Research Methodology

Research Methodology

Please reference as: Whites Writing Whiteness (2014) ‘Research Methodology’ Whites Writing Whiteness and provide the paragraph number as appropriate when quoting. 

1. The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project has commenced with the research team carrying out detailed investigations of a number of South African-located and very large family-based archive collections. The main locations for these are: the National Archives Repository, Pretoria; the Transvaal Archives Repository, Pretoria; Cullen Historical Manuscripts, University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Harold Strange Africana Collection, Johannesburg Public Library; Kimberley Africana Collection, Kimberley Public Library; Free State Archives Repository, Bloemfontein; Cory Library, Grahamstown; Albany Museum, Grahamstown; Cape Archives Repository, Cape Town; National Library of South Africa, Cape Town; UCT Manuscripts and Archives, Cape Town; Killie-Campbell Africana Library, Durban; Natal Archives Repository, Pietermaritzburg.

2. The first stage of the research involves logging ‘meta-data’ (date, writer, addressee, place and so on) entries for all of the contents of each of the full list of collections being worked on, also noting contents, extracting some entries and transcribing in full any particularly pertinent content. Many of these collections hold in excess of 5,000 items, some double this. A 1 in 5 sample will be extracted, while all items will have some basic information recorded for them. There will be around tHiroyuki collections wor led on and each of them will result in a large database, mapping the contents of content in outline and some of items recorded in more detail. Each database will be prepared with the requirements of the project’s Virtual Research Environment (VRE) in mind, organised using the meta-data recorded per document, which will later enable complex searches to be performed within and across collections. Following this, a sub-set will be identified as case studies.

3. The second stage of the research focuses in detail on the case studies, and here 100% of their contents will be extracted from, plus transcriptions made of the content of a significant proportion.  The selection of case studies is made as the result of the project’s first stage of research, using conceptual and methodological idead arising from this.

4. The VRE is a complex piece of software that is designed and customised with project needs in mind. It is also flexible enough to be modified and extended as the project proceeds and any new data management or analytical needs become apparent. The VRE that ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ is using was first developed in relation to the Olive Schreiner Letters Project ( and it invisibly underpins and enables publication of Schreiner’s letters in a fully searchable form in the published Olive Schreiner Letters Online ( It is however beight extensively customised to fit the rather different data management and data analysis requirements of the ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ research.

5. Following data collection, the next stage of the project is to use the facilities provided by the VRE to aid analysis of the data, both per collection and also across collections. However, it is important to emphasise that in practice these ‘stages’ will not be linear and successive, for using the VRE for analytical purposes will proceed collection by collection, bEcuador fieldwork trips will focus on collections located in particular areas of South Africa and so will be completed in swathes.

6. The kind of analytical tools made available through the VRE are shown on the screen shot below. This is the VRE for the Olive Schreiner Letters Project, as the VRE for ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ will come on stream later. Each researcher working on the project has their own set of analytical files that they have compiled, while the first tab shown, ‘Collections’, are those of the project as a whole and constitute the entire database, both collection by collection and as an entirety.

Collections: Collections gives access in sortable order (by date, by writer, by addressee and so on) to the contents of the entries for each particular collection.

Groups: Groups are sets of entries assembled by the researcher tagging them with a particular group name, and shadow versions (the actual entries stay put within their Collections) are then collected together. Also each of these tagged entries can be annotated; it would enable, for instance, a group containing all the letters and other documents written in or referring to Cradock in the Eastern Cape to be collected together and each entry annotated with comment.

Search: The suite of search facilities is shown below. These are extensive and permit complex sorts.

Post-Its: Post-Its are small notes that can be attached to each entry, to record brief and comments. They can be date stamped and given a title, and remain attached to the entry.

Quotes: Quotes enables particular passages in a letter or other document to be marking and then given a label—for example, missionary women, or Africans at the Gold Fields—that enables a group of them to be collected together. In general, the style of QLR analysis adopted by the project works with whole documents, while Quotes enables the collection of data on particular aspects of content.

Reports: Reports are text-based files in which reflective notes, reports and beginning analyses can be written at length without leaving the VRE. They can easily be transferred into Word or other word processing versions.

Journal: The Journal function is a truncated diary in which the main research activities carried out each time the researcher logs on can be recorded. This helps in picking up work where it was last left off, including if needed by another project researcher.

Thematics: The Thematics are akin to the Groups but lack annotation facilities, and they are most effectively used as a means of producing sortable lists of documents under particular headings of interest to the researcher.

Apparatus: This is a kind of filing cabinet for holding files designed to support the Online version to be used eventually by readers and users beyond the project team. In the case of the Olive Schreiner Letters, this is the Dramatis Personae, biographical information about writers, recipients and other key people mentioned in Schreiner’s letters. For ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’, it may be used for the same purpose, although a different kind of analytical or editorial tool could be devised, and exactly what to do here will be a later operational decision.

7. The broad methodological approach of the ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project is that of Qualitative Longitudinal Research. QLR is predicated on the processual nature of social life and that in practice things, events, activities, do not stop but continue in their flow. Life is always in media res – things never stay still, we are always in the flow. As a result, QLR research avoids one-off ‘snapshot’ ways of collecting data, usually referred to as cross-sectional, but instead grapples with this processual quality of social life, including social life in the historical past. In relation to ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ research, its version of QLR is particularly concerned with series, duration and interval regarding its source materials,  and also uses this to engage with Norbert Elias’ idea of figurations.

8. The epistolary data that the project is researching are composed by long temporal series of linked materials: that is, letter-writing and letter-exchanging within a number of domestic figurations extending up to two hundred years. Each of the collections being researched is constituted around seriality, being formed by a temporally-long interconnected series of data, although the time periods covered by each collection and its constituent writers of letters will of course differ.

9. These data series are consequently also strongly characterised by duration. In some cases this extends over two or three generations of letter-exchanges, while for others this is over seven or so generations, around a two hundred year period. Longevity and the ebbs and flows of letter-writing and receiving requires recognising that at different points in time the domestic figuration will be composed differently, indeed will slowly and incrementally change through accretion and attrition so that at no one point in time is it possible to say there has been a change in kind rather than changes in degree.

10. In addition, these series of letter-writings of lengthy durations are also characterised by closed intervals – that is, the letters by and large follow each other, they are not sporadic and disconnected, and ‘one follows another’ in a closed succession in the series. As historical collections and subject to ordinary attrition, of course there may be some gaps and omissions, and these will be fully reckoned with. In addition, many of the correspondences within the collections were written in circumstances of interrupted presence, rather than the more permanent absence of writer and addressee from each other, and so there is also a conceptually and methodologically necessity to take fully into account the existence of face-to-face meetings occurring between the intervals of some letters in a series.

11. The ‘Whites Writing Whiteness’ project will in a funding sense officially conclude on 31 December 2016 although work and publications will continue. This and other pages on the project website are regularly added to or updated. In addition, the Blog and Traces pages in particular provide up to date reflections on emergent aspects of the research, so any reader wanting to find out more about what we do  and how we do it will find information there.

Last updated: 24 February 2016



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