Ms. Mekler’s Methodology

(The following is the methodology work Ms. Mekler prepared as she researched and wrote her paper.)

Proposal Objective

  • My objective is to research the Jonestown massacre in a way that will focus on the differing conspiracy theories that arose out of the event. I would like to explore first why so many conspiracy theories arose and in what ways they are per actual occurrence of events.
  • I would like to explore the idea that part of the reason so many conspiracy theories arose, was due to a lack of evidence and the deliberate corruption or censorship of evidence.
  • To evaluate the extent to which primary sources were corrupted and the extent to which secondary sources vary wildly in their interpretation of that primary evidence and to examine questions raised about the reliability of any evidence and the reliability of any historical interpretation of that evidence.
  • There are mutually contradictory interpretations of evidence that is itself questionable. I would like to look at how the factors of opinion and corruptibility of evidence can affect our ability to write authoritative history.
  • It seems worthwhile to discuss the reliability of the Primary Evidence of this case. I believe that much of the secondary evidence concerning Jonestown is overtly unreliable. If evidence is unreliable or corrupted how useful can it be to historians? At what point does speculation become fictional and unhistorical?
  • I would like to look at how individual beliefs motivate historical interpretations of evidence.
  • To delve into what social, political, religious and cultural groups were involved in the distortion of evidence at Jonestown.

Research

In my initial research period I have predominantly relied upon the use of the internet to provide me with the general understanding of the issues to be investigated. In addition to this, I made use of audiovisual evidence and sound files. I envisage further incorporating in my research strategy, the secondary sources of historical journals. I would like to examine eye witness testimonies as well as making more use of the definitive texts and books written by experts on the area.

Resources I found useful that directed my research

  • Wikipedia article: “Jonestown”, at Wikipedia (Accessed: 29.10.06)
  • Fox News, Still Image at http://www.luclin.org/files/saleani/Fox_News_Jonestown_Web.jpg of a news report on “Jonestown Guyana” (Accessed: 1.11.06; no longer available 1.1.16)
  • CNN report, Jonestown massacre + 20: Questions linger, November 18, 1998.
  • “Jonestown- Examining the Peoples Temple” Website created by Jesse Kurtz-Nichol and Carrie Miller for Rice University. [Website no longer online]
  • “Jonestown Massacre: A ‘Reason’ to Die,” by Fiona Steel (Accessed: 7.11.06).
  • “No Charges Filed in Murders of Former U.S. Cult Followers”, article written December 9th 2005 by Michelle Locke (Accessed:10.12.06)
  • Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple Review of Stanley Nelson’s documentary from the San Francisco International Film Festival written by Chuleenan Svetvilas. [Website no longer online] (Accessed: 12.11.06)
  • Noland Walker, “ PBS Documentarian Begins Work on Peoples Temple Story” at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=32680(Accessed: 14.11.06)
  • An article by John R Hall, “Religion and Violence: Social Processes in Comparative Perspective” in Handbook for the Sociology of Religion, Michele Dillon (ed), Cambridge University press. (Accessed: 15.12.06)
  • “Reconstructing Reality: Conspiracy Theories About Jonestown” by Rebecca Moore, Journal of Popular Culture 36, no. 2 (Fall 2002): 200-20 at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=16582 (Accessed: 18.1.07)
  • BBC Interview with Jim Jones Jr., transcript and audio download available at http://www.archive.org/details/ptc1978-11-18.flac16 (Accessed: 16.2.07)
  • Commentary on Q 042, by Fielding M. McGehee III, 6 July 2001. As part of the “Jonestown Audio Tape Primary Project: Transcript” at http://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=29215(Accessed: 17.2.07)

Resources that I would like to look into:  

