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How to Formulate Historical Questions

Instructor: Nate Sullivan

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

In this lesson, we will learn how to formulate historical questions. We will understand how historians engage in historical inquiry, what that process looks like, and why it is necessary.

The Role of Historians

Historians play a vital role in society. They are the people who uncover and explain the past. They describe to us what the past was like so that we can understand and learn from it. We know what happened at the Battle of Lexington and Concord because historians have researched it, allowing it to become accepted fact.

Are you ready to step into the 'shoes' of a historian? Hopefully so. In this lesson, it will be necessary to learn how to think like a historian. Here we go!

History as a 'Science'

This may surprise you, but historians are actually scientists. Yep, history is a science. If you major in history in most colleges, you will receive a B.S., a Bachelor's Degree in Science. In fact, in most schools, history is referred to as 'social science.' As scientists, historians have to abide by certain 'rules.' They can't just make things up. The history they write must be based on evidence.

In conducting research, it is necessary for historians to formulate questions. The scientific method serves as a guide in this endeavor. The scientific method is is a process of investigation used to arrive at a truth. It involves acquiring new knowledge or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. The steps of the scientific method are as follows:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test your hypothesis by doing an experiment
  5. Analyze your data and draw a conclusion
  6. Communicate your results

Diagram of the scientific method.
scientific method

Historical Questioning & Historical Methodology

So, an essential function of historians (and any of us who seek to understand the past) is asking a question, or to be more precise, formulating historical questions. So, what are some questions those interested in the past might ask? They might ask something like this: how did religious sentiment impact the development of the Temperance (anti-alcohol) movement in the years leading up to Prohibition? Or: were the 'flappers' of the 1920s true feminists, or was it simply a faddish style? These are examples of historical questions, or what we might call historical inquiry. Historical questions are often complex. They ask things like how, why, or to what extent? Sometimes they ask the about the relationship between two phenomena.

To answer such questions, it would be necessary to do research. For a historian, this might involve looking through newspapers or publications from the time period, or watching film footage from the period. Remember, primary sources are invaluable in historical research. Primary sources are documents, objects, or other sources that were created during the time being studied. So, a pamphlet from the 1860s, a sound recording from the 1930s, or film footage from World War II would all be considered primary sources. This is in contrast to secondary sources, which are sources written about the past by someone without firsthand knowledge. Secondary sources are typically based on primary sources. For example, a recent biography of George Washington would be a secondary source.

An Israeli professor examines a primary source.
historian

So, a historian would formulate a question, do the research, then propose a theory (hypothesis). In the field of history this theory is often called an an interpretation. An interpretation is one particular perspective, or view, about the past. The historian would then need to test the interpretation by making sure it is backed up by evidence. Historical evidence normally consists of primary sources. A historian would normally need to find primary source material that backs up his or her interpretation. After that, it is a matter of drawing the conclusion and communicating the results.

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