Research topic: Historical theory and method

"Historical theory" is a concept that is used in different ways. Often researchers will have a "theory" about historical events and connections – an orderly preconceived impression of the phenomenon to be studied. Used in this way, "theory" means the same thing as "hypothesis".

In the context of history as an academic field, the word "theory" is more often used to refer to the overarching perspectives we construct while carrying out research. But even in this context we may use the term at different conceptual levels. A fundamental theoretical question concerns the actual nature of historical knowledge: is the past a given quantity that historians should describe as realistically as possible, or is the writing of history a matter of constructing a past that only exists in the form of language and representational images?

More concretely, a theory can be a view of history, an opinion about the fundamental nature of those aspects of the past that we wish to present. For example, a historical materialist will be interested in labour, production and the economy, while a structuralist will try to describe common basic structures in language and thinking. Such theoretical perspectives will be decisive with regard to a historian's choice of sources, research topics and view of historical knowledge, but they will seldom be mutually exclusive. In practice, history is a field where pragmatic attitudes to theory prevail.

The word "method" can sometimes refer to the techniques used to find out knowledge within the bounds of a particular theory. In that case there will generally be a distinction between quantitative methods, which establish statistical knowledge on the basis of data that can be counted or measured, and qualitative methods, which involve a more in-depth interpretation of source materials. But method – or methodology – can also mean the overarching means used to ensure that an answer is obtained to the initial question. Comparison is one such methodology. The investigation of sources can also be seen in this way, namely as a set of methods that will be common to all historians. This aspect of historians' work is what most obviously gives them a common identity.

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Published Feb. 5, 2013 11:26 AM - Last modified Mar. 5, 2013 9:50 AM