local history and the hermeneutical circle

Wow! That sounds a bit heavy. Bear with me…

I love primary sources, whether this is grubbing around metaphorically amongst census returns and court rolls or literally in the fields above Springhill looking for the remains of the pipework bringing water from Saunder Height. That is why as much as this site as possible is transcripts from the original records so people can look for themselves and draw their own conclusions. We can’t include everything though and the very fact that some material is included and other not introduces a bias and degree of interpretation. This is the same whether the reason for inclusion is pragmatic (whether or not I can get hold of it at reasonable time and cost - hence not all the BMD certificates for every resident are online!) or judgemental (whether or not I think its worth including).

This effect is exaggerated when we come to secondary documents. I come to a piece of data with my own pre understandings of meaning and with a sense of where this fits into the whole. The data is understood in the light of both of these, and both my understanding and the whole are changed by the study of the new part. This then affects how I approach the data again (the circle) or any new data (spiral). For people keen on this sort of thing (and I love it) this is known as the hermeneutical circle, beloved of textual interpretation.

So with the best will in the world, secondary documents are full of biases - selection biases and interpretational biases. They are written in a time and a context, often for an agenda. Nothing wrong with that, but it affects what is written.

However over time these secondary sources themselves become primary sources about how the topic in question was viewed in that time and context. I have come across a couple of examples of this over the last couple of months which have triggered these thoughts.

The first of these is a history of the town of Rawtenstall written by Ian Fishwick in 1990. As a brief summary it is fair enough, comprehensive but poorly referenced. Its main interest now however is its frequent reference to the then current situation - to landmarks, football clubs, the picture house and ballroom all of which are no longer in use.

The second, perhaps more in keeping with hermeneutics, is a history of the first generation south Asian residents of Rossendale who came to the Valley after WWII. This was written as part of a project from a local puppetry/creative arts organisation to record the stories of these individuals whilst they are still alive and use these as the basis for a variety of creative arts projects. As a history it gives a brief summary (unreferenced) and some interesting insights. As a statement of how this was viewed by a Caucasian man as part of a multi-ethnic creative project in the context of international relations in 2014 it speaks volumes. It struck me that in years to come it could form part of a dataset on how ethnic history was viewed in this time and place for anyone researching early C21 views on the arrival of asian immigrants after WWII.

So today’s interpretation forms the basis for tomorrow’s raw data on how we thought in 2014.