  • Charles A. Krause; with exclusive material by Laurence M. Stern, Richard Harwood and the staff of The Washington Post; with 16 pages of on-the-scene photos. and commentary by Frank Johnston (1978). Guyana massacre: the eyewitness account . [New York]: Berkley Pub. Corp.
  • Jonestown: The Life and Death of Peoples Temple a film by Stanley Nelson
  • “A Beautiful Dream Turned Into a Deadly Nightmare” by Jynona Norwood
  • “Jonestown Suicides Shocked World,” b y The Associated Press
    Thursday, March 27, 1997; 1:00 p.m. EST
  • “Making Sense of the Nonsensical: An Analysis of Jonestown,” by Neal Osherow
  • Testimony of Clare Bouquet Before The International Operations Subcommittee,
    Committee On Foreign Affairs, February 20, 1980

Success in Research

Since the Jonestown tragedy in 1978 resources concerning the massacre have built exponentially. Initially, resource availability was relatively sparse; the cause of the increasing number of resources that discuss the Jonestown massacre seems in many instances to derive from the element of mystery. For many theorists, the lack of information seems to evoke an urge for explanation. Social taboos, blame “games”, dissatisfaction with the explanation of events and a sort of reactionary suspicion provide the grounding for a proliferation of conspiracy theories. Consequently speculation, opinion, bias and confusion arose. Because of this confusion, I feel that questions of reliability and usefulness have become a fascinating issue that surrounds the “history” written about Jonestown. I have decided to work with these issues rather than around them. I will focus on them, instead of ignoring them, and in lieu of becoming a speculator myself.

The vast array of research is very interesting and insightful as to the contentious issues of the time and some that are still in play today influencing the event and peoples interpretations of it. The internet gave many historians and conspiracists a voice and an opportunity to attempt to persuade people to view the massacre and its causes from their point of view. Anyone can express their point of view, whether through a thoroughly researched document or short forum post underneath an internet conspiracist’s work. Reading a range of sources has allowed me to recognize differing interpretations and understandings. It has helped me determine how not to write history as well, how the bias and selectivity is strongly weaved in most theories.

The fact that the event that I am to discuss happened relatively recently means that sources such as audio recordings and video media are available as primary as well as secondary sources. This historical footage has helped me gain a broader understanding of the events and the feeling of the time. However it has also made me more conscious not only of the purpose and aims of history, but also the role that human emotion played in the events. The sermons that I watched were meant to be inspiring, intense and emotionally moving. They were designed for the purpose of recruitment. When watching these, I had to keep in mind that these were produced for a propagandist purpose and that they were being shown to the general public to show a positive image of Peoples Temple and did not necessarily reflect the entirety of the true mood of the congregation.

To this point, my research has lead me to a broad view of the main issues that Jonestown has raised in the writing of history. I have also formulated a general overview of the main conspiracy theories and sub-categories they fall under.

Gaps in Research

A gap in my research is that there are large segments of the events for which there is no revealing evidence. There is no definitive conclusion that I feel could be stated without intellectual dishonesty. Neither the government’s account nor any conspiracy theories can completely account for the series of events that lead to the Jonestown massacre.

Another problem is that much of the evidence that does exist has been censored or altered.It is impossible to definitively reconstruct the events that occurred. The implications for these gaps on my project are huge. I know at the outset that I will not be able to say definitively what happened at Jonestown. In terms of my project, this means I will have to focus more on the issues of historical reliability, evidence and opinion. That does not mean, however, that I will completely avoid trying to formulate an explanation of the events based from my research. I am confident that I will be able to assess the contradictory accounts and come at least to some conclusion as to their relative reliability.

Although opinion plays a role in writing history, it is nonetheless supposed to avoid the realm of fiction. The general assumption that is often made when reading history is that it refers in an informative way to events that really happened and illuminates them to some end. In the case of the Jonestown massacre and the writings that refer to it, there are so many accusations and counteraccusations of fiction, sensationalism, lying, mendacious behavior, corruption and outright concealment, that it is difficult to determine what, if anything, written about the events can credibly claim to be real history.

