Research on 18th-century Scotland has provided historians with plenty of information about royal families, who left behind journals, portraits and letters. Most other Scottish citizens of the period, however, have remained widely unstudied because they lack a clearly recorded history.
Erin Annis, a Binghamton University doctoral student, is studying these lesser-known families, four in particular, to learn about how their perceptions and definitions of themselves changed.
The 18th century was a turning point in the Scottish sociopolitical climate, allowing Scottish citizens to participate in unprecedented travel and interactions with foreigners. “What I really love about the period,” Annis says, “is that people started writing and talking about their thoughts and feelings for the first time.”
Her research addresses how new, foreign interactions changed the way these families defined themselves. Only one of the families Annis is studying has previously been researched, and by looking at more families, she can apply what she learns to a broader audience. Annis’ research allows her to picture paint a picture of what life was like for the middle classes in general, not just one family.
“I want to push this even further,” she says, “and ask, what does this tell us about how people in general experience the British Empire?”
Annis faces unique challenges as her research requires traveling to nine archives across Europe and America. There, she hunts down letters, journals, legal suits and anything else available and, preferably, legible.
“She’s developed a project which requires sophistication and an archival source base that few graduate students will dare attempt to combine,” says Howard Brown, a history professor and Annis’ adviser.
“I like to learn about these people from a perspective that hasn’t been filtered through what another historian thinks,” Annis says. “And then being able to filter it myself and come up with an explanation for what choices they made and how that affected them. I’m understanding these people and learning from them, and that’s what I really enjoy about this work.”
Annis, a Michigan native, plans to combine the knowledge she has gained into a book after completing her dissertation.
“I hope it leads to a string of publications that reveal innovative and penetrating analysis,” Brown says, “where she’ll make original contributions to the scholarship on 18th-century identity.”