First Principles in WWW Research

First Principles

Please reference as: Liz Stanley (2018) ‘First Principles in WWW Research’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting.

1. Whites Writing Whiteness is neither an epistemological project concerned primarily with matters of knowledge, nor an epistolary one concerned specifically with letter-writing as a medium of communication. It is rather centrally engaged with matters of representation, with how people see and represent the world and other people in it, and as a consequence it works across the epistemological/ontological so-called divide, for in practice questions of being and questions of knowing overlay each other. An example concerns Gottlob Schreiner, a London Missionary Society missionary who arrived in South Africa in the 1830s. He wrote letters in which he struggled to know what the different communities he was living among were ‘like’ in ethical and spiritual terms; he also, somewhat pig-headedly, struggled to be the kind of preacher working under the hand of God that he wanted to be, and saw this as requiring him to know God’s being in its fundament. Impossible here to separate out the strands of being and not/knowing. Another example is that in the 1910s and 20s, South African politician and Prime Minister Jan Smuts wrote hundreds of letters to a woman friend in which in which he inscribed an epistolary space which had no ‘race’ aspects because none of the people (i.e. black) who for him bore its markers were present/represented. The result is that in these letters the economy of land and mines and factories ran themselves, meals cooked themselves and houses cleaned themselves, clothes were washed and ironed and children were looked after by themselves… The world Smuts represented in these letters was one made ontologically safe – separation, apartheid, was made as though absolute. In both examples, albeit in different ways, at different times and for different reasons, questions of being and questions of knowing were both foreground and background and also inseparable in these representational spaces inscribed by Gottlob Schreiner and by Jan Smuts.

2. In the context of WWW research, letters are a proxy for representation more widely. Letters are dialogical and communicative, retrievable, in some contexts (correspondences) serial, and also figurational (when in multi-faceted collections spanning long time-periods). Also letter-writing as a form or genre is highly responsive to changing social mores. In South Africa (back then, and also right now) distances are great, people were often apart, time to travel was lengthy, and relationships were continued by means proxy (i.e. representational) to the face-to-face across such divides of space and time through their exchanges of letters. The Forbes family figuration, for instance, developed a scriptural economy that encompassed South Africa, Swaziland, Scotland and at times South Australia, included multiple generations, and shared an economy of exchanges of property, money, labour, goods, services and other practical and emotional support (Stanley 2015). Letters were an essential component in this as a form of liquidity that supported and to a large extent embodied and enacted the rest.

3. The past in one sense is past, over and done with, been and gone. In another, it is as the air we breathe and permeates that fleeting come-and-gone thing we call ‘the present’. And in another, some of its (minor and major) disputes about how the world was and what people were like and why they did what they did are available in small fragmentary part via how they are represented in the remaining ‘documents of life’ from back then that remain available now (Stanley 2013a). Has it gone? yes; has it gone? no. Such everyday documents – letters, maps, wills, train tickets, old cheques, lists, diaries and more – variously present, rehearse, debate and dispute how the world and particular people and events within it were seen to be.

4. In addition, always standing between then and the past and how its people represented it, and now and how in the present these past matters can be understood, is the researcher, historian or other names given to those who inquire about ‘back then’ (Stanley, Salter and Dampier 2013). But of course, there are always already people there before us: the people who lived it, puzzled about it, argued over it, changed their minds about it. Between the 1870s and the 1900s, Bessie Price, the wife of missionary Roger Price and daughter of missionaries Robert Moffat and Mary Smith Moffat, wrote long letters that shade into being journals (Stanley 2013b). These relate, describe, summarise, pronounce, but also reflect, puzzle, conjecture, about different Tswana people she lived among – what was meant when someone said something puzzling or perplexing, who should be taken most notice of, how was she herself seen, what faults did she find with herself as well as others? For Bessie Price, such practical inquiries were often kept at bay in representational terms, but surface in a galvanic way when they are commented on. For Cronwright-Schreiner, the concern after his estranged wife Olive Schreiner’s death in 1920 was to fix up the past so that it better fitted his account of it, in The Life of Olive Schreiner (1924), and also better fitted his related account of the supposed ‘essential being’ or character of its subject. He did this by vanishing many people from the represented version, carefully selecting in some correspondents and letters and parts of letters, excising others, re-writing what failed to fit his version, and produced The Letters of Olive Schreiner. Who she was, what she was, and why she was like it, were his puzzle, project and accomplishment (Stanley and Salter 2009).

