Historical Method

“Few periods have witnessed such active attempts to clarify the basic principles involved in the definition and depiction of history as the period that spans the end of the seventeenth century and the beginning of the eighteenth.”
– Günther Pflug (1971) [1, p.1]

I am writing this in the 21st century, in July of 2020 to be precise. Two full centuries have passed between the end of the 18th century and the beginning of this one. While many discussions have taken place over the past few hundred years on how to define history and how to conduct historical research, I still see a need to increase the number of these discussions. Due to this perceived need, I am writing this article to briefly cover the basics of historical method.

“The task of defining history is not an easy one. A number of historians have attempted to define it but there seems to be little consensus as to which interpretation is best.”
– Donald Schneider (1963) [3, p.19]

The issue with defining history is mostly due to history most commonly being discussed in terms of human history. The broad definition of history provided by Oxford Languages is “the whole series of past events connected with someone or something.” Someone or something can be any person or object, be it Abraham Lincoln (someone) or Earth (something). There have also been challenges encountered in defining historical method.

Here are two definitions from recognized dictionaries followed by my own, simple definition:

Merriam-Webster defines historical method as “a technique of presenting information (as in teaching or criticism) in which a topic is considered in terms of its earliest phases and followed in an historical course through its subsequent evolution and development”.

Dictionary.com defines historical method as “the process of establishing general facts and principles through attention to chronology and to the evolution or historical course of what is being studied”.

I define historical method as “the culmination of rules and techniques used while conducting historical research”. People who investigate history rely on oral sources, textual sources, and relics. Oral sources are those spoken sources which have yet to be written. Textual sources can be anything written, such as books, manuscripts, and newspapers. Relics are those artifacts which lack an inherent narrative, such as human remains or human tools. The study of historical method is known as historiography.

“Vitally important to the development of any research project, methods are the means by which we conduct our research, how we locate and use primary materials, and for historians, how we recover materials for our histories.”
– Barbara E. L’Eplattenier (2009) [9, p.69]

What methods are available for people who want to investigate the past? The main method is known as source criticism. This method involves determining the validity of sources. The second method, which is to be employed after source criticism, is historical reasoning and argumentation. While the first method is concerned with collecting and establishing the facts of a given topic, the second method is concerned with establishing explanations and arguments based on the facts.

“The few articles on methods available to new researchers either lament the lack of methods in our field or offer overly simplistic advice – read widely in your field, have a good time, formulate a research question, or something of that nature.”
– Barbara E. L’Eplattenier (2009) [9, p.69]

“If all histories are constructions, then a methods section allows us to see the building blocks of that construction. We can see which section of the foundation is strong or weak, where we can build a wing, where we can add a door.”
– Barbara E. L’Eplattenier (2009) [9, p.74]

The current state of historical method is ripe with room for improvement.

“Only when a perplexing question has been identified and correctly stated does profitable study of history begin.”
– Carter V. Good (1942) [5, p.141]

“Indeed, it requires that all “facts” shall be subject to question, and the progress of historiography demands that the whole body of fact and interpretation shall be continually retested and re-evaluated.”
– Laurence Lee Howe (1950) [6, p.349]

Good and Howe’s statements highlight a fundamental of historical method (asking questions), and (in my experience) questions are too often ignored. There are a great deal of historians in our present age that refuse to question, or even respond to the questions about, established historical narratives. This is an issue that results in scholarship limited by the stubbornness towards exploring new routes of inquiry and an overall lack of development in historical thought, as the people who are best equipped for the journey into new realms of historical thinking are unwilling to venture into those realms.

“The fundamental question is what actually happened and how we know it.”
– Laurence Lee Howe (1950) [6, p.353]

“Many are the doubtful points in history, and it takes an ardent desire for truth and devotion to historical work to discover them.”
– Charles H. Wesley (1916) [7, p.334]

There is an incredibly large number of obscure spots in history. For example, the majority of records considered to be ancient and medieval have little to no information pertaining to their origins. This does not bother nearly enough historians.

“The unease about method, of which one sees many signs at present among historians, is largely related, it seems, to the relations of proximity, of rivalry, and indeed of conflict that exist more and more between traditional history and the new social science.” – François Simiand (1985) [4, pp.163-164]

“Good history is both science and art; sound research is science and a masterful style of narration is art.”
– Carter V. Good (1942) [5, p.135]

“In fact historical narrative, masquerading as historical method, has become a fad.”
– R. F. Hoxie (1906) [8, p.568]

“The fact that we have to go to history for the data – to become in a sense historians – does not alter the scientific end and does not relieve us from the utmost exercise of our mental powers in hypothesis, analysis, discriminating selection, synthesis, and clear and logical statement.”
– R. F. Hoxie (1906) [8, p.570]

“The problem of distinguishing the original form and meaning of documentary sources from later accretions after they are edited or interpreted or distilled by historians is the perpetual problem of all critical historical research.”
– Philip P. Wiener (1961) [2, p.532]

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[1] – Pflug, Günther. “The Development of Historical Method in the Eighteenth Century [1954].” History and Theory, vol. 11, 1971, pp. 1–23. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2504244. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[2] – Wiener, Philip P. “Some Problems and Methods in the History of Ideas.” Journal of the History of Ideas, vol. 22, no. 4, 1961, pp. 531–548. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2708029. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[3] – Schneider, Donald. “The Historical Method in the Teaching of History.” Peabody Journal of Education, vol. 40, no. 4, 1963, pp. 199–209. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1490814. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[4] – Simiand, François. “Historical Method and Social Science.” Review (Fernand Braudel Center), vol. 9, no. 2, 1985, pp. 163–213. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40241019. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[5] – Good, Carter V. “Some Problems of Historical Criticism and Historical Writing.” The Journal of Negro Education, vol. 11, no. 2, 1942, pp. 135–149. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2292396. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[6] – Howe, Laurence Lee. “Historical Method and Legal Education.” Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors (1915-1955), vol. 36, no. 2, 1950, pp. 346–356. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/40220732. Accessed 28 July 2020.

[7] – Wesley, Charles H. “The Problems of Sources and Methods in History Teaching.” The School Review, vol. 24, no. 5, 1916, pp. 329–341. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1077912. Accessed 29 July 2020.

[8] – Hoxie, R. F. “Historical Method vs. Historical Narrative.” Journal of Political Economy, vol. 14, no. 9, 1906, pp. 568–572. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/1817648. Accessed 29 July 2020.

[9] – L’Eplattenier, Barbara E. “An Argument for Archival Research Methods: Thinking Beyond Methodology.” College English, vol. 72, no. 1, 2009, pp. 67–79. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25653008. Accessed 29 July 2020.

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