Collaboration and Creation: The Research Process
The stories historians tell are never pre-determined, but emerge organically from the research process. While we aim to read and interpret as many primary sources and as much of the secondary literature as possible, there is always the potential that sources are missing, or that our interpretation runs counter to what many others would claim. Evaluating primary sources can be tricky, and can further be complicated by current secondary literature. As a research assistant, I am seeing firsthand how collaboration, discussion, and doubt are a part of historical research, and how the interpretation of sources can change through this process.
Currently, I am working for historian of science Professor Sarah S. Richardson as a research assistant on her forthcoming book, and am reviewing texts from the eugenics era of American history. While the sources I am reading all address optimizing biology through genetic inheritance, these authors come from diverse backgrounds and address eugenics concerns from different perspectives. I am reading these works for specific information, but Professor Richardson and I are well aware that the selection of “authoritative” texts will have a significant influence on analyzing and creating an argument.
One of the authors I have researched is Henry Goddard, a well-known psychologist from early 20th century America. Goddard is widely known to have been involved with the American eugenics movement and I have looked at two of his famous works: Feeble-Mindedness: Its Causes and Consequences (1914) and The Kallikak Family: A Study in the Heredity of Feeble-Mindedness (1912). According to the author of a book review published contemporaneously in The Journal of Education, “No one now attempts to challenge the leadership of Dr. Goddard in the wholesome study of the feebleminded from the standpoint of scientific and skillful utilization of whatever intellect they have at command.” Further, the same review claims that Feeble-Mindedness is the “most valuable book of its class in the English language.” These contemporary claims bolster support for Goddard’s role as an influential scientist, and support the decision to evaluate the ideas of these important eugenics authors.
However, the intended audience of Goddard’s texts necessarily contributes to my analysis of his ideas. A review of The Kallikak Family claims that the book was written for the “lay reader,” with the “strict scientific evidence” to follow in a “larger and more technical volume.” I am searching these works for specific claims of non-hereditary inheritance, but the scientific grounding of such beliefs may be lost in a text aimed at a popular audience.
As this project is for Professor Richardson’s book, she has chosen the texts and authors I should evaluate – she has spent much more time familiarizing herself with the American eugenics period. While she reviews all of my research, she places trust in my judgment and analysis. Historians are often expected to communicate their ideas in written form, fully fledged. Although there are usually countless revisions and drafts of an argument, most of the historical community will only see the final product. But written research notes are only one aspect of my work with Professor Richardson. Our one-on-one discussions are also important to the research process as ongoing communication about our thoughts and ideas from the texts allows us to conduct research more thoroughly and effectively. Collaboration and exchange between researchers seems crucial in making authoritative claims. Through our work together, I’m seeing how feedback and discussion can be revelatory and worthwhile for historians, producing ever more nuanced and thoughtful conclusions.