Methodology 3: Figure/ground – the writer and the written

Methodology 3: Figure/ground – the writer and the written

The best laid plans… I haven’t yet managed to complete the 10 year cross-sections of all Forbes letters, mentioned in my two previous blogs. A flood of chapters from PhD students to read and comment on, a determination to severely reduce the huge amount of unanswered email haunting me (computer problems largely to blame), and some urgent pre-winter gardening tasks (the precious wild-flower meadow I’m making), have held things up. However, I’m now within a whisker of finishing, so two cheers if not three. And because the overall patterns have now become clearer, another methodological issue has come to the fore. It is as follows.

My initial project analysed the letters and correspondences of six members of the Forbes figuration (a term from the work of Norbert Elias), picking out different sub-sets of letters, correspondences and time-periods for each, to highlight the specific as well as some more general features of the letters in question. In doing so, this placed the spotlight on the writers and one or more of their correspondents (i.e. their addressees). The effect is rather like a set of ice-cores of different densities and durations drilled through the letters in their totality.

Prompted by a journal reviewer who commented on an article I’ve had accepted subject to revision, and my unruly curiosity, what I’ve been doing subsequently (see two previous blogs) is to take one random year from each decade that the Forbes letters exist for as cross-sections and then look at the entire flow of letters in and out in these years. This places the spotlight instead on letters rather than writers, but less on their content and more on their numbers, flows, interruptions and absences/presences. The effect is here rather like taking some spaced slices out of a tree-trunk.

The ‘figure/ground’ effect is well-known. In this instance, regarding the Forbes letters looked at the first way, the ‘figure’ that comes centre-stage consists of letter-writers and the particularities of their epistolary relationships with specific correspondents as well as the resultant letters that were written and received. The focus here is with the specifics, with the relational ties (sometimes close, sometimes distant…) that connected the writer and addressee. After all, letters are indeed written and sent by a particular writer to an addressee. However, the Forbes letters looked at the second way, as cross-sectional flows, means that the ‘figure’ centre-stage telescopes. The writers and recipients become ground, indeed become background. What is the foreground, the figure in the case, is now different, and it is the letters en masse and patterns in their arrivals and sendings in each cross-section and as compared with the cross-section before and the one after.

But, the methodological issue here I’ve become interested in goes like this. While the results of operationalising the second approach are interesting and in their own way revelatory, my concern is that this isn’t how people write letters and (although perhaps to a lesser extent) it isn’t how they receive them either. An example – When David Forbes was away from home for many months in the 1860s, he wrote frequently to his much loved wife Kate, but not for his long detailed loving letters to simply join the hundred and something other letters sent to their home that year. And Kate received them and wrote her own back to him in a similar way – the specificity of the letters between the two of them within the larger flow mattered, and mattered a good deal to both of them.

So I guess that within this monster article (it’s for a US journal with capacious word limits) I need to find space to explain this and consequently also why the reviewer’s ‘why not do this? question isn’t proposing as good an alternative or supplement as it first sounds.

Last updated: 15 October 2015


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