Monday, August 22, 2005

Introduction to Historical Method: What is History?

[Nota Bene: What follows is Part 1 of a five-part series entitled Introduction to Historical Method. The Series Index is located here.]

Introduction: What is History?

History can be defined as the most complex, inclusive and many faceted of the social sciences. Quite a statement, but is it true? In fact, it is only a description; it assumes you know what social science is and, as such, is really not a proper definition at all. History is difficult to define because people, both present and past, have different preconceptions and viewpoints as to what exactly history is. Most definitions are at least partially true, but what does the term "History" mean? Generally, the following aspects of the term "History" are agreed upon:

1) Past Actuality - All things that have happened until this moment. Specifically, past human events that are irrevocably fixed in time and space. It is considered to be absolute and objective - it is what happened.

2) Record of Past Actuality - The human attempt to recapture the past, to fix it in words and to give it meaning. It is relative and subjective and is only a version of what happened from the viewpoint of the recorder. It used to be primarily considered a written record, but the 20th century saw a rediscovery of the value of oral history as well as technological advancement leading to visual mediums (other than art) such as movies and television as well as recordings. There are three types of record, Narrative, Didactic, and Genetic.

  • The oldest and most commonly understood is the Narrative, a true story that is told. It was the only way to tell history starting around 4000 BC until about 500 BC. It is simply a telling of history in a chronological order, the order of time if you will.
  • The next form, Didactic, evolved sometime around 500 BC (usually credited to Thucydides Peloppennesian War) and is essentially instructive history or history that teaches a lesson. The deocentric, or Christian, writers of the Middle Ages are the best example of this type. They treated Past Actuality as a precedent for action and hoped to bring guidance to those who read of the past, whether to glorify God, a social group or an individual. Didactic was the preeminent form until the Enlightenment when Leopold von Ranke, the father of modern history, published his first work and exorted his students to "go to the sources."
  • Shortly thereafter, the third type, Genetic, emerged and is the primary type practiced from the 1800's up to the present. The goal of Genetic history is to establish the "why" of historical events by studying the complexity of cause and effect which in turn reveal the growth, development and evolution (sometimes called the basic phenomena) of history. A better way to put it is that Genetic history tries to establish the "why" for complex historical events by investigating causal relations.

3) Making the Record of Past Actuality - The process or technique -the method- used to make a record of past actuality is also considered 'History.' Method makes history a science, though not an exact one. There are 4 steps to historical method:
  • An exhaustive search for sources of information.
  • The study of the information in those sources.
  • A critical evaluation of the information. An active process to comprehend motives and judge actions.
  • The final synthesizing of material and recasting it according to personal judgement.
The basic considerations of method are the type of sources used and their reliability. The sources are the data and evidence on which an historical case is to be built and there are
different kinds of these.

1. Primary Sources - Are those in which people write or speak of themselves or contemporaries.

2. Secondary Sources - Those writings of a later day about earlier events.

3. Tertiary Sources - A compilation of secondary sources, though they often include some primary sources.

A Note - Some historians take this out to even further levels, such as centenary (an admitted exagerration), but generally the aforementioned are enough.

Regardless of the type of source, it must be reliable. Therefore, the Reliability of Sources must be determined. Sources can be Fraudulent, Inaccurate, or Biased ("FIB") and must be tested for:

1. Consistency - Ensure the evidence is logical and not contradictory?

2. Corroboration - Check sources against one another.

3. Freedom from Bias

If any of the "FIB"s are revealed, the source must be evaluated with that in mind.


With these factors in mind, one can make another attempt to define history. Thus, History is the science which first investigates and then records, in their causal relation and developments, such past human activities as are definite in time and space, social in nature, and socially significant. To explain further, History is a science because it does have a definite method, as will be shown. It is further important to qualify which human events are considered historical. That the event be 'definite in time and space' is important because if such is the case, then the event can be philosophically proven to have occurred. That an event be social in nature is an affirmation of the humanity of history which is further qualified by the fact that it must be socially significant, which means it must contribute to the common knowledge of humanity.

As can be imagined, there are a wide array of definitions of history, most of which arise out of various schools of historical interpretation. Various schools of history arise out of particular academic training and the belief that one particular aspect of human nature or environment is paramount in interpreting history. Other 'schools' are not ignored, they just aren't as important. It helps to imagine a spoked wheel, like that of a Conastoga wagon, where each spoke represents a particular school of history and the hub of the wheel represents the primary school to which a particular practitioner of history adheres. A historian would be familiar with the spokes and would use them as support for his argument, but the central thesis would be derived from the hub.

