Choosing names in research

I’m finally writing up the book from my archival project and I have to decide how I am going to deal with names in the archive papers. At an early stage of my project I decided that I would anonymise the people in the archive cases. This comes from my own social science training which is based on an assumption that we should anonymise any personal data derived from research. Writers in other disciplines do not always do this. Historians usually use real names, although not always. There seems to be a cut-off around the twentieth century when social historians sometimes start using pseudonyms. Legal scholars usually use real names because they are usually dealing with legal cases already in the public domain, where people’s names are part of the case name. Some social scientists and oral historians also argue for an ethical position of using real names. But I find this difficult. The information in the archive files is personal and not very far in the past. It is unlikely that any of the people in these files is still alive today and that is reflected in the status of the files in the archives. The files are ‘open’ – available to anyone to look at but I don’t believe that this gives me permission to use their real names. All of them may have living relatives and people who knew them who would be concerned about their personal details being made public. Some, of course, might be delighted to find an archive with their grandmother or great grandfather named in it, which would enable them to pursue their family history but I don’t think it is my role to expose people in this way. On top of this, around half of the case papers that I am using are already anonymised as they have been published in collections of anonymised legal cases. I don’t know the people’s names at all. Or at least not all of them. For some of these anonymised cases, I’ve also identified an archive file, which gives me the real names of the people in the anonymised published cases. For a very small number of the cases I am looking at, there is a higher level court case or a newspaper report which carries the name of the protaganists. These are fully in the public domain and traditions of legal writing require that I use the full names for these.
But I have made my decision to anonymise all the other cases and intend to stick with it. The question now is what to do when I discuss the people I’m writing about. Until now, in any published papers or conference presentations, I have referred to people by the case number of their legal case only and have not attempted to bring them to life by giving them names. Now that I am writing the book I feel that it would make for easier reading if the people had names. So how to go about choosing them.

Choosing names the old-fashioned way

When I’ve carried out interview based research in the past I used surnames from a local telephone directory. I knew that this created problems: surnames convey ethnicity, geography and religious associations. All of my interviewees had been white and Scottish or English so I could be fairly confident that names I had chosen would be associated with that identity. First names are even more clearly marked for gender, ethnicity, religion and social class and they are associated with different generations, according to popularity in naming patterns. So I found first names using information from the National Records of Scotland assigning age appropriate first names. I also tried to avoid names of celebrities, fictional characters or well known real people (although this was somewhat dependent on my rather useless knowledge of celebrities). I was happy with the result and my renamed interviewees became real characters, who I felt, began to become alive in my writing.

Wirecaester Barlow or James Bond

So how to go about this process with my archive material? Something else has come along in the way of technical support since I carried out previous research. I’m currently using scrivener software to draft my book and it has a ‘name generator’ built in. This allows writers to select from a very wide range of apparently ethnically and gender appropriate names. I’ve been searching for those of English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish origins, given the backgrounds of most of the people in my data. This produces some unusual names: Wirecaester Barlow, Sped Hell, Oxnaleah Flax? I don’t know how scrivener generates these names but they seem a little unlikely for England in the early 20th century and there don’t seem to be any date filters on the name generator unless you’re looking for Ancient Egyptian, Anglo Saxon or Shakespearean names. So I’m experimenting with names from the British 1881 census, available electronically, which produces the more likely sounding: Alfred Jones, Thomas Hudson and Annie Norton. Though my most recent search also produced James Bond, so I’ll still have to watch out for the celebrities and well known fictional characters.

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