Thursday, October 8, 2009

7 Habits of Highly Effective Historians

Developing an effective research project requires a balance of flexibility and structure. You need to maintain a cohesive organization while remaining open to how new evidence (either from primary or secondary research) may force you to alter your hypothesis and your research plan. This can entail a delicate balance of trial-and-error and cost-benefits-analysis.

As you sift through evidence, develop questions, and tackle problems, you will be forced to make decisions at every stage of your research and writing. Some of these decisions will be so minor that you'll hardly be aware that you're making them, while others may produce gut-wrenching moments as you face a contradiction between your evidence and your theory. The unpredictability invariably produces stress and anxiety, particularly during the early and late stages of a project; but it can also produce wonderful moments of exhilaration. Making surprising discoveries may force you to dump your initial plan, but these moments can be the most enjoyable (and the most important) part of a historian's work.

The importance of keeping an open mind doesn't end there, however. Keeping an open mind is important also because you need to be keenly aware of the role of chance, contingency, and accident in history. At the heart of many historians' fallacies is the problem of determinism. Whether it's technological determinism, as Jill Lepore discussed in one of our earlier readings, or some other type of reductionism, the core error remains basically the same: the fallacy of imposing an inappropriate explanatory model that oversimplifies a historical phenomenon. But keep in mind that this error involves oversimplification, not simplification per se.

While historians have shied away from the problem of randomness, it has become a hot topic for social scientists and popular economists. In one way or another, the popular studies by Malcolm Gladwell, Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, as well as Leonard Mlodinow all probe the question of chance. Is it more dangerous to have a backyard pool or a gun in your house? Can we assume that most behaviour is rational? Why does choice present so many problems for people?

Popular commentators often search for mono-causal explanations. Thus the global financial meltdown has been variously blamed on capitalist greed, hyper-optimism, overregulation, underregulation, Alan Greenspan, or simply inevitability. We know arguably more about the economic crisis than any other event in recent history: it has been thoroughly documented, hotly debated, theoretically dissected by hundreds of very smart people. Yet as John Cassidy shows in his incisive analysis, human folly may be incredibly complex, but it's still explainable. One could argue that his theory of "rational irrationality" is itself too reductionist, but it does offer a fresh way to understand the past.

And as we discussed on Monday, as much as it's important to be right, it's also important to be interesting. Making a contribution to scholarship demands risk. The hard part, of course, is deciding how much risk to take and how far you should push your ideas. At the core of any useful thesis is a degree of simplification. An argument that explains everything explains nothing. The challenge is to balance simplification with complexity, synthesis with detail, and evidence with theory.

While such challenges are daunting, David Hackett Fischer offers 7 rules of thumb for historians that might help you as you develop your research project. Here is a precis (they appear on pp. 62-63 of Historians' Fallacies):
1) Sound evidence consists in the establishment of a satisfactory relationship between the factum probandum, i.e., the proposition to the proved, and the factum probans, i.e., the material which is offered as proof. "A historian must not merely get the facts right. He [sic] must get the right facts right. From this simple rule of relevance may be deduced: historical evidence must be a direct answer to the question asked and not to some other question."
2) An historian must provide the best relevant evidence. "And the best relevant evidence, all things being equal, is the evidence which is most nearly immediate to the event itself....We shall call this the rule of immediacy."
3) Evidence must always be affirmative. "Negative evidence is a contradiction in terms -- it is no evidence at all."
4) The burden of positive proof always rests upon the historian. Not critics, readers, or anyone else. "Let us call this the rule of responsibility."
5) All inferences from empirical evidence are probabilistic. It is not enough to demonstrate that A was possible. A historian must determine the probability of A in relation to the probability of alternatives. "This is the rule of probability."
6) The meaning of any empirical statement depends on the context from which it is taken. "No historical statement-in-evidence floats freely outside time and space. None applies abstractly and universally." I would call this the rule of context.
7) An empirical statement must be no more precise than its evidence warrants. "We shall call this the rule of precision."

If the law of selection is the first law of history, then the burden of interpreting that law -- the task of deciding what to select -- is entirely yours. How well you make those decisions will shape how well you write your thesis. Those decisions should be made as part of a dialogue between yourself, your evidence, and the historiography -- or, put another way, between you, what your research turns up about a topic, and what other historians have said about that topic.

As Fischer points out, the real danger that you face is not that you'll delude your readers but that you will delude yourself.


Mark Leeming said...

There is a lot to discuss here, but about the third rule I want to quibble (in the spirit of finding a balance betweeen simplification and nuance, rather than trying to prod these rules into a theory of everything/nothing). In the last 30 years or so, some good histories of “voiceless” people have been written at least partly from historical documents left by dominant parties rarely even mentioning the people in question. Ethnohistorians like Inga Clendinnen
have made an awful lot out of negative evidence. Of course, they can’t do much with negative evidence alone, so perhaps the rule is, “There must always be some affirmative evidence, whatever else you use.”

Anna said...

Would you recommend the book you have linked to here (Historains' Fallacies) as a good supplementary text to pick up, or is the text we have for class likely sufficient?

Jerry Bannister said...

I thought about assigning _Historians' Fallacies_ as a textbook, but its historiographical references, jokes, and unproblematic view of "facts" make it too outdated. Fischer's sexist language also makes it inappropriate for use as a textbook.

On the other hand, I think that it's still a highly useful reference book. If you can overlook the bad jokes and language, it's well worth the cost (there are plenty of cheap used copies available via the internet).

I first read _Historians' Fallacies_ in 1989, and I have re-read at least part of it every year since then.