Tuesday, July 19, 2005

An introduction to Quellenforschung (source criticism)

One of the posts in which I take the most pride is An Introduction to Textual Criticism, in which I demonstrate that at least five different versions of the Murphy-Grewal recording have existed. The post was for me a nostaglic moment, since it brought back memories of my happy days as an undergraduate when  I studied this stuff.

Although I enjoyed writing that post greatly, it went over like a lead-balloon. In those happy days in which Buckets' posts seemed to race up the 'charts' at Progressive Bloggers--I once had five of the top six, iirc--'Introduction' sank like a stone.

So it is great trepidation that I try to apply another research tool that I learned at the U. of S., Quellenforschung (lit. 'source-research') or 'source criticism'.

The basic principle here is that the credibility of a historical source is only as good as its source. If x reports that y did something, and z repeats the claim relying solely on x, only the value of x's opinion that needs weighing. No matter how many times this particular piece of datum is repeated, its historical value is only as good as that of the original report--a point that the blogging world would do well to remember. To put it another way, statements must be weighed, not counted.

This may seem like an obvious point, but its place as an axiom of historical method was first recognized by Barthold Niebuhr in the 19th century, revolutionizing the study of history, turning history from a branch of literature into a social science.

Anyway, there are some places where this principle can be profitably applied in two recent documents, both written by Jim Holt, president of Grewal's riding association, one to Terry Milewski, a reporter in the CBC (see here), and one to Holt's fellow conservatives (here).

Take, for example, this piece of information from Holt's letter to riding Conservatives assuring them that there was nothing to the story that Grewal had handed new recordings to the RCMP(here):
…the media released a story last Friday that our MP had released "new tapes". This … led to all sorts of speculation that there was something that was being hidden. Nothing could be further from the truth!! All Gurmant did, via his lawyer, was forward to the RCMP his personal copy of all recordings, likely so that they could compare that set to the official set already in their hands.
Quellenforschung (source criticism) demands that the historian asks how Holt knows this. Clearly, there are only three possible sources: the RCMP (not likely), Grewal's lawyer (impossible without Grewal's permission), and Grewal himself. Only a moment's reflection is needed to recognize the obvious: Holt's source must have been Grewal. But Quellenforschung also requires that those who want to rate the believability of this report remember that they are not evaluating Holt's credibility, but Grewal's. And that is for many a problematic proposition.

There are other places where the same principles apply. Sometimes, the source is easy to spot--Holt tells us as much. Writing to Milewski about this cheque, Holt says:
Further, Mr. Grewal is adamant that the words "For Fund Raiser" which appear on the memo line of this cheque must have been added at a later date (which would be ever so easy to do, and with the actual cheque in the right formal investigative hands, would also be ever so easy to verify).
What is Holt's source? He tells us. Grewal assured him that the cheque had been tampered with. Holt believed him. Quellenforschung reminds us, however, that believing this story is accepting not Holt's word, but Grewal's. Again, many have a problem with that.

One final example. Holt reports that it was Inky Mark's treatment at the hands of the Liberals convinced Grewal that he had to tape the conversations that he had with them (see here). Again, what is Holt's source? The only possible source for what was in Grewal's mind is Grewal himself. So again, the historian of the Grewal affair is put in the position of accepting Grewal's explanation. Many, given his track record, will have trouble with that.


Blogger Noel M said...

Interesting analysis.

And for the record, I enjoyed "An Introduction to Textual Criticism" very much.

10:01 PM  
Blogger Hammering Jow said...

I really really take issue with this suggestion that "Inky Mark's situation made me do it".

If that was truly the case then Grewal would have used that excuse a month ago ... but he never did. It seems awfuly convenient to try and use it now.

The true question in all of this is what does Gurmant have Stephen Harper saying on tape that would force him to stand by him like this?

One investigation, understandable - mistakes and accusations are made all the time.

Two is rough, tough decision for the leader, but most MP's would have to step aside for a while

Three is just plain shady

Four is unheard of and over the top

Five is a total menace, and blight on public life

Six is gunna cost Stephen Harper a lot of ridings in the next election .

.. all for this one guy!

10:18 PM  
Blogger Mark Francis said...

Was Grewal running a sting? Or was he trying to cross the floor? Or, was he trying either, and going for what he thought would work best for him?

We know that as he started the 'sting' he had told no one he was doing this.

So, just Grewal as a source.

Anyway, greast post. I've been thinking a lot about this very topic the past week given the two documents produced by Holt, and wondering how to evaluate them.

And I liked your other post "An Introduction to Textual Criticism." I admired the pure logic.

I try and try...

1:31 AM  
Blogger Mark Francis said...

Oh, forgot to mention, in my one (1) university-level history course, I had a TA ram home the realization of just how much bias affects those records we rely upon for historical analysis.

1:34 AM  

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