Working with historians


historians

Sheila Fitzpatrick, an Australian-American historian and expert on Soviet history

One of the challenges when studying history is understanding the role of historians. Historians are learned individuals who try to make sense of the past. Historians conduct research and gather sources and evidence, from which they form interpretations, conclusions and arguments. They then publish these findings, either as academic works or as books for the open market. Most professional historians are employed in academia, as university or college professors, lecturers or researchers.  A few historians also work for government bodies, in the private sector or as publishing authors. Because they prepare written history and deliver it to us, historians play a critical role in shaping how we view and understand the past. Yet for all their importance, no historian ‘owns’ history and no historian has a monopoly on historical truth, regardless of how much they might claim to. History itself is not a single truth but a vast patchwork of ideas and viewpoints, woven by many different historians over long periods of time. Every historian looks at the past from their own perspective, uses their own methods and speaks in their own voice.


Historians often reach different conclusions or answers from the same evidence. There are several reasons for this but the most common one is political. Just as you and the people you know see the modern world in different ways, historians tend to see the past differently. Every historian approaches the past with his or her own values, priorities and political perspectives. These qualities shape the way that historians study, interpret and make sense of the past. You will often hear the names of historians mentioned with political labels – for example, “the left wing historian Brown” or “Russell, a liberal historian”. Some people use these labels to summarise or encapsulate a historian’s political perspective. In general terms, left wing or Marxist historians tend to emphasise issues that affect the lower classes, such as economic inequality, class exploitation, the misuse of power and the condition and grievances of workers. Historians with right wing or conservative views tend to focus on economic freedom and opportunity, progress, social stability, law and order and the failures of radicalism. Somewhere between the two are liberal historians, who are usually more concerned about how well a society protects and advances individual freedoms and rights. And some historians adopt more complex or nuanced political positions.

historiography

A diagram showing reasons why historians form differing conclusions

The historiography of a significant period or event will always contain a range of political perspectives. In the case of the French Revolution, for example, most left wing historians see it as being driven by working class dissatisfaction, the product of decades of feudalism, gross inequality and political exclusion. In contrast, conservative historians claim the French Revolution was based on exaggerated grievances and falsehoods; it tried to do too much too quickly and, as a consequence, descended into a series of violent power struggles. One of the challenges for history students is to understand these different political perspectives and be able to differentiate between them. Students should also be aware of their own values and political assumptions. These factors will shape the way that you see and understand history. For some insight into your own political perspectives, visit the Political Compass website, click on ‘Take the test’ and complete the online quiz (it takes about 10-15 minutes). At the end of the test you are provided with a written and graphical assessment of your political views. It even charts your political views in relation to some famous leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher and Mohandas Gandhi.

Time is another factor that can change the perspectives of historians. As the views and values of society shift and evolve, so do historians and their attitudes toward the past. Historians of a particular generation approach the past differently to their predecessors. They study different people or groups, ask different questions, consider alternative causes and factors and form different theories. Historians who challenge and revise existing understandings of the past are often referred to as revisionists. The last half century or so has been a fertile period for historical revisionism. Universities have opened up to more people with different ideas, allowing a greater exchange of information and a broader range of viewpoints. Ideas and approaches once never considered or countenanced by historians have been tested and explored in the modern era. Changes in social values have encouraged historical research from the perspectives of marginalised or excluded groups, such as women, homosexuals, colonised peoples and racial minorities. It follows from this that a history written in, say, the 1950s may be radically different to another written in the last decade. When studying a historian, it is important to know when they were active and the historiographical context they operated in.

Historians are both the gatekeepers and the architects of history. Our understanding of the past is built upon their research, knowledge and hard work. It is important for history students to value and respect historians. Use historians as your guides as you find your way through the past. Draw on their findings and their knowledge, use their writing as evidence and acknowledge this in referencing. Be aware that no historian offers a definitive account of the past. Find historians you like and challenge historians you disagree with. Above all, think critically about the past – but also the historians who reveal it to us. The following links provide some useful tips for thinking and writing about historians:

Tips for studying historians
Identifying a historian’s arguments, perspectives or political position can be difficult. Students should approach the writing of every historian with a critical eye. Think carefully about the assumptions they make, the conclusions they reach and the theories or arguments they advance. The following filter questions might prove useful.

