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The value and biases of historical studies

Updated on August 16, 2016

Marshall G.S Hodgson (April 11, 1922 – June 10, 1968), an Islamic Studies academic and a world historian at the University Of Chicago , discussed in his 1974 book “The venture of Islam” the value of history as well as the biases that one may encounter while studying world history. Most of the ideas are relevant today considering the pick-and-choose approach to the subject by a lot of otherwise learned individuals, especially when it comes to religion.

Historia by Nikolaos Gyzis
Historia by Nikolaos Gyzis

Why study history ?

For Hodgson history has a human value and not only as a chain of reactions that led to the present :

"So far as there is moral or spiritual solidarity among human beings, apart from physical confrontations at any given time, the fate of each people is relevant to all human beings whether or not it had permanent external consequences otherwise..They add to our understanding of who we are, of what we are committed to, as human beings, what is worthy of our wonder and our tears"

Studying history is studying ourselves under different guises and circumstances.


Is history biased ?

What appears to be a neutral subject is not totally free of biases. They come under many forms, even in the terms we use to describe periods of time :

"Precommitment can lead the unwary—and often even the most cautious scholar—to biased judgment. Bias comes especially in the questions he poses and in the type of category he uses, where, indeed, bias is especially hard to track down because it is hard to suspect the very terms one uses, which seem so innocently neutral."

The terms we employ, while being useful, can sometimes lead to mistakes and oversimplifications when taken too seriously, broadly and out of context:

“The periodization in ‘Ancient’, ‘Medieval’, and ‘Modern’ has been attacked by innumerable historians as inadequate for a fair long-run view even of European history”

Indeed, a large,undefined period can be lumped in the term“Ancient”.“Modern” can be misleading when used broadly and without clear definition. But perhaps more dramatic is the idea of the ethnocentrism of the West, in the categories of “West/East” , “Western values”, “Westernization” to mean “development”.


Rethinking history

I am confident that challenging our terminology and not taking our categories for granted can help us reduce our biases and get a better understanding of the past to make better decisions and help better shape our collective destiny.

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