Thinking Historically: Writing and Understanding Historical Research

Thinking Historically: Writing and Understanding Historical Research

Amy D. Rose (Northern Illinois University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-5225-5164-5.ch014
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This chapter introduces readers to the multiple ways of perceiving historical research. It focuses on differing approaches to historical understanding and the ways that these methods shape the way we see the field. This chapter discusses archives, types of sources, and approaches to interpretation.
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For many individuals, historical research is an additional aspect of research, not one that is the immediately relevant, but one to which they pay lip service as being important. However, understanding how history is written helps us to understand the development of our field and of the multiple understandings of the field that currently available. Whenever I talk about history or historical research one of two things happen. People get excited and start telling me how fascinated they are by a particular aspect of history or their eyes glaze over. In this chapter I am hoping for a different kind of reaction.

Understanding the Past

Simply stated, history is the story of the past. It encompasses both a story or narrative that frames an event, and a meticulous use of documents to back up the argument. The story is the understanding that we use to understand historical significance. The documents and other sources that form the basis of this narrative are called primary sources. This means that they were generated contemporaneously with the period under study. Historians follow multiple sources to pull together an overview of the period or event. Studying history is cumulative in the sense that we start by looking at specific events, and then branch out to give meaning to these events within a broader historical period. Historical research always starts with a question. It is the task of the reader to unearth the kinds of questions that are being asked. It is the task of the writer to explain how a particular event fits with broader phenomena.

Historical research and writing inevitably incorporates a particular point of view and explanation. In general, historians do not think about history as a method, although they do recognize that there is an historical method. For this reason, most historical research does not include a methodology section. The only departure from this is when the research method includes statistical analyses. These types of studies will include a discussion of the method. While there is not usually a methodology section, most research works do include a section on sources. These indicate the archives and other materials consulted.

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