What role does the historian play in the creation of History?

Discussion #1

For this discussion please read the following: “The Limits of

Historical Knowledge”; Beard – “That Noble Dream” (pay particular attention to pp. 82-89)’ White – “The Burdens of History”

THE QUESTIONS: Please construct answers to the following questions – answers and details can be found in the readings listed above – so demonstrate your understanding of these readings in what you post to the classroom.

1. While some students talk of History as being about “truth” and “the true story”, according to our authors this week, History will never provide us with truth. What do you (as well as the historians who authored our readings) see History as producing then?  What does it mean that “History is an argument about the past”?  

2. What role does the historian play in the creation of History? How do our personal experiences and background impact the works of History we create? Should historians strive to be objective or should they play an active part in the interpretation and creation of History? Can the historian remove all bias from their work? (see the discussion of Positivism and Idealism on pages 178-179 of “The Limits to Historical Knowledge”).

3. Given your ideas about the first two questions, do you see History as a Science or an Art?What factors would make History more Science or more Art?  Please discuss at length the White article, as he explicitly discusses this divide. Think about issues related to sources and the role of the historian as discussed in “The Limits to Historical Knowledge”.

Discussion #2

For this discussion read the articles by Tilly (Value of Interdisciplinary Influences on History) & Hanagan and Fogel (The example of Quantitative History).

This week’s discussion on interpretive approaches continues some of the themes that we introduced in our conversations about the Materialist Approach (Marxism and Annales), especially around the debates over who/what are the prime movers in historical change – structures or individuals. Historical “agency”means who or what caused change to occur in the past. Agency is about who was the historical agent of change, that is which individual or social forced produced the historical events we study. One big and ongoing debate amongst historians is what causes change: individuals or larger forces known as structures. Examples of historical structures include economic issues and forces, religious beliefs, class (both materially and culturally), and other issues such as views about race or gender – this should look familiar to you, as the Materialist approaches from last week all favored structures as the prime movers in history, not individuals. Historians who favor a structuralist interpretation argue that these bigger forces cause change rather than individual historical figures.

The Social Sciences Approach (or Interdisciplinary) examines some of the social science inspired approaches that some of early Annalists argued in favor of – in this discussion we will consider Quantitative History (a bit of a fusion between History and Economics).  The Quantitative Approach favors structures in that it attempt to flesh out patterns in history – that humans react predictably to historical events.  This is somewhat in opposition to the idea of agency – that individuals act with a certain amount of freedom, and that sometimes human reactions to historical events cannot be predicted, or don’t necessarily follow patterns.

Once you have read and reflected on the readings above, answer the following questions in your initial response:

1. What are Tilly’s main arguments for the value of an interdisciplinary approach to researching and writing history (e.g. using theory and approaches from some of the other Social Sciences to inform the work of historians)?  Do you see any problems in this approach?

2. What is Quantitative History about? What sort of evidence does this approach use (see the example by Fogel)? What ideas from Empiricism influenced the Quantitative History approach? Does Quantitative History see individuals or structures as having more historical agency? What are the strengths and weaknesses of this historical approach?

3. How is the Social Sciences approach to understanding the historical past a rejection of political biography (part of the Empiricist approach), which was the most common type of History produced in the West until World War I? What do the supporters of Quantitative History see as missing in biography?

4. Given your take on the readings this week and last, what do you see as causing historical change: people (either individuals or social groups) or historical structures.  Why? (This is a really important question of all historians to define as it shapes the very basic core of how you look at History – it is a continuation of discussions last week about Scott and Himmelfarb; have your ideas about this debate changed after the readings this week?).

Please read!! That is the only way you will be able to answer these questions accurately. Below, are the links that you can find each reading for both discussions.

Discussion 1Question 1.History at times confuse whether it provides truth or falsehood. This makes history to bein a state of confusion of exactly where historians are up to. Historians are not…

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