Part of the meaning of any place – or building – or settlement – is how people feel about it, define it for themselves. And to investigate that – a perfectly proper thing to do – we need to find out about thinking and emotions, not just the dry ‘facts’. And when we say ‘people’ we can, maybe must, include ourselves too. What nearer first-hand source do we have?
Far from being seen as an essentially low-level, lazy, self-indulgent or even narcissistic method, as it might have been in the past, this approach has actually become quite fashionable within certain social science circles. It has been made particularly popular by the concept and practice of so-called ‘reflexive anthropology’: taking seriously, and reporting on the researcher’s own experience (‘experience’ being another valid concept today), a logical extension of the long-established anthropological ‘participant observation’.
So taking serious account of one’s own experience – feelings too – has become an approved approach. It is true that one must still take care to avoid over-romanticising (tempting) or ignoring other sources whether relating to a particular locality or the comparative literature that helps one pick out the salient features and avoid misleading preconceptions. But for a full understanding of some locality or local feature, taking account of not just observation but personal feelings and emotions should to come in too.
Let me give an example from my own experience – of Derry (‘Londonderry’) the ancient and beautiful city where I was born and in part grew up, and which I revisited recently. Naturally I know quite a lot about the historical facts: founded by St Columba in the 6th century, surrounded by a strong ring of (still-standing) solid stone walls, a thriving port for many years, resettled from London in the seventeenth century (a kind of colonisation – so I understand something of that too from the inside), used as a naval base during the battle of the Atlantic in the Second World War, plagued by the ‘troubles’ of internecine religions for the long post-war years, now relatively at peace.
All that, and much more, is true, and necessary to know. But I need to add more. Reading a novel about the siege – Derry, famous as ‘the maiden city’ was never in the end taken – added more to my understanding, shared with others who had read A man’s foes. What is more important, I and anyone growing up there will remember the feel of it all: the contrast between what felt like the bigotry and close-mindedness of the Protestants as against the open-to-everything seeming irrationality of the Catholics and, worst, the inescapability of choosing between them; the knowledge of killings and blood in the streets; the simmering hatreds waiting to burst into action; the division by the ever-running river. And then – the crowd of thousands outside the Guildhall as the British Prime Minister made his incredible apology for the Bloody Sunday murders with the resultant tears of grief and of forgiveness – who could forget that? The atmosphere of it?
And now - the ‘Peace Bridge’ uniting people that the river once divided: the look and feel of it too, things that cold-print impersonal sources have such difficulty in capturing. As part of it I remember the gentle taxi-driver, his cab adorned with the insignia of catholic religion and his adherence recognisable from his facial expressions and unconscious body language to anyone brought up in Derry, who without needing to make anything of it had ‘just popped into the nearby Presbyterian church before work to say a wee prayer’. I was bereft of words but – a Protestant and not my thing really – gladly agreed to ‘say a wee prayer’ in return – a revolution of feeling as much as of hard ‘reality’ (though maybe those are not so different). That is now Derry.
The images too have a tale to tell: the community-created murals that now replace the old pictorial incitements to hatred and murders; the moving statues signalling reconciliation and hands reaching out across the divisions. The old divisions may still be there but now accepted, even a source of wisdom, but no longer the font of attack. The nostalgia of the (shared) ‘Londonderry air’ still hangs – and beautifully - in the air, just as the old antagonistic songs are still sung, and one-side orange bands play at times in the streets – but for the most part without the hatred or the militaristic intent of the past And, though of course, we can still see the impulses that human nature is everywhere prone too – will they ever fade totally? – there is now a shared pride in showing visitors the historic city that has resumed its sense of community and reconciliation.
All that too is – must be - part of the existence of Derry. How could we appreciate its history without some awareness of these intangible qualities? How we see and feel a place is indeed one dimension of its nature, of its history. Could a historian give a full account without some feel for all this?
Is there is a message here for historians, above all for the historians of place? Yes, we must indeed use the well-known sources listed in the standard hard copy and web manuals. Nor should we overlook the sometimes neglected method of oral history: the art of memory. Novels too can sometimes get us closer to a time and place than the ‘scholarly’ texts. We must remember as well the importance, difficult as this sometimes is, of cultivating detachment and the critical assessment of sources. But do we need something more? For a full understanding we must surely also take account of our own memories and reactions, and feel the multisensory air of places.
That indeed may lead us, students perhaps (as so often) in the van, to a new and fuller experience of local history.
This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
Want to know more about studying social sciences with The Open University? Visit the Social Sciences faculty site.
Please note: The opinions expressed in Society Matters posts are those of the individual authors, and do not represent the views of The Open University.