How to interpret documents II: To the letter or more intuitively?

How to interpret documents II: To the letter or more intuitively?

Please reference as: Liz Stanley and Emilia Sereva (2016) ‘How to interpret documents II: To the letter or more intuitively?’ and provide the paragraph number as appropriate


1. Introduction

[NB. A ‘how to’ discussion of interpreting the documents which the debate covered here refers to appears as ‘How to interpret documents I: some Forbes diary entries’.]

1.1   How to interpret the remaining traces of the past is no easy or self-evident matter. The practices for ‘doing interpretation’ are nowhere specified in detail, in part because interpretation is always a matter of the analysis of particular bodies of data or ideas, in part because it is closely linked with the sense-making activities of a researcher. In this it is both tied to and also departs from an evidential base so as to address research questions which are connected with a wider picture.

1.2   In the process of writing the original ‘how to’ document on interpretation, a debate took place between us in a set of email exchanges. We discovered we had some different views about what was involved in this. And so in these exchanges we each tried to set out our views in a way the other could understand and sympathise with.

1.3   The debate concerns some fundamentals of the activities called interpretation, and it unfolds in connection with a particular set of research materials, specifically how to interpret some connected Forbes diary-entries. Interpretation is always of a ‘something’, and discussions of its activities and processes do not make full sense unless this specific ‘something’ is taken into account.

1.4   As a consequence the debate below is best read after the ‘how to’ document interpreting the Forbes diary-entries that these email discussions refer to. This can be accessed at the reference above.


2. Departures and arrivals

2.1   In setting out our different interpretational strategies, we tend to base our comments on different evidential sources. Emilia makes reference to the wider picture of the writing practices that Kate Forbes employed in her diary-writing more generally, while Liz refers to the public use of farm diaries including those written by the Forbes, and the legal language used in court cases, and implicit here is that knowledge of both comes from the Forbes letters. These are dissimilar approaches to taking context and evidence into account and relate to our different positions within the WWW research and the different things we are currently working on.

2.2   Another point of departure relates to the actual process engaged in and the different practices of reading involved. In summary, Liz’s reading practice is to stick closely to analysing the words on the page and to read ‘to the letter’ before making interpretational moves, while Emilia’s reading practice is to build up incrementally an overall view in which analysis and interpretation are conjoined.

2.3   The crux of the difference between us regarding interpretation seems to be that these different practices impact on the point at which the researcher departs from analysis of the specific materials in hand in order to relate this interpretationally to something wider. And it also thereby influences what this ‘something wider’ is viewed as. This may be what these sources actually mean in the sense of what they are seen to add up to, or it may be to better understand some wider social circumstances or events. Both move out from the text towards something wider, but they do so at a different point, in different ways, and for different purposes.

2.4   It is also important to recognise that, at the same time, we are in full agreement about another crucial interpretational matter. This concerns doing justice to the documentary traces that are being analysed and interpreted, and so producing interpretations of them that are grounded and defensible.


3. The debate

3.1   What now follows is a slightly edited version of the email exchange that took place. It is followed by a brief concluding comment.


Emilia to Liz 11 November 15:08 GMT

Raining here too, but we are atop a huge hill so no flooding.

Have read doc — I found your analysis to be very interesting and it emphasises the key elements at play, and I may have something to add with respect to Kate’s stance about the situation —

My previous thoughts re Kate’s position about the Bismarks:

I thought Kate took Bismark’s side (siding with the men) because her loyalty is to him. I got the sense that she knows Bismark quite a bit better than Nomalanga, and thus is ready to defend him given her relationship with him?

She seems a very loyal woman, and is thus affected when misfortune happens to any of ‘her people’. That Nomalanga took off with her baby and a man to whom she was not ‘married’ seemed another thing that upset/angered Kate given the indecency of such actions AND the ramifications for Bismark.

Is that anything?

My best wishes, Emilia

* * * * *

Liz to Emilia 11 November 15:22 GMT

This is interesting, but I wonder what you think are the specific words or phrases that indicates that Kate is loyal to Bismark, that she is ready to defend him, and that she is disapproving the ‘indecency’ of Nomalanga going off.

So please tell me what you think indicates the knowing, defending, disapproving and indecency, the words and phrases you think show this. I don’t ask for frivolous reasons, because how such things are discerned is the essence of interpretation, isn’t it? and it connects with how closely we stick to the actual words that are said or written, and how much we extrapolate beyond this… These things are important but not much spoken about in any detail.

