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Understanding the Subjective Nature of History

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  • 0:03 What Is Historiography
  • 1:55 Historical Methodology
  • 3:31 Interpretation & Subjectivity
  • 5:31 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, middle school history teacher, and freelance writer.

In this lesson, we'll examine issues of subjectivity and interpretation in the field of history. We'll learn why historiography is important and how it affects the discipline.

What Is Historiography?

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: 'History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon.' This is a pretty deep concept and will be the focus of this lesson. Basically, what Napoleon was saying is that there is a subjective element within the discipline of history. Because certain events happened so long ago, and because sometimes the evidence is incomplete, different historians have different approaches and views about what happened in the past. This is the subjective nature of history. One historian claims an event happened a certain way, while another disagrees completely.

Before we go any further, let's learn a fancy word used by professional historians to describe the way history sometimes appears subjective. Historiography refers to the study of how different historical interpretations develop and change over time. It's kind of like a history of history. Here's an example. For a long time, many historians argued that during the 1930s and 1940s, most German citizens did not really know that the Holocaust was taking place. It was believed that the German population was largely unaware of what was happening to the Jews. But then a number of books came out arguing that knowledge of the Holocaust was much more common than had been realized.

This would be considered a historiographical debate. Suppose that for decades historians believed a certain fact to be true about President Calvin Coolidge, but then all of a sudden, new evidence was discovered suggesting the opposite. This would cause a shift in the historiography of Calvin Coolidge. See, over time certain interpretations become entrenched and accepted, until they are challenged. This whole process is the center of historiography: how views change over time.

Historical Methodology

So, this begs the question: how can we be sure anything we know about history is correct? See, history is more complex than many people realize. 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. 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. Evidence, eh? Yes, history is constructed through historical evidence. Historical evidence can take a variety of forms.

Perhaps the most important type of historical evidence is primary sources. Primary sources consist of original documents, artifacts, or other pieces of information that were created at the time being studied. So, if we are studying World War II, primary sources would include letters written by soldiers to girlfriends and wives back home, government documents, photographs, 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.

Secondary sources, on the other hand would, would be outsiders' accounts of past events. So, if you wrote a book about the American Revolution, that would be a secondary source. Though you would have used primary sources to provide evidence, you may have come to your own conclusions that may or may not be accurate. This is why secondary sources are not always the best sources.

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