Sunday Morning Thought

Many historical researchers have the twin problems of limited data, and limited access to them. If a key historical figure didn’t keep journals or correspondences, or if the group you are interested in was illiterate, or just un-archived for whatever reason, you face huge data constraints. Even if the data exist, finding it can be difficult – it may exist in a remote archive, a private collection, etc.

Historians of the social sciences (and similar sorts of historians of science, intellectuals, professionals, and the like) sometimes face the opposite problem: our actors write too damned much, and they are head over heels publishing the crap to try to get their peers to read it. Our problem is one of filtering – finding the important pieces, both the prominent and the overlooked but revealing.

In other words, I spent the entire morning tracing citations in 1950s economic journals and finding dozens of potentially useful articles, all from the comfort of my coffee shop. This is both delightful and frustrating. I think one critic of Actor-Network Theory referred to this as the “problem of extension” – in other words, when do you stop adding more bits to your story and start writing it? For me, I’ve got a couple more years to build up the story. But I can already tell that it’s going to be a slog through “info-glut“.

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