Best wishes, Liz

* * * * *

Emilia to Liz 11 November 16:44 GMT

Dear Liz,

Here’s what I’ve got so far… :

Though not overtly stating that she sides with Bismark, Kate’s description of Nomalanga’s actions, Bismark’s attempts to remedy the situation, and the stances of David, the other men and the Law all diminish the legitimacy of Nomalanga’s actions. Kate uses these examples and details as a means of supporting that Bismark is in the right, and is the victim.

Kate’s use of the word ‘complain’ on 12 July (a word she doesn’t often use), and inclusion of David’s comment that Nomalanga is the more dangerous of the two spouses suggests Kate (and David) giving Bismark the benefit of the doubt at the outset. On 14 July, Kate also writes that Nomalanga ‘complained’ in her description of both parties’ trips to see the SAC; suggesting the unfounded nature of Nomalanga’s stance.

She describes in terms of how Bismark is on the side of both the ‘Kafir and English’ law – having gone with Gubasie to the SAC as a sign of good faith, and how David supports him given his supplying of a note. The entries for the 14th and the 16th July use the term ‘misbehave’ to describe of Nomalanga’s actions – again bringing forward the supremacy of the laws regarding child custody, and also her disapproval of what Nomalanga has done.

Kate also describes Nomalanga in terms of ‘this woman’ on 14 July – a phrase marking the distance between writer and subject. Bismark, the husband in this situation, is described as ‘helpless’, having done nothing wrong. All the neighbourhood men agree Nomalanga’s actions merit death, and publically condemn them…

What isn’t included here is the fact that Kate followed and recorded this series of events. I’m sure she doesn’t record all area disputes, but picked this one.

My best wishes, Emilia

* * * * *

Liz to Emilia 12 November 11:59 GMT

OK, I don’t think I agree with you about a number of the things you’ve just commented on, but I can appreciate now more about where you’re coming from on these matters. Let me respond to your five main points one by one so we can see where we’re up to on this.

If Kate doesn’t ‘overtly state’ that she ‘sides’ with Bismark, then this is your interpretation, and I think it somewhat of an overstatement. You’re extrapolating beyond what is actually there, I think. Also, at the forefront surely has to be that the Forbes diaries were public documents and could be and on occasion were called as evidence in legal cases of various kinds. The various mentions of troubles and causing troubles in what Kate writes it seems to me have to be located in that context. I don’t think that you can point to anything that demonstrates that Kate supports Bismark being in the right and being the victim (to use the terms in your email). Again, please tell me the exact words – no extrapolation beyond the words, but the words themselves! I’m really willing to be convinced, but can’t see it.

When you say that Kate doesn’t often use the word ‘complain’, you’re referring to your work on others of the Forbes diaries. Fair enough, if you can provide references across the diaries by doing something like a word search. Also, I’m wondering why you interpret the word ‘complain’ as meaning something unfounded. In many of the court cases and other events involving the police, the local landrost and other officials, the words complain and complaint are often used in Forbes letters. This is contemporary usage, whereas perhaps now the connotation of complain has changed and this is what your interpretation is based on?

‘Misbehaviour’ is another term with a loaded contemporary meaning, and it appears in various pieces of Transvaal legislation and also customary law as a shorthand description. However, I’m puzzled why you read Kate’s stance just in terms of Nomalanga’s behaviour or misbehaviour, and don’t also relate this to the behaviour of the men in appearing en masse about redress, and also Kate’s status as the official writer of the official farming diaries. Both of these latter seem to me as important or perhaps even more so than the specific behaviour of Nomalanga and Mashisiman.

I agree with you about ‘this woman’ being a distancing way of phrasing it, but this could bear a number of interpretations. It could be repulsion at the sexual behaviour, or it could be concerned with the trouble caused by this (you think the former, me the latter, is that our basic difference?). Also I’m curious that what you say about this focuses on ‘possible death for Nomalanga’, and you don’t mention that this applies also to Mashisiman. I can’t find a sign that the men are specifically focusing on Nomalanga here.

