Playing at Royal Welch Fusiliers?

A tweet tonight reminded me that it has been a while since I have written a blog post.  While I have several posts lined up, the past few weeks have been overwhelmed with family business, so I thought I would return with the following family story:

The other day I was watching my children play with their Duplo (large Lego blocks, for those of you who have never suffered the trauma of thinking that your offspring has ingested one of the regular sized pieces).  My son (age 4) had attached two wheeled pieces to each other and was carefully constructing an edifice which he informed me was a tractor.  My daughter (age 21 months) had amassed every one of the small people who come with just about every box sold (we have about 15 at this point) and carefully lined them up on the table, first standing, then lying down.

Watching their varying behaviour was fascinating. Feminist that I am, I have been fairly strict about not distinguishing their gender when it comes to toys, although, yes, I do dress my daughter in dresses and floral print tops that I would never dream of putting my son in.  And I have cut my son’s hair since he was around 9 months, while my daughter’s curls have been allowed to grow.  Where their toys might be considered gendered (a mouse doll’s house or the pirate dressing up outfit) I encourage both to play with them, sharing, of course.  Yet when faced with a gender-neutral toy such as the Duplo, each child chooses to approach it in an entirely different way.

Is this because of their respective sexes?  I have read the media reports of chimpanzees which use a stick differently (tool or weapon) depending on their sex.  And here are my children apparently following gender norms in their play: the boy constructing, the girl socialising (as much as as 21-month-old with limited vocabulary can).

And yet, and yet…  My son has always built things.  He has an engineer’s mind, the sort that wants to know how and why things work.  My daughter has always been sociable, delighting in engaging with people in whatever way she can.   I don’t think that these traits are defined by their relative possession of XY or XX chromosomes. These are facets of them as individuals, not of their sex.  As their mother, what I must encourage is this sense of individuality and what I must guard against is the imposition of gendered social norms, however neatly they appear to fit.

Perhaps there is also a lesson for me for my research as well. Gender categories are all very well for attempting to understand the society that creates them, but they must be applied to the individual with caution. From the CO who was both fired by a desire to serve his country while at the same time refusing to take up arms, to the warrior poet who renounced war and yet returned to his battalion, men (and women) transgressed gendered assumptions throughout the  war.  No one fits a neat characterisation of masculinity or femininity in life any more than in play, something I must strive to remember when I eventually make it back into the archive.

Curioser and curioser

One reason for the recent hiatus in my posts on here is that, a little while ago, I fell down a metaphoric rabbit hole.

What literally happened was that I received an e-mail informing me that, if a grant application for which I was in the process of applying was successful, I would have to complete an ethical review before the project began because (and I quote) the project ‘involves any personal stories (even if the person is no longer alive)’.  This prompted me to enquire whether this review was necessary because the project’s outputs* were to be broadcast rather than published or if this was true of all projects involving personal stories.  It turns out that this requirement is true of all projects involving personal stories of all, including those who have been dead for less than 100 years.  I was completely unaware of this fact and, as a result, have been scrambling to apply for a retrospective review for my research project which has formally been running for 18 months (ethical reviews are supposed to occur before the project actually starts).

The result has been that I find myself tangled in something of a surreal mess.  How, for instance, do I answer the question ‘Will participants be taking part in the research without their knowledge and consent?’? The subjects of my research are dead.  They are, by definition, unable to give consent of any sort, let alone informed consent.  Is the archiving of the material I am using enough to presume consent on the part of the subject?  Even when the donor of the material is a descendant rather than the creator of the material?  I have always assumed this to be the case, not because of any ethical review carried out into my research methodology but because archived material comes under intellectual property (IP) protocols.  As a result, I need to get the necessary copyright clearance to actually publish anything I use from archival sources and copyright passes on to the descendants of the creator of the document.  This is why so many acknowledgements in historical monographs contain phrases like ‘Every effort has been made to contact the copyright holders of the materials quoted’.  The further away from the date of donation we get, the more tenuous are links with the copyright holders and many archives have lost touch with the holders over the years.  Most archives have in place a system whereby material can be used even if direct permission has not been gained but every effort has been made by the author to gain it.  Such efforts can be quite complex.  For instance, the copyright of personal letters held by the National Archive (NA) remains with the descendants of the writer.  Official documents (anything written for a government department or agency) comes under Crown Copyright.  So a letter from a disabled ex-serviceman to the Officers’ Awards branch of the Ministry of Pensions has a private copyright holder who must tracked down, while the response from the official is easily cleared through Crown Copyright.

All of which is possibly fascinating but a matter of IP, not ethics.  And while it helps to address concerns over the misrepresentation of archived material, it doesn’t answer the question of how informed consent to participate in a study is to be given by the dead.  All the protocols I have read around the subject (data protection, informed consent, verbal informed consent, reimbursement and low-risk observation) deal with living subjects only, raising issues which certainly have relevance for those using oral histories but having little to say to someone whose work is entirely archive-based.  So I am going to have to send my form off to the review committee and hope for the best.  And start seriously considering shifting my research focus to the Napoleonic Wars, or possibly surreal children’s literature.

*Apologies for the use of bureaucratic language.  A month of writing grant applications has had a bad effect on me. Normal service should hopefully resume shortly.

In which the saga concludes (sort of)

Those of you who follow me on Twitter may remember a series of tweets attached to the hashtag #thesagacontinues.  These related to the writing of a paper on cultural representations of shell shock which I was struggling with.  One part of the problem was that I was extremely intimidated by the line-up of participants at the conference, Aftershock: Post-traumatic Cultures since the Great War, where I was presenting the paper, an extraordinary pantheon of academic specialists including Jay Winter, Mike Roper, Simon Wesselly, Sophie Delaporte and Fiona Reid, among many others.  Reading the participants list felt a bit like reading the bibliography of my PhD.

Well, the conference, held at the end of May, has been and gone and was much more enjoyable than my agonized tweeting might have predicted.  It was a pleasure to meet up again with colleagues such as Jay and Mike who I haven’t seen since my move to Leeds.  It was even more of a pleasure to make the acquaintance of others whose work I either have admired from afar or whose exciting research (into the trauma suffered by Second World War RAF ground crew or French films of shell shock, to give just two examples) I encountered for the first time.  The papers presented were, as might be expected, extremely stimulating.  Particularly exciting from my perspective were Sophie Delaporte’s discussion of psychological trauma in relation to Freud’s ideas about the encounter with death, which has forced me to completely rethink my own attitude to Freudian theory, and Mike Roper’s paper on his current project interviewing the children of First World War ex-servicemen on their experiences of childhood which looks to be yielding a wealth of original and fascinating information.  I also acted as commentator on a panel of papers well outside my own field of expertise, dealing with the interactions between civilians and soldiers of contemporary conflicts, which gave fascinating perspectives on the problems of that individuals have in making transitions between the identities of civilian, soldier and veteran.

There was also a great deal of networking (some over one of the tastiest conference dinners, in a unique restaurant in Christiania, that I have ever had), with the happy result that I was able to add three more speakers to the roster of the workshop I am running in October.

Oh, yes, and the paper went quite well in the end, with it even being described as ‘lovely’ by one person!  More usefully, I realised that the other problem I had had with writing it is that I was attempting to squeeze the subject matter for a book into the space of 20-minute paper.  At some point in the future I am going to need to write something substantial on representations of trauma in 20th century popular culture.  It is a subject I keep coming back to, time and again.  Some day I am going to have to research it much more fully and lay that particular ghost of my Phd. to rest.

So the saga has concluded successfully.  Well, almost.  Two months later and I am still waiting for my expenses claim to make its way through the new(ish) on-line system…