Advanced Research Methods: Analytical Strategies
This series of articles considers research methods one can use at Master’s level and beyond. I want to talk about the realities of doing an extended research project and to give you some practical advice based on personal experience. I’m going to discuss some of the techniques I used in my PhD. My research was in architectural history, but I’ll explain some of the techniques of historical research which you might consider using in your work. I’ll also try to give you generic advice about research design and methodology.
One method I used in my thesis was the analysis of urban space. Architectural history often extracts buildings from their physical context by grouping them according to stylistic traits. I wanted to examine the interaction of buildings and their surrounding spaces. In doing I drew on the techniques of urban morphology, a new academic discipline that tries to understand how urban space is formed and how it functions. Urban space isn’t just a rigid agglomeration of buildings; it’s a matrix of fluid relationships that shapes and derives meaning from the architectural forms and social practices played out within its confines. The theoretical basis for this was provided by the French philosopher Henri Lefebvre, who has dealt with space as a stage for social interaction. Lefebvre’s The Production of Space was published in 1974. It argues that space encourages and discourages certain forms of interaction and gives form to social structures and ideologies, thereby perpetuating the power of dominant groups.
One of the key primary sources I used to examine urban space were archival photographs. There’s a large corpus of images in Newcastle Library’s Local Studies Department. We tend to think of photographs as windows into the past, giving us unmediated access, but photographs are usually taken for specific reasons. Some represent the city at its best, some show it in transition and depict the laying of tramlines or the demolition and erection of buildings. Others chronicle major public events, such as royal visits and civic ceremonies. We have to consider why photographs were taken and what they were meant to convey. Unfortunately, photographs aren’t always documented as thoroughly as written sources. Very often the date has been omitted, along with the name of the photographer.
I compared the photos with architectural plans, illustrations from the building press, street directories, and the buildings themselves in order to test and corroborate the information contained within them. I also used maps extensively. These helped me to reconstitute a sense of Newcastle’s urban space. They allow you to understand the spatial relationships between buildings. Street directories were crucial. They allowed me to study urban space in a very comprehensive way.