Coming to terms with life without wiki

Featuring wedding cakes, puzzle pieces, and intellectual roller-coasters…

DPhil students, Michelle Degli Esposti and Jono Taylor, reflect on their research as they approach the project’s first birthday:

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Since we last caught up (via the blog) in February how have your ideas about your PhD changed?

Since February, I’ve been on a mini-rollercoaster in terms of ideas for my PhD. I had some overly ambitious ideas, which were more idealistic than practical. Initially I found this quite frustrating. I felt that there were important theoretical questions to ask, but no meaningful way to answer them.

For example, one of my ideas was to work with Jono to form a historically sensitive definition and measure of child maltreatment for 1950s Britain. By using in-depth historical evidence, I wanted to better understand parenting norms, and thus abusive deviations from these norms, in 1950s Britain. I then wanted to apply this knowledge to design a new measure of child maltreatment. Jono could definitely help me better understand parenting norms, however, I slowly realised that the information we needed to quantitatively design a historically sensitive maltreatment measure didn’t exist. What’s more, even if this information did exist, there are no 1950s British cohorts that collected these sorts of variables at the time. Instead, we found a handful of sources that were helpful in different ways, but nothing good enough. As my supervisor summarised: it was a case of a leaky bucket with many different holes.

I feel that I have learnt from these ups and downs, and am now thinking more practicality. Afterall, research is about using the available tools as best as you can to answer the “perfect theoretical question”.

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Since we last caught up (via the blog) in February 2016, how have your ideas about your PhD changed?

At the time of last writing I had begun identifying sources which would help me to better understand how people in the past defined practices of abuse and neglect, and the ways in which these behaviours were understood and experienced by young people.

To begin with, I’d hoped to use records relating to children placed in local authority care as a starting point from which to consider the themes of abuse and neglect amongst the wider population. Over time, it’s become clear that I’ll struggle to find detailed information about children’s experiences once I move away from particular statutory and voluntary bodies. Fortunately the institutions I have been studying so far have collected some really rich material, which shed light on family life prior to children being referred for support.

I’m still keen to develop an understanding of life beyond the walls of particular children’s homes. I think it’s really important to understand the experiences of children taken away from their family homes alongside those of their peer who continued to be cared for within a family setting. Having carried out a bit more research, however, I think that the weighting given to these two sets of experiences may have to be revised in light of some of the methodological constraints I’m likely to face.

What are you doing at the moment?

I’m juggling three main things at the moment:

First, I am finishing my meta-analysis on the relationship between child maltreatment and antisocial behaviours across the life-course (please check it out! http://goo.gl/NvajId). I am just waiting on feedback for this, and hope to submit it for publication shortly.

Second, I am working with Jono and mapping out historical maltreatment tends in 1950s Britain onwards. Jono (amazingly) identified historical sources that documented indicators of maltreatment prevalence, and we are currently extracting these. Depending on the richness of data, we may carry out time-series analyses to examine how changes in maltreatment trends may be linked to policy changes.

Third, I am writing my upcoming Transfer of Status report. I’m therefore trying to form a more comprehensive and complete view of all my PhD projects to come. I’m enjoying getting stuck into all the literature! Although at times, it feels like the citation tree of references “to follow up” is endless…

What are you doing at the moment?

I’m hoping to study four different parts of the country in order to get a better sense of how children’s experiences varied depending on where they were living.

I’m currently part way through reviewing material relating to Birmingham. This has involved several trips to the city’s archives (located in a very impressive wedding cake-esque building) to photograph material, as well as looking at publications relating to the city and the young people who called it home.

Having spent several weeks locating and reading through different documents, it’s been striking how quickly I’ve had to transition from hunting for anything to do with children in Birmingham to having to decide which collections to prioritise – a nice “problem” to have, but it does require some careful thinking about where to invest my research energies.

What do you now think being an historian actually involves?

Ahh now I feel like I’m in a much better position to answer this than back in February!
So I was a bit guilty of thinking of History as whatever tool I needed it to be; i.e. anything and everything that I wasn’t able to answer myself from a psychological perspective. As time went on I realised that history, much like psychology, has it’s own limitations. It can’t just automatically give an ”in-depth” understanding of the past. Although it has an amazing capacity to give detail. This detail is constrained by the sources that exist, and tend to be quite bound by context. Therefore, when I hoped a historian could automatically give me a contextual understanding of 1950s Britain, I was being naive.

From watching Jono, I see that being a historian involves identifying existing sources, tracking them down, meticulously going through them, and pulling out potential themes. They use each bit of detailed information like jigsaw pieces in order to make sense of the past, bit by bit. The end picture is very detailed and relates to a specific time, place and setting; and of course, the picture painted is both through the eyes of the sources’ author(s)’ and the researcher’s.

