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 historian, and some are considered of greater importance when a historian is attempting to forge new ideas about the past. Generally speaking, there are three major types of sources that historians consider in their work: primary, secondary and oral. Within each of these categories are a huge number of possible sources. Primary sources or those that are created by an individual, group or organization that actually witnessed a particular historical event and left some record of it. Often, these sources include things like personal journals, written letters, articles written for newspapers by witnesses, and printed speeches given by politicians or others. Another type of primary source can be found in things like organizational meeting records, bank account records, receipts and other written records that were not necessarily intended as long-term records of the past, but instead were simply day today interactions of people living at the time. Archaeological sites and artifacts are also considered a type of primary source material. As with organizational and commercial records, archaeological sources of information are frequently among the most reliable, since the people who laid down the archaeological record were not intentionally leaving it as a source of information. There is no question that an important consideration when looking at any primary source is its objectivity. For example, the personal diaries of plantation owners in the slaveholding South are not necessarily an accurate representation of the conditions under which slaves actually lived at the time. Frequently, when a historian is looking at primary source material he has to take into account any possible bias that the original recorder may have had, as well as how accurate that recorder may have been. To a lesser extent, historians may also find a degree of unreliability in organizational and business records. However, this is more frequently the result of either an attempt to falsify the business records or mistakes made on the part of the recorder. In addition, historians also face the problem of having only partial records. The older a collection of records are, the more likely it is that some will of been lost, discarded, damaged or destroyed before the historian can get to them. Secondary historical sources are those that are written after the fact by those who did not witness the event, but are instead analyzing it after the fact. This analysis is often based on their use of primary sources. Secondary historical sources include books, newspaper articles, magazines articles and even paintings. For example, Goya’s paintings of the Spanish Civil War would be considered a secondary historical source. Unlike primary historical sources, which may or may not have been intended to create a historical record, secondary historical sources are always an attempt to record information about a particular event or topic. Just as with primary sources, historians analyzing or otherwise using secondary historical sources have to be cognizant of the possibility of bias on the part of the author. This bias can be written into the text itself or it can be more subtle. An example of bias in a historical record that might be more difficult to detect would be if the secondary source leaves out information or alters numerical values. However, another consideration with secondary sources is whether the author is thorough. Even if the author is attempting to be objective on the topic, he might simply make sloppy mistakes in either recording his data or researching the topic. Such a mistake can be as simple as drawing a conclusion from a single article in a century-old newspaper, only to find that a later article in the same paper contradicted this conclusion. This is why it is vital for historians using secondary sources to carefully review the primary sources that the authors used. A third source for historians is oral history. Before the invention of writing, all history was oral history. Even into the historical period when writing was available, many pieces of historical information were recorded and passed down orally. An example of this would be the ancient Homeric works of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Historians agree that long before these works were collected and written in a physical form, they had been sung and chanted for centuries. However, oral history is not just about epic stories. It can also include the verbal transmission of customs, traditions and religious beliefs (Banks 11). Once the historian has gathered all of this data from his various sources, it is time for him to evaluate and assess this data and arrive at a hypothesis that best explains the data. This hypothesis should be the most likely one to be accurate based on the available data. Under circumstances in which the hypothesis and the data are in conflict with previously accepted views on the subject, the historian attempts ensure a high degree of certainty in his findings. For example, when using statistical data from a census or similar source, the historian must ensure that all sources are clearly cited and revealed and that the methods used for evaluating the data are clearly explained either the main body of the text or the footnotes. Historians have at their disposal a wide range of methodologies and sources that they can use to build a picture of the past. This picture can narrowly focus on individual events and great leaders, or it can more broadly examine social forces and cultural and religious movements. History, rather than being a fixed subject, is actually quite fluid. Historical researchers are constantly finding new information and approaches that allow them to reinterpret the past in new ways. This is one of the reasons that historical archaeologists will frequently only excavate a small portion of the site. Leaving a portion of the site intact allows future archaeologists using newer and more sophisticated methods to reevaluate the site based on these new technologies and approaches. Works Cited
Banks, Dennis. "The Impact Of Oral History On The Interviewer: A Study Of Novice Historians." (1997): ERIC. Web. 8 Feb. 2013. Fernandez-Armesto, Felipe. The World: A Brief History. 2. Pearson: Prentice Hall, 2008. Print. Hepp, John. Lecture. Historical Foundations of the Modern World. Wilkes University Fall Semester 2012