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What are the core skills required to write good history today

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In order to identify what the core skills are required to write an example of good history today, first the concept of history itself must be examined, defined and placed in context. It is clear that history is not a strictly well-defined discipline, integrating a combination of sub-genres such as political, social, religious, gender, and imperial history, with various theories of meta-narrative history such as Marxism, Empiricism and, to an extent, Postmodernism. To further aid the confusion of a clear definition, the term history has its own social and cultural context within any given society. However, even amidst this, it appears that the main consensus, at least in the academic field, is that history can be defined as ‘the study and interpretation of the record of human people, families, and societies’1.

Now that a definition has been identified, although it is albeit rather limited in terms of explaining the various theories and sub-categories of the historical discipline, what must be examined next are the skills required to write an example of such history. Essentially the origins of any piece of history stem from two main fundamental methods, research and writing, and thus by employing these two methods a text2 is created.

Research is the fundamental step towards writing history, for without it, there would be nothing to write about. To write good history the author must perform valid research and abide by certain rules. First and foremost, any historian should realise that ‘the study of history…amounts to a search for the truth’3. Yet, while researching the facts and events on their chosen subject, historians must consider an important issue, that of the possibility of historical truth4. The issue then becomes how one can know the truth, and to what extent is the reality that a historian writes ‘real’, or just a reconstruction of reality combined with the author’s inherent political, social, and cultural views. G.R. Elton argues that a ‘trust in the absoluteness of historical facts has now been replaced by a general supposition that the facts of history are only historian’s constructs’5. Therefore before writing any form of historical text, the author (or author-to-be) must bear in mind that absolute historical truth is a hotly-debated subject.

In addition to the limitations of historical truth in performing research, further complications become apparent; the nature of objectivity in history and the validity of the sources used in research. A historian must become competent in understanding these in order to write good history.

In terms of sources, it is advisable for historians to realise that ‘historical research…consists of an exhaustive…review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation’6. Sources however can come in all different formats, each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and so it is up to the historian to sift through what is required, and what would provide the most insight. The answer to this, argues the Empiricists, lies in Rankean values, used to denote the process of carefully scrutinising original sources to find their value and usefulness.

This it seems is one of the key concepts in using sources in historical research (the other being, faced with an abundance of choice, choosing which sources to select). One way of doing this is to asses their inherent strengths and weaknesses. For example, there is a clear contrast between public and private primary sources, being that public ones were intended to be read (even if it an image as all sources can be described as texts, which require ‘reading’), and private ones were not. Moreover, it is practically impossible to give higher authority over another based on their reliability, due to various factors such as censorship, bias, etc.

When faced with a primary source, the historian must ask several key questions, collectively ascribed by Arthur Marwick as the ‘catechism for the analysis, evaluation, and use of primary sources’7. Firstly comes the issue of authenticity; is the source authentic? To answer this two techniques must be employed, palaeography and diplomatics and, along with these, Marwick argues that authenticity can ‘often be established through the provenance of the source’8.

Next, one must consider the empirical evidence, i.e. when the source was was produced, what was its date, and so forth. The intention of this is to provide contextualisation, and to find its significance, by comparing the date of its publication or creation, compared to the dates of the events recorded inside it. According to the catechism, the next stage in the process is to ask about the purpose of the source, and how it came into existence. The rationale behind this is to discover the political, social, and cultural ideologies that might be embedded in the text, and to what purpose can they be used. Together, these questions posed to primary sources make up a useful process in which historians performing research can use to determine whether certain sources would be ultimately useful in their work.

The next step in creating this text of good history is to interpret the sources adequately. The basic premise is for historians to use ‘historical materials and ideas in a coherent argument, showing their significance…[and] making convincing, plausible claims based upon research findings’9.

It is here more than at any other point that the postmodernist critique of historical evidence is required. Sources are, in the postmodern viewpoint, ‘never taken at their word…but critically interrogated’10. Paradoxically, some postmodernists would even go as far as saying that perhaps secondary sources are more useful than primary, due to the fact that secondary sources are ‘the product of the historian’s cogitation and skill…[and are] in the cultural sense far more important’11. Furthermore, postmodernists point to the ambiguity of language and its meaning throughout the centuries, and the fact that the majority of primary sources are in fact copies of copies, where there have been countless opportunities for error to occur. These considerations therefore ‘undermine any confidence that the texts…can be validated’12 by empiricist methodologies or philosophies.

Once adequate research has been undertaken on the topic of choice, and the sources have been collected, analysed, and interpreted, the historian must being the latter of the two fundamental principles of writing history, physically documenting the narrative, or writing it.

