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.
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.
Interpretation & Subjectivity
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 view 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 that 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.
So, how are conflicting interpretations resolved? Wow, that's a loaded question. There's not 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.'
Often historical interpretations follow a pattern known as the Hegelian Dialectic, which involves the formulation of a thesis, which is then countered by an antithesis, before being resolved in a synthesis. This process was named after a philosopher named Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Maybe you've heard of this before. If you haven't, here's a quick explanation.
So, a thesis is basically an idea or thought (in this case, an interpretation). Once that thesis emerges, it is countered by an opposing idea or thought (again, in this case, a different interpretation). Finally, the two opposing views are reconciled by a synthesis, or a merging, which creates a brand new idea or thesis. According to Hegelian theory, this cycle continues endlessly: new theses are always being spawned from the synthesis of older theses and their corresponding antitheses.
Whew. This is some heavy stuff. Just remember, different historians can look at the same historical evidence and arrive at different interpretations. Sometimes this is the result of the way they have been trained or because of their own preconceived ideas. Now, let's review our key terms.
Historiography refers to the study of how different historical interpretations develop and change over time. It's kind of like the history of history. Historical methodology is the process by which historians gather evidence and formulate ideas about the past. Primary sources consist of original documents, artifacts, or other pieces of information that were created at the time under study. An interpretation is one particular view or theory based on historical evidence. The Hegelian Dialectic involves the formulation of a thesis, which is then countered by an antithesis, before being resolved in a synthesis.