What do you now think being a psychologist actually involves?

From what I’ve seen Michelle get up to in the last few months it seems that psychologists are interested in trying to emulate the systematic procedures I imagine biologists and chemists pride themselves on, with a particular focus on human behaviour.

In practice this seems to translate itself into developing research projects which are designed to produce findings that can be generalisable and are statistically robust. With this in mind, I’ve been really struck at the volume of material that Michelle has been working her way through. Unlike in history, where many of the documents you are reading about are located in different archives, it seems that the digital storage of psychological research findings means that psychologists can review the findings of multiple related studies – I think this has been what Michelle has been up to as part of her systematic review.

For researchers, like Michelle, who are interested in a particular set of research questions it seems to be important to decide whether you plan to use data that has already been collected (with the possibility of reinterpreting it/looking at the data collected in a different light) or whether you want to collect new data.

With our project in mind, I’m really excited that Michelle is hoping to look at, what I would describe as, historical data relating to a series of surveys conducted in England – not least because it seems that many of the existing publications are based on studies conducted in other countries.

What do you make of interdisciplinary life?

I stand by what I thought in February – interdisciplinary life is great. It poses a new and different challenges, and is very refreshing to see the research world through a different lens. I feel very privileged to be working alongside historians, particularly Sian and Jono, and find it quite exciting as often they are able to answer questions or identify sources that I could not – and hopefully vice versa!

What do you make of interdisciplinary life?

I keep having to remind myself how fortunate I am in being able to work with Michelle. The nature of historical research can risk becoming rather isolated – a very easy byproduct of spending days at a time immersing yourself in historical sources which don’t require you to talk to other people. Having a colleague to chat to, whether that be about history, psychology or simply your plans at the weekend, is a really big positive.

Michelle has been great at making me aware of areas of psychological or epidemiological research which have a strong historical component; for example, studies which seek to track the prevalence of particular behaviours over time, which present opportunities for historians to suggest additional sources of material.

I’ve recently stumbled across examples of early-twentieth century psychologists using group tests to determine whether or not children were ‘educationally subnormal’. I’m really interested to see what Michelle makes of her interwar counterparts’ assessment processes, and whether any similar approaches are used today.

What do you think you have learnt (if anything) from Jono

When attempting a bit of history myself, and reading 1950 government reports, I may have thrown a little tantrum… I got so stuck in a way I never had experienced or even knew was possible!

The report related to crime and the legal system, and I was attempting to extract some data (something I thought would be quite a straightforward task). After reading the 100pg report for the fourth time, and googling the meaning of every 1 in 10 words, and perpetually trying to look up “how the legal system worked in 1950 Britain”, I was getting absolutely nowhere. I could see figures, but I didn’t know what they stood for. I didn’t understand the difference between “indictable” and “non-indictable” offences, or why some were “dealt with summarily” and others weren’t. I didn’t know what “larceny” or “defilement of girls” meant. My lack of understanding was pretty much endless – not only did I often not understand the words, I did not understand the legal system or structure these unknown words were embedded in. What’s more ( to my horror), nor did google.

I was completely stumped, confused, and frustrated. In a bit of a panic, I pestered Jono, and he was very calm about it all. To him, this lack of understanding seemed to be daily occurrence, and he didn’t seem phased by it at all. When I threw questions at him left right and centre, he knew the answer to some, but others he explained that he didn’t necessarily know the answer, but “had a good idea where to look”.

I was very impressed with Jono, and how laid back he was about it all. He was also very right, after a few days of him doing his historian magic, and me looking at the figures, we cracked it together.

On reflection, I explained to him how this experience was so strange to me. Obviously in psychology I come across words and theories I don’t immediately understand or know, however I can always (with a simply click on a mouse) solve this within 10 minutes via google or the relevant article. I think in psychology, the structure is always there, I always have the basics (e.g., terminology, theories), but I am continuously learning more about the detail.

However, I discovered that in history the basic structure and framework is not there. You have to instead understand things from bottom-up, building up the bigger picture through the small details. You often can’t just google things, but rely on finding other historical sources to fill in the gaps. I am beginning to learn this skill from Jono, and to not be so shocked if understanding is not at your fingertips within 10 minutes.

What do you think you have learnt (if anything) from Michelle?

Michelle has helped me to recognise that by contributing new sources of information, and helping to contextualise this material, history can play a really constructive role in supporting and contributing to debates in related fields, particularly those interested in tracking processes of change over time.

As a social historian pages of statistical material can appear rather daunting – it’s been a real privilege to work with someone who is skilled in interrogating this type of data at a level beyond anything I’d be able to do on my own. I shudder to think how many statistical faux pas I have committed in the past!

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