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History is the record of the human past. It includes both concrete elements:

And the more elusive ones:


Historians study this human past in order to discover what people thought and did. To do this, they look at the records humans have left of their past, the most important of which are written.

Purposes of
History can be used for various purposes:
To understand human nature.
To give us insight into contemporary affairs.
To show us how to behave and think in culturally and socially appropriate ways.
Orientation Historians approach the study of history from two main perspectives:
The humanities
The social sciences

Those with a humanities orientation see history as being made up of unique people, actions, and events, which are to be studied both for their intrinsic value and for the insights they provide about humans in a particular set of historical circumstances.

Those with a social science orientation look for patterns in human thought and behavior over time. They focus on comparisons rather than on unique events and are more willing to draw conclusions related to present problems.

We will use both perspectives in this course.

Styles In writing history, historians traditionally use two main styles:

Those who prefer the narrative style emphasize a chronological sequence of events. Their histories are   more like stories, describing the events from the beginning to the end.

Historians who prefer the analytic style emphasize explanation. Their histories deal more with topics, focusing on causes and relationships. Most historians use both styles but show a definite preference for one or the other. The authors of The Western Experience stress the analytic style.

Interpretations Some historians have a particular interpretation or philosophy of history (i.e., a way of understanding its meaning and of interpreting its most important aspects).
Marxist historians argue that economic forces are most important, influencing politics, culture, and society in profound ways.
Those who adhere to the Great Man Theory of history maintain that exceptional men or women (e.g., Ceasar Augustus, Martin Luther, Susan B. Anthony) shaped the events of the past.
Those with a Christian perspective believe that human societies  succeed or fail depending upon whether or not they follow God's plan as revealed in the Bible.

Most historians are not committed to a particular philosophy of history, but they do interpret major historical developments in certain ways. For example, there are various groups of historians who emphasize a social interpretation of the French Revolution of 1789, while there are others who argue that the Revolution is best understood in political and economic terms. 

We will use a variety of interpretations in this course and focus on the skills necessary to identify a particular viewpoint or perspective.

There are four steps in the historiographical (history writing) process:
  1. DISCOVERY: The first step involves discovering sources. Most sources are written documents, which include everything from gravestone inscriptions and diaries to books and governmental records. Other sources include buildings, art, maps, poetry, and oral traditions. In searching for sources, historians do not work at random. They usually have something in mind before they start, and in the process, they must decide which sources to empahsize over others.
  2. ANALYSIS: The second step involves analyzing the sources. To test the genuineness of the source, historians must engage in external criticism. This constitutes an attempt to uncover forgeries and errors. A source, though genuine, may not be objective. To deal with this, historians subject sources to internal criticism by such methods as evaluating the motives of the person who wrote the document.
  3. INTERPRETATION: The third step involves interpreting the sources. The historian gathers the relevant sources together, applies them to the question being investigated, discovers a pattern, and interprets the sources in terms of that pattern. (See an example of an interpretation involving the motives for the Truth in Advertising movement in the United States during the Progressive Era.)
  4. COMMUNICATION: The fourth step involves communicating  the interpretation. The traditional medium for presenting historical evidence is the narrative essay.   However, for their semester projects, students in this class will be given the flexibility to work in the medium of their choice (e.g., an essay, a work of art, a dramatic presentation, a multimedia computer presentation, an interpretive dance, a debate, a slide presentation, a short story, an architectural model, and so on).
Categories Historians use certain categories to organize different types of information. The principal categories are:
Political: This refers to questions of how humans are governed, inlcuding such matters as the exercise of power in peace and war, the use of law, the formation of governments, the collection of taxes, and the establishment of public services.
Economic: This refers to the production and distribution of goods and services. On the production side, historians usually focus on agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, and finance. On the disribution side, they deal with who gets how much of what is produced.  Their problem is supply and demand and how people earn their living.
Social: This is the broadest category. It refers to relations between individuals or groups within some sort of community. This includes the institutions people create (the family, the army), the classes or castes to which people belong (the working class, the artistocracy), the customs people follow (marriage, eating), the activities people engage in together (sports, drinking), and the attitudes people share (toward foreigners, commerce).
Intellectual: This refers to the ideas, theories, and beliefs expressed by people in some organized way about topics thought to be important. This includes such matters as political theories, scientific ideas, and philosophies of life.
Religious: This refers to theories, beliefs, and practices related to the supernatrual or unknown. This includes such matters as the growth of religious institutions, the formation of beliefs about the relation between human beings and God, and the practice of rituals and festivals.
Cultural: This refers to the ideas, values, and expressions of human beings as evidenced in aesthetic works, such as music, art, and literature.

In addition to organizing different types of information into categories, historians often speciaize in one or two of these. For example, some historians focus on political history, whereas others are concerned with socio-economic history. The best historians bring to bear on the problems that interest them data from all these categories.

DOCUMENTS Historians classify written documents into two types:

Primary sources are those written by a person living during the period being studied and participating in the matter under investigation. A primary document is looked at as a piece of evidence that shows what people thought, how they acted, and what they accomplished.

Secondary sources are usually written by someone after the period of time that is being studied. They are either mainly descriptions or interpretations of the topic being studied. The more descriptive they are, the more they simply trace what happened. The more interpretive they are, the more they analyze the causes or the significance of what happened.

PERIODS Historians cannot deal with all of history at once. One way to solve this is to break history up into separate periods. Typically, Western Civilization is divided ino the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Early Modern World, the nineteenth century (1789-1914), and the twentieth century (1914-present).
This section adapted from A Study Guide and Map Supplement for The Western Experience
by Mortimer Chambers, et al (McGraw Hill College, 1999), prepared by W.M. Bever.

Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999