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What is Historical Research? - Definition, Method & Steps

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  • 0:01 How Not to Do…
  • 1:30 Method
  • 3:07 Where to Look
  • 4:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

Doing historical research isn't as simple as solving a math problem. Instead, it requires just the right approach, or else you are likely to find a wrong answer. This lesson explains some common pitfalls, as well as the steps required to do good research.

How Not to Do Historical Research

Whether you're preparing for a term paper or learning about your family history, there are a few things you definitely want to avoid doing when preparing to do any sort of historical research. Let's go ahead and clear the air about those potential stumbling blocks.

While it sounds pretty obvious, you definitely don't want to make up your mind before you do any research. Sure, it may sound like it makes perfect sense that American collegiate fraternities and the Academy of Athens have some deep connection, but the truth is that you have to examine any connection with an open mind. If you go in thinking that there is some secret bond that goes back 2,500 years and ignore everything that doesn't link to that bond, you're going to miss out on some pretty interesting material. The same goes for if you assume there is no connection whatsoever. After all, many fraternities and sororities were founded as safe places of sorts for discussion of literature and philosophy, much like the Athenian Academy.

Likewise, don't go in with any unfounded assumption. Many people research their family history in hopes of finding a famous relative. As you can tell from the title slide, the instructor's last name is Newton. That means that many people think he's related to this guy, Sir Isaac Newton. Or potentially worse, these things.

Portrait of Sir Isaac Newton and fig newtons

Method

So, now that you're certain to avoid those pitfalls, let's get started on how to actually go about doing research. First, it's a good idea to have a general idea of the time period or location you're researching. This helps to inform your research when you find interesting facts along the way and can help guide your research. If, for example, you know that your family is descended from Irish immigrants, then it would probably be useful to understand the Potato Famine of 1847, in which millions of Irish people moved to the United States. Alternatively, if your research project is concerned with the history of small businesses in the 1930s, it would be useful to understand some of the basic concepts of the Great Depression.

Second, now that you have a general overview, it's wise to have a direction. Historians call this a thesis, and it is essentially what you want to set out to prove or disprove. At this point, it's wise to keep your thesis flexible, as circumstances could change it. In the example of a history of small businesses during the 1930s, you may find that many of them went out of business. You'll also find that some did extremely well. Learning why certain businesses thrived when so many others collapsed is one of the most important things a historian does.

Third, don't be afraid of opposing sides during your research. History is full of contradicting accounts, and it's part of your job to sort through it all. Let's face it; someone writing about business in the 1930s will have a different version depending on how well their business fared during that period.

Where to Look

Now that you know what to avoid and what to look for, you should know where to look. You'll often hear historians talk about two different types of sources, namely primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are those accounts written during the time by someone who was actually there. An old family Bible that shows the birthday, wedding anniversaries, and dates of death of your family members is an example of a primary source. So is an accounting form from the 1930s that shows how well a business did.

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