[This is the first of what we hope will be a series of posts covering the recent meeting of the American Society for Legal History]
It was my great pleasure to attend the Friday roundtable titled "Tracing
the Past into the Present: How Living Descendants Affect the Substance, Methods, and Ethical Stakes of Legal History." Barbara Welke (University of
Minnesota) chaired and moderated. The roundtable participants were Sam
Erman (University of Southern California), Mitra Sharafi (University of
Wisconsin), and Daniel Sharfstein (Vanderbilt), all of whom have relied
on or collaborated with living descendants of their historical research
Professor Welke structured the conversation around a pre-distributed set of questions. The questions covered beginnings (how connections with descendants get established), mechanics and infrastructure (the nuts and bolts of collaborating with descendants), law (what is unique about collaborations relating to law/legal history), outputs (what comes of collaboration), ethics, trust, authority (how much authority we should give to lore and memory), and endings.
I'm afraid I won't be able to do justice to the rich conversation
that unfolded, but I'll highlight some points that I found particularly
Professor Erman observed that the internet also allows descendants to
find us and initiate conversations about the role their ancestors play
in our work. [NB: This has happened to me multiple times, to my
delight.] Professor Sharafi talked about how she forged connections with Parsi community organizations and was thereby able to tap into a transnational network of potential collaborators. This part of the conversation also touched on the
different motives that descendants may have for talking to historians,
ranging from mere curiosity to a deep desire to preserve cultural
On mechanics and infrastructure: Sharfstein emphasized that in reaching
out to descendants, transparency is key. For example, when he planned to
contact someone in person, he would first send a letter of
introduction, explaining who he was and why he was interested in the
person's family. Welke wondered about how people who are perhaps not
naturally extroverted can succeed in doing in-person research.
Sharfstein replied that one needn't be the most
skilled conversationalist. He used anecdotes from his own research -- and his previous life as a journalist -- to
emphasize instead qualities like empathy, curiosity, and sincerity.
On law: Erman noted that law is an expert language and can therefore create
distance between the legal historian and the non-expert. But he also
talked about how his own legal historical work benefited from
collaboration with someone who is less interested in law and less
familiar with that language. In his experience, the 'outsider'
perspective helped make his work more vivid and honest. Sharfstein made a
similar observation: when we write about cases, he noted, we often
assume that the outcomes were really important, but conversations with
descendants remind us that for the litigants and their communities, legal judgments may have been relatively meaningless. On the other hand, historical cases that had little impact at the time might eventually take on a different kind of
significance: when rediscovered generations later, cases can help people
make sense of how their own lives have unfolded. In an important
addendum to the conversation, Sharafi noted that some laypeople are in
fact deeply familiar with law. That was her experience in writing about
the Parsis of British India.
On outputs, i.e., the products of collaboration: Erman
credited his descendant collaborators with helping him think about new
possibilities and different audiences for the history he was working to
excavate. For example, why not a young adult novel? He also noted how
nice it feels to share research findings that you know will advance
someone else's project. Sharafi described how
collaboration with descendants can lead to documentation -- in her case, documentation of the tombstone inscriptions from a soon-to-be-destroyed Parsi graveyard in Burma -- that itself
becomes an "output" of sorts. She posted a list of the tombstone inscriptions on her website, as a
resource for descendants and others. Sharfstein also reflected on the
various products that came of his collaborations, apart from his own
book. These ranged from public talks by descendants to his own work with
local history and genealogy groups.
IRB approval ahead of time, she added, she might have
thought about the issues in a different way. Erman pointed out that
historians do have a duty to the truth, but his collaborations have
reminded him that there are different versions of the truth; the
interpretation that initially feels the most honest and objective may
not feel that way after one takes into account the views of descendants.
Sharfstein talked about the obligation he felt to honor descendants'
motivations and expectations, recognizing that when most people chose to
speak to him about their families, they were not seeking celebrity.
They might say things that he personally disagreed with, but that didn't
give him permission to expose them to public shaming.
All the panelists seemed to agree that descendant-collaborators
deserve formal recognition for their contributions to our academic publications, even when they are not be the direct sources
of information or quotes. Welke raised the question of how and where -- In footnotes? In an Acknowledgments section? In the text?
At this point, the panel was winding down and your devoted blogger had
to leave - so apologies if I've missed anything. At the very least, I hope that I have conveyed a general sense of the
fascinating conversation. Kudos to the panelists for putting together
such an interesting panel and to the program committee for recognizing
the value of these methodological and ethical issues.