Sunday, November 1, 2015

ASLH Panel Recap: "Tracing the Past into the Present"

[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 subjects.

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 interesting:

As to beginnings: Professor Sharfstein noted that in this day and age, descendants are more accessible than ever before: "the secrets of the ages are no match for" 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 heritage.

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.

On ethics and trust: An ethical dilemma confronting all the panelists was what to do when their research turned up ugly or painful truths. Sharafi has taken a conservative approach and not shared any information that people asked her not to share, even when they asked 'after the fact,' and even when she felt that the omissions deprived her readers of an important and revealing part of the story. She wondered how anthropologists and journalists approach such dilemmas. Had her project gone through 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.