2 What is Historical Analysis? 

The principal goal of students in history classes and historians in practice is to master the process of History is more than a narrative of the past; the discipline cares less for the who, what, where, and when of an event, instead focusing on how and why certain events unfolded the way they did and what it all means. History is about argument, interpretation, and consequence. To complete quality historical analysis—that is, to “do history right”–one must use appropriate evidence, assess it properly (which involves comprehending how it is related to the situation in question), and then draw appropriate and meaningful conclusions based on said evidence. 

The tools we use to analyze the past are a learned skill-set. While it is likely that the history you enjoy reading appears to be centered on a clear and direct narrative of past events, creating that story is more difficult than you might imagine. Writing history requires making informed judgments; we must read primary sources correctly, and then decide how to weigh the inevitable conflicts between those sources correctly. Think for a moment about a controversial moment in your own life—a traffic accident perhaps or a rupture between friends. Didn’t the various sources who experienced it—both sides, witnesses, the authorities—report on it differently? But when you recounted the story of what happened to others, you told a seamless story, which—whether you were conscience of it or not—required deciding whose report, or which discrete points from different reports—made the most sense. Even the decision to leave one particular turning point vague (“it’s a he said/she said unknowable point”) reflects the sort of judgment your listeners expect from you. 

We use this same judgment when we use primary sources to write history; though in our case there are rules, or at least guidelines, about making those decisions. (For precise directions about reading primary sources, see the sections on “Reading Primary Sources” in the next chapter). In order to weigh the value of one source against other sources, we must be as informed as possible about that source’s historical context, the outlook of the source’s creator, and the circumstances of its creation. Indeed, as they attempt to uncover what happened, historians must learn about those circumstances and then be able to evaluate their impact on what the source reveals. Each actor in a historical moment brings their own cultural biases and preconceived expectations, and those biases are integral to the sources they leave behind. It is up to the historian to weave these differences together in their analysis in a way that is meaningful to readers. They must compare differences in ideologies, values, behaviors and traditions, as well as take in a multiplicity of perspectives, to create one story.

In addition to knowing how to treat their sources, historians and history students alike must tell a story worth telling, one that helps us as a society to understand who we are and how we got here. As humans, we want to know what caused a particular outcome, or perhaps whether a past actor or event is as similar to a present-day actor or event as it seems, or where the beginnings of a current movement began. (“What made Martin Luther King, Jr. a leader, when other activists had failed before him?” “Were reactions to the Civil Rights Movement similar to those of the current Black Lives Matter movement?” “How similar is the Coronavirus pandemic to the 1918 flu pandemic?” “Who were the first feminists and what did they believe?”) Even small aspects of larger events can help answer important questions. (“How did the suffrage movement (or Mothers Against Drunk Drivers, or the gun rights movement, or …) play out in my Texas hometown?”)

The very essence of historical analysis is about analyzing the different cause-and-effect relationships present in each scenario, considering the ways individuals, influential ideas, and different mindsets interact and affect one another. It is about figuring out what facts go together to form a coherent story, one that helps us understand ourselves and each other better. But such understandings, or indeed what exactly counts as “coherent,” can change with each generation. That’s where you and your interests as a student of history come in. Of key importance to the discipline is that our analysis of an event or individual is tentative or impermanent. The job of historians is to study the available evidence and construct meaningful conclusions; therefore, when new evidence and perspectives (including yours!) present themselves it may very well alter our understanding of the past.  

As the section on historiography pointed out, a significant part of historical analysis is integrating new understandings of past events and actors with history as it already written. We don’t want to “reinvent the wheel” or simply retell the same story, using the same sources. Even as scholars provide new perspectives or uncover new evidence, revising what was thought to be known, they cannot simply ignore previous historical writing. Instead they need to address it, linking their new understanding to old scholarship as a part of building knowledge. Sometimes the linkage is a direct challenge to past explanations, but more likely new historical writing provides a nuance to the older work. For example, a scholar might look at new evidence to suggest a shift in periodization (“actually the rightward shift in the Republican Party began much earlier than Ronald Reagan’s campaigns”) or the importance of different actors (“middle-class Black women were more critical in the spreading of Progressive reforms in the South than we once thought”). Because historians are concerned with building knowledge and expanding scholarship, they choose their subjects of research with an eye toward adding to what we know, perhaps by  developing  new perspectives on old sources or by finding new sources.  

For another view on historical thinking, this one offered by the American Historical Association, see “What does it mean to think historically?” 

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How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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