes it impossible to follow all the developments in our field – especially if we work in more than one field. My own interests cross numerous disciplinary boundaries: mission history, gender studies, conflict transformation, postcolonial studies, theology, political science and so on. This is not unusual, but it does make following new journal articles, for example, very difficult: I have subscriptions to various journal notification lists that I try to scan fairly diligently, but I do find I sometimes have to simply delete them in order to get through the enormous amount of email I receive each day. There are days when I receive notices from three or four journals, and most of the time it is simply not possible to digest all this material (I can’t quite bring myself to unsubscribe from these lists…yet).

It is far easier to let important material “come to me” – and that is the point the afore-mentioned professor was making. I am delighted to receive emails from colleagues around the world saying, even just in a PS at the end of an email, “did you see the new essay/review/book by XYZ?” Better still: “here is a PDF of an article I’ve just published” – whenever I receive such emails, I always check the references and read the text. Of course, I reciprocate and tell colleagues about interesting items that I might have found, and this enables the “virtuous circle” of mutual feedback and encouragement to continue. I know that I can trust my colleagues in this regard, even if we disagree about some things!

Of course, search engines and database search facilities will always be important (I really like the new beta-version search JStor is trialling at the moment): I would not have found Gill’s article without a search engine. However, I think our relationships to other scholars are more important. After all, we belong to a community of scholars, working in related fields, with whom we engage. This community and this engagement happens in conferences, in workshops, in public lectures. We create and nourish this community by email, by telephone, and in face-to-face meetings (some of which will be in university offices, and some of which will be in cafés and pubs). This is what networking really means, and we need to work at this, but not necessarily in the way that universities want to prescribe for us. As neoliberal government decrees are followed ever more closely by irresponsible and ignorant university senior management teams in an attempt to turn universities into marketised competitive spaces of capitalism, such co-operative scholarship is at risk of being lost.(3) Prioritising competition in the name of capital has serious consequences, since, as Marx shows us, capital ‘has to destroy… [such] relationships as independent forms and subjugate them to itself.'(2) Therefore, even when we are engaged in the apparently solitary pursuit of reading, we might want to think about how we came to be reading the text we happen to have in front of us at that moment – did it come from a friend or colleague? In turn, sharing epiphanic moments in our reading with others is key to furthering our connections not only to the new scholarship that is being produced, but also to one another. In that latter sense, it also has the added benefit of subverting the rise of university managerialism that would isolate and negate the co-operative pursuit of learning that we are actually trying to do!


(1) Foucault’s essay is not long, and well worth engaging with. The link provided here is to the original journal, but the text has been reproduced in several other places online if you are interested in it, but do not have access to the journal.
(2) Dipesh Chakrabarty Provincializing Europe: Potscolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton/Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2000, p64.  I have strong critiques of the latter parts of this book, but the chapter that this is taken from is very helpful.
(3) if this applies to you, I strongly recommend joining the University and College Union and the Council  for the Defence of British Universities if you have not already done so: they are trying to work hard at undoing some of the damage neoliberalism is causing to our sector.


4 responses to “Sources: building on circles of trust

  1. Mike Colechin

    Knowing how you like to get comments from engineers, here goes:

    The thing that struck me most when reading this post was the way that our access to sources changes through our careers.

    When I wrote my PhD, other than the small circle of colleagues that I worked with on a daily basis (who often pointed me in the direction of key secondary sources), my main route for accessing the work of others was through (in the days before the internet) citation indexes and papers. One of the key skills I learnt through this process was the ability to sift through piles of less enlightening text to find the real gems. Like you, as my career progressed (albeit down a less academic path), I relied less and less on my own sifting to find those gems and more on the network that I have developed, although I always found it good to keep one or two avid readers in that network.

    As you suggest, broadening research interests and time constraints play a big part in this. Also, with standing and recognition in your field (and much larger travel budgets), comes the ability to access the originators of this research directly.

