Monday, March 7, 2011

A reflection on the historical method

I recently received a comment in this post that included the following thought-provoking points:
    do you think that historians provide “pure” interpretations of history, and if so, what is meant by a “pure” interpretation?? Here’s my take on history: the event happens, multiple people try to “interpret” it and write it down, then more people (historians) “interpret” the interpretations until we are left with something that may not resemble the original at all . . . I’m not suggesting that historians commit malfeasance on purpose; I’m only saying that each of them (including you) interprets history through [a] unique lens. Who is to say, after all, that even at the moment of action the historical event can be reported purely? This is what makes history (and communication) rich! The fact that there can be, and are, multiple interpretations based on who is receiving the information.
I do enjoy opportunities to speak about the philosophy of history!

"What is History?"

This is the title of a classic work on the philosophy of history from 1961 by Edward Hallett Carr. This book and others, and my training in graduate school and beyond, have contributed to this definition of history that I provide my Sustainability History Project (SHP) students. Teaching senior undergraduates from a variety of disciplines -- most of whom have no background in history and many of whom don't "like" history -- has forced me to come up with a definition that is as clear and concise and non-specialized as possible.

The definition linked to above that I provide my students offers a succinct (as possible) and general answer to the questions that motivated this post. Based upon this definition, I will make some explicit connections.

The way that I approach the field of history, there is no such thing as a "pure" interpretation of history. What I mean by "pure" in this instance is something completely objective. One thing that the SHP link above doesn't address directly but that I do spend much time on in class is the distinction between objectivity and subjectivity.

The former, in my understanding, is impossible to achieve absolutely and definitively, but is the carrot that many historians (including me) hold in front of us and strive toward. As the link above indicates, striving toward objectivity means, fundamentally, to be as aware as possible of one's own biases and the biases of the sources one is consulting; endeavoring to understand historical people and groups as possessing full agency [def. #3]; being open to changing one's interpretation based on evidence; and producing historical narratives for the broader community to receive feedback, critiques, etc.

Subjectivity, then, is something that always infuses "objective" information and approaches. For the historian, however, absolute and unexamined subjectivity is to be avoided -- in fact, the historical method has been developed precisely as a way to learn how to be more self-aware so as to avoid unexamined subjectivity.

Subjectivity, since it's not possible to eradicate, is best made explicit. To do this the historian has a number of tools, including:
    1) the preface of a book or introduction to an article, in which the historian states explicitly the purpose and purview of the work
    2) the thesis of a work, where the historian states clearly the point s/he is trying to make
    3) the way the historian engages directly with other works to qualify, support, or contradict these works
    4) the footnotes, in which the historian cites sources and may provide some succinct discursive analysis relative to the sources
    5) the cumulative body of an historian's work that will invariably tell a tale about the topics that historian finds important
    6) extra-curricular writings and involvement, such as blog posts, op-eds, membership to certain civic groups, direct involvement in politics, etc.
The most pernicious kind of subjectivity, in my opinion, comes from people who are deluded into thinking that their viewpoints correlate 1:1 with objective reality, rather than realizing that their views are overly saturated in subjectivity. Religious fundamentalists fall into this category, as do Glenn Beck, Ayn Rand, Anne Coulter, and Rush Limbaugh (to name a few).

Finally (for this post at least), the idea that "there can be, and are, multiple interpretations" of the meanings of historical or contemporary events is an important point. I provide a full lecture on this topic in my SHP classes. One of the important dynamics that I point out is that the historical profession -- and, by extension, historical interpretation -- was much less inclusive and democratic before the 1960s. In this decade the culture in this country began to benefit from the impacts of people (even if they were, at first, mostly male, mostly white, largely middle and working class) who had been able to take advantage of the post-WWII GI Bill of Rights.

Beginning in the mid-to-late 1940s, colleges and universities throughout the nation received an influx of people that they had not seen before in such great numbers, and these people brought with them new questions and new passions. The result was that beginning in the 1960s many of the groups that had long been marginalized in traditional American culture were more likely to be represented at institutions of higher education, and these people brought with them interests that had theretofore received little, if any, attention in academia.

With these interests came new fields of study and new approaches to traditional fields of study. During the 1960s and 1970s this more representative version of American academia produced the foundation of what I most value today (and people like Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and the National Association of Scholars rail against): environmental history, LGBT history, Chicano/a studies, Black Studies, critical theory, social history, public history, etc. etc. Essentially, what happened is that academia broadened beyond the interest of the ruling classes and became much more representative of the broader American culture.[1]

The notion that there is an historical method -- similar to the notion that there is a scientific method -- implies that there is an approach to historical interpretation that is more likely to be more objective than other approaches.[2] This is precisely what I try to address in the last few paragraphs of this post.

In conclusion, my fundamental points regarding the questions that spurred this post are:
    1) complex historical topics are not done justice with simple explanations
    2) historical topics explained by simplistic interpretations tend to be based on ideology and subjectivity at the expense of furthering deeper understanding
    3) history is a discipline that, at its core, involves some degree of specialized training, a constant process of self-awareness, evaluation of the biases of the sources, full identification of sources consulted, and feedback from the community
    4) the most honest historians don't assert "purity" or "Truth," but provide plausible, thought-provoking, and well-researched contributions to help the rest of us understand the complex world in which we live
    5) historical interpretations themselves change over time, as new evidence becomes available, as more -- and more diverse -- people contribute to the field, and as new issues require historical context
[1] Where I have a bias that I'm both not afraid to admit and not open to changing is that I firmly believe that increased representation of traditionally marginalized groups cannot be but a net positive, as difficult as the growing pains may be and as much as we have to drag along with us, kicking and screaming, the unwilling.

[2] Examples abound of people and institutions that don't have a clear understanding of the scientific method.



  1. I am flattered that you consider my points "thought provoking" enough to warrant discussion! Thanks for the clarifications on your position of history as a discipline. It's good to know that you are not in league with the likes of Glen Beck, et al. - not that there was any doubt :)

  2. you are not in league with the likes of Glen Beck, et al.

    I'm glad that this is readily apparent! To be compared positively to the likes of Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, et al., would be, for me, the most heinous insult imaginable.

    If one considers the "work" that Beck, Limbaugh, Palin, et al., do in light of the overview of the historical method that I outline above, one will readily see that these people's actions are antithetical to the discipline of history and to open-hearted and -minded empathetic understanding of complex people and events.

    Beck's work is particularly pernicious because he co-opts terms and practices precisely to convey to the unaware that what he is doing is substantive intellectual work. In fact, Beck is not at all concerned with understanding the complex world in which we live but in propagating lies (of omission or otherwise) that foster paranoid suspicion, build walls between Americans, and help prop-up his corporate sponsors.

  3. Yikes! Take it easy! I was just kidding. There's another perfect example of the nuance lost in communication :P

  4. There's another perfect example of the nuance lost in communication

    Precisely so -- I was thanking you!