Your last comment about Kate picking particular events to record, and that she didn’t record all disputes that occurred on Athole homefarm or on the Estate more widely, reminds me of something. This is that Kate does record some other clashes between men and women at Athole in various letters, and these accounts too do not explicitly take sides. But they do problematise the conduct of ‘the men’ and men’s claims over women. What do you make of that, and does it shift your views at all I wonder? Once more the interesting relationships between the Forbes letters and diaries is on the agenda!

Finally – a new question – what do you see as the main differences between us methodologically here. That is, about how interpretation of these documents is done? Do you think I’m being too cautious, too anal, and missing the point?

Best wishes, Liz

* * * * *

Emilia to Liz 12 November 14:09 GMT

Methodologically, my claims are – as you see – largely unfounded and steeped in contemporary assumptions and projections! In truth, at most I have a sense or a feeling about her stance, and no real proof; I found some and tacked them on. I think there is something behind what Kate is writing to do with loyalty to Bismark etc, but there’s not enough evidence to argue this.

I think I have fallen victim to the assumption that I know her having read her diaries.

My best wishes, Emilia

* * * * *

Liz to Emilia 12 November 14:30 GMT

Well, even if you have that’s not so terrible. And don’t give way so quickly! What about the actual documents? you haven’t let on much about how you approach them. Is it that ‘knowing Kate in general’ is guiding your reading/interpreting, or that you’re unclear as to the methodology of close reading, or that you’re picking up on a number of hints and clues and putting them together to make something bigger, or what?

Best wishes, Liz

* * * * *

Emilia to Liz 12 November 15:00 GMT.

When I read anything, I make up a voice to read the text (as though a voice of the writer or character is reading to me) and this helps me read – I’m auditory/visual mix where learning and memory is concerned. As such, the more I read, the more the voice changes and eventually I get senses about the tone and feelings of the author/character.

The more I read, the more I feel I have a sense of Kate’s feelings on particular matters given mostly general assumptions, word usage, and occasionally changes in handwriting and crossed out mistakes. I think I can tell when she’s angry about something, but I may be totally wrong.

I only feel as though I know her. I likely don’t know her at all — in the same way I don’t know Norbert Elias [a social theorist we’re both interested in], but feel very close to him, and as though we have things in common. In reality I expect the situation would be very different. This brings up a larger question to do with whether anybody really ever knows anybody else! Defeatist me is turning into quite the positivist.

That being said, I usually try to take things at face value so I don’t screw up the summaries by adding my own views.

My best wishes, Emilia

* * * * *

Liz to Emilia 12 November 15:37 GMT

So if I were to say, here is a piece of text which is 15 lines long, and I want you to analyse what the text says, how it says it, how the writer is positioned and how it positions the reader, how would you go about it? That is, what I’m asking is, about the things that you sketch out in your email, do they work when you’re asked to analyse something very specific and focused? or do you do something different?

Best wishes, Liz

* * * * *

Emilia to Liz 12 November 15:00 GMT

Assuming I have no prior knowledge of the writer, I would read the text through several times and try and get a sense of the voice. Then I’d think over what I’d read, and re-read. It would very likely be difficult – or impossible – for me to adequately analyse a single document without any sort of background or context. Without any such frame of reference, I would by default impose my present-day views on the text and very likely misread it in one or more ways. But, is it ever possible to understand the context from the viewpoint of the writer? I feel as though the only means of remedying this is to work with larger collections.

I don’t think the things I’ve sketched out in my previous email work at all with one-off documents, as the ‘senses’ and ‘understandings’ I’ve accumulated develop over reading hundreds of diary entries.

With larger collections, the context develops over the course of years, and eventually takes precedence over my present-day interpretations. In reading the Forbes diaries in sequential order, for example, the elusive things like writers’ personalities, phrasing, moods, and relationships come forward over months and sometimes years. But, even having read years of diaries, how can I get away from imposing my present-day views? There seems no way around it. Is it possible to ‘take things at face value’ in practice?

My best wishes, Emilia

* * * * *


3.2  We have not provided ‘an end’ to this debate but left it hanging. This is because there is no simple form of closure that can be operated, unless one of us were to depart so much from ‘the stuff’ that it was obvious we had just said anything we wanted to score points. However, the bottom line is that we are both operating in good faith, and both of us want to do our best in interpreting the traces that remain, and so to act ethically towards the people whose lives have provided the small, partial and tricky representations that are the Forbes diaries.


Last updated: 4 May 2016


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