Monday, October 3, 2011

What is "history"?

What is "history"? And what is involved in historical research and knowledge creation?

We might begin by attempting to specify the meaning of the word. Consider this: History is the sum total of human actions, thoughts, and institutions, arranged in temporal order. Call this "substantive history." History is social action in time, performed by a specific population at a time. Individuals act, contribute to social institutions, and contribute to change.  People had beliefs and modes of behavior in the past. They did various things. Their activities were embedded within, and in turn constituted, social institutions at a variety of levels.  Social institutions, structures, and ideologies supervene upon the historical individuals of a time. Institutions may have great depth, breadth, and complexity. Institutions, structures, and ideologies display dynamics of change that derive ultimately from the mentalities and actions of the individuals who inhabit them during a period of time.  And both behavior and institutions change over time.  "History" is the temporally ordered sum of all these facts.

We are interested in understanding history for a couple of reasons.
We are interested in knowing how people lived and thought in times and settings very distant from our own. What was it like to be a medieval baker or beadle or wife?

We are interested in the concrete social arrangements and institutions that existed at various points in time. We would like to know how marriage or tax collecting worked in rural Ming China.

We are interested in the dynamics of change -- the reasons for the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, the reasons for a rash of peasant rebellions in 18th-century China, the reasons for the occurrence and characteristics of the Industrial Revolution.

We are interested in quantitative assembly of historical data -- population, economic activity, other kinds of social data.
Understanding the first kind of thing has a lot in common with ethnography or interpretive research; we uncover what we can of the circumstances, actions, and symbols of a group of people, and we try to reconstruct their mentality and their reasons for acting as they did.

Understanding the second kind of thing requires careful study of existing records that permit inferences about how basic institutions worked. Examples include bodies of law, charters, manorial records, and the like.

Understanding the third kind of thing has to do with identifying dynamic causal processes of the sort that the social sciences study -- why legislatures tend towards certain kinds of institutions and behaviors, why bureaucracies tend towards rigidity, why people are susceptible to extremism. This second kind of question pays attention to both internal reasons for change and external reasons -- an internal dynamic towards dynastic instability and an external shock imposed by sudden climate change, for example.

Understanding the fourth kind of thing requires discovering data sources in the historical records and archives that permit estimation of things like marriage rates, grain prices, or church membership totals, and then analyzing and presenting these data in convincing ways using established methods in social science quantitative methodologies.

So historians can ask a relatively limited series of questions about time and change:
  • Why did actors choose to act as they did during period P?
  • How were actors shaped in agency and identity during period P?
  • What institutions, structures, and mentalities existed during period P?
  • What dynamics of change were inherent in institutions, structures, and mentalities of these sorts during period P?
  • What contingent events and actions took place in period P that influenced the mentality, actions, and structures of the successor period P'?
This suggests a fairly simple logic of historical representation:
  • Historians discover factual circumstances about conditions of life, action, and thought (mentality) during specific periods.
  • Historians identify changes in these conditions from one period to another.
  • Historians identify the features of social relationships, institutions, structures, and ideologies during specific periods.
  • Historians use a "path-tracing" methodology to discern how circumstances and actions in one period led to specific outcomes in a later period.
  • Historians make use of the findings of the social sciences to identify social dynamics associated with specific kinds of social institutions, structures, and ways of thinking.
The historian who is primarily interested in the specifics of a particular time and place is more distant from the social sciences. This work is more particularistic and "idiographic". The historian who is primarily interested in the dynamics of transition and transformation is more closely related to the social sciences, since he/she needs to borrow good theories about how institutions work. This work is more interested in causes and generalizations (usually at a meso level).

This description leaves out a great deal of what historians spend a lot of time on: formulating narratives that make sense, discovering unexpected causes or outcomes of historical circumstances, finding new perspectives on old historical questions, or just figuring out what is going on in an archival source (like the photo above), for example.  I've tried to strip away those elements of the historian's work, in order to highlight the logic of the varieties of factual and explanatory claims that historians make.  What I've described is abstract, of course, but it seems to capture the main elements of historical cognition.  In an upcoming post I will ask how philosophy is relevant to this body of intellectual activity -- why, that is, we might want to have a philosophy of history.


John Lee said...

Thank you! As a graduate student concentrating in East Asian history, my colleagues and I often discuss the question of "what is GOOD history?" - a question that often leads to a more fundamental discussion of "what exactly is this discipline we call history?" Indeed, it's always a welcome sight to see further engagement between historians and the practitioners of other social science disciplines, especially since the explanatory power of history is often tied to its ability to meaningfully explain the dynamics of change.

Peter T said...

I think you might put more stress on the always partial and often biased nature of historical evidence, and the centrality to good history of keeping always in mind that past lives/institutions/social changes were lived and felt as a whole. This makes the essence of history "constructing a narrative that makes sense" of ALL the evidence (which is why history gets deeper as it factors in more).