5. For Bessie Price, Cronwright-Schreiner and many other people whose letters and other documents of life are of interest to WWW, the matters in hand are at basis ontological and take the form of deeply practical matters for their substantive inquiry and debate. ‘What is it?’, ‘what are they like?’ and ‘what’s going on?’ are not things to be pronounced on fact-free, as though a game in sophistry. How it was, how people and events shape up in the documentary remains of the past, was of great import for the people concerned and mattered in their lives; and the signs of this are clearly signified in the remaining traces. These remaining different kinds of documents of life are ones in which people who were once living and are now dead struggled, not merely to know their lives and those of other people, but to understand and to represent in communicative ways how these were constituted, organised, unfolded, had meaning or eluded understanding. Their questions and concerns about ‘how things were’ mattered to them then; they should matter to researchers now in any acts of inquiry and interpretation we engage in. At the end of nearly fifty years of diary-writing, Mark Elliott Pringle, a farmer from a remote valley in the Baviaans River area of the Eastern Cape, in his later 70s and over the last years of his diary-writing in 1969 and through 1970 became preoccupied by the accumulation of reports of harm to people’s being. His diary entries comment on such things regarding  mining accidents, holiday car crashes, sexual violence, robbery, murders, beatings, maiming and torture, a massacre by police of schoolchildren. He was not engaged in a struggle to know, but how he could represent the onslaught of these incremental increases of his knowledge about such things, and cope with his increasingly fragile sense of being. His diary entries inscribe his intertwined representational and ontological concerns. These are concerned with being, with ontology, hurts in the body politic of society, rather than about him as an individual. His horror, not too strong a word, was for what was happening socially and in the world.

6. Such ontological inquiries regarding the perceived and debated relationship between reality and representations of it, as engaged in by Mark Pringle, Cronwright-Schreiner, Bessie Price, Forbes family members, Jan Smuts, Gottlob Schreiner and others, are often at the forefront of on-going exchanges of letters between long-term correspondents. These were exchanges between people writing to each other in circumstances of interrupted presence (rather than permanent absence) and in which among other things they engaged with issues that had arisen in the face-to-face and also in spoken as well as written representations of this. In the mid 1890s, Taung missionary John Brown wrote to his son Arthur about a young volunteer teacher at the mission, Effie Hemming, whose religious beliefs led to havoc when she represented inoculation against smallpox (an epidemic was occurring) to her pupils as an assault by the anti-Christ. In the later 1890s, Guy Hemming to wrote to Effie, his slightly older sister, about her inordinate love for their aunt and adopted mother Ettie Stakesby Lewis and Effie’s inability to cope when they were apart. He, however, he wrote, longed for a boarding school or some other sanctioned separation, and afterwards he volunteered as an army patrol member during the South African War and then taught in a refugee school. Then in the early 1900s, Ettie Stakesby Lewis consulted school officers and also doctors to try to understand Guy’s mood swings and changed state of being (not just changed state of mind). For John Brown, Guy Hemming, and Ettie Stakesby Lewis, these were inquiries about who people ‘were’, about what they were, what their conduct indicated about this, and how such things impinged on those who were close to them. They wanted to know, and this was to know about being, about who and what people were and the likely ramifications of this for them and others. The closest (in the WWW research so far) to someone subjecting themselves and their own state of being to such inquiry involves Gottlob Schreiner’s puzzles about himself as the preacher working under the hand of God, although in his case this was subsidiary to puzzles about the being of God. Typically, it is matters of social ontology that bother and engross people.

7. Reality, or rather the small slices of it represented and claimed in letters, was not taken for granted by these letter-writers themselves. And from the way they write back, it seems neither was it by their readers either. However, while the ‘moment of writing’ (Stanley and Dampier 2006) has been an abiding focus of interest both for WWW and earlier projects (Olive Schreiner’s letters, women’s testimonies and diaries of the concentration camps of the South African War, representations of the death of Emily Wilding Davison, the diaries of Hannah Cullwick…), no evidence-free claims about access to this can be convincingly advanced. What remains are the documents and their words on paper (or other representational equivalents), and close attention should be directed to these and caution observed in pronouncing this or that about people’s intentionality, the meanings they ascribed and so on, for this lies outside or beyond the documents and is rarely retrievable. In the middle 1880s, Olive Schreiner’s religiously narrow older sisters Katie Findlay, Alice Hemming and Ettie Schreiner (later, Stakesby Lewis), their sisters-in-law and their equally narrowly religious friend Mary Brown nee Solomon (married to a doctor, a non-missionary John Brown) all took gossipy reports of her cause celebre novel, The Story of an African Farm (which none of them had actually read) as indicative of her disreputable manners and morals. How this could be, indeed what might actually be involved in terms of Olive Schreiner’s character and conduct, is not spelled out in any of the remaining letters or other documents; but what is emphasised is that the book’s existence provided sufficient practical evidence of her flawed character and damaged social being. That this particular document even existed was seen as sufficient.

8. The evidence that remains of past people, events and circumstances is limited, but it is the evidence that remains and so needs to be be carefully attended to, and certainly not pronounced about in abstract, but instead always considered in ‘to the letter’ ways. It matters, for example, that claims about the performative character of Olive Schreiner’s letter-writing can be richly evidenced and signs of its influence traced out (Stanley and Dampier 2012). Here are the letters – – so see for yourselves. Without retrievable data researchers do something very similar what Alice Hemming, Mary Brown and others did regarding their particular object of knowing. Once more, ontology and epistemology conjoin.

