A Beginner’s Guide to Historical Method

This article contains my review of Robert W. Brown’s The Historical Method. Brown’s publication establishes some methods of historical investigation. It also establishes some issues that may be faced when investigating history.

The basics of historical method, as is shown below, are to:
1 – Explore
2 – Observe
3 – Explain.

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“…what animates the most feverishly committed historians is that our continual rediscovery of the complexity of the social interests, the variety of roles and the motives of political leaders, the unintended consequences of political actions … may give us … a keener sense of the structural complexity of our society in the past…” – Richard Hofstadter (1916-1970)

Brown claims that the above quote speaks for the majority of what history professionals believe about history’s power.

What follows is a more complete version of the above quote with extras found at [2]:

“[A]s one looks at the productive historiographical arguments of the past two decades, one cannot fail to see that historians are responding in their own way to the sense of crisis that is so pervasive in our time. Here the issue is an old one: they are troubled about their own role and function, caught in their desire to count in the world and their desire to understand it . . . The great fear that animates the most feverishly committed historians is that our continual rediscovery of the complexity of social interests . . . may give us not only a keener sense of the structural complexity of our society in the past, but also a sense of the moral complexity of social action that will lead to political immobility. Since a keen sense of history begets a feeling of social responsibility and a need to act, this is not necessarily the case; but history does seem inconsistent with the coarser rallying cries of politics. Hence I suppose we may expect that the very idea of complexity will itself come under fire once again, and that it will become important for a whole generation to argue that most things in life and in history are not complex but really quite simple. This demand I do not think the study of history can gratify.” – Richard Hofstadter, ‘The Progressive Historians: Turner, Beard, Parrington’ (New York, 1968).

It appears to me that Hofstadter is expanding upon what fuels the passion of historians. He makes the argument that historians are fueled by a desire to find meaning of their place in the grand scheme of the world, and also a desire to understand the grand scheme of the world itself. If my take-away from his quote is correct, then I can relate to what he is saying. I would also say that I agree with Brown’s claim that it speaks for the majority of historians. For the people that I’ve spoken with who have history degrees, they are into it because of their passion for history and their desire to learn more.

Brown references another quote as well which is as follows:

“… all good history is contemporary history.” – Benedetto Croce (1866-1952)

While I don’t agree with the idea that contemporary history is the only good history, I included it in this article as I found it to be good food for thought. The third quote included in Brown’s publication is:

“We Americans have such a thin and meager sense of history that we cannot get too much of it. What we need more than anything is a deeper and fuller sense of the historical process, a sense of where we have come from and how we became what we are.” – Gordon S. Wood (1933-present)

The fourth quote he includes is:

“to fathom history demands sustained effort, and to teach it calls for experience and judgment.” – David Lowenthal (1923-2018)

Lowenthal is a highly respected historian and he quote above is true. Understanding history is a monumental task. Two quotes that I found from Lowenthal in Mark Jones’ Fake: the Art of Deception (1990) are:

“Riddled with the inconsistency of compelling yet conflicting preconceptions … all ‘olden times’ are potentially fraudulent.”

and

“The authenticity of virtually every major collection is currently being probed.”

Both of the above quotes highlight the possibility that possibly all older history is fraudulent. Unfortunately Lowenthal is not with us anymore, and so I’ll never get the chance to interview him and pick his mind on this. One thing I am exploring is “what would it take to fake *X amount* of history?”. Also, when could that faking have occurred? There have been a number of people who question history, but there’s still a lot more to explore. An issue that I have seen a number of times rests in the fact that “a lack of evidence is not evidence”, and efficient criminals/fakers/forgers tend to destroy whatever evidence would’ve connected them to their actions. An attempt to tie up loose ends. To what degree can this be done? These questions are on my mind often. These are issues that complicate historical studies.

Brown absolutely agrees with Lowenthal’s quote and provides five areas which by Lowenthal’s standard are essential to understanding history.

They are:

1 – Recognition of a Consensually Shared Past

2 – Absorbing and Critiquing Evidence from Many and Conflicting Sources

3 – Understanding Bias and Point of View

4 – Appreciation of Historical Authority

5 – The Understanding that Interpretation of the Past Can Change

Brown gives us 3 “core propositions” from Desmond Morton (1937-present);

1 – Causation

2 – Sequence

3 – Relationships

Brown informs us that The National History Standards has identified five “areas of essential historical thought”:

1 – Chronological Thinking

2 – Historical Comprehension

3 – Historical Analysis and Interpretation

4 – Historical Research Capabilities

5 – Historical Issues-Analysis and Decision Making

Brown provides additional information from a group of historians from Oakland, California who edited the National History Standards’ list of five:

1 – Chronological and Spatial Thinking

2 – Using Evidence

3 – Use of Multiple Perspectives and Diversity

4 – Interpretation of the Past

5 – Significance of the Past

Brown maintains that while the above sets of methods can be useful, there is a better method available.

