Our History Is Created by Historians

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What is History? Historians use different historical approaches such as Marxism, the Annales School and Quantitative History as intellectual frameworks of their work by gathering sources, including primary and secondary sources, that span from written documents physical artifacts, art, advertising, film, propaganda from a time period and interrogate potential flaws and biases from themselves and of the source to fully interpret its value and shape their historical explanation about the past. In this paper I will explain how historians use different historical approaches as intellectual frameworks. I will also look into what types of sources historians use in their research and how they interrogate them. I will also describe where they find them. I will lastly describe how the historian’s view about causal factors and their own personal biases shape their production of historical explanations about the past.

Most people believe that history is a collection of facts about the past. History is not just a collection of facts about the past. History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past on the basis of what people recorded in written documents, cultural artifacts, or oral traditions at the time. Historians often disagree over what ‘the facts’ are as well as over how they should be interpreted. Stearns defined history as “the study of the past” and further stated the two main reasons to study history is that history offers a storehouse of information about how people and societies behave and that the past causes the present, and so the future. When it comes reasons to study history, Stearns provided much clearer reasons. Every historian has their own reasons for studying history based on their personal experiences in life, cultural and ethnic background, or personal interests.

Historians use different historical approaches as intellectual frameworks. These approaches include Marxism, the Annales School, and Quantitative History. They all similarly use the concept of cause and effect. They differently use what they apply it to in order to understand historical events. Marxism is a materialist approach that focuses on production and exchange of goods that generates wealth for one social class and the exploitation of another. This approach contends that change occurs as a result of the friction and conflict caused by the economic disparity between the two social classes. The Annales School is an approach that focuses on Social History. This approach is problem oriented rather than story oriented and it is concerned with the analysis of economics, social structures, and trends. Quantitative History approaches history through the statistical analysis of quantifiable historical data. This approach appears to focus primarily on economics or areas where data can be numerically quantified. Through use of quantifiable evidence, theories, and statistical models, quantitative historians seek to understand history and the causes of change.

Primary and secondary sources form the cornerstones of historical research. History is essentially a description and interpretation of primary sources, along with commentary of secondary sources, both using them in reference to the subject matter at hand, and agreeing and disagreeing with them. Primary sources provide a first-hand account of an event or time period. They represent original thinking, reports on discoveries or events, or they can share new information. These sources are created at the time the events occurred but they can also include sources that are created later. They are usually the first formal appearance of original research. Secondary sources offer an analysis, interpretation or a restatement of primary sources and are considered to be persuasive. They often involve generalization, interpretation, commentary or evaluation in an attempt to convince the reader of the creator’s argument. They often attempt to describe or explain primary sources. Primary and secondary categories are often not fixed and depend on the study or research you are undertaking. An example of this could be a newspaper editorial or opinion pieces. This can be both a primary and secondary source. If the piece was exploring how an event affected people at a certain time, this type of source would be considered a primary source. If the piece was exploring the event, then the opinion piece would be responding to the event and therefore is considered to be a secondary source.

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Historians need to interrogate their sources to verify their credibility. By verifying the credentials of the source historians can better judge its credibility. This is similar to conducting a background check when looking at prospective employees. Authorship, publisher, timeliness, accuracy and objectivity, footnotes and bibliographies are just some ways a Historian can verify credibility. Historians should also ask questions when evaluating sources. These include, when was this source created? If the source is not dated, can you use any contextual clues to make an educated guess? Who created it? If no individual’s name is apparent, can you guess their position within society? What was the original purpose of this source? A historian will interrogate a source by writing some questions that they want answered. Then the historian will look or read the document, after an initial reading they will write the answers they found as well as other questions they may have after reading. Then the historian will try and find other documents that can give context to what they are currently trying to interrogate. This will then help them formulate answers to their questions as well as possibly opening up new line of inquiry for the document. Ultimately a historian has to interrogate the source in order to answer the basic who, what, where, when, and why questions.

Throughout history every event has a cause, and every event also serves as a cause itself for future events. Having an understanding of the cause and effect principle allows historical researchers to establish a broader context of historical events. This translates to historians being able to recognize relationships and analyze past events more effectively from a bigger picture. It’s important to note that cause and effect is not absolute. One single cause or event is unlikely to cause a single effect from a historical perspective. A good historian will find themselves going down a rabbit hole of connecting relationships, no matter how small, while analyzing a cause and effect topic which allows for a deeper, more detailed understanding of history.

The task of the historian is more complicated than that of simply reporting what the records say. Every source is created by a person with certain beliefs, convictions, and their bias world view. This shows in the way they choose to express their convictions or beliefs regarding certain events. Primary sources are created during a certain time period and do not have the privilege of hindsight as the writer will have no idea how events will turn out. Ideals of a person creating a source also needs to be taken into consideration. Not every fact written down will actually be factual, due to the fact of negligence, not knowing any better, or because of purposeful alteration of the facts by the person writing about these events. At the very least, the records that survive for most periods of history are both incomplete and often contradictory, and the historian therefore has to try, in some fashion, to address those gaps and contradictions. That is, they have to act as an interpreter and try to remove as much bias that they can out of their work.

History gives us a sense of identity. By understanding where we have come from, we can better understand who we are. History consists of making arguments about what happened in the past. Historians use historical approaches such as Marxism, Annales, and Quantitative History on the concept of cause and effect in order to understand historical events. They must interrogate their sources to verify their credibility, which allows them to better judge its credibility. Since every source is created by a person with certain beliefs, convictions, and bias through their own view. Historians must work around these they must interpret and remove these biases and their own bias to get the facts across. History teaches us what it means to be human, highlighting the great achievements and disastrous errors of the human race.

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