9. This returns to sight both the documents in the case and also that figure called the researcher who comments – hopefully ‘to the letter’ – about these documents of the past. Their sense-making activities are not a given, are always constitutive in the sense of advancing an interpretive view of some piece/s of data (letters, testimonies, diaries, photographs, oral accounts…). However, stating this involves both taking responsibility for the constitutive interpretational activities involved, and also insisting on the constraints for those of us who work with retrievable data. That is, this is not an interpretational free-for-all, but a disciplined activity and one that can be engaged in by others working with the same data (for here you are – – I give you, the reader, the entirety of the evidence I work with, in the shape of every surviving letter that Olive Schreiner wrote; and soon I will be doing the same with Whites Writing Whiteness materials too).

10. Other ontological matters also surface at this juncture, in particular concerning the documents that remain; and it should be recognised that such inquiries and related practical interpretational matters exercised ‘them’, people in the past, not just ‘us’, researchers here in the present. The obvious example here is, what is a letter? This is no simple matter. It is more often at issue than not in exchanges between long-term correspondents. ‘A letter’ (i.e. of the right, expected, kind) needs to be of the correct – not too long nor too short – length; it should respond neither too quickly nor too slowly to a letter received, it should provide detail about appropriate topics; and expected information about appropriate people; and it should also, but lightly, invoke and rehearse such issues, thereby demonstrating its propriety in expressing the correct concerns. Ontological matters – what is it, is it of the right kind, how is its meaning and import to be gauged, how best to respond to do – are at the heart of social life and its communicative forms of engagement. Consequently it is by no means surprising that they should be a key concern in letter-writing and also some of the other remaining documents of life, such as maps of land-claims (Forbes family letters, the papers of Cecil Rhodes’ Chartered Company), accounts of family disputes (Hemming family papers), interpretive reminiscences of periods of war and conflict (missionary John Brown of Taung’s letters and papers), for instance, provide many indications of such concerns.

11. As the discussion above suggests, in practice, matters of ontology – ‘what is it?’ – are at one and at the same time matters of epistemology – ‘how do we know?’ – and also vice versa. In a 1993 discussion of this with Sue Wise, we argued that feminist inquiry should reject treating epistemology and ontology in simplistic binary terms and that a different word is needed, a composite that recognises they are in practice often conjoined (Stanley and Wise 1993). Twenty years on and the argument still stands, for some (feminist and other) scholars continue to rake over the binary coals, particularly in abstract discussions where it is all too easy to pronounce as though the pure forms – ontology on the one hand and epistemology on the other hand – are to be found, rather than the messy complexities most often met with in substantive inquiries. The response? Get a life! Get some data! Shape up!

12. Some first principles: Eschew abstract generalised comments about ontology and epistemology, because in practice they are conjoined. Letters and other representational forms provide some ingress into exploring how this occurred in the past and the practices people engaged in. Explore and discuss ‘to the letter’ and wherever possible provide retrievable data, because this gIves readers the means to engage with how these matters are being treated in research terms.


Liz Stanley (2013a, ed) Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative & Biographical Methods for a 21st Century Critical Humanism Farnham: Ashgate Publishing.

Liz Stanley (2013b) ‘Whites writing: letters and documents of life in a QLR project’ in (ed) Liz Stanley Documents of Life Revisited: Narrative & Biographical Methods for a 21st Century Critical Humanism Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, pp.59-74.

Liz Stanley (2015) ‘The Scriptural Economy, the Forbes Figuration and the Racial Order: Everyday Life in South Africa 1850 – 1930’ Sociology 49,5.

Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2006) “Simulacrum diaries: Time, the ‘moment of writing’ and the diaries of Johanna Brandt-Van Warmelo” Life Writing 3: 25-52.

Liz Stanley and Helen Dampier (2012) “‘I just express my views & leave them to work’: Olive Schreiner as a feminist protagonist in a masculine political landscape with figures and letters” Gender and History 24:3, pp.677-700.

Liz Stanley, Andrea Salter and Helen Dampier (2013) “The work of making and the work it does: Cultural sociology and ‘bringing-into-being’ the cultural assemblage of the Olive Schreiner letters” Cultural Sociology 7: 287-302.

Liz Stanley and Andrea Salter (2009) “‘Her letters cut are generally nothing of interest’ The heterotopic persona of Olive Schreiner and the alterity-persona of Cronwright-Schreiner” English in Africa 36, 2: 7-30.

Liz Stanley and Sue Wise (1993) Breaking Out Again: Feminist Ontology and Epistemology Routledge, London.


John Brown letters, LMS Collection, SOAS, University of London

John Brown letters, Manuscripts and Archives, UCT, Cape Town

Forbes Family, National Archives Repository, Pretoria

Mary Smith Moffat Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Elizabeth Price Letters, Cory Library, Grahamstown

Rhodes Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford

Gottlob Schreiner letters, LMS Collection, SOAS, University of London

Schreiner Hemming Collection, Manuscripts and Archives, UCT, Cape Town

Mark Elliott Pringle Collection, Cory Library, Grahamstown

J.C. Smuts Papers, National Archives Repository, Pretoria


Last updated: 6 May 2021