Sunday, October 04, 2009

So, what does a historian actually do?

Answer: research.

More specifically, a historian reads primary documents from a time period to look for something that has not been adequately explained by existing historiographical works. The researcher then creates a hypothesis to explain why that aspect of the past turned out as it did. The goal after that is to use reliable period evidence to generate a narrative that proves or at least supports that accounting of causes and effects.

Sometimes a historian is lucky and actually ends up with such a work. Often, however, the content of the historical documents contains unexpected challenges to the proposed idea or even the question which generated that explanation.

Rather than a historian imposing an idea on the existing body of facts, those facts often end up modifying the idea, leading to an unexpected narrative. If the historian is fortunate, that narrative will either successfully challenge or expand the existing body of work on the subject.

Such an expansion took place starting in the 1800s. Faced with social upheavals of the Industrial Revolution, the first professional western academics of the mid Nineteenth Century began asking questions about the nature of past societies, cultures, worldviews, and economies. Prior to that point, historical inquiry had traditionally focused on politics and war ever since Herodotus and Thucydides first sought a non-myth recounting of past events.The new professionals, however, were looking not only to understand the minds of decision makers, but the material and non-material forces that motivated both the elites and the masses.

Additionally, imperial expansion brought the new profession into contact with foreign cultures such as those of Japan and China, which led to entirely new areas of inquiry. Later, in the aftermath of colonialism and two world wars, western historians attempted to reconstruct the history of aboriginal peoples as well as answering new questions about the lives and roles of women.

Starting in the 1970s, a new challenge known as the Linguistic Turn was raised by the critical literary theory of postmodernism. PM essentially stated that it is impossible to understand the intent of a document’s author. Rather, the only subject that can be analyzed is the interpretation of the reader and that interpretation’s relationship to existing power structures in a society.

After thirty years of debate, the consensus seems to have swung towards a rejection of postmodernism’s core tenets. Most historians now seem to agree that while it is impossible to know with absolute certainty what a document’s author intended when writing it, there is enough of a common human nature and shared material conditions to anchor a text’s meaning in a physical world that can be mutually comprehended by two individuals in two different time periods.

That being said, the challenge of postmodernism has led historians to read documents much more critically. Not only is the author’s stated intent less likely to be taken at face value, historians now scrutinize the time, place, culture and political climate in which a writer created his or her document. In other words, the importance of context is much more widely recognized. Additionally, historians also seek to understand their own potential personal biases in reading a document, as well as the simplifications and distortions that can accompany writing a work of history while knowing how events turn ahead of time. Many researchers even discuss these prejudices in the prologue or epilogues of their work in order to aid their own readers in understanding the text.

The current major new line of historical inquiry is also one of context: that of world history.

With the increasing impact of globalization and international events on our lives in the present, a new world perspective has opened up within the field. It is now seen as important to know not only the global influences on a specific subject matter, but to place works of history within the overarching context of global human development.

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