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Is the Task of the Historian to Accurately Portray the Past or Analyse What Happened?

Updated on June 28, 2017


The role of a historian is to use sources to analyse the past in a socially acceptable manner. The analysis was an integral part of the historian profession that required a historian to develop a narrative about a specific topic by interpreting their evidence (Historical Analysis 2011). Historians analysed the past through the profession's acceptable forms of historical descriptions, analyses, and narratives. Influenced by their method and contextual background, historians analyse the past by selecting and omit sources; how historians did so depended on what the historian believed was historical truth and objectivity. Despite historians belonging to different movements, they all analysed the past with the method and approach they believed was the most effective. Thus, history was a selective process where the role of the historian is to analyse the past and turn a few significant facts into history.


A historian’s job to analyse the past was encapsulated by the unavoidable process of selecting and interpreting evidence within all styles of historian writing. The process of selecting evidence itself was a historian’s analysis of the evidence based on their beliefs, context and what they deemed as socially acceptable. The practice of analysing the past manifested in all categories of historical works: description, analysis, and narrative. Firstly, historical descriptions show a manifestation of the past without giving it the dimension of a change in time (Elton 1987, p.12). Secondly, historical narratives explain what happened in the past, focusing on individuals and chronology. Lastly, historical analyses focused on the cause and effect of different narratives and attempted to show causal connections and motives. According to Windschuttle, all styles of historical writing include, “… first, determining what evidence exists to address a given issue; second, analysing that evidence, which means testing it for authenticity and then assessing its significance for the case at hand (Windschuttle 1994, p.1).” Windschuttle’s quote addressed the unavoidable process of selecting and omitting evidence a historian takes to argue what happened in the past. Evidently, historical descriptions and narratives were the author’s interpretation of the past based on the evidence they reviewed. Despite portraying history in different forms, the act of analysing the past was inherent in all forms of historical writing. Therefore, the process of selecting sources to portray a certain view highlighted how it was a historian’s job to analyse the past.

What Is History?

Edwar Carr's 'What is History?' Is a good read in understanding the methods that historians partake in when it comes to their practice. It also offers great ins

A historian’s job was to analyse the past in a socially acceptable manner. Tamn argued that the socially acceptable manner to approach historical writing was based on the historian’s critical analysis of their evidence and what were the conceptions of truth and objectivity practised within the discipline of history (Tamn 2014, p. 266). According to Carr, objectivity didn’t mirror absolute truths about the past but it conformed to socially acceptable ways of viewing the past (Carr 1961, p.3). In history, truth was based on a disciplinary consensus as to the methods of inquiry, cognitive values and epistemic virtues used in the profession (Tamn 2014, p. 266). This developed with the emergence of the linguistic turn in the late 1960s and the 1970s, language was believed to be the social production of meaning and the agent of human consciousness (Spiegel 2009, p.1). This movement created the popular argument that humans were inherently subjective creatures and what humans perceive as fact resulted from a person’s contextual experiences. The argument acknowledged a historian couldn't avoid analysing the past because it was impossible to separate themselves from their own subjectivity. Due to that, historians constructed an inherent truth pact that assured that historians would commit themselves to the truth and would give evidence or reasons for their expressed proposition (Tamn 2014, p. 272). As a result, objectivity and historical truth became “a regulative epistemic virtue in the modern discipline… which guarantees plausibility and trustworthiness…” (Tamn 2014, p.291). Historians conformed to the idea that historians should analyse the past by collaborating with the auxiliary sciences of history such as archaeology and chronology to make themselves appear reliable (Carr 1961, p.5). Therefore, the construction of historical truth and objectivity illustrated how it was a historian’s job to analyse the past in a socially acceptable manner.

It was a historian’s job to analyse the past by following a socially acceptable framework that determined how they viewed evidence. This was due to the inherent subjectivity integrated into a historian’s practice of selecting and omitting sources to turn facts into history. Historians attempted to be objective by conforming to popular views of how a historian should approach their profession. The Wikipedia debate showed how historians attempted to conform to their framework of what it a reliable source is, which made historians prone to the bandwagon effect (Chesney 2006, p.1). For example, most academics such as K.G Schneider found Wikipedia untrustworthy (Chesney 2006, p.1