There are many schools of history. Below are a few of the more common ones. To further help explain them, I will use the example of what each school might describe as the primary cause of the American Revolution.

1. Social - Investigates the development of human groups and communities and their interaction with larger society as they emerge. EX: They would focus on the type of colonist in America (independent, free-thinking) as the primary cause.

2. Cultural/Intellectual - Often considered different, but approach with same method, if from different direction. Both deal with the meaning of ideas and attitudes and their effect on social changes. Generally, Intellectual is considered a study of the elite--the idea makers, if you will--while Cultural deals more with the ideas and traditions of the common people. EX: Both might argue that the people listened to the great thinkers, such as Locke and Jefferson, who espoused philosophical ideas of liberty, etc.

3. Political - Focus on the operation and acts of governments, parties and institutions. EX: The British Parliament's idea of taxation without representation and the Intolerable Acts stoked the fires of Revolution.

4. Diplomatic - Focus on the relations between governments. EX: Strained relations between the Colonies and Great Britain led to the war.

5. Economic - Study developments in technology, production, consumption and division of wealth. EX: Money was the cause as the British attempted to interrupt commerce.

6. Psychohistory - Investigate emotional development of individuals and families using techiques derived from psychoanalysis. EX: King George III had poor relations with his father which affected his judgement.

7. Post-modern - There is no such thing as historical truth, thus, because knowledge is arbitrary, so is our conception of the past. EX: We will never really understand the causes of the Revolution, but each of us can interpret or reinterpret the event as we see fit.

*NOTE: Please remember, these are very generic definitions and simplistic examples and don't begin to cover the wide array of possibilities.

Closely related to 'Schools' of History are 'Philosophies' of History. A philosophy of history explains the forces of history--what moves them and in what direction they are headed. It is an explanation not only of the most important causes of specific events but of the broadest developments in human affairs. There have been three schools of historical thought that are generally agreed upon.

1. Cyclical - (4000 BC - 100 AD): The timeworn 'History Repeats' school. Events periodically re-occur. Essential forces of human nature are unchangeable and so humans make the same decisions, or mistakes, over and over when confronted with similar or identical situations. A cycle of Birth/Life/Death was generally accepted and served as a template for this philosophy.

2. Providential - (100 AD - 18th Century): Primarily a result of the rise of Christianity which held that there was life after death and thus humans could have some form of immortality. This broke the Birth/Life/Death cycle and further believed that Divine Intervention could overthrow the past as the course of history was determined by God. History was an ebb and flow, a constant struggle between good and evil with the eventual victory of good forseen, as determined by God.

3. Progressive - (18th Century - about 1945): Brought about by the scientific and secular age of the Enlightenment. Universal laws of science were unlocked and the question was asked: What are the universal laws of human nature? Human history was a continual progress in which the situation of humanity was improving because of it's own efforts, not God's. Further, each generation built upon the knowledge of the previous. In 1918, after World War I, this idea was challenged and doubt was cast as to whether humanity was really progressing. The interwar years saw serious debates which exploded during and after World War II. Though Fascism and Nazism was defeated, Communism still loomed large as did the threat of nuclear war and the ultimate destruction of mankind. How could this be progress?

So where are we now? There is now no "definitive" philosophy, though many philosophies abound, and many historians question whether a defining philosophy is even possible or necessary.

Up Next: The Meanings of History

1 comment:

Marc said...

Johanka at Brandon's Siris blog had this to say about my small bit on post-modernism:

"I can't swallow the slightly anti-postmodern bias of this series, I mean which historian would claim they can interpret history "as they see fit" (which could also mean without being critical of their sources)? The claim that there's no universal position is a whole 'nother thing, of course."

I responded, which I cross-post here:

I apologize if you perceived an "anti-postmodern bias" in the series. I think, in particular, you are referring to this bit:

"Post-modern - There is no such thing as historical truth, thus, because knowledge is arbitrary, so is our conception of the past. EX: We will never really understand the causes of the Revolution, but each of us can interpret or reinterpret the event as we see fit."

But I would note that I provided a link that expanded far greater on Post-modernism and I also added this NOTE:

"Please remember, these are very generic definitions and simplistic examples and don't begin to cover the wide array of possibilities."

All that being said, while I didn't intend any sort of caricature, perhaps I was both too general in my definitions and guilty of a poor choice of words, re: "as they see fit."

Please feel free to respond directly to that particular post at my sight and to provide further elaboration. I only tried to provide a rough overview with this series. It is an "Introduction" after all. I want it to spur others to expand and correct. That's what scholarship is all about. Thanks for the critique.