Thursday, January 27, 2011

Citation citation citation

-Flan solves all of life's problems, in particular the question of what to have for dinner. (Cheap, bland, and calorically dense, the ramen of Paris.) Fortunately there's some excellent flan to be had very near the dorm, which means that all previous remarks regarding bread, cheese, pasta, or steak may be disregarded. (Yes, I also eat fruits and vegetables, and will not develop scurvy.) Over the summer I didn't really appreciate the flan - something about an hour on an unairconditioned July metro trip back to an unairconditioned attic apartment didn't make me want custard tarts. The love affair is back on.

-My neighbor just returned to the dorm with a bag from the Beacon's Closet of Paris, thus reminding me that such a thing exists, takes part in the soldes, is located near the Petit Bateau with the deeply discounted tank tops. If NY is more distracting in this regard than Chicago (well, Hyde Park), Paris is the absolute epicenter of this kind of distraction. But it can also be motivation - finish X dissertation tasks, and I'm allowed to at least go look at some of this.

-Speaking of that dissertation, a question for historians: A problem I keep running into is, I'll be looking for some bit of info, and find just the sentence or paragraph where in 1970, 1990, whatever, a historian answered that question... but provided no footnote, sources, etc. This is sometimes because a book is from a time before historians were so rigorous about that, or from a genre not quite in line with academic history. Other times, though, it's just because the way even excellent histories are written, some sentences are the implicit summary of many many many things the author has read, and if you have enough examples throughout, you trust that the author isn't just making stuff up, and that he is just trying not to bog down the reader by reproducing his entire notebooks. (I try to cite everything that might in any way relate to any thought anyone else had, ever, but then again I'm writing a dissertation, which is its own animal.) What does one do when encountering such sentences? Cite with an "according to" X historian, without getting into the fact that you have no idea how X knows the info? Email the author and just ask? (This is already my plan for a different situation - an author who explicitly mentions that one text is an example of others of its kind - 99.99% of readers of this particular book, already not the general reading public, would not care what the other texts of its kind are. But I sure do!) I'm inclined to do the latter, at least when the author is still alive, still a professor, but is this done? What is the etiquette on this?


Daniel Goldberg said...

In part it depends on the credibility of the author. If, for example, I was looking at something in late Renaissance intellectual history (NOT my field, other than as an interested observer), and it was cited by William Bouwsma, I would be perfectly happy to cite any such verifiable statement of fact as "According to Bouwsma."

My thinking on that would be that Bouwsma is regarded as one of the leading intellectual historians of the late Renaissance, and that it would be odd indeed by professional norms for anyone to challenge Bouwsma's authority to pronounce on any particular matter within the ambit of his expertise.

So it comes down to the bona fides of the historian you are contemplating citing. If you are confident the history is excellent, and the author is a regarded scholar (here I'm combining your own substantive appraisal with the author's regard in the field so as not to devolve into an argument from authority), I would not have any problem at all just citing the historian themselves in the manner you've indicated.

I generally think that in most cases, experts recognized as leading authorities by other experts are generally entitled to a great deal of deference in their capacity to make knowledge claims without the kinds of citation strings a peon like myself would unquestionably need.

JMO, of course.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

if in doubt, cite. Especially in a doctoral diss.

Phoebe said...

Daniel Goldberg,

I feel like this may be right (for major figures in the field, at least), but I can already hear any readers asking me how I know and agreeing with them that I should have more solid evidence.


Agreed, but that's not the question I'm asking. I'm asking whether to cite Major Historian with Major Historian Said, or whether to also verify that Major Historian is referring to a particular primary source, not just speculating.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

judgement call. you can't check everything back to primary sources, your life isn't long enough.

As well as the size of Major Historian's reputation I'd consider how credible what he says is in terms of scholarship in general and what you think about it yourself.

Remember Lord Dacre and the Hitler Diaries.

Phoebe said...

"you can't check everything back to primary sources, your life isn't long enough."

To be clear, the question isn't whether I will actually visit all primary sources referred to by all relevant-to-my-project historians, which is of course impossible, but what I will do in the cases where none are specifically mentioned for a particular point, and it's a point relevant to my project.

And I don't know the case you're referring to (Googled it to get an idea), but yes, the question is, is the scholarship solid, not is the person who wrote it a big-shot. My field, however, is not wildly glamorous/contentious, I can't even imagine what a hoax would be or why anyone would be motivated to create one, and the better-known people tend to know their stuff.

eamonnmcdonagh said...

didn't literally mean that you might be victim of a hoax just that smart people, including Major Historians, can say/write very dumb things and be as credulous as anyone else

Phoebe said...

Yes, it's good to be suspicious. But how suspicious? I still want answers! I feel like this is something historians know, and I've been trained partially but not fully in that discipline.

J. Otto Pohl said...

Since you have only the one secondary source I would just put "according to" if you think there could be any possible debate on the point. Historians tend to err on the very conservative side regarding such things. So basically you want to say that Historian X says such and such, not that you think it is undeniably true. You can also note that the said historian does not provide any citation to a primary source in making this claim. In short err on the conservative side in only claiming what you can document.

It has taken me days to get over the jet lag from flying to Ghana via Dubai. The total length of the trip was two days.

Phoebe said...

J. Otto Pohl,

I absolutely agree re: erring on the side of conservatism. But which way is more conservative - an "according to" or, you know, emailing the author to find out?

My plan, for what it's worth, is to ask a history prof what's generally done in this situation.