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.

Share Button

Novelists and doodlers

This week I have been back in the National Archives in London, working  my way through case files for appeals against refusals of sickness benefits from the 1950s.  These case files are the main source of data for my research and have provided me with valuable insights into the decision making process for sickness benefits across the twentieth century.  The files from the 1950s show me how the post-war national insurance scheme was beginning to define the important concept of incapacity for work.  Most of the cases that I am looking at from the 1950s were published and can be found (with some difficulty) in libraries but the archive copies include all the background papers relating to the case,  sometimes including letters from claimants, notes from doctors and the off-the-record opinions of the civil servants dealing with the cases. The cases include people who have been considered capable of work and often discuss alternative work that people might have been able to do.

A lost novelist?

Yesterday I came across a man who was claiming sickness benefits in the 1950s.  The Ministry of National Insurance thought he was fit for ’light clerical work’.  The claimant argued that he had tried various things and been unable to do them, including writing a novel.  This set me thinking ‘I wonder if he ever wrote that novel?  Maybe he became famous?’.  Since I had his name I thought I’d just have a quick internet search and see if his name popped up anywhere in the second hand book websites.  Sadly it didn’t.  What would I have done with that information if he had?  I’ve made a commitment to keep the people in the case files anonymous so I would have just kept the information to myself.  But I like to think that maybe he did write that novel after all and maybe published it under a pen-name.  Or maybe he had to find more mundane work after his benefit was stopped and didn’t have the energy left to write the novel in his spare time.

Doodles in the archives

And today I found a file with doodles on it.  Pencil drawings. The creations of some bored civil servant perhaps.  Maybe, like the novelist, this civil servant went on to become a famous artist? Probably not since they weren’t very good.  In the mean time what was she or he doing doodling on a copy of an important legal document?  Fortunately, perhaps for the perpetrator, it is not possible to put a name to these great works of art.

All of these things remind me of the pleasures of archive research.  As well as adding information that just can’t be found in the published material, they add these personal touches that show that the cases concerned real people, with lives and futures.  They also remind me that the people dealing with the paperwork were human too.

Share Button

Making links across time and space

What links German peasants in the 1500s, travelling people in Sweden in the 1960s, and applicants to special educational needs appeals in the USA today?

These groups of people were all discussed in papers at conferences which I attended recently. One of the great things about conferences is the opportunity to hear about research that you wouldn’t immediately think was relevant to your own but which allows you to make links across time and space and topic. So what did I learn about this group of  people from very different times and places?

Disability and social welfare in Germany in the 1500s

It was at a European conference on social history  that I went to a session on ‘Disability in early modern society’, which focussed on times before 1800. Angela Schattner from the German Historical Institute in London talked about her research on Public welfare in Germany in the 1500s. She observed that access to welfare only became available when all other sources of support had fallen away. Such welfare was pretty limited and might amount only to the right to beg. The definition of incapacity in her cases had nothing to do with impairment as such or the ‘ability to work’ but people’s ability to provide for themselves, which included access to family resources.  In those days, before the welfare state as we understand it today, there was less of a concern with ‘incapacity for work’ and more of a concern with ‘inability to have enough money to live on’, which are two slightly different things.

Travelling people in Sweden

Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir from Linnaeus University in Sweden talked about a social initiative in Sweden in the 1960s which attempted to provide medical and social services to ‘Swedish Gypsies’. A campaigning doctor of the time, John Takman, carried out a mass study of everybody classified as a ‘gypsy’, which involved medical examinations, home visits and advice on social needs, including housing, education, health needs and job advice. The study was organised by the Swedish Labour Board and its purpose was to integrate the Gypsy people into mainstream Swedish community and for them to find work . When I first saw the title of this paper I did not immediately think it had any relevance to my research but I was struck almost straight away when Ida introduced the paper, describing the Swedish gypsies as ‘socially handicapped’ and ‘partially able-bodied’. These were not her words but (translations of) the words used at the time to describe the travelling community. Here was a link between her research and mine. Although the group of people that she is interested in were discriminated against on the grounds of ethnicity rather than disability, the problems they were experiencing were framed in the same way as those of people who have difficulty finding work because of disabilities or health issues.
As with many government attempts to provide services for disabled people, the survey and its consequences were not entirely positive and there have been many criticisms of it. What I learned from this though, was that a social model of ‘labour market disadvantage’ can encompass both physical or mental impairment and social disadvantage because of ethnicity and social background … but the views of professionals, in particular medical professionals, can still carry very heavy weight within this model.

Thanks to Ida Ohlsen Al Fakir for this information, also available on her University website

The secret law of disability?

And, finally, at the Law and Society Association conference  Jasmine Harris from the American University Washington College of Law gave a paper on the ‘Secret Law of Disability’ where she argued that legal hearings on social security, special educational needs and mental health should be held in public rather than in private. We tend to think these kinds of hearings should be private to protect people’s privacy but Jasmine Harris argued that they should be public so that issues concerning discrimination against disabled people would be more publicly debated. That connects to some ideas that I have been having about the ethics of using people’s names compared with keeping them anonymous in historical research. As a social scientist, the codes of ethics that I follow usually emphasise the importance of anonymity but historians tend to use people’s real names, and sometimes photographs if they are available. I’ve been wondering where the boundary lies.

Share Button