Objectivity in Historical Research & Writing

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 about the role objectivity plays in historical methodology. We will explore whether or not objectivity is possible, and we will learn how scholars attempt to demonstrate objectivity in their research and writing.

But Was it a 'Good' Deal? Inquiring Into the Past

President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal is controversial among historians. There are many books arguing that the New Deal was beneficial and helped bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression. However, there are also books that are critical of the New Deal. For example, Burton Folsom's New Deal or Raw Deal? How FDR's Economic Legacy Has Damaged America asserts that the New Deal actually made the Great Depression worse and had lasting negative effects on the American economy.

This brings up an age-old question among historians: is it possible to arrive at an accurate, ''correct'' understanding of the past? Aren't all historical interpretations subjective and tainted by bias? This is the topic of considerable debate, and as you can imagine, it becomes highly philosophical. In this lesson we will be analyzing the objectivity as it relates to the discipline of history. Put your thinking cap on because here we go!

The effectiveness of the New Deal, a government initiative launched by President Franklin D Roosevelt, is the matter of intense debate among historians
fdr

Is Objectivity Possible in Scholarship?

Many historians argue that true objectivity (or the ability to be completely unbiased) is theoretically impossible. They say that every historian has some kind of personal viewpoint or bias that shows through in their research and writing. For example, a historian who has a high view of Dwight D. Eisenhower is likely to produce a favorable biography of him, whereas another historian who has a dim view of Eisenhower is prone to express that (in one way or another). Some historians regard Napoleon as holding true to the values of the French Revolution, and they argue this perspective persuasively, while other historians take the opposing view: that Napoleon betrayed the values of the French Revolution. These historians, too, argue their point convincingly.

Historians differ widely in their perspectives on Napoleon Bonaparte
napeolon

To compound this, it has been theorized that historians are even biased by the time period and culture in which they live. For example, historians in the 16th century had very different ideas than historians do today. As modern Westerners, American historians today have been influenced by Enlightenment thinking, and most have certain preconceptions about how knowledge is obtained (through experience, ''proof'', etc., as opposed to divine revelation from God). Many scholars argue that the cultural context into which one is born automatically eliminates any possibility for objectivity.

Since the rise of postmodernism in the second half of the 20th century, it has become even more accepted that objectivity in scholarship is not possible. Postmodernism takes many forms and is a complex idea, but it basically asserts that objective truth or objective reality cannot be known. Nevertheless, those holding to modernism are likely to assert that objectivity is possible. They would argue that through the scientific method (applied to research), it is, in fact, possible to arrive at an accurate understanding of the past. They would argue that some interpretations are naturally more sound than others.

Attempting Objectivity

Regardless of whether or not objectivity in scholarship is theoretically possible, many historians claim to seek it. So what are some strategies used by historians to attempt to be objective in their scholarship? Let's look at a few.

Being conscious of one's own potential for bias is critical. In order to begin any attempt at objectivity in scholarship, one has to be consciously aware of one's preconceptions and potential biases. For example, if a historian has a high view of Calvin Coolidge, he or she must take this into account. If a he or she were to write a biography about a political opponent of Coolidge, it might be tempting to a cast this opponent in a negative light before doing adequate, objective analysis.

Considering/weighing sources is also important. A good historian seeking to be objective will always evaluate a host of sources. By consulting a number of sources (as opposed to just one or two), one can often arrive at a consensus, which can help confirm fact. If 400 separate people eyewitnesses George Washington's inauguration in 1789 in pretty much the same way, one can be reasonably assured that their accounts are accurate.

If many eyewitnesses to the inauguration of George Washington described it in much the same way then it would help provide credibility
washington

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