Random observations …

This blog entry consists of a series of points based loosely on the readings.

(1) Two detectives arrive at a crime scene. Detective One says, ‘Oh look! It’s a burglary. Didn’t I see a suspicious fellow down the street? Hmmm. What evidence links this crime to that fellow?’ Detective Two, on the other hand, looks at the base of a broken window, eventually bringing forth a magnifying glass. He asks himself, ‘Did a crime occur here? Can I find some fingerprints? Which signifiers suggest motive?’

I think this scenario evokes the significance of sampling in the humanities. In the social sciences, the concept of sampling (Knight 119–26) is of course linked to polling (large scale) or focus groups (small scale). In the humanities, sampling emerges through shared notions of authorship, theme, genre, and period. By bringing into play a wide range of historical and cultural evidence, a critic could argue just about any case, provided that his or her answer agrees with public tastes.

(2) Claimsmaking (Knight 16–48) reifies an argument (a ‘claim’) into some kind of object (i.e., something which can be made). As a term, it’s rather deceptive, certainly less effective than criticalmaking.

(3) I’d like to address Knight’s point that “[some strategies of writing allow scholars] to amass sprawling and self-indulgent descriptions that are free of meaning or claims” (194). In many cases, these kinds of passages merely restate critical claims.



5 thoughts on “Random observations …

  1. Hi Josh, I think these points you have raised are quite interesting. In fact, they remind me of a debate some students had in one of my honours history courses during my undergraduate degree. One of my favourite historians is a woman by the name of Natalie Zemon Davis, who I believe taught here at U of T for a little while. As in many undergraduate history programs, her microhistory study The Return of Martin Guerre was part of our required reading for one of the honours courses. One of the main criticisms levelled against The Return of Martin Guerre was the fact that much of it is indeed speculation – albeit well crafted. Zemon Davis uses the sources she has to masterfully weave a complex historical tale based on historical documents, while at the same time offering details about the lives of the historical characters – who were, of course, real people. The author is also an expert in French medieval history, so it seems reasonable to assume she has great knowledge of the period that Martin Guerre takes place in. What your posts makes me consider is whether Zemon Davis’ work, in this case, could be interpreted as a case of claimsmaking. Could we go so far as to say that much of what historians do is such? I am being deliberately controversial by suggesting it, but it seems that most postmodernists (especially Foucault) would agree with much of what I’m saying…and keep in mind I say this as someone who loves history and historians! Just thought it was an interesting way to relate my own experiences with this concept of claimsmaking that Knight is discussing, and what Josh has extrapolated in point form. Thanks Josh, and everyone, feel free to weigh in!

    Sources: Zemon Davis, Natalie. 1983. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

  2. Hello Katherine,
    I have read The Return of Martin Guerre. Though I read it many years ago, I recall it being both coherent and well-researched. I believe that speculation based on research merits consideration, but speculation based on arbitrary associations simply does not. One study full of speculation yet strong enough to win my respect, for instance, is Germaine Greer’s Shakespeare’s Wife. Say what you will about Greer’s conclusions, she conducted her research thoroughly. What doesn’t merit my respect is work like Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age. Readers should expect of a 229-page book a reference list of more than 12 items!
    Ah yes, and Natalie Zemon Davis is associated with U of T. At the very least she is a Senior Fellow at Massey College.

  3. Josh & Katherine,

    Thanks so much for the very insightful posts! As a well meaning researcher, I fear for the day that I draw conclusions from arbitrary associations.

    It appears as though this happens quite often in health science journalism. Check out Ben Goldacre’s opinion on Battling Bad Science and how evidence can often be distorted.

    … Josh you really touched on something and for the purposes of the final assignment, I am grateful because I will be hyper-aware of trying not to restate critical claims.

    Also, “Shakespeare’s Wife” by Germaine Greer is a perfect example of what Josh speaks of in reply to Katherine. Greer sets out to develop her research from very limited “data”, which actually includes the social context of that time period. By doing so Greer is able to draw evidence in support of the implications of sexism in male biographers. Claimsmaking at its best perhaps?

    Again, thanks for the examples. I enjoyed all of them!

    – Vanessa K

  4. I just came accross a related passage in the Yin (1981) article for this week. Crime scene as a case study …

    “There are no fixed recipes for building or comparing explanations. An analogous situation may be found in doing detective work, where a detective must construct an explanation for a crime. Presented with the scene of a crime, its description must constantly make decisions regarding the relevance of various data. Some facts of the case will turn out to be unrelated to the crime; other clues must be recognized as such and pursued vigorously. The adequate explanation for the crime then becomes a plausible rendition of a motive, opportunity, and method that more fully accounts for the facts than do alternative explanations.” (Yin, 1981, p. 61)

    – Vanessa K

  5. Great replies folks, although I am a bit delayed in reading them! Josh I think my former history classmates & I came to a similar conclusion about The Return of Martin Guerre. I have not read Shakespeare’s Wife but I’ll definitely put it on my to do list! In some ways what Vanessa has brought up makes me think of that saying everyone loves to quote – “correlation does not equal causation!” But sometimes it seems researchers and academics wish it did!


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