A Community in Search of Itself: A Case History of Cairo, Illinois

By Herman R. Lantz | Go to book overview
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Methodological note

The basic methodological approach employed in this study involved a content analysis of newspapers and public and private documents. Each had its special limitations and assets. Public documents are straightforward accounts of procedures and actions. These can be most useful as a record of legislative, legal, or administrative action. They do not, and cannot, convey knowledge about the real behaviors of people. As such, public documents possess serious limitations, especially in understanding a community such as Cairo with its individualistic interpretation of the law. Almost equally serious is the fact that public documents are frequently not relevant for problems of the growth and decline of a community. Much legislation in communities of the nineteenth century centered on basic problems of the control of animals on streets, sewage, and provision for lighting of streets.

Private documents, letters, and diaries can be especially useful when individuals record their perceptions of events around them. Personal perceptions of family and relatives help validate conceptions derived elsewhere, and they may be more authentic than accounts in newspapers. With regard to Cairo, for example, the account presented by Maud Rittenhouse in her journal added much to the account of a flood in the 1880s, and it helped convey a personal touch to the experiences of the people in the community during this period.

The newspapers in Cairo were excellent in their overall picture of major problems in the community. They were especially, useful as historical documents for the last century. Newspapers, nevertheless, much more than public documents, are likely to involve editorial bias. Newspaper publishers were dependent on advertising perhaps to a greater extent than today. Moreover, their success as always was dependent on supporting the "correct positions." Newspapers were generally financially unstable, and there was considerable turnover of editors and owners in Cairo. These factors meant that the perceptions of newspapers could be quite limited. A persistent reading of them could orient a researcher's views so that major community problems

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