Working with historians

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

Most of our understanding of the past comes from the life’s work, research and writing of historians. An important challenge for students is to understand the value of historians, what they do and why their perspectives often differ. Learning to incorporate and discuss the work of historians in your own writing is also a valuable skill.

Who are historians?

Historians are the architects of our history. They are learned individuals who devote their professional lives to try to make sense of the past. Most of the history we know has been acquired through the work of historians.

Historians gather sources and evidence and use them to form interpretations, conclusions and arguments. They publish their findings as academic works or books for the open market. Most professional historians are employed in academia: as university or college professors, lecturers or researchers.  A few work for government bodies, in the private sector or as publishing authors.

Because historians prepare written history and deliver it to us, they play a critical role in shaping how we view and understand the past.

No historian ‘owns’ the truth

No historian owns or has a monopoly on historical truth, even if they claim to. History itself is not one single immutable truth but a broad 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 different sources, employs their own methods and speaks in their own voice. Consequently, historians often reach different conclusions or answers from the same evidence.

There are several reasons for this. Just as you and other people see the modern world in different ways, historians also see the past differently. Every historian approaches the past with his or her own values, priorities and political perspectives. These perspectives shape the way we study, interpret and make sense of the past.

Political labelling

The same labels applied to modern politicians and pundits, like “left-wing” or “Marxist”, and “right-wing” or “conservative”, are often ascribed to historians. This is a simplistic and often problematic approach, however, because it generalises or pigeon-holes historians who may have significantly different viewpoints or arguments.

In general terms, left-wing historians tend to emphasise problems and issues that affect the lower classes. The most common of these are the ownership of wealth and capital, economic inequalities, class exploitation, the misuse of power and the condition and grievances of workers.

Historians with right-wing or conservative views may instead 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 tend to focus on how well a society protects and advances individual freedoms and rights. Some historians adopt even more complex or nuanced positions.

A diagram showing reasons why historians form differing conclusions

Same period, different perspectives

Histories of a significant period or event will invariably contain a range of political perspectives. Many left-wing historians, for example, suggest the French Revolution was driven by working class dissatisfaction, the product of decades of feudalism, gross inequality and political exclusion. In contrast, conservative historians suggest the French Revolution was triggered by exaggerated grievances and falsehoods; the revolution tried to achieve too much too quickly and descended into a series of violent power struggles.

A challenge for history students is to identify and understand these different perspectives and differentiate between them.

Students should also be aware of their own values and political assumptions, which shape the way you view 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). The quiz will provide a written and graphical assessment of your political views. It even charts your views in relation to some famous leaders, such as Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, Margaret Thatcher and Mohandas Gandhi.

Historical revisionism

historians civil war
Historical revisionism of the US Civil War has triggered debates and confrontation there

Time can also change the perspectives of historians. As the views and values of society change and evolve, so might historians and their perspectives.

Historians of a particular generation may approach the past differently to their predecessors. They may study different people or groups, ask different questions, consider alternative causes and factors and form different theories. Historians who engage in this are broadly referred to as revisionists.

The last half-century or so has been a fertile period for historical revisionism. History is accessible to more people with different ideas, allowing for a greater exchange of information and a broader range of viewpoints. Ideas and approaches once never considered or countenanced by historians have been explored. 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 that history written, for example, in the 1950s may be radically different to another written in the last decade. When studying a historian, it is useful to know when they were active and the context they operated in.

Respect historians

Historians are the gatekeepers of our history. Our understanding of the past is built upon their research, knowledge and hard work. It is therefore important for history students to value and respect historians.

Use historians as guides as you track your way through the past. Draw on their findings and their knowledge, use their writing as evidence and acknowledge them with referencing.

Be aware, however, that no historian offers a definitive or perfect account of the past. Weigh up different perspectives and challenge historians you disagree with. Above all, think critically not just about the past but also the historians who reveal it to us.

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?

Terms for describing or categorising historians

The following terms can be used to categorise or summarise historians according to their general perspectives or approach. These terms should only be used when speaking or writing about the broad history of a particular period or event. Students should avoid attaching these labels to specific historians as this can be simplistic or misleading.

conservativeAs 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.
deterministDeterminist 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.
feministFeminist 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.
liberalLiberal 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.
MarxistMarxist 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.
postmodernistPostmodernism 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.
revisionistHistorical 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.
WhigThe 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 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 should try to write comparatively and critically, weighing up one historian against others and evaluating the 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…
Historian J instead condemns this, claiming that it…
Like other left-leaning historians, B describes this as a…
Expressing his usual contempt for radicalism, Historian S states that…
Historian T, who emphasises the important of individual liberty, hails this event as…
For progressive historians like G and O, this was an important advance toward…
For Marxist historians like W and L, this represented an important step…
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 when writing about historians, particularly in an analytical or critical way.

adopts the positionadvances the theoryasserts thatattempts to convinceclaims that
contends thatcontradictscritical ofdismissesdownplays
embellishesemphasisesevaluatesexaggeratesexpresses the view
fails to considerfocuses onignoreslaunches an attackmakes a case
makes the argumentnever considersobsesses aboutone sided assessmentoverlooks
overly criticalquestionsrebutsrefuses to acceptrefutes
rejects the viewseeks to proveselectively usesskewed perspectiveshows bias
subjectivetakes the viewtreads lightlyweighs upwould have us believe

Citation information
Title: ‘Working with historians’
Authors: Jennifer Llewellyn, Steve Thompson
and Brian Doone.
Publisher: Alpha History
Date published: September 23, 2020
Date accessed: July 19, 2024
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