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Historical method basics

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The following questions are used by historians in modern work.

1. When was the source, written or unwritten, produced (date)?

2. Where was it produced (localization)?

3. By whom was it produced (authorship)?

4. From what pre-existing material was it produced (analysis)?

5. In what original form was it produced (integrity)?

6. What is the evidential value of its contents (credibility)?

The first four are known as higher criticism; the fifth, lower criticism; and, together, external criticism. The sixth and final inquiry about a source is called internal criticism.

Most historians follow a few basic steps in their work. First, they select for study an issue or person from some period of the past. Next, they try to read a variety of source materials – everything written by or about the subject. Then they interpret the information obtained from these sources. Finally, they write a narrative history or a biography.

Choosing and evaluating sources. Historians use two main types of sources in their research, primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources consist of documents and other records produced during the period being studied. They include books, diaries, letters, and government records. Motion pictures and tape recordings may serve as primary sources for events of the 1900's. Secondary sources are materials prepared later by people who studied the primary sources.

Historians choose documents that reveal most accurately the facts they wish to know. Therefore, they prefer primary sources to secondary ones, and confidential reports to public ones. Historians who study recent events use a special type of source. They go to participants in those events and record their oral testimony. Such oral history supplements documentary history.

The scarcity of sources is a great problem for historians, whose work sometimes resembles that of detectives. Many activities and thoughts of ordinary people, plus other useful data, were never recorded. Much that was written down has been lost or destroyed through the years. Also, historians often must rely on the writings of only a few people. Such writings are mere fragments on which to base a reconstruction of the past.

Historians analyze the documents with which they work to determine the reliability of these sources. They compare documents with other sources and also check for such flaws as errors in the order of events or variations in writing style. In addition, the historian must determine whether the author's account of events can be trusted.

Interpreting historical events. Basic historical facts are data generally accepted by all historians because the evidence for them seems unquestionable. However, historians often disagree about the meaning and significance of such facts. These experts try to be as unbiased as possible, but their own beliefs and prejudices influence their interpretation. For example, a historian's social, economic, and religious views help determine what he or she accepts as "normal" in another person. This judgment, in turn, determines what the historian accepts as reliable testimony or as a likely sequence of events. Such interpretation explains why historians who use the same data may disagree about events and their significance.

Some historians rely heavily on information from other social sciences to form their interpretations. For example, the study of history that uses theories and insights from psychology is called psychohistory. Similarly, some historians use statistical methods to interpret data from such sources as old censuses and account books. This approach is called cliometrics. As the last step in interpretation, a historian prepares a written account of events. The writing of history is part of a field called historiography. Some of the best historians use the techniques of the novelist and dramatist to entertain as well as inform.

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