Thursday, August 25, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: Practicing The Historical Method

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 4 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Practicing The Historical Method


As has been implied, history as a discipline often seems to be splintering and a knowledge of sound methodology is needed now more than ever to keep the working historian centered. Initially, the greatest challenges came from those who raised up the social sciences (ie: sociology, anthropology, psychology) as being the ultimate techniques for studying man and his past, present and future. Post-modernism, with its rejection of the ability of anyone to be objective, posed an even greater challenge. What follows is an attempt to lay the groundwork for using a solid methodology when researching, analyzing and writing history.

Meaning of Historical Method

First, a definition of Historical Method should be given. It is a systematic body of principles and rules designed to aid effectively in gathering the source materials of history, appraisng them critically, and presenting a synthesis (generally in written form) of the results achieved. More simply put, it is a system of right procedure for the attainment of historical truth. There are three major operations with method:

1) Heuristic - The search for material on which to work to acquire sources of information.

2) Criticism - The appraisement of the material or sources from the viewpoint of evidential value. This step is so important to the process of historical method that it is sometimes called "Historical Criticism."

3) Synthesis and Exposition - A formal statement of the findings of heuristic and criticism. It includes assembling a body of historical data and the presentation (usually in writing) in terms of objective truth and significance.

Uses of Historical Method

The phrase "tyranny of the printed page" is accurate. Whatever has arrived at the dignity of print has a tendency to be believed. As one historian put it, "[a] person without proper criteria for evaluating the information that reaches him from the outside risks a thousand deceptions and errors."

The written word must not be believed without critical analysis or real facts and falsifications will have equal weight in the eyes of the researcher. Proper training of a historian gives him a skill in assembling material, critically assessing it and setting out the results with effect. The self-taught historian is sometimes disparaged within the ranks of academia despite the inumerable valuable contributions made by these "amateurs."

Whether "classically trained" or self-taught, a practitioner of history must guard against falling into mistakes. Even the simplest document can offer many content and interpretation problems that those unaware or untrained may not recognize. In this, there is a danger that such problems, if left unrecognized, will remain unsolved or ignored altogether. It is easy to exaggerate the necessity of technical training, after all, critical method in history is often really just sound judgement and common sense. Yet, by themselves, sound judgement and common sense do have limitations even though they are the historian's most indispensible aid. In practical research they can take one a long way-- but not the whole way.

Judgement alone doesn't qualify a historian to decipher, to date, to localize, or to interpret simple ancient, medieval, or even modern documents. Technology has eased the burden of such concerns for the "layperson" somewhat, but it cannot yet be totally relied upon for accuracy and translation. It must be remembered that all science can be approached from a historical point of view.

History as Science

Is history a science? The disciplines concerned with man in his social relations are known as social sciences and History is very clearly considered to be part of the social sciences. The difference of opinion is probably more apparent than real. The discussion practically revolves around the meaning one chooses to attach to the term science. In practically all instances where the claim of history to be a science is denied, the denial is based on the assumption that the term science means an exact science. The crux of this discussion begins with a definition of science.

Most would agree that science is a systematized body of general truths concerning a definite subject matter and established by an efficient, effective method. This definition is sufficient, thought there really is no hard and fast, universally accepted definition of the term. Following is a breakdown of the four elements essential to the concept of science as has been defined:

  • A body of systematized knowledge - Data or information that is ordered, organized and classified. Not just a heap of isolated facts or truths, but a complex of them knit together according to some principle of rational, logical order, such as time, space, topic or causation.
  • An effective method - Science relies upon sound method more than anything so that conclusions derived from its practice can be deemed legitimate. The method must be correct and effective. History as record employs a recognized correct and effective technique, or method, from which the writer of history, at least scholarly history, cannot afford to depart. The use of a recognized method is a prime factor qualifying history to rank as a science.
  • A definite subject matter - Material can't be vague or limitless. A science must work within some sharply defined field of human knowledge.
  • Formulation of general truths - History deals primarily with particular happenings, with the unique, but a broader conception makes it pass at will beyond the unique to general and universal. There are two kinds of general truths: those restricted to time and place and those not. It is from broad, comprehensive truths that history derives its practical utility. History as record of human past has been understood to include the reporting of particular facts and interpretation and generalization based upon the facts.
It can be concluded that History is a science, though not an exact science, because History includes the above four elements. Thus, we can designate it as science, but only in a broad, qualified sense, as has been described.

What are the differences between history and the "exact" sciences?

1) The central truths of History are only morally uniform, not rigidly uniform as they are considered to be in the exact sciences.

2) The field of History has no universally accepted technical terminology, except for a few terms used in methodology. It has stock words, but none are rigidly fixed in meaning by usage or convention. Absence of technical terms is a weakness of history as science and results in vagueness and ambiguity in historical writing. The overuse of jargon only complicates matters.

3) History is not a science of direct observation (except perhaps oral history), which sets it apart from the exact sciences and their endless possibilities of immediate test and verification. The method of indirect observation, through the use of sources, is the only avenue open to the historian except in the few cases where he can draw on personal knowledge of facts.

4) History is a human story and has to deal with man, the ultimate self-determining agent. Free will, the incalcuble element, is a factor of which a historian must be constantly mindful. Additionally, and very basic to the problem, is the fact that there is no single definition to describe human! The exact sciences have no such incalcuble element.

5) Prediction in History is less reliable than in the exact sciences. From intimate understanding of an individual or group, one may forecast with great probability, and sometimes with moral certainty. Yet, it is impossible to predict with the same certainty what man, with free will, will do in the future as in the exact sciences and their subjects.

