Synopsis eleven: research methods, historical research

Historical research methods predate those of social sciences, having been established by the mid-1800s. Historians recognize high-quality research as containing three aspects:

1. Evidence.

2. Interpretation.

3. Narrative.

Evidence can be divided into primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources are books and articles written about an event or period by later authors. Primary sources are letters, diaries, government documents, newspapers and other material written during the time the event was taking place, by people involved with it. Good historical research relies mostly on primary sources. But historians always consult secondary sources as well, to see how an event has been covered by others, and to help ask pertinent questions about the past. This might be compared with a literature review, although historians don't usually use this terminology.

In addition, historians don't pose a hypothesis, because they risk the danger of marshaling the evidence to fit conclusions already formed. Instead they ask questions, usually revolving around the goal of finding "the truth" about the past. The truth, of course, depends on how a historian interprets the evidence, the second aspect of historical research.

Interpretation is essential to good history. A simple listing of bald facts, such as names and dates, is a chronology, but not historical research. A historian needs to sift through many documents in an attempt to analyze and explain what happened in the past. Historians studying American journalism history, for instance, may do this by relying on general ideological interpretations about society in the past, which come under headings such as:

1. Nationalist school. Progress, American democracy is getting better and better, the ongoing struggle for freedom.

2. Romantic school. Progress, and great men are important to history.

3. Developmental school. American journalism is growing more and more professional, reaching closer to high standards of today: objectivity, fairness, professional training of journalists. Often media history textbooks assume this approach.

4. Progressive school. American history is an ideological conflict between freedom and human rights on the one side and wealth and class on the other, played out in the media.

5. Consensus school. American history is an example of cooperation between entrepreneurs and journalists to work for democracy and human rights.

6. Cultural school. Media changes in response to large changes in society; unlike the schools above, which assume media had an impact on society, this assumes society had an impact on media. Study of smaller media organizations and minority journalists helps show how media evolved in America.

As part of interpretation, historians often rely on other research methods to help explain the past, particularly content analysis. But historians generally do not interpret the past by relying on numerical calculations, as many social scientists do. In history, said historian Arthur Schlesinger, "The big questions can't be measured."

The third aspect of historical research, narrative, emphasizes what many research methods do not: the importance of high quality writing. Historians try to tell a story that will appeal to other researchers as well as non-researchers. Good writing is good history.