Chapter 21: Jane’s Three Letters: Working with Documents and Archives
Sue Middleton Over half a century ago, sociologist C. Wright Mills advised research students ‘that the most admirable thinkers within the scholarly community you have chosen to join do not split their work from their lives. They seem to take both too seriously to allow such dissociation, and they want to use each for the enrichment of the other’ (1959, p. 215). A social scientist’s creativity (or sociological imagination) might be inspired when what at first may seem merely ‘personal troubles of milieu’ are reconceptualized as also wider ‘public issues of social structure’ (1959, p. 14). Accordingly, this chapter on the use of documents as resources for educational (and wider) qualitative research takes as an exemplar the story of how my vague and long-held personal curiosity about my mother’s family was transformed into a five-year study of the writing of a small group of ‘labouring poor’ involving close study of documents in 12 repositories in Britain and New Zealand. As Prior (Chapter 31, this volume) also argues, documents can be interrogated in multiple ways. I describe how my readings of the letters and of archival resources pertaining to their wider contexts generated ever-changing questions, lines of inquiry and conceptual voyages through historical, sociological, geographical and educational theory. INTRODUCING JANE It all began at a family reunion at which I received copies of two letters written by my mother’s paternal great grandparents, Jane and Samuel Retter. I was informed that Jane and Samuel had been servants employed at Ham House (in...
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