What Happened to…? Has Your Project Changed?

Early in their training as historians, students often receive warnings that their carefully designed research projects are likely to change. This is also true of PhD students, who hear the research plans and outlines described in their dissertation proposals described as “fiction” and “a myth” (but a useful exercise nonetheless). From my time as an undergraduate up to now, I have definitely changed my approach to various research projects. But overall, I’d say that I tend not to change my research plans too much. That has more to do with me being stubborn than smart, but smart gets you only so far in a PhD.

After coming back from the archives, my assessment was that my research had stuck pretty close to my original plans, with some reasonable deviations due to certain paths being blocked and others opening up. But then, a couple weeks after getting back, I had to give a brief presentation of my research to fellow participants at a workshop. The main organizer of the workshop was a professor, who, although not my main adviser, had generously read an early draft of what would become my proposal. She recalled that local “identity” had been one of my primary interests and found it odd that I had hardly (if at all) mentioned “identity” when describing the current state of my project.

I honestly can’t remember how I responded; whatever it was, it was the beginning of a series of ruminations leading up to this blog post (and probably beyond). This professor’s observation was as attentive as her original reading of my work was generous. I did in fact talk about local identity in my dissertation proposal (at all stages of writing it) and my grant applications. “Local and imperial identity” are among the research interests listed on my department webpage. So it is odd that I would not phrase my research interests in this way, even in the course of short presentation.

As odd as it was, though, it actually made a lot of sense when I heard someone say it to me. And trying to work out things that make sense intuitively but lack obvious reasons is, well, what I do.

In the past, I’ve framed my research in terms of identity and institutions. Among other things, this reflects how my interests cut across the genres of cultural (how people see themselves) and social/political (how people behave in groups) history. Obviously, it’s hard to separate these things too clearly, which is why I study them together, adding an interest in how they do these things with reference to a particular place.

As you might imagine, institutions (even broadly conceived) are more tangible than ideas. That means that they are often easier to isolate and observe for historians. Of course, people also write about what they think about the world and themselves, or they write about other things in a way that give us a glimpse into these things.

I spent a lot of my time in China really hunting for and reading sources related to my more “institutional” interests. That’s kind of bread-and-butter archival research. On the other hand, I also found a lot of different sources in which people talk about Jinan – the sort of thing that could be really helpful for figuring out the “identity” side of my project. By and large, though, I was able to collect (scan, purchase, etc.) a lot more these sources, which, together with the availability of similar sources back in the U.S., meant that my most urgent task wasn’t reading all of them on the spot.

I did read some of them of course. (And am reading a lot more now.) In the process of collection, though, I found myself being drawn into the question of whose sources I was finding, how they had come to encounter the city, and what kinds of networks they formed with others. Another way of putting it, is that I became increasingly drawn to the practices associated with writing about Jinan, rather than jumping straight into the content of what people wrote. (I’d like to think reading Latour has something to do with this.)

In addition to the research process shaping my interests, some of the things I found proved difficult to process. One of the reasons Jinan is interesting is because it sat at the top of the provincial administrative system, meaning it was simultaneously a county, prefectural, and provincial capital. It thus served as a point of convergence for people from around the province and, one might suppose, a place where different types of identity might coalesce. One of the things I’m supposed to do is sort this out.

There is, in fact, evidence of these different layers of identity at work. A good example are collections of poetry and transcriptions old stone and metal inscriptions. We can see some that were compiled at the provincial level while others focused on the single county that contained Jinan. (E.g. the difference between an anthology of poets from New York State and New York City.) However, the pattern I’ve observed is that county-level compilations followed and drew on provincial-level works.

There are a couple ways to interpret this. One is that local identity particular to Jinan was strong enough that compilers felt obliged to assert it even though these sources had already been preserved in provincial-level compilations. On the other hand, the fact that provincial-level works came first and seem to have spurred on more Jinan-specific cultural production suggests some kind of priority for provincial identity or at least the networks and institutions that supported these larger-level compilations.

In other words, some more research is needed. Which comes back to where I am in the research process. So I haven’t abandoned an interest in “local identity,” but there are some other questions and observations that have cropped up and taken priority for me. How different my dissertation will be in the end, only time will tell; the path I’m taking to get there is certainly different from what I expected, though.

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