When writing history, there appears to be one factor that marks a difference between what can be label ‘good’ and ‘bad’ history – communication. So, not only must a historian research and collect sources that are relevant to the topic at hand (and by doing so going through all the processes aforementioned), they must also be able to, as Arthur Marwick proposed, communicate in ‘clear and precise language’13. In order to do this, and to avoid writing incoherently, two guidelines are suggested in between the phase of researching and writing; to select and to sort. A ‘good’ historian should be able to select information which is significant and can help strengthen the argument they are trying to conceive, and sort the information selected so that the argument has a continuous flow throughout and doesn’t seem disparate. Furthermore, during the writing stage itself it has been heavily recommended that the author reflect and revise, for sometimes it is not possible to ‘find the words to express the information, ideas, conclusions, [and] connections’14.

Not only is ‘good’ history marked by coherent linguistic skills, but also by analysis, structure and narrative. Any analysis is usually attempted to be elucidated through explanatory factors, or ’causes and effects’. However, even though Marwick has noted that ‘one cannot make…distinctions between causes and effects…because effects immediately start becoming causes for further effects’15, he has created a detailed hierarchy of explanatory factors, including ideological and structural circumstances and human agencies as forces of change.

Narrative has become to play a key role in historian’s texts, as it allows binding and understanding of the separate ‘historical facts’ and events, creating, depending on the author’s skill, a structurally sound piece of work. It is important, for without narrative the text becomes a meaningless mass of facts (even if the selection and sorting guidelines have been followed). The narrative structure of a text allows the desired target audience to keep track of what is going on, and to follow the train of thought of the historian; and moreover, a good historian should be aware that the ‘danger inherent in…analytical method is that is fragments the unity of the historical process’16.

Geoffrey Elton raises a valid point about the writing of history; that the historian ‘wishes others to read the history…[they] write’17. Thus, depending on the type of text being written, a linguistic style and narrative structure would have to be selected and deemed ‘appropriate’ for the desired target audience. In addition, the style that the historian chooses to employ not only depends on the audience, but Elton argues, it also depends on ‘what he [or she] is trying to do about history’18.

Perhaps one of the most significant elements of writing is the use of quotations and referencing. Not only does correct and accurate referencing set apart ‘good’ and ‘bad’ historical texts, but it also links the two themes of research and writing together and, to an extent, can actually allow the reader (should they want to) to engage in the subject in question by checking or reading the sources quoted. However historians must note that, as Barzun and Graff suggested, especially from primary sources, ‘quotations are illustrations not proofs’19, thus they add to the argument conceived, but not necessarily prove it.

Whilst competent skills in research and writing are paramount in order to compose an accurate and valid piece of history, to write ‘good’ history today requires not only to implement those skills mentioned previously, but also to understand what ‘good’ history is. However, what makes something good is dependant on two things; firstly a knowledge of what is bad; and secondly, good history cannot be judged to be so by the author (for that would contain an inherent personal subjective bias), but must be judged by their peers and the audience. The criterion for this is impossible to note however, as each reader’s view is different, dependant on their own social, cultural, and political ideologies.

Therefore the only viable option of generalising if a historical text can be deemed ‘good’ is if it conforms to what society at the time denotes it should be. ‘Good history today’ therefore signifies what is deemed ‘good’ in current society, which can be (although somewhat controversially) defined as a postmodern period. Thus if a historical text conforms to the requirements of postmodern history, then speaking in general terms, it should be, as long as it has followed the correct procedure, seen as a ‘good’ body of work.

What, then, is the correct procedure to write historical work under postmodern conditions? For one, postmodernism does not refute or dismiss empiricist methods. Instead however it disagrees with empiricist philosophies of historical knowledge. For modern works (modern in the sense of being written within the last 20 years) to be classified as postmodern, they must recognise that it is impossible to depict reality in an objective way in any text (due to a variety of factors, including language, discourse, and representation), so therefore texts instead depict re-presentations of reality based on the social discourses at the time.

Furthermore the author must accept the inherent power based within the structures of society, be it political, social or cultural, and the power of language and, perhaps strangest of all, how all historical texts are incapable of attaining originality because the discourses surrounding them must have already existed.

In conclusion therefore, the core skills require to write good history can be dissected into three main parts; the two fundamental principles of research and writing, within each incorporating their own inherent rules and concepts to adhere to; and the notion of social acceptance (via the audience’s readings and obedience to history’s current dominant hegemony) for a text to become a ‘good’ piece of history which, in this case, is the adherence to empiricist method and postmodernist philosophy.

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