Research and Legitimacy

I was thinking in class on Wednesday about something Knight mentioned near the beginning of Small-Scale Research, about the novelist and the researcher being more similar than we might think.

When I was an undergrad, I read a novel for a twentieth century britlit class called Regeneration, for which the author had obviously done a lot of research, and which took real people, in a real place, and imagined their interactions. One of the characters, a psychiatrist named William Rivers, used psychiatric jargon, worked at a hospital that treated people in ways historically employed during the First World War, and made reference to ethnographic studies that he, William Rivers, had actually carried out. Seigfreed Sassoon also popped up with drafts of his poems, which, as the author, Pat Barker, mentions in the acknowledgements, are taken unedited from Sassoon’s manuscripts.

The thing is, the author’s research methods are opaque. We can imagine that she looked at historic documents, read biographical materials, consulted experts (Pat Barker’s husband was a neurologist who was, according to wikipedia, familiar with William Rivers) and historians, and structured the novel from that research. From the thank yous in the acknowledgement section, that’s probably exactly what she did. But as a novel it’s also imagined and improvised. We’d treat a reading of Regeneration differently from an academic journal article on Sassoon or on Rivers. It doesn’t have the legitimizing strategies that scholarly articles employ: methods aren’t explained, there’s no esoteric jargon, no citations, no double-blind peer review. Possible biases or sources of error aren’t announced.

Reading Regeneration, I have no doubt the material events didn’t happen as the novel describes them. But reading most journal articles, I have the same impression. It’s not that the researchers’ subjectivity contaminates the results; that’s not what I’m getting at. Academic journal articles seem more “true” than fiction. They seem more “objective”, to give more pertinent, real information, than fiction might. And it has nothing to do with the validity of the information itself (Professor Cherry talked a little bit about the crazy stuff that does get published in academic journals), but the legitimizing conventions journals employ. They’re taken as more “true” because of the way they are structured and reviewed, the listing of methods, previous studies, circumvention or acknowledgement of sources of error or uncertainty etc, more so than the actual research.

What I think is making me cranky about journals is that I’m reading The Four-Gated City and in the back of my head, a voice is saying, “If you ever wanted to do research about about the surveillance of communist sympathizers, or about the unification and dissolution of communist-sympathizer groups, or something like that, you could never talk about The Four-Gated City, because it’s not ‘true’ in the sense a journal article about those things would be.” I mean, a person can only take so much empiricism.


4 thoughts on “Research and Legitimacy

  1. hannahmasterman

    Neat point.

    Myself, I always get the feeling while reading journal articles that I’m reading a persuasive essay. It’s not that the facts presented aren’t true, it’s just that they’re very specific facts gathered together and presented in a very specific light in order to make the argument as strong as possible. You can’t blame the authors for this (and I’m not even sure that it’s a bad way of going about things). It’s just they way science seems to work. To be published, you need to be a good persuasive essayist.

    Reading fiction doesn’t give me that same sense, probably because the point is not generally to persuade me that’s something true, but rather that it’s worth thinking about. Maybe we’d take fiction more ‘seriously’ if it read more like a persuasive essay — all rigid, etc. But I don’t think that would be any fun.


  2. Jordan Post author

    The point I was trying to make wasn’t really that academic journals are bad, or that they aren’t “true”. Like you said, they’re like persuasive essays with a set of conventions, depending on the discipline of the paper, as rhetorical strategies. I was wondering why these strategies are thought to be more persuasive (or legitimate) than ones in fiction. Or whether they are thought to be more persuasive. And whether it is intentional or not, all fiction, always, makes an argument.

    As an undergrad, I read a different Kracauer essay from the one assigned for class last week. This essay, which was taken from From Caligari to Hitler, was famous for suggesting that German films of the Weimar era anticipated Hitler’s rise to power. The idea, and it sounds sort of dumb and self-evident, is that a place and time’s pop-culture says something about its culture. The “psychology” of Weimar era film, which was I think mostly pessimistic or escapist, could be read in relation to the totalitarianism and hypernationalism of the cultural climate which ensued: the Third Reich. And I think this idea holds up. It’s not uncommon for researchers, when studying a culture, to look at the art of that culture in order to understand it. A lot of knowledge produced about ancient civilizations exists in terms of the art that we’ve found.

