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Historical Research Design: Definition, Advantages & Limitations

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  • 0:05 Qualitative Research
  • 1:24 Historical Design
  • 4:29 Strengths and Limitations
  • 6:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Most research involves looking at what's happening right now. But what if a researcher wants to look at the past and what it can tell us about the future? In this lesson, we'll explore historical research design, its steps, and its pros and cons.

Qualitative Research

Stan's parents survived the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States, where he was born and raised. He grew up hearing stories about the concentration camps and the horrible things done to people who were not accepted by the Nazi party. More than once, when telling stories about the camps, Stan's mom would tear up and ask, 'Why? Why did they do that?'

It's a question that has haunted Stan for most of his life. Why did the Nazis take millions of people out of their homes, torture them, and then kill them? Stan wonders if the answer to that question could help prevent genocide in the future. He's passionate about finding the answer.

Stan is a psychologist, and he has always done research that involves numbers. He looks at averages and percentages and tries to figure out how people act in a lab. But he's starting to wonder if that's the best way to attack his mother's question. Instead, he thinks maybe he should focus on qualitative research, which involves examining non-numerical data. There are many ways to gather qualitative data. Let's look at one type of qualitative research closer, that of historical design, and its strengths and limitations.

Historical Design

So, Stan decides that he wants to figure out why the Nazis acted the way they did. He wants to do historical research, which involves interpreting past events to predict future ones. In Stan's case, he's interested in examining the reasons behind the Holocaust to try to prevent it from happening again.

Historical research design involves synthesizing data from many different sources. Stan could interview former Nazis or read diaries from Nazi soldiers to try to figure out what motivated them. He could look at public records and archives, examine Nazi propaganda, or look at testimony in the trials of Nazi officers. There are several steps that someone like Stan has to go through to do historical research:

1. Formulate an idea: This is the first step of any research, to find the idea and figure out the research question. For Stan, this came from his mother, but it could come from anywhere. Many researchers find that ideas and questions arise when they read other people's research.

2. Formulate a plan: This step involves figuring out where to find sources and how to approach them. Stan could make a list of all the places he could find information (libraries, court archives, private collections) and then figure out where to start.

3. Gather data: This is when Stan will actually go to the library or courthouse or prison to read or interview or otherwise gather data. In this step, he's not making any decisions or trying to answer his question directly; he's just trying to get everything he can that relates to the question.

4. Analyze data: This step is when Stan goes through the data he just collected and tries more directly to answer his question. He'll look for patterns in the data. Perhaps he reads in the diary of the daughter of a Nazi that her father didn't believe in the Nazi party beliefs but was scared to stand up for his values. Then he hears the same thing from a Nazi soldier he interviews. A pattern is starting to emerge.

5. Analyze the sources of data: Another thing that Stan has to do when he is analyzing data is to also analyze the veracity of his data. The daughter's diary is a secondary source, so it might not be as true as a primary source, like the diary of her father. Likewise, people have biases and motivations that might cloud their account of things; perhaps the Nazi soldier Stan interviews is up for parole, and he thinks that if he says he was scared and not a true Nazi believer, he might get out of jail.

Once Stan has gone through all of these steps, he should have a good view of what he wants to know about his question. If he doesn't, then he goes back to step two (formulating a plan) and starts again. He will keep doing steps two through five until he finds something that he can use.

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