(You can find the first post in this series here.)
In this post I want to say something about the letters that I propose to analyse in this series, and about the issues raised by using them as data for research. I have in my possession, or rather on loan from my father, a collection of letters, photographs and mementoes that belonged to my grandfather and which passed to my father when the former died in 1979. In this collection is a set of eight letters written by my great grandfather, Charles Edward Robb, to my grandfather, Arthur Ernest Robb, when the latter was a soldier during the First World War.
The letters, which are in their original envelopes and in reasonable condition, were all sent between January and March 1916. All of them are from my great grandfather to my grandfather, and all were sent when the latter was in barracks at Aldershot, before embarking for France. There are no surviving letters home from my grandfather, at least not in this collection.
I borrowed the letters from my father in the course of researching our family history, something I’ve been doing for a number of years now. Using mostly online sources, I’ve managed to trace our branch of the Robb family back to the early 18th century in Aberdeenshire, and to discover a fair amount about the lives of succeeding generations, as they moved firstly to central London and then eastwards to Mile End and East Ham, where I was born.
Obviously, my primary interest in my great grandfather’s letters is as a family historian. They supply some of the richness and personal detail that’s missing from the catalogue of births, marriages and deaths that are the stuff of most genealogical research. And on a more personal level, these letters bring immediately to life a great grandfather I never met, and a grandfather whom I barely knew, at the same time connecting them both vividly with the wider historical events in which they played a part.
So my decision to use the letters as research data is hardly detached and objective: something that gave me pause when I first began to think about doing this. On the other hand, I would argue that, even if these letters were not associated with members of my own family, and I had come across them by other means, I might still have found their ‘performance’ of fatherhood and faith of interest. I would certainly have regarded them as legitimate resources for exploring these themes in a research context. Of course, the fact that I have a family connection to the letters provides me with an additional motive for writing about these letters, rather than any other random textual material.
I want to argue, tentatively, for the legitimacy of combining family history with other kinds of research in this way. In the same way that researching the history of one’s own family, or locality, can be a ‘way in’ to the study of history for those of us who are not professional historians, so I’d like to suggest that one’s own family data – letters, diaries, photographs, etc – can potentially be resources for other kinds of academic investigation. I’m aware this raises all kinds of questions about objectivity, reflexivity and the role of the researcher, some of which I’m sure will come up as I proceed with the analysis of these letters. But I know of a number of researchers who are using their own family data as a focus for their work on issues of gender, ethnicity, identity and relationships, and it would seem that the legitimacy of work of this kind is becoming more widely accepted.
Does it matter that we only have one side of the correspondence, and only a small part at that? As will become clear, my methodological starting-point for this research is discourse analysis, and more specifically the methods of discursive psychology. As I understand it, any piece of textual material, no matter how small or incomplete, can be a legitimate resource for discourse analysis. If we only had access to one of my great grandfather’s letters, for example, it would still be legitimate to analyse it using discourse analytic tools. I’ll return to this and related methodological issues in a later post in this series.
In the next post, I’ll reproduce one of my great grandfather’s letters, as a trigger for launching a discussion of methods of analysis.