    Although I agree that something like 50 Shades of Gray wasn’t written to persuade people of a “truth”, I genuinely think you can pull something meaningful– about its popularity, about gender, maybe even about information studies– from reading it. The difference is that something like 50 Shades of Gray tells us something about our own culture (scary, eh?).
    The point I was trying to make wasn’t that fiction is “true” and academic journals aren’t, but that they’re seen very differently when they maybe shouldn’t be.

    1. Milo Anderson

      That’s interesting: My girlfriend owns a copy of From Caligari to Hitler. I tried to read it once but didn’t get very far. I’d like to revisit it some day.

      I see what you’re driving at, and I don’t want to muddy up your question, but honestly the thought I have as I consider your question is “persuasive to whom?” Many people learn about the world through reading fiction, and take it seriously, right or wrong. I’m guessing what you mean is, should academics take fiction more seriously than it does.

      This reminds me of a class I took as an undergrad on journalism & literature. We read American novels written by journalists, from Mark Twain through Theodore Dreiser and Ernest Hemingway and up to Truman Capote (stopping short of Hunter Thompson).

      In Cold Blood is an interesting case, because unlike many of the other books, Capote did actually intend that to be a work of non-fiction. And again, while you’re probably right that we should ask if academics should take fiction more seriously, I think the reality is that many, many intelligent and educated people have read In Cold Blood and trusted the author’s research, believed the events took place as depicted, and felt that they had a much deeper understanding of what happened.

      You mention biases, and again I think Capote is an interesting case because, although he may have set out to be objective, as you read the book it’s impossible to miss that he favors one of the killers he’s writing about, actually seems to have a strange attraction or affinity for him. That perhaps explains why movie adaptations have included Capote as a character and followed his research — because he’s a major part of the story, whether he wants to be or not.

  3. Brett Phillipson

    As a fan of historical fiction, this is something that has frustrated me as well. As a young undergraduate interested in the French Revolution, I honestly learned about 1000x more from Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety (still probably my favourite novel of all time) than I did from any of my 100-level history classes. The only exception to that is a course I took in first year called Writing the French Revolution, which specifically explored the relationship between history and fiction. Ultimately, what I got out of that is that fiction and non-fiction are not that different, in a lot fo ways: they both attempt to superimpose narratives that will be seen as coherent by modern-day readers onto periods which we don’t fully understand.

    Having said that, though, I can see why issues of legitimacy do arise. It’s not because of academic publishers’ attempts to maintain a monopoly on legitimate knowledge (well, it’s not ENTIRELY because of that, anyway). Certain methods, I think, have come to be seen as more legitimate in part because they more thoroughly document their methods and their sources. All historical writing requires imagination and conjecture; fiction, however, doesn’t distinguish between imagination/conjecture and fact,* and, moreover, doesn’t tell you where they found whatever facts they do incorporate into their narrative. This is for obvious reasons – no one wants to read a novel that’s full of footnotes (well, I probably would, but I’m a huge nerd).

    The one exception to this, that I can think of, is Emma Donoghue’s The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits. Donoghue is better known for her contemporary fiction but she is actually a historian by training (a Cambridge Ph.D., if I recall correctly) and she’s written some amazingly researched historical novels (she also does much of her research here at Robarts, hooray). The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits is a collection of short stories based on unusual rumours/newspaper articles/events in eighteenth-century England, and at the end of each one, she actually cites the sources that she used in her research. I doubt profs/journal editors would be okay with seeing short stories cited in academic research, but I think acknowledging one’s sources does convey a sort of legitimacy, even in fiction.

    *On this subject, in the introduction to A Place of Greater Safety, Mantel says something to the effect of “if anything seems particularly unbelievable, it’s probably true”. An excellent point about the French Revolution, I think, but pretty hard to incorporate into research, empirical or otherwise.


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