What is History?
History is an essentially abstract concept. In practice, history is the chronicling of key events that have affected, changed or bettered the human race. History plays a number of roles: it reminds us of the mistakes we’ve made, the decisions we should never make again, the trials that our species has endured, the brilliance of the human race, the joy of living and the events that have shaped the modern world. It was William the Conqueror who claimed that history is written by the victors and it is this perspective that prevents us from ever fully knowing the truth of a situation – even events that have happened recently, such as the terrorist attacks of 9/11 are shrouded in politics and ambiguity – the common man will never fully know the truth behind events. However, an intelligent mind is capable of understanding the various facts and formulating what is the likely truth behind events. In modern times, history is written by historians who, as people, have their own opinions and therefore, however inadvertently, they add their own personal slight to the stories – in order to garner the full truth, it is important to research and read several different accounts of events and tease out the main ideas. The role of history is primarily to educate the newer generations and to prevent the human race from making the same mistakes twice.
The great, French General, Napoleon said of history: “History is a fable which men agree to believe” (Oakeshott 31). By that, he meant that history is, at its simplest, an account of events – it is composed by an individual or a group of individuals who may or may not have been affected by the events, may or may not hold specific political beliefs which can aid or abet their interpretation of events and as a result, theirs is the opinion that is passed on down through generations to come. The central problem with defining history is that it is an entirely abstract concept. In essence, history tells us of events that happened years, decades, centuries before our own time and as such, the only evidence we have of them actually ever having happened, is the accounts that others have written (except in the instances of historical artefacts, skeletons etc.). Another idea is one which addresses history as being a developing concept – the claim is that history is not “organic” but rather something which is “cultivated, fabricated and thus ultimately, arbitrary” (Jenkins 15). The implication behind this is that history is never pure in the simplest of senses and is, therefore, never entirely truthful either. If history was organic, it would naturally occur but instead, it is manipulated and interpreted by human beings. A prime example of this was the Nuremberg Trials where the surviving leaders of the Nazi party were held to account for their actions during World War Two: their varying accounts of what happened and why it did, meant that it quickly became care that they were each manipulating the historical events to best meet their needs and to come out looking better.
History is often synonymous with politics – another abstract concept which is often the driving force behind the events in history. Equally, politics often flavour the thoughts, decisions and interpretations of events too – for example, a feminist will offer a different interpretation of events from a misogynist. Politics, for example, dramatically affected the attitudes of the American people and indeed many in the west during the Cold War where the U.S. government managed to turn Communism into something you could ‘catch’ and whipped up fear causing history to be tainted by those who never stood up and spoke for fear of being labelled a ‘commie.’ In this sense, history is effectively altered depending on the politics of the historian. Some discuss politics with regard to power: “It is politics – politics defined by reference to power – which poses the problem of political evil” (Ricoeur 255). The argument here is that political opinion can cause there to be an influence over the accuracy of events. To use the earlier example, a feminist historian is far more likely to present events from the point of view that best highlights their political stance – she would choose to emphasise any patriarchal or misogynistic elements in order to enhance her political message. Equally, a Marxist historian would focus on the events in terms of how the minority marginalised the majority – how the rich badly treated the poor. To be more specific, a Marxist reading of the Jewish Holocaust would be that the rich Nazi leaders marginalised the working classes by forcing them to either become soldiers or those who were persecuted. Ergo, a historian can never be entirely impartial and can never give an entirely honest and empirically accurate account of events.
However, there are a number of methods employed by historians in order to best establish the events factually. A key historical field which, as a reasonably recent subject, is beginning to address the methods employed by historians and is known as Historiography (Oakeshott 31). It is, in short, the abstract implementation of a ‘scientific method’ – an attempt to quantify qualitative data. The fact that this subject is in existence demonstrates how history is a difficult subject to properly ‘pin down.’ It is, largely, opinions of facts. Social-Historical accounts utilise methods such as time-series regression which allows the historian to analyse events that led up to the significant event happening. It is essentially an interpretation which is based on facts. A more recently employed method is that concerned with spatial processes – up until now, historians were interested solely in time but more recently, historians have begun to ‘localise’ social processes – looking at common phenomena in one area and asking how events in other areas can have a bearing on that (Griffin & Van Der Linden 57). Largely, history is made up of qualitative data – this means that it is easy to misinterpret or put a slant on to. Often, historians will endeavour to quantify history in order to lend their work more credibility and to establish what the central facts are. This is known as quantifying (Griffin & Van Der Linden 106) and will often involve the facts and figures concerning how many people were affected, how many people died, how much money was spent and so on.
History employs a number of processes which enable it to be as factual as possible. Most notably is the ‘four step process’ which involves research, analysis, interpretation and presentation. To begin with, the historian carries out extensive research of the period. If it is a recent event, they may choose to interview eyewitnesses or, this research could take on the form of a significant number of hours spent in libraries or pouring over historical records – newspapers, microfilm, photographs and so on. Following this, the historian will analyse their findings – by assessing primary and secondary sources for information, they are able to draw comparisons and make inferences as to what exactly happened as opposed to speculation. If a historian is seen to be speculating too wildly, their reputation for the facts will become tarnished. A primary and secondary source is defined as follows: primary sources are information from an immediate eyewitness to events and can take the form of accounts or diaries, for example; a secondary source is a second-person account of events – work from other historians and authorities. Secondary sources are significantly less reliable than primary sources and a good historian will work with both in order to establish a strong set of facts that lay out the events accurately. Once the facts are established, the historian will then endeavour to interpret them. They will do this in a number of ways: with regard to social and cultural circumstances, in terms of their causality (i.e. how these events were caused by preceding ones and whether they led to further events – for example, the death of Franz Ferdinand was, in part, an event which led to the First World War), and also the historian will consider them in terms of their own ideology – feminism, Marxism etc. if such an interest is held. Equally, the historian will interpret their findings in terms of ethnicity and nationality as sometimes, ethnocentrism (the misinterpretation of events from a culture dissimilar from our own) can lead to confusion and as a consequence, poor historical record. Finally, the historian will present their findings to other experts or to whoever is funding them – a museum or university, for example and eventually publish their findings to the world.
In short, history is an abstract concept – it lacks in definition and finality as it is something can be easily manipulated and altered depending on the interpretation, opinion and position of the historian who is writing it. That is not to say that historians are all liars but rather they are human beings who each bring their own agenda to the table. It is an impossibility to tell a story without adding in extra details – we all do it when passing on gossip or our version of events – we add in extra bits that we think make it more interesting to the person who we’re talking to. Historians do the same thing by presenting the facts in a particular way, adding a political or social slant of their own. There are methods of ensuring that the facts are best presented and utilised but as with all things human, interpretation happens and each historian adds their own opinions making history both factual but also, something which needs a critical mind in order to really establish the full extent of events.
Griffin, Larry J. & Van Der Linden, Marcel. New Methods for Social History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. Print.
Jenkins, Keith. On ‘what is history?’: from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White. London: Routledge, 1995. Print.
Oakeshott, Michael. What is History? And Other Essays. Virginia: Imprint Academia, 2004. Print.
Ricoeur, Paul. History and Truth. Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1965. Print.