Emotional Commitment to the Subjects of Research

Did anyone read Morris-Suzuki’s “Exodus to North Korea” yet? I read it in a seminar on modern Korean history. She discovers from Red Cross archives in Geneva the well-calculated scheme (mostly by Japanese leaders) behind the repatriation of Koreans (including Japanese women married Koreans and lost nationality) to North Korea in the late 1950s. The information she presents is interesting (and she is good at presenting it as a shocking fact), and she documents the course of her research in a dramatic and literary way so that readers can enjoy it as a political thriller.

North Korea is a hot topic, and Japanese people are hungry for whatever information available because we have little access to the voice of people there. The topic that she deals with can easily stir emotions, and it is obvious that she wanted to convey her own emotion to the reader.

There are many problems that come from the fact that she over-determines the meaning of each piece of information that she encounters (e.g. She over-emphasizes the deceptive nature of North Korean propaganda in the 50s, etc), and projects the information we have now but unknown to those in the 50s. But besides the problem of teleology, I have an issue in that the fact that those people are still alive somehow allows the author to be more emotional.

If you have ever done historical research with primary sources, you probably know how adventurous and emotional a journey of historical investigation is. Human drama is everywhere. I have been reading some thought police records from the 1930s in Korea and Japan, and I am emotionally committed to the drama of each person I read about in these records. But almost all of them are dead by know. No one can ever speak to them, and researchers like me can only try to imagine their lives from very limited records. How could their lives during wartime mobilization be less dramatic than those who repatriated themselves to North Korea in the 1950s? Not only me, I bet, but every single historian has a similar experience, but tries to overcome her emotions since you might lose a sight of important things if you succumb to your personal feelings.

Reading Morris-Suzuki’s new book, I felt that it is a bit unfair for my people (that I’m reading about) in the 1930s.

Category(s): Academic, History, My Grad School Life

7 Responses to Emotional Commitment to the Subjects of Research

    Drunken Monkey says:

    Hi, I have been a lurker on your website for a few weeks. Your Tessa Morris-Suzuki comment is interesting, although I haven’t read the book. One of the interesting things I find about being a historian is how emotionally invested I am in dead people. I try to understand them as well as those who knew them for their whole lives. It is a wholly one-sided relationship, and emotionally unhealthy. But it doesn’t make their stories any less thrilling or emotional to tell.

    The drama, I agree, is located within the sources. One does not need to know that these people are still alive to find “the real story.”

    But, then again, historians are also salesmen. We need a hook to reel our readers in. After all, what is the point of a good history if nobody reads it?

  1. I haven’t read it, though it sounds fascinating. The tendency to over-read evidence is a powerful one — though my natural mode is to under-read.

    It could be that she’s trying to prevent the kind of backlash that sometimes comes when you do histories of living persons, where they don’t feel you’ve taken them seriously enough.

  2. Hello, Drunken Monkey. Thank you very much for your comment. Yeah, you are right. I agree that history writing should be interesting and engaging. But you’ll probably see what I mean if you flip through her book… too many “I said this to him, and he said that to me”s. I guess that makes this book partially a memoir of hers, but I question the precision in the flow of her thoughts and actions if we see it as a primary source for contemporary history.

  3. Hi Jonathan, thank you for the comment. Her book is very interesting, I have to admit. Ya, that’s possible. Or the audience she images is wider than usual history books, I guess.

  4. Sayaka-

    I have been lurking on this site for a while and wanted to post…

    I am not a historian (I’m an ethnographer), but I am doing some work with living people who have access to historical materials. The content of the material is politicized, though not quite to this extent.

    I can say that this is a tricky situation, both in terms of research ethics, and in terms of how one represents the people involved. The biggest worry is giving a false sense of objectivity: usually the people you are speaking to have thought long and hard about the things they know, and their way of thinking isn’t going to be the same as yours. Plus, they actually do know more than you do.

    In this situation, writing like a reporter can be helpful. In particular, one wants to represent the encounter with that person ‘as it happened,’ since there is the feeling that if you distort (or interpret) anything that person said, you are somehow harming them personally.

    Of course, I haven’t read Morris-Suzuki’s book (although I should), so I’m not sure how much I can say. I am a little disturbed by the idea that everything in the book is ‘dramatic’ since it could be taken to mean ‘they are so different from us!’

    And as far as over-determining what each piece of information means, I am tempted to do this too. Sometimes there is not much available-the city has meticulous records on the sewer system but nothing that expresses everyday life, etc. You need to be patient, follow leads, and have a light touch with theory.

  5. “You need to be patient, follow leads, and have a light touch with theory.”

    NB-by ‘you’ I mean ‘you in general.’

  6. Hi Max, thank you for your insightful comments. I have never done oral history by myself so I can only imagine the difficulty in presenting information that you get from people you directly speak to. I really want to hear your comments on Morris-Suzuki’s book when you read it.

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