When was the historian active and writing about this history?
Can you find any biographical information about the historian, such as their nationality, their education, their political views or affiliations?
Which particular periods, people, groups, events or ideas are the main focus of the historian’s work?
What conditions or outcomes does the historian consider important? For example, do they place more emphasis on economic outcomes than social improvements?
How does the historian describe and evaluate different people or groups? Does the historian sound positive or negative about particular people, groups or classes?
Does the historian express any value judgements or unfair assumptions about particular people, groups or events?
What style and tone of language does the historian employ? Do they use emotive language, exaggeration or hyperbole?
What evidence does the historian draw upon? What evidence do they overlook, reject or downplay?
Does the historian form conclusions that are not supported by the evidence?
What other historians does this historian reference?
Common terms for describing or categorising historians
conservative As the name suggests, conservative historians tend to support the status quo, long standing traditions, social stability and gradual reform or change. They are critical of excessive or unnecessary change. They are also negative about change that does not enjoy consensus support, and tend to be hostile toward radical movements and events, such as revolutions.
determinist Determinist historians believe that history follows a logical path, shaped by long- and short-term causes. They believe that every event is caused or determined (hence the name) by conditions or events that came before it. For example, determinists believe the Nazi movement in Germany was the product of German nationalism and militarism dating back to the mid 19th century.
feminist Feminist historians investigate history from the unique perspectives of women. This is a relatively approach to history, dating from the mid 1900s. Feminist historians look at both prominent women and the lives and experiences of ordinary women. They also focus on how women were defined and constrained by patriarchal (male dominated) societies and power structures.
liberal Liberal historians, like their forebears the Whigs, are mainly concerned with individuals and freedoms. For most liberal historians, the measure of a society is how well it protects and advances the rights and freedoms of the individual. Liberal historians are therefore interested in concepts such as political participation, capitalism and the freedom of speech and thought.
Marxist Marxist historians are influenced by Karl Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which asserts that society is defined by economic conditions and that “all history is the history of class struggle”. Marxist historians usually focus on the imbalanced relationship between wealth, power and labour, as well as the conditions and exploitation of the working classes.
postmodernist Postmodernism is a complex academic and literary movement of the late 20th century. Postmodernism sees history not as a factual reconstruction of the past but a subjective intertwining of truths and literary fictions. Most postmodernist historians reject existing approaches to history and develop their own. They also attempt to deconstruct existing assumptions about the past.
revisionist Historical revisionism is the process of questioning and reinterpreting conventional knowledge about the past. A ‘revisionist historian’ does not refer to a particular position or viewpoint. Instead, a revisionist historian is one who challenges existing understanding by offering new evidence, conclusions or arguments.
Whig The term Whig describes political progressives who believe in the gradual improvement of human society. Whigs believe that all societies will, given time, evolve into liberal democracies with constitutional government and universal freedoms. Whig historians and their modern counterparts, the neo-Whigs, write history as the story of human progress toward these goals.
Sentence stems for writing about historians
Discussing historians and historiography demands a particular writing style. Writing about historians goes beyond just quoting or paraphrasing their views. You must learn to summarise a historian’s conclusions, while suggesting how or why they reached them. You must learn to write comparatively, weighing up one historian against others. You may also need to write critically, evaluating the strength or validity of a historian’s work. This section contains 25 sentence stems useful when writing about historians.

According to Historian W, this event was caused by…
Like most historians of his era, P places emphasis on…
Historian Z is scathing about this action, describing it as a…
A more sympathetic view is offered by Historian I, who says that…
Relying chiefly on this evidence, Historian V forms the assumption that…
Building on the work of Historian B, Historian W adds that…
The conventional view, expressed by historians like K and D, is that…
Historian R challenges this orthodox view, declaring instead that…
Echoing this position is Historian H, who also puts it down to…
Historian B views this with a more critical eye, suggesting that…
A more sceptical view can be found in the work of Historian M, who writes…
Unlike Historian G, Historian R places greater emphasis on…
Historian E rejects this assumption, suggesting instead that…
The position taken by Historian H is unsupported by evidence…
This is a view contradicted by Historian C, who instead attributes it to…
Conservatives like Historian J condemn this act, claiming that it…
Like other conservative historians, B describes this as a…
Expressing his usual contempt for radicalism, Historian S states that…
Historian T, like other liberals, hails this event as…
For Whig historians like G and O, this was an important advance toward…
Like most left wing historians, N asserts this was triggered by…
For Marxist historians like W and L, this represented an important step…
This theory is attacked by Marxists like Historian E, who respond by…
Historians like F and L have launched a stinging attack on this theory…
While Historian W claims it as a victory, G argues that it…
Words and terms for writing about historians
The following words and phrases may be useful for writing about historians, particularly in an analytical or critical way.

adopts the position advances the theory asserts that attempts to convince claims that
contends that contradicts critical of dismisses downplays
embellishes emphasises evaluates exaggerates expresses the view
fails to consider focuses on ignores launches an attack makes a case
makes the argument never considers obsesses about one sided assessment overlooks
overly critical questions rebuts refuses to accept refutes
rejects the view seeks to prove selectively uses skewed perspective shows bias
subjective takes the view treads lightly weighs up would have us believe


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This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Brian Doone and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “Working with historians” at Alpha History, http://alphahistory.com/working-with-historians/, 2014, accessed [date of last access].