May 30, 2020

Historical Data

Spring 2020

Reading Response 1

A theme I noticed that appeared largely in both readings – a central theme in Johnson’s article, and heavily implied in Trouillot’s arguments for his other themes – is that whilst scholars and historians often used to analyze the past through the lens of objectivism to get an “unbiased” look at history, that comes with many faults of its own. For instance, reducing humans down to mere numbers and tallies in a spreadsheet or a document, as Johnson says in her article, belittles them, what they endured, what they valued and what they stood for. It is precisely because humans are emotional creatures with a lot of personal bias that we cannot afford to remove subjectivity and emotions from the observance and analysis of historical events, or else we lose the main point of it. In order to better understand history, we cannot reject key factors simply because they are seen as “biased.” As suggested in both articles, we should instead allow ourselves to become acquainted and aware of all the biases and analyze with them in mind. In order to more fully understand the significance and direction of a secondary source, we need to try to understand the biases (not just negative biases), of the creator of the source. In order to analyze primary sources, we must try to understand the biases of its creator, as well. Context provides new insights, as lifetimes of academic research and methodological developments have helped to prove, and as biases offer up new points of context, would it not seem an academic loss to exclude them as factors in historical research? As further suggested, in being able to observe the subjective factors in historical data and sources, one may begin to see information that was once silenced by the representation of people as numbers or tallies.

Looking through a subjective rather than objective lens can offer up many complexities to analyzing historical events, because when one observes something objectively, there are likely more clear “answers” to be drawn from the data and/or sources. However, when one thinks with subjectivity in mind, the options become increasingly more varied, depending on which aspects of subjectivity are focused. Being subjective assumes something about someone or something, and therefore offers an extra level of uncertainty. This may be why scholars and historians tend to try to be objective when analyzing. However, as stated before, this forgoes the “human” aspect of history, arguably the most integral part, which ultimately ends up providing a to-some-degree lacking understanding of historical events, whether intentionally or not. This is why trying to observe and analyze history while allowing a level of subjective understanding can be tricky. I don’t have the answers on how best to approach historical analysis factoring in subjectivity, but from the readings’ arguments I can definitely see the importance of doing so.

After reading “Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History” by Michel-Rolph Trouillot and “Markup Bodies: Black [Life] Studies and Slavery [Death] Studies at the Digital Crossroads” by Jessica Marie Johnson, I have a slightly better understanding of how I want to approach both my project for this class, and any further historical – or other humanity-based – research. While looking up sources and data, I will try to keep in mind that the given numbers are only small representations of a mass of complex people. In doing so, I hope to be able to notice and understand the silences in the sources or in the data and to gain a better understanding of any subjective truths that would have been cast out in an objective analysis. I also plan to look and think critically at my source material and my interpretations of them so as to find a balance where I am neither unprofessionally subjective, nor ignorantly objective. These two sources have provided me with a lot to think about moving forward, and I will attempt to utilize these themes and ideas in my own attempts to unveil historical “truths.”