When it comes to assessing a ‘good’ definition of history there are multiple answers, reactions and interpretations. The fact that history is not a staid entity—but an ever-evolving, dynamic process probably contributes to this lack of consensus, even among some of its most noted scholars. The often ambiguous and confusing ideas regarding the many manifestations of history both result from and explain the various schools and theories of its study. In the following essay, basic definitions and assumptions of history are examined, as well as its role as cultural utility and pertinence to human society.
The subject/term ‘history’ is often confused with the concept of ‘the past.’ Naturally, there is an association between the two; however, history is not the past—it is the exploration, the documentation of it. To be more precise, it is knowledge about the past en masse. The aforesaid lack of consensus or incongruity concerning what is really a straightforward definition often occurs when one considers the tenets or beliefs of some particular theorists, such as those of the structuralist or postmodernist schools, who question the reality basis of all—including the simple definition of history. Structualists and postmodernists disregard the belief of actual, physical events. These historians attribute happenings and events to be perceptions—individually-produced manifestations of the human mind.
A similar theory of history is that of the Marxists—who deem all language, symbols—and their interpretation, thereof, to be nothing more than Bourgeoisie constructs. It is the belief of most Marx-oriented historians that due to the constant influx of class-constructed realities—there is a fixed, obvious lack of objectivity even in the most carefully researched, analyzed and written historical effort. The definition as proposed by historian Arthur Marwick incorporates the ‘historical method’ and I believe, represents the majority of professional historians. Marwick emphasizes the application of tough standards of examination and objective considerations—utilizing prime sources supported and reinforced by secondary sources.
The long history of history (historiography) has not been without its share of competition. There have been a myriad of diverse opinions and divisive interpretations of all elements relating to the study and practice of history. Competitive schools/theories have abounded throughout the ages—beginning with Thucydides and the ancient Greeks, on through such modern historians as Natalie Zemon-Davis and Ludmilla Jordanova.
Other competitive schools/theories include those of a more metaphysical nature as exemplified by the studies of Michel Foucault and Hayden White ; the historical pertinence of government and interaction of state as suggested by the watershed work of Leopold von Ranke, and the ‘new history’ expounded by proponents of France’s Annales School. As aforementioned, the study of the subject of history has evolved along with both time and technology. It has been greatly altered by the introduction of features such as sub-histories and other examples of specificity–such as women’s history, nationalistic history, scientific history, the history of film, etc.)—and historical offerings and texts that seem more like works of literature. The continuing evolution of source materials via the advent of new types of media, i.e. television, radio, film, the internet, etc. has also contributed significantly to the development of the study of history.
For any professional researcher of history—there are certain steps and standards (i.e. the aforementioned historical method) to be conducted when broaching a possible historical subject and beginning its research. Firstly, the historian needs to establish what specific problem or area of study he/she would like to examine. Depending on the type/subject matter of a given historical project a historian is embarking on—a hypothesis may be developed that both defines and connects the nature of the project with its accompanying features.
Next, researchers need to locate and access prime sources (original/contemporary documentation that occurred as close to the actual event as possible; usually in the form of newspaper/magazine articles, legal/civil records, personal testimony, i.e. diaries, journals, etc., business ledgers, accounts and the like)–as well as secondary sources, such as ‘expert’ or professional opinion or interpretation and/or ‘second or third hand’ accounts.
Although prime sources are the necessary crux of good historical research, secondary sources have their place as key tools for validation, support and alternative interpretations of prime source proof. Well-investigated and considered prime and secondary sources become evidence only upon meticulous verification and validation—and after being arranged through careful selection and applied logic. Further, when working with evidence, historians must consider the biases of all the ‘voices’ with which they are working—those of the source materials—as well as their own. Pure objectivity may indeed be impossible; nevertheless, it is the goal for which the professional historian must strive. Further, the need to check and re-check the accuracy and authenticity (including the date) of both prime and secondary sources is of extreme importance and should become the habit of every professional historian.
In order for evidence to support a given hypothesis and to offer different forms of logical corroboration, a researcher can utilize both quantitative (an example of which would be statistics) and qualitative (narrative or personal information—usually requiring an objective interpretation/assessment by the researcher) modes of source discovery and analysis. After collecting and ‘testing’ evidence, researchers need to organize the material in such a way that a reasonable, logical conclusion can clearly be discerned or discovered: A conclusion based on the well-documented and objectively interpreted and recorded evidence presented by the historian.
The continuing study of history is necessary for human society. For it is through the activity and evidence of a society’s history—its records, analysis and oral narratives and traditions that culture is transmitted from generation to generation—thereby ensuing the successful continuance of a given society. The maintenance and re-evaluation of a culture’s history enables its survival. As Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”
From a personal perspective, this author has learned that in order for history to ‘be the best that it can be’—that is, as timely, as accurate and error-free as possible—its life, its essence depends on thorough research and analysis of prime and secondary-sourced evidence. Further, the objective researcher must be aware of ethnocentrism not only relating to cultural differences—but differences of perspectives in terms of time periods. One must view, for example, 16th century American marriage customs from the perspective/values of that particular time period rather than 21st century American notions of the custom of marriage. It is this author’s suggestion that the objective of avoiding such ethnocentric influences can be more easily accomplished by practicing Boas’ cultural relativism when researching, regarding and interpreting evidence.
Also, an intriguing feature of the realm of professional history is how one can enter and compete on a relatively equal ‘field’ or domain. By using time-tested, well-established standards of proper research and a logical chain of applied reason, even a neophyte historian can challenge long-accepted historical theories and interpretation of events. As mentioned in the introduction of this essay—the ever-evolving nature of history allows—even drives for–disputation. Recent history is filled with examples of ‘new’ notions, interpretations and re-evaluations of long-held ideas—such as the re-identification of the true level of violence practiced by the Inca civilization—as well as the re-discovery of the actual level of sophistication reached by the aboriginal peoples of North America.
Other concepts and ideas this author has learned include how throughout recorded history there exist multiple examples of the attempt (and often success) of one group of human beings to dominate or control another. These instances of domination and/or subjugation include: the practice of imperialism/colonialism; gender and race oppression and/or enslavement; religious intolerance; class/caste structure based on lineage or property and at the extreme act of ethnic cleansing. Another dimension of the study of history learned by this author is how a given society or culture’s history can be twisted and interpreted through a specific perspective in order to meet a particular social goal or need, i.e. fervent nationalism or the objectives of the powerful elite or dominant culture’s interest. Potent examples of the ‘spin’ of history include the propaganda espoused by the Nazi regime, as well the negative features of the Native-American character that were routinely falsified and repeated by European imperialists and early American colonists.
Finally, the best work of any historian involves all of the aforesaid requirements of objectivity, usage of prime and secondary sources, and solid interpretation; however, I believe a crucial ingredient not mentioned is enthusiasm. Without that extra interest—history will remain dry—lacking in both purpose and motivation—and as a result, inaccessible; and without reader or audience accessibility and interest—there is little hope of achieving one of the supreme purposes of the study of history: The continuance of a given society by its ability to reaffirm its identity through the transmittance of its culture. Concerning the study of history, Socrates’ famous quote is certainly relevant and applicable: “The unexamined life is not worth living.”
Boas, Franz. Anthropology and Modern Life. New York: Norton, 1928.
Classics Archive. Plato’s Apology. http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/apology.html. 1994-2000 (Accessed 20 March 2008).
Marwick, Arthur. The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. Chicago:
Lyceum Books, 2001.
Santayana, George. Reason in Common Sense. New York: Scribner’s, 1905.