My housemate Zoe and I have an ongoing dirty fascination with Stephanie Beswick’s Blood Memory and her rebuttal of our supervisor Justin Willis’ review of her book (the review can be found in The Journal of African History, Vol. 46, No. 2 (2005), pp. 340-341; Beswick’s rebuttal can be found here).
I think I’ve referred to the Beswick-Willis debate over her book – which is about Dinka pre-colonial history – in both my essays on epistemology last term; Zoe, working on the Dinka, comes across Beswick in her studies, and Justin is my primary supervisor on my PhD. I’m aware that, as a newbie acolyte to the History department he heads, I can easily be accused of personal and intellectual bias, but I’m more interested in the argument as a good example of different concepts of what history is.
I’ll not go into the fine detail, or I’ll start going wild about Dinka origin myths and the idea of a ‘Dinka’, but there are several layers of argument between Willis and Beswick: about ethics, the methodology of oral history, and most fundamentally about what we mean when we say we write history.
The ethics dimension can be dealt with quickly – Beswick says, in defending a criticism of her interviewing sample, that she has tried to be “accountable” in her interviews – by including large sections of interviews, “supported by the name of the informant, his clan and sub-clan, and the place and time of the interview.” In contrast, she says, Willis uses only anonymous interviews, leaving an archive of the interviews at the BIEA. Arguments over methodology are similarly polar – when accused of ‘random’ sampling, Beswick counters by explaining the breadth of her study, with 300 interviews “cross-referenced” for accuracy.
Regardless of where I stand in the debate – that lecture is saved for the special people who are unfortunate enough to catch me with a glass of wine in me and my slippers on – I’m most interested in how Willis and Beswick are arguing from completely different starting points on what you can know as fact.
Beswick’s book is, in attempting to evidence the idea of a Dinka migration from Gezira, looking for a factual history, justifying findings with the scientific rigour of 300 interviews (a serious feat in itself, let alone synthesising all that) and basing her findings on these facts and evidence. In her rebuttal, she appears slightly narked that Willis isn’t primarily preoccupied with “whether events actually happened.” To be honest, that’s what a good proportion of people think history is: Simon Schama wouldn’t have got too far on the BBC if he said giving a factual history in a neat chronology wasn’t the purpose of his programme. I feel that Beswick is primarily frustrated with Willis’ apparent attempts to problematize her neat historical theory and factual evidence – she feels she’s provided the necessary evidence and scholarly rigour to justify her neat longitudinal history of the Dinka. She is providing fact.
Leaving my personal opinions and verdict aside, I don’t think the Beswick-Willis historical argument is possible to resolve even with intensive counselling: from these two reviews, they have different methodological and theoretical ideas of what is historical knowledge, what a historian should be trying to do and how they should be trying to do it.
In personal, non-Beswick/Willis news, I’ve had a good day, other than enforced reading about social measurement; I’ve had a minor breakthrough in my poor understanding of how nationality law has been used in South Sudan, and spent two hours this afternoon “revising” – really, being heavily tutored – by a classmate in my Arabic course. I start Arabic again tomorrow morning.