In popular culture, I think there’s a tendency to shrug off the study of history as the memorisation of dates and facts. This ignores a fundamental element of history: it’s open to interpretation. Not only that, but ‘history’ tends to have been interpreted by the time it reaches its audience.
This doesn’t mean, however, that historians can say whatever they want and it will be considered ‘fact’. There’s a number of practices in place that historians follow that allow for reasonable interpretations to shine through, including:
- Drawing from a wide range of sources of information
- Clearly referencing where ideas come from
- Situating any work within the existing historiography
- Utilising peer-review
Drawing on a Wide Range of Sources
For example, when I sit down at a desk in the library to answer a question that’s popped up while I’m writing, I’ll typically have a stack of 6 or 8 books sitting next to me and I’ll look at every one as I develop my answer.
You see, there’s an interesting element to being a historian and to reading historical works, particularly academic monographs (books on one historical topic), essay collections (usually published in book form, where each chapter is written by a different historian and the entire book is edited by one or more historians), and journal articles in peer-reviewed journals: in these works, historians are giving their opinions or interpretations rather than reciting a list of ‘facts’.
There’s a difference between giving facts and giving opinion. Here’s an example:
Fact: The British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833.
Interpretation: Following a decade of intense public pressure, the British Parliament passed the Slave Emancipation Act in 1833 in part because of parliamentary reforms the previous year and because key politicians were able to negotiate acceptable terms with absentee planters in London.
Dates tend to be factual. As a result, they usually don’t need to be cited because they don’t contain anyone’s opinion. There is consensus and agreement backed up by ‘proof’. This highlights a key point of academic historical writing: the importance of clear citations and referencing.
Academic, peer-reviewed works are full of footnotes because the author has drawn their information and come to their conclusions from a range of sources. They will want to acknowledge where their ideas and information have come from, so that a reader can go back and look at the documents and the interpretations for him or herself.
Let me expand for a minute on the interpretation I gave above. First, I believe more people in more regions were enfranchised in 1832 with the passing of the Reform Act, leading to a change in the makeup of Parliament (including a further lessening of the West Indian interest’s presence). Second, as a slavery historian who has studied the role of anti-abolitionists extensively, I have to acknowledge the role that planters played in the shaping of abolition. I typically study the opposition to abolition and view abolition as a debate rather than as an inevitable progressive process, and so my individual experience (in terms of education, sources of information that I’ve used in the past, etc.), history of work (as demonstrated by my list of publications), and sub-field of research (up until recently it’s perhaps best characterised as British proslavery sentiment) directly impacts upon my interpretation.
If I were stating this assertion in an essay or article, I would also cite historians who agree with me and explain how they came to their conclusions (such as what sources they were drawing upon and what elements they deemed to be more or less important in their research) and perhaps mention historians whose interpretations differ from mine and then explain why I disagree with them. This then ties into the importance of including information on historiography in writing about history.
Historiography is the study of the writing of history. It looks at how historical events are interpreted by historians over time. So yes, as a field, we openly acknowledge that, as historians, we are interpreting what we read and study and that our writing is full of opinion. Hopefully that opinion is grounded in widely-agreed upon facts, upon primary sources of information that have been seen by the historian, and upon information from the widest range of sources available, but it is still an opinion. Including information on what other historians have written in peer-reviewed works helps check this information, and including information on the most recent interpretations out there helps ensure that the information and interpretations are up-to-date and relevant to today’s field of research, because the ways in which historians have interpreted history have changed through the years, as has the information available upon which to build one’s ideas and interpretations.
It’s also important to note that this acknowledgement of interpretation is a key difference between a history textbook and an academic monograph. A textbook tends to state ‘what happened’ without allowing for the divergence of opinion and without footnotes or clear referencing that allows readers to look up where this information is coming from and what opinions underline the chosen manner in which the facts are presented to the reader. If students don’t study history beyond the secondary level, they rarely get the chance to see that history is a subject full of interpretation and debate and how large of a role the author of a text has in shaping their readers’ views. It’s also why textbooks aren’t very useful when it comes to writing history essays.
Finally, you’ve probably noticed that I’ve mentioned the term ‘peer-reviewed’ several times in this post. The peer-review process is considered to be a vital step in the publication process of academic presses and journals to maintain the publisher’s standards. Typically done anonymously, any historical writing submitted to an academic press or journal that participates in the peer-review process will be sent to one or more historians in the field to be reviewed anonymously. Their feedback on everything from title and structure, to the legitimacy of the underlying argument or thesis, the quality of the research, and the novelty of the subject is then sent to the author via the publisher, who may or may not agree to accept the reviewers’ feedback.
A quick note: this post developed out of recent discussions in the media about facts. Historians seek out the truth on a daily basis; we’re just also very honest about how we’re contextualising what we believe to be the truth through the process of writing, peer-review, and publication, clear referencing, and the acknowledgement of what other experts have to say about our subject.
For some additional interpretations of the example given above — why slavery was abolished in 1833 — why not check out webpages devoted to the topic by The National Archives (UK), BBC History (UK), or the Canadian Encyclopedia (Canada)? You’ll probably find some similarities and some differing points of view.
Do you have any questions or comments on historians interpreting history or the presentation of facts in the media? Let us know in the comments!