Social History: the challenge of Technology

University of Essex

The University of Essex hosted an interesting one day workshop with the title `Social History: the challenge of Technology' on June 1st. It adopted a format new to me, in which ten invited speakers were allowed a maximum of five minutes to highlight key issues in their previously-circulated papers, followed by a a 15 minute commentary on each pair of papers by an invited `discussant' and a general discussion. The programme was carefully arranged to include five complementary pairs of papers, and the whole affair proved remarkably successful in generating a fruitful and stimulating exchange of views amongst the hand- picked participants, most of whom were computing historians, data archivists or similar.

The first session dealt with the creation of `public use data sets' with two speakers (Steven Ruggles from Minnesota and Liam Kennedy from Queens, Belfast) presenting basically similar projects in the integration and harmonisation of large scale existing data sets for re-use, in Ruggles' case derived from US census data over a large number of years; in Kennedy's a whole spectrum of 19th century Irish statistical data. Both called attention to the very practical difficulties of harmonising the differing analytic preconceptions of the original data collectors, while stressing the need to make the datasets (which Ruggles described as a `national treasure') more accessible and user friendly. Prof Michael Anderson (Edinburgh) in commenting, made several practical points from the ESRC viewpoint, which he characterised as sceptical about the usefulness of secondary analyses. He stressed the need to set realistic and achievable targets as well as the importance of making explicit the theoretical basis for combining datasets, the need for long term institutional support and the difficulties of making such data sets user-accessible for casual enquiry. The discussion indicated wide support for these concerns, though Ruggles stoutly defended the general usefulness of public use datasets in social science, claiming that in the few cases where available they were the most widely used resources. Several of the historians present expressed anxiety about the difficulty of linking datasets using different `codebooks'. Kennedy noted the `spurious consistency' of terminology such as `general labour' in occupational classifications; Bob Morris (Edinburgh) pointed out that this variability reflected important historical differences; Dan Greenstein (Glasgow) noting that historical sources provided an `opaque window onto the past' as well as being objects of interest in their own right, stressed the need for explicit data modelling of the researcher's interpretations of them. It occurred to me that many of these problems were strikingly similar to those faced by linguists trying to unify different linguistic annotation schemes and might therefore benefit from the kind of approaches currently being discussed within TEI AI1.

The second session dealt with the need for standardisation in data collection and interchange. My paper gave a brief summary of the TEI, stressing its attempts to avoid prescriptivism, and promising great things for SGML as a powerful notation system. Manfred Thaller (Gottingen) distinguished four levels of description appropriate to historical material: numerical data, factual data, running text and bit-mapped images. Interpretation differed at each level but all had a common core of problems. He shrewdly observed that standardisation was becoming more difficult as researchers tended to define themselves by a particular technology. A successful standard must be descriptive, based on a conceptual analysis rather than any technology, but could only succeed if it was backed up by well-designed and acceptable technology. Responding, Peter Denley (Westfield) stressed that standardisation was not a mere abstraction, and deplored the lack of recognition given in research culture to collaborative effort. While the TEI's proposals needed to be made more accessible to the non-professional, there was a danger that computing historians were about to propose a `third pope' if they continued to ignore the very real and highly relevant progress made by other research communities, while their datasets would be increasingly marginalised. This view seemed to have general acceptance, though some, notably Anderson, insisted that quick and dirty methods would always prevail in the long run.

The third session dealt specifically with the role of data archives in historical research, with papers from Paul de Guchteneire (Steinmetz Archive, Amsterdam) and Hans-Jorgen Marker (Danish Data Archive, Odense) and a particularly useful synthesis of them from Bridget Winstanley (ESRC Archive, Essex). De Guchteneire remarked on the highly skewed usage distribution of archived material (very small numbers of items being used very frequently), the archives' reluctance, through lack of resources, to provide ancillary support facilities, the need to preserve data sets currently being produced by government and other agencies, and on the need to formalise citation of datasets. Marker, picking up Thaller's four-fold characterisation of historical datasets, agreed that most archives were really only capable of dealing with survey type material, and that their methods might not be generalisable. Winstanley reiterated the need for standardisation in citing and cataloguing datasets; addressing the palpable discomfort of historians for the social science model of archiving, she stressed the need for proper bibliographic description and control. In the ensuing discussion, I drew attention to the TEI's recommendations for bibliographic description, and noted the interesting contradiction between an archive's dual role as repository (foregrounding idiosyncrasy) and as source of reusable resources (foregrounding integration). Anderson made the good point that traditional social science archives were about to be engulfed with the results of `qualitative' surveys which could mean a narrowing of the distinction between textual and numeric data.

In the fourth session, dealing with the use and potential of online historical databases, Humphrey Southall (QMW) described the trials and tribulations of providing JANET-wide access to a large Ingres database of information about local labour markets via a Hypercard-based front-end and Heiko Tjalsma (Leiden) a project called Chronos which provides integrated access to a variety of SAS datasets and their documentation. Both talks tended to concentrate overmuch on the technical details of networking, which also dominated the discussion. The rapporteur, Don Spaeth (Glasgow) contrasted traditional mainframe-based online services with the workstation model, the provision of networked access to CD-ROMs etc. and the discussion tended to drift into rather ill-informed speculation about likely technological changes, though Eric Tannenbaum (Essex) (who was unfortunately present only for this session) did make the interesting observation that it would be the need of environmental and other researchers for terabytes of data within seconds which would determine the likely development of new networks.

The last session of the day dealt with the topic of IT in the teaching of history. Frank Colson (Southampton) gave an optimistic acount, based on the impressive success record of his HIDES system, which is designed to complement rather than replace traditional library resources. Deian Hopkin (Aberystwyth) was less sanguine: his analysis concentrated on the impossibility of funding new IT-based teaching methods without proper institutional and financial support. As Rick Trainor (Glasgow) pointed out, the papers were nicely complementary, in that the teaching methods described by one were precisely those which present funding arrangements made it difficult or impossible to provide. Hides had been justly praised for the way it enhanced the traditional teaching role by providing students with the opportunity to carry out systematic analysis of major problems, on their own terms, while the National Curriculum appeared to wish to undermine or undervalue that very potential by using IT as a low-cost way of providing transferable skills. Computer- based teaching was an effective way of bringing a closer rapprochement between teaching and research as well as in breaking artificial discipline-based distinctions. He felt that it was better to focus on the institutional problems preventing its wider acceptance than on the purely technological ones, and that the methodological differences between social science and history had been overstated.

In the following discussion, Morris probably spoke for several when expressing disquiet at the way the morning's discussions of the technical possibilities and the intellectual challenge that they posed seemed to have gone adrift. He feared that technophoria would distract from the fact that only some models of enquiry were well served by IT. For Hopkin, IT was of importance because it enforced a `confrontation with the data' and reminded historians of the need for a methodology to handle that confrontation. Greenstein agreed on the crucial importance of a formalised model of enquiry (for which he gracefully gave credit to the TEI), and noted that without one teaching history (as opposed to transferable skills which could be got anywhere) was very difficult indeed. Spaeth remarked that revolutionary fervour had been the downfall of the quantifying school of historians and agreed that the misuse of IT for its own sake lead to poor teaching practice.

I came away very favourably impressed by the format of the day: tightly-focussed small group discussions can sometimes be a little incestuous, but the programme had been carefully arranged to provoke ample scope for controversy and some fruitful argument had ensued. From the TEI perspective, I was particularly encouraged by the evident willingness of the computing historians to confront standardisation problems at the heart of the TEI agenda, and to restate them in their own terms.

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