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Historical Methodology: Evidence and Interpretation

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  • 0:02 What Is Historical…
  • 0:39 Historical Evidence
  • 3:17 Historical Interpretation
  • 7:16 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Nate Sullivan

Nate Sullivan holds a M.A. in History and a M.Ed. He is an adjunct history professor, former middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson. we will learn about historical methodology. We will learn how history is constructed based on evidence and how various interpretations are formulated.

What Is Historical Methodology?

History is more complex than many people realize. No, for real. It is so much more than memorizing names, dates, and places. History is very much 'scientific.' It involves critical thinking. It involves formulating hypotheses based on evidence and testing them. That is what this lesson is about.

Historical methodology is the process by which historians gather evidence and formulate ideas about the past. It is the framework through which an account of the past is constructed.

Historical Evidence

Do you remember learning in school about Operation Capitol Steps and the ensuing Battle of Washington, D.C. during World War II? You know, where German forces landed along the Potomac River and fought their way into D.C.? Of course not! There was never such an event. Obviously, historians don't make up the past (at least they're not supposed to!). So, how do we know what is written in our history books actually happened? Accounts of the past are derived from historical evidence.

Historical evidence can take a variety of forms. Among the most important types of historical evidence are primary sources. Primary sources consist of original documents, artifacts, or other pieces of information that were created at the time under study. So, if we are studying World War II, primary sources would include everything from letters written by soldiers to girlfriends and wives back home to government documents to photographs to physical uniforms and equipment.

Primary sources can be wide-ranging. Battlefield film footage is a primary source because it was filmed right then and there, at that moment in history. Primary sources are usually more valued than secondary sources. Secondary sources contain useful information, but typically involve an analysis of primary source material. Books and magazines are common examples of secondary sources.

Another important type of historical evidence is oral tradition. Oral tradition consists of stories that are not written down but passed on verbally, usually from an eyewitness to succeeding generations. Oral tradition, or oral history as it is also called, is sometimes considered a primary source, although there is debate as to where it theoretically fits as a source. In a lot of ways, it is in a class of its own. Oral tradition is especially important to historians studying various ethnic groups whose history may not be well-documented in writing.

Various forms of historical evidence allow historians and other experts to gain insight into the past and propose theories. That doesn't, however, always mean their theories are necessarily correct, as we shall see.

Historical Interpretation

Suppose a historian is interested in finding out the role Samuel Adams and his rowdy 'Sons of Liberty' played in fomenting anti-British sentiment during the beginning of the American Revolution. He might assume that their role was pretty substantial, but he can't just come out and say that until he has evidence to back it up, right? So, he goes through archives and examines primary sources. He might find letters written by Samuel Adams to his friends, or maybe newspapers from the 1770s detailing how crowds responded to the 'Sons of Liberty.'

Suppose the evidence indicated that no, Sam Adams and the 'Sons of Liberty', surprisingly, weren't that influential in spurring anti-British sentiment; the sentiment was already there among the masses, and the 'Sons of Liberty' merely grew as an outlet of it. If this pretend historian came out with a book or article and publicly put forth this view, we would call this his interpretation. An interpretation is one particular view or theory based on historical evidence. In order for an interpretation to be proposed convincingly, some degree of evidence must be present.

Here is where it gets tricky. Sometimes historians and other experts take the same evidence but arrive at different conclusions and put forth different interpretations. Take the Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, for example. Some historians argue FDR's New Deal was beneficial and helped ease the Great Depression, while others argue that it prolonged the Great Depression and only made matters worse.

For my graduate thesis in history, I examined gender roles in the 1940s and 1950s. I looked through many primary sources, but my interpretation was very different from those of other historians who had studied the same issue.

So, how are conflicting interpretations resolved? Wow, that's a loaded question. I wish I had a simple answer. Sometimes one interpretation becomes generally accepted over others because it is more logical, or because the evidence is more convincing. In time, these interpretations work their way into textbooks and become accepted as fact. Other times, debate rages as numerous interpretations coexist, with no clear 'winner.'

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