    I can’t help but think there’s an element of self-confidence in here too. As we develop our own body of research and capability, even when that research follows new paths, we become less reliant on prior knowledge built by others and proving our case through their arguments rather than our own.

    This just leaves me wondering am I a better researcher now than I was then, or have I just become convinced by my own arguments and those who inhabit the status quo around me? Am I at risk of becoming complacent and failing to look in the unexpected places where I used to find things when I wasn’t part of that status quo? (It’s why I like having friends like you!)

    • I really do appreciate comments from you – I think it very interesting to hear how you might see things, given your different disciplinary background.
      You’re right about the way in which information access has changed: I can remember citation indexing being a hot new(ish) thing in the late 1990s, and at the time it seemed like a good way to find information. There were also, let’s not forget it, far fewer journals at the time – now it seems as if there’s a new journal opening up every other week, seeking to publish in some niche area of a sub-field of part of a discipline! This is, I suppose, one of the negative effects of the relentless pressure upon academics for ever more publications as dictated by the RAE/REF and similar disciplinary institutional measures (disciplinary in a Foucauldian sense, I mean).
      I very much like the thought about confidence: I realise that one of the things I try to encourage my PhD students to do is have greater confidence in their own abilities to discern appropriate material for their work. If I recommend an article to one of them on the basis of the abstract (or sometimes just the title!), I don’t need to know the contents of the article, but I frequently receive a summary of it a day or two later. I think this has to do with confidence: they are wanting to check with me that the article is useful (I have to say that I rarely respond to such emails and leave it to them to decide, unless they specifically ask for a comment from me).
      And yes, it is then interesting to think about whether this makes one a better or a more complacent researcher. I don’t have much of an answer to that question, but I do think it is connected to your point about confidence. For example, I am now confident (arrogant?!) enough to say that I don’t need to read new books by certain scholars in great detail, even if they are famous names, because I have read enough of their work to realise that their last two books have said nothing new, and the newest one also appears to say not much that is new (and yes, I am thinking of one or two particular famous individuals here). Of course, that could lead to me missing something, but that is why – as you say and as I said in my blog posting – we need others to say ‘that new book really is saying something interesting!’ And then we might be led to finding new things after all… through the power of the academic community.

  2. Hi Michael,
    This seems like a good exercise: reflecting on where our sources come from. As you (and the comment above) have pointed out, it seems to me that trusted colleagues are an important source. For my thesis, specifically on medieval India, I had to look up texts on google/scholar, read through some less useful (I’m being polite here) texts before finding the ‘right’ and suitable ones. But majority of the texts, especially in the areas I was not familiar with, it was supervisors’ suggestions and discussions with colleagues that helped me. And, then there were secondary sources from those texts. I’ve wondered about the sources in the past in a different context, whilst teaching. It seems straightforward to ask students to use certain sources (such as peer-reviewed journals) while deliberately avoid others (such as Wikipedia) for obvious reasons. I believe in letting students explore and use electronic sources (in the hope that that would prompt them to explore and learn new aspects of the topic). But, explaining the rationale behind choosing certain electronic sources over others is something I’ve found to be tricky. As the comment above pointed out, such a rationale (to ‘know’ which sources are ‘good’ and otherwise) seems to come out of experience. Perhaps, after a few more years of teaching, I would be able articulate my rationale better behind this without having to say ‘I said so’ or ‘I know so’ and appearing as an arrogant academic 🙂

    • Thanks for your comment.
      I don’t think this is about arrogance: if a source makes certain assumptions (eg essentialises groups of people, or is an exercise in historical anthropology but lacks substantial theoretical analysis), then we should be more circumspect in using it. It is, I think, always worth reading (some!) “bad” sources, if only so that we know “good” ones when we see them! 🙂
      Unless students are prepared to do this as well, it is perhaps not unreasonable to expect them to listen when when we, who have done it, suggest certain sources might be more appropriate than others. Part of that is the maturation that is discussed above, and that is not really arrogance – it’s informed opinion.