History enables man to predict events, though in a limited manner, and it is a science, though not an exact one. One thing that is for certain, History is not literature. If history is science, it cannot primarily be literature and, as such, fine art. Literary satisfaction is a nice byproduct of historical record making, but it is not a requirement (despite the wishes of some of us!) nor is it essential to the craft. Literary quality, however desirable in itself, belongs to the accidentals, not to the essentials of history.

Despite the preceding arguments, the question as to whether History is a science is academic. The resolution of the argument won't help the historian do his job more effectively. Such traits as honesty, impartiality, thoroughness, accuracy and documentation make a work scholarly, which is more consequential than it being characterized as scientific or otherwise.

Characteristics of a Historian

A competent historian should strive to have the following characteristics:

  • A zeal for truth, which postulates sincerity and frankness in stating the facts, however much feelings may be hurt. Cicero said, "It is the first law of history that it dare say nothing that is false nor fear to utter anything that is true, in order that there may be no suspicion either of partiality or hostility in the writer." Additionally, British historian Lord Acton said, "Impartial history can have no friends."
  • Honesty requires that important facts and circumstances, good or bad, be recorded. To omit can create the wrong impression and is virtually the same as falsification. The suppression of the truth is the suggestion of a falsehood. Additionally, be aware that sources often passively or actively did not hold themselves to this standard. When studying a source, remember that the failure to mention facts does not imply their non-existence. Never forget that the normal is taken for granted, both now and in the past. The argument from silence is invalid as a linchpin of historical "proof."
  • Industry is also important as research takes a lot of time. A historian must learn to be economical in his work and must be prepared to research to near exhaustion. No research is wasted; a negative result is often as valuable, if less satisfying, as a positive. It must also be remembered that it is the substance of the fact that matters, not the accidentals. All circumstances attending an event in history do not have to be known before the record can be made "as it happened." It is helpful to think of law and the concept of reasonable doubt as a guide. If historians attempted to acquire all of the facts they would find themselves in indefinite or even infinite study and the field would not advance.
  • Concentration is closely tied to industry. It is the mental alertness that makes a historian ready to recognize and account for every piece of causal information that can help master a subject. Aspects important to particular research automatically reveal themselves as such, at least if one is wide awake to the task. A finely honed ability to simply concentrate helps the researcher separate the wheat from the chaff.
  • A critical sense and sound judgement are a historian's primary assets. Candor is always desirable, but it must not be restrained. If research reveals something about a subject that is negative and non-essential, omit it. Don't engage in superfluous, tell-all practices for their own sake. However, also beware of a lack of criticism, which is an injudicious attitude of mind.
  • Both the mania for the extraordinary or narrow and exaggerated conservatism that looks upon criticism as the natural enemy of cherished traditions are both pitfalls. Hypercriticism is the abuse of a good thing. Overrating internal evidence, absorption with trifles, and an itch for novelties and an urge to upset established beliefs and traditions on no grounds of adequate evidence renders any valid criticism suspect. They are the historical version of crying wolf. In the end, the nature and true spirit of critical research is a benefit to the field. For example, the impression may be that modern critical investigation has cast doubt on many ancient and medieval sources of history and that they should be regarded skeptically. The fact is that a considerable proportion of the old historians have stood successfully against rigid scrutiny. This shows that criticism at its best is constructive and is a preservative of traditional viewpoints.
  • Objectivity is really just the other side of the coin from a zeal for truth. It is a detached and neutral attitude in the historian that enables him to deal with material in light of the evidence alone. Von Ranke's exhortation to record a thing "as it really happened" is especially germane. However, there are some misconceptions about objectivity. It doesn't require the historian to be free from prejudice or to approach the task free of principles, theories or philosophies of life. It doesn't mean a historian must divorce himself from sympathy for his subject or refrain from forming judgements or drawing conclusions. Instead, the historian simply needs to be aware of his own biases and predispostions. Impartiality, rightly understood, on the part of the historian is a practical ideal. Events can be recorded "as they happened" as far as the evidence permits and historical truth can be achieved-- even though numberless details remain unkown. The question of whether history can be objective is kept alive by loose and unwarranted use of the term. The debate is speculative and has little practical bearing on the historian's actual task. The temptation to succumb to the ideal of objectivity must be fought with a pragmatic understanding of the term.
Hallmarks of Critical History

Critical history is also referred to scholarly or scientific history. Any of the three terms is acceptable. There are five aspects that establish a historical piece as meeting the standard of a scholarly work.

1) Method - The application of a correct technique to find and criticize data and the arrangement and presentation of the data according to an effective plan. As Lord Acton said, "Method makes the historian."

2) Candor- Critical history makes no attempt to pass for more than it is. It acknowledges all appropriations made by the author and doesn't conceal or gloss over matters which can't be so treated without a sacrifice of the truth. Dishonesty or failure to give due credit is plagiarism, which is the act by which one appropriates anothers work and passes it off as one's own.

3) Accuracy or Truth- Nothing diminishes interest in history more than the suspicion that facts are missing. A meticulous correctness of statement in all matters of fact is the ideal. Before going to press, a manuscript should be scrupulously checked for errors. History is innacurate when too many mistakes suggest the author is careless, earning him the ultimate negative tag in the field. Sloppy. However, a historian can't try to be perfect or he would never publish a thing!

4) Thoroughness - Use of all important sources bearing on a subject and treatment of all significant phases of the subject. There are always working standards at hand that enable one to judge whether a work reaches or falls below the demand of thoroughness.

5) Verifiability - A work of history must be fortified with indications of sources, which will enable the reader to check for accuracy and reliability.

As historians, we sometimes become enamored with pet projects or theories and forget those tools that have grounded historical scholarship in our modern era. A little reminder every now then--remembering "the basics"-- will help us refocus historical scholarship.

Up Next: Certainty In History

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