For the purposes of the Sustainability History Project, history is to be understood as both a method of analysis and the narrative products that result from this analysis. More specifically . . .
What History Is
History is an attempt to understand the past and illuminate the present by identifying and analyzing changes over time. The historian strives to reflect historical events as accurately as possible by understanding the various contexts within which people made decisions and events unfolded.
Acknowledging that absolute objectivity is not possible, the historian, nevertheless, strives to be as objective as possible. This goal is facilitated primarily through the following perspectives and practices:
** Being aware of one’s own biases
** Striving to not project one’s biases on the past (to do so would be considered anachronistic)
** Posing a research question that is achievable given the constraints of time and available sources
** Conducting thorough research
Historical narratives describe the past-to-the-present. Historians are often concerned with issues of contemporary import and potential future impact, but historians do not strive to establish predictive models.
The Historical Method
Some historians see history as part of the humanities and approach their topics from a predominately qualitative perspective. Works by such historians would highlight narratives that are not easily expressed using quantitative data such as numbers, charts, and graphs. On the other side of the spectrum are those historians who understand history more as a social science. These historians tend to base their interpretations on numbers, charts, and the like, instead of on information that is not as readily quantified, such as diaries, oral histories, correspondence, etc. Rarely do historians place themselves steadfastly at one extreme or the other on this continuum, but understanding that this general dynamic exists can help us understand the point of view of a given historian–why she or he has written about a given topic, or written about a topic in a specific way, or why the historian has made use of some source but not others.
Regardless of the historian’s approach, the basic historical method they apply contains four elements:
1) Pose a question–ideally, a question that is deeply interesting to the historian
2) Conduct research–using primary and secondary sources
3) Analyze the evidence–coming to an understanding of the light that these sources can shed on the topic
4) Write about the findings–producing the fruits of one’s research and analysis in narrative form
Types of Historical Sources
There are two categories of historical sources: primary and secondary.
Primary sources are sources produced by an historical figure who participated in or witnessed an event–by someone with direct, first-hand knowledge. These sources include diaries, letters, government documents, oral histories, photographs, video, some newspaper articles, etc.
Secondary sources are interpretations produced by someone without first-hand knowledge of an event, or by someone bringing together a selection of other primary and secondary sources. The most prevalent kind of secondary sources are peer-reviewed academic journal articles. Newspaper articles can also be secondary sources–for example, a journalist’s summary and overview of a lengthy government report.
(Some consider encyclopedias to be a tertiary source because they are often summaries of secondary sources.)
What History Is Not
** History does not strive to establish universal rules, nor to be predictive
** History is not consciously anachronistic or ideological–great history is often motivated by the present-day interests and concerns of the historian, but the historian should not pick-and-choose evidence purely to support her or his desired outcome
** Historical narratives should not blindly present overly positive nor overly negative interpretations that are not supported by the evidence
James V. Hillegas, April 15, 2010