Introduction to the Historical Discipline

Introduction to the Historical
This presentation introduces
• The historical discipline, including the
kinds of questions that historians ask
• The variety of primary sources that
historians use
• How to analyze primary sources
• How to use secondary sources
Part One
The Historical Discipline
Why History?
A People Without a History Are Like Wind
in the Buffalo Grass
(Lakota Indians)
• Why is a people's memory of itself essential
to its identity?
• How is the absence of a people's collective
memory like the wind in the buffalo grass?
• What does this analogy tell us about the
Lakota Indians?
What Others Have Said
•History is more or less bunk. (Henry Ford)
•Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to
repeat it. (Santayana)
•History is a people's memory, and without memory man is
demoted to the lower animals. (Malcolm X)
•History is a science, no less and no more. (J.B. Bury)
•History is an argument without end. (Peter Geyl)
•No single man makes history. (Boris Pasternak)
How is history different than
other disciplines?
Historians Want To Know
• What?
• Why?
• How?
• When?
• Who?
The Historian as Investigative
• Study the data
• Conduct
• Hear all points
of view.
The Basic Steps of Historical
• Identify a historical
problem or an interesting
historical topic.
• Find appropriate sources.
• Analyze the sources by
asking the right questions.
• Create analytical
narratives or histories
about the past.
The Big Questions
Historians Ask: Social
How did those originally excluded
from the political process (the
propertyless, women, AfricanAmericans, Latinos, Asians, gays &
lesbians) win their way into the
democratic system?
The Big Questions Historians
Ask: Political
What explains the
decline of new deal
liberalism after 1964?
The Big Questions Historians
Ask: Economic
What factors contributed to industrial
development in the Northern states during the
middle of the nineteenth century?
The Big Questions
Historians Ask:
How have definitions of
success changed over time?
Part Two:
Types of Sources
• Primary Sources:
sources written or created
by the historical actors
• Secondary Sources:
findings of someone who
did not observe the event,
but who investigated
primary sources other
secondary accounts to
retell the event
Primary Sources
Types of Written Primary
• Newspapers
Types of Visual Primary Sources
Types of Oral Primary Sources
Stories and Narratives
Oral histories
Folk songs
Radio recordings
Popular music
Part Three: Analyzing Primary
• Basic Questions to Ask All
primary sources
• The Time and Place Rule
• The Bias Rule
• Assessing the Quality of the
Primary Source
• Special Instructions for
Visual Sources
Questions to Ask All Primary
• Who created the
• What is the nature of the
• When was the document
• Why was the document
• What does the document
The Time and Place Rule
Usually, the closer in time and place a source and its creator were to
an event in the past, the better the source will be. Thus the best
primary sources might include some of the following:
• Direct traces of the event
• Accounts of the event, created at the time it occurred, by
firsthand observers and participants
• Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by
firsthand observers and participants
• Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by
people who did not participate or witness the event, but who
used interviews or evidence from the time of the event.
The Bias Rule
• Every piece of evidence and every source must be
read or viewed skeptically and critically.
• No piece of evidence should be taken at face
value. The creator's point of view must be
• Each piece of evidence and source must be crosschecked and compared with related sources and
pieces of evidence.
Assessing the Quality of the
Primary Source
• Who created the source and why?
• Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the
• Was the recorder a neutral party?
• Was the source meant to be public or private?
• Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others?
• Was the information recorded during the event,
immediately after the event, or after some lapse of
Special Suggestions for
Visual Sources
• Look for internal clues to
determine when the visual
source was created
• Look at the internal
evidence by dividing the
illustration into parts:
background and foreground,
individuals, objects, or
Part Four:
How to Use
Secondary Sources
Types of Secondary Sources
• Textbooks
• Monographs (published books
on specific topics)
• Statistical tables
• Graphs
• Pictures and drawings
• Historical novels, short stories,
Ways to Use
Secondary Sources
• As a collection of facts
• As a source of background material for a specific
time, a specific place, or a specific concept
• As an interpretation to stimulate your thinking
Questions To Ask
Secondary Sources
• What is the author's
• Is the thesis relevant to
my research?
• How can I determine
the accuracy of the
secondary source?
How To Evaluate a
Secondary Source
• Currency
• Authority
• Scholarship
Questions to Consider When
Assessing a Secondary Source
• What is the author’s
• Does the evidence
support the author’s
• What are the author’s
biases? How much
do these biases
influence the author’s
Special Questions for
Internet Sources
• Who published this document?
• What credentials does the author claim to have?
• What is the author’s objective in producing the
• How current is the site?
• Do traditional sources of information substantiate
information found in an Internet-based source?
Special Questions for
Journal Articles
• When was the article published?
• Who publishes the journal?
• What type of paper is it?
– Opinion paper?
– Empirical study?
– Literature review?
• What is the nature of the supporting evidence
• Is there a bibliography?
The End