Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Research & Anthropology

Are we talking the same language?
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Tower of Babel (1563).
           The Jagiellonians Project which I lead has an anthropological strand: asking how anthropologists’ work on kinship, family and ritual can help us better understand this 15th and 16th century royal house. Just last week, I found myself talking over lunch at Somerville College with Dr. Jane Dyson, comparing notes on marriage practice in remote 21stC Himalayan villages and among Renaissance princes.

Eighteen months in, however, the project is also having to engage with anthropology in a broader, more immediate sense. The lands once ruled by the Jagiellonians today make up some 13 different countries and national scholarships on the dynasty. The project itself operates in a British environment, with an international team. This means that the project is talking to a range of audiences, and operating within and across a number of quite different academic cultures.

            Universities and scholarship may look superficially similar across the world, and we might use the same terminologies, but these often conceal important differences. ‘Project’ is one such term, which can imply different things in different places. In the UK, a research project is typically a team of scholars employed to work full-time on a topic in a co-ordinated way, recruited through open competition; in other places, ‘project’ is a network, an umbrella which should properly group together all the leading experts in a given field. ‘Conference’ in some academic cultures is an event at which you speak, and pay a fee in order to cover the organisers’ costs; elsewhere, ‘conference’ is an event to which scholars, as a mark of honour, are invited to speak, all their expenses generously paid, and fine meals lavished upon them.

‘Scholarship’ itself can mean different things, depending on where in the modern world you are. In some places, a particular mark of scholarly excellence is the successful identification of new sources: new archival documents or visual artefacts. In other places, scholarly excellence instead lies in fresh interpretations and analyses of evidence, either old or new. This important difference reflects, I think, the different functions which history plays within different cultures today. My sense is that in some places the basic shape and themes of national history (and its place in national identity) are already widely agreed upon, and research simply fleshes these trajectories out further. By contrast, in places where a canonical narrative of the past (for whatever reason) is less central to present-day national identity, revisionism and the rewriting of old stories by historians is applauded.

To openly acknowledge these differences is not to make judgements about the relative merits of different academic cultures. An international project such as the Jagiellonians therefore needs to be attuned to anthropology, willing to decode cultural difference – ready to accept that some, or indeed much, of what we do will (inadvertently) be baffling or annoying to scholars elsewhere; and that, vice versa, there are reactions which we will struggle to understand. The important thing is to start talking more frankly about our different experiences and expectations; and to keep talking.