I like the 5 given by The National History Standards. Chronological thinking is vital for historical studies. Past events took place in a specific order. Comprehending this order is, in my opinion, of the utmost importance in historical studies. The order of past events (chronology) provide the skeletal structure which the body of history is built around.

Brown’s Scaffolded Approach to the Historical Thinking Skills

This information is concise and useful for building a mental image in your mind of what constitutes strong evidence for historical claims. Brown’s approach has 3 main “logical steps” or tiers that may be broken down into 4 components each. The tiers are as follows;

1 – Building a Foundation to Acquire Historical Knowledge

1.1 – Seeing the Larger View of History.
This is to build a reference for the grand scheme of history.

1.2 – Building a Personal and Intimate Connection to the Past.
This is about finding a connection and a passion for history.

1.3 – Avoiding the Lure of Historical Presentism.
This is about avoiding chronological snobbery. Be aware of the differences across time.

1.4 – Analyzing and Utilizing Multiple Historical Sources.
This is about reviewing and using primary source material in your overall assessment of history.

2 – Analyzing and Evaluating Historical Material

2.1 – Analyzing Causation and Consequence.
This is about gaining a comprehension of the recorded “causes and effects” of history. In other words, understanding that “this” happened, because “that” happened.

2.2 – Analyzing Change Throughout the Past.
Brown’s article is somewhat centered around American history, and 2.2 is basically 2.1 with an emphasis on American history.

2.3 – Understanding History Through Common Themes.
This is about establishing themes in history.

2.4 – Analyzing Historical Controversies.
This is about knowing how to analyze events for key facts.

3 – Context and Interpretation

3.1 – Using Three-Dimensional History.
This is about giving a historical event a location in the real world and knowing how the event impacted the world.

3.2 – Using Historiographical Approaches.
This is about knowing what methods are used for studying history, and also developing your personal beliefs about all of it.

3.3 – Using Sophisticated Inquiry and Research.
This is about knowing how to ask useful questions which will lead to greater understandings.

3.4 – Using Counterfactual Arguments.
This is basically the Socratic method, or ‘playing Devil’s advocate’.

The above 3 categories, I believe, are a great place to start if you are new to studying history or even if you are a long time historian who’s interested in refreshing on the basics. To sum it up into three basic words:

1 – Explore

2 – Observe

3 – Explain

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Thinking Man

Brown’s publication also includes a list of 8 “Potential Problems with the Historical Method”.

1 – Historical Thinking is Unnatural.
This is to say that the learning of “this begat that” takes practice.

2 – Historical Thinking is Foreign.
Many people see history as a boring compilation of facts instead of as a relevant component of the grand scheme in which we live.

3 – The Historical Method is not Easy.
It is a practice which takes time to develop.

“[it is] . . . a tool for changing how we think, for promoting a literacy not of names and dates but of discernment, judgment, and caution.” – Dr. Sam Wineburg

4 – Sacred Verses Secular Time.
This is basically the incorrect “sacred” beliefs of the student against the reality of history.

5 – Obfuscations.
This is about common references being not generally known anymore and access to them is not readily available.

6 – History as Apology.
This is about history that is written to apologize for wrong doings of the past.

7 – No State Standards for the Historical Method or Thinking.
This one is self explanatory. No overall standards.

8 – The Historical Method Requires a Deeper Level of Knowledge.
This is about the effects of not continuing your studies past the basics. Keep studying.

To repeat the first quote in this article from Lowenthal in light of #8 above:

“to fathom history demands sustained effort, and to teach it calls for experience and judgment.” – David Lowenthal (1923-2018)

Our planet is massive. Even today in the 21st century, we still only have less than 5% of the body of the earth explored and analyzed. That is an incredibly small fraction, and even in that small fraction, we have uncovered an incredibly large amount of information. Everything under the sun contains information which can be extracted, and extracting it isn’t done in a day.

The methods covered in this article are great for beginners and experts alike. A master becomes a master through practicing the fundamentals, and the fundamentals for historical studies can be concisely summarized as; explore, observe, report.

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References:

[1] – http://tahgrant.dadeschools.net/docs/Nov%204%202011/Nov%204%202011%20Robby%20Brown/Historical%20Method%20Intro%20Document%20v2.pdf

[2] – https://www.jstor.org/stable/1906593?read-now=1&seq=13#metadata_info_tab_contents

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