If the primary evidence is questionable, corrupted and incomplete, then secondary interpretation of that evidence must also come under scrutiny. I must examine the motives of historical writers and conspiracy theorists. What prompts these wildly conflicting theories, beyond the questionability of the primary evidence? Though some of my work will involve speculation concerning the extent to which motive plays a role in the writing of history, I will try to write my piece as academically legitimate, compelling history rather than as fiction or pure speculation.


Research Intentions

Methodology

  • Formulate a definition of the historiographical area of inquiry into which I will be entering. That is to say, read modern historiography to determine current academic attitudes towards the question of the reliability of evidence.
  • Further research extant conspiracy theories with an eye to the motivations of their proponents.
  • Generally research internet, library and audio-visual materials dealing both with the massacre and with conspiracies surrounding the massacre.
  • Attempt to contact related academics and conspiracy theorists in order to obtain advice on the direction of the topic and guide me to appropriate further research materials.
  • Read as many eye witness accounts as possible.
  • Further research the context of Jonestown and the main reactionary groups in the aftermath of the events at Jonestown.
  • Find sources from a variety of resources to avoid bias and a narrow perspective.
  • Compile and assess both primary and secondary sources with regard to their reliability.
  • Attempt to reconcile these materials with one another, in order to construct a cohesive and credible argument.
  • Compare the primary accounts with secondary interpretations.

Syllabus References that Relate to the Topic

What is History?

Key Questions:  

  • What are the aims and purposes of history?
  • How has history being constructed and recorded overtime?
  • A historical debate or controversy
  • Identify different historical perspectives evident in sources
  • Analyze interpretations of a particular historical issue
  • Explain why historians have different historical perspectives
  • Compare and Contrast different interpretations of a particular historical issue
  • Use a variety of sources to develop a view about a historical issue
  • To ensure that my history project complies with the syllabus requirements

Specific Areas to Examine

  • The contentious role of the CIA, both as a protective force and as a secretive, potentially dangerous organization.
  • The power of religion in relation to influencing attitudes towards the reliability of evidence. Some of the conspiracy theorists interpret the evidence as more reliable or less reliable, because of their personal religious beliefs.
  • The role that historical silences, the absence of evidence plays in limiting the possibility that history can be comprehensive or complete.
  • The role that historical silences and the absence of evidence play in encouraging freedom of speculative “histories” and accounts.
  • The role mass media played in facilitating conspiracy theories.
  • The extent that the historical context of Jonestown, occurring during the era of the Cold War and being a socialist society itself, impacted on interpretation of evidence and fueled conspiracy theories.


Enquiry Questions

The Development of the Precise Focus Question

Initially, I intended to write about how theories regarding the Jonestown massacre developed over time. Later as my research progressed, I became fascinated with the idea that from the evidence, I could construct a plausible, persuasive theory about what actually happened at Jonestown. However, as I examined the primary sources, I discovered that they were so many gaps, so much censorship as well as corruption of evidence, that it would be impossible to determine with any degree of academic validity, the facts. After discovering the Jonestown audiotapes, I found my preconceived notions shaken. I was determined to examine the reliability and usefulness of the “death tape.” However as I returned to my examination of the different conspiracy theories and in light of our study of historiography in class, I determined that a more academically valid line of inquiry could be taken. I formulated with my teacher a final focus question that was not so different from my initial focus, but which I believe will provide a better structure for my essay.

Focus Question:

Why do conspiracy theories surround the evidence of the Jonestown massacre?

Enquiry Questions in response to the focus question

  • How have the respective groups affected by the massacre responded?
  • How has interpretation of evidence influenced conspiracy theories that arose and what part did bias play in those interpretations?
  • In what way does the fact of wildly differing conspiracy theories reflect on the reliability of secondary sources?
  • How does the corruption of primary evidence in the Jonestown case undermine the reliability of any primary evidence
  • The omissions in historical interpretation often derive from gaps and historical silences. How ought this to affect our reading and writing of history?
  • What are the motives and purposes of the conspiracy theories?
  • How did personal bias affect the conspiracy theories?
  • What contemporary fears and issues affected the emergence of conspiracy theories?
Last modified on January 1st, 2016.
Skip to main content