How Do Historians Study History?
People might tend to think of a historian, particularly an instructor, as someone who has a fairly straightforward and simple profession. After all, history is already written. Thus, it should simply be a matter of just memorizing a series of facts. Of course, this is not the case. History as we understand it is a constantly evolving story about individuals, events, eras and cultures. In addition, modern historians frequently ask questions about our past in order to better understand our present. Historians use a wide range of methods in their attempt to answer their questions about what happened to our distant and not so distant ancestors. Any historian who wants to be taken seriously has to use a systematic approach and provide clear and verifiable evidence to support his contentions. Fortunately, the field of history provides a set of clearly laid out approaches that a historian can use in his work.
Historians look for patterns and clues to explain historical events and to understand human nature and interaction. To an extent, a historian is a kind of detective, sifting through a mountain of evidence to find the particular facts that lead him to the truth about any particular event or situation. Although much of the work of historians does involve attempting to establish a direct cause and effect relationship between one event and another, it also often involves more subtle issues related to religion, politics, economics and culture.
When examining the past, historians generally tend to ask the same set of questions over and over again. These questions include things like how have societal groups interacted with one another, how have these societies been governed, what is the nature of their religious beliefs and how were matters of policing and war managed. It is also important to historians to make comparisons and contrasts between different societies with regard to these various key issues. Such comparisons allow historians to better understand how change takes place in a given situation. The answers that historians develop to address the questions they have about historical topics are not set in stone. What we believed to be the case only a few decades ago about a particular period in our history is frequently viewed very differently today. The heroic explorers of yesteryear become the ruthless conquerors of later years (Hepp 75). Certainly, a century ago the early Spanish and Portuguese explorers were viewed in a very positive light. However, as historians looked more closely at the impact that these explorers and colonizers had on natives in both North and South America, as well as other regions of the world, it became clear that it was important to look at this impact from the perspective of the natives as well. From that perspective, the age of exploration was less heroic than it was genocidal. Even aside from the direct military intervention that European powers carried out against those they sought to colonize and conquer in the early age of exploration, Europeans and other conquering powers have often sought to impose their own religious and cultural viewpoint on to others. Even a great deal of the trade and commerce that was carried out in various parts of the world, from Asia to Africa, had a religious bent to it. There is no question among historians about the fact that commerce had a great deal to do with the spread of religion around the world, both in ancient eras and in more recent times (Fernandez-Armesto 212). All of these changes in our views about the past were brought about through the use of historical methodology. Historians have certain procedures that they follow when they study history, and particular standards that they use when they judge the validity of any individual source. In fact, the possible sources that a historian might use are vast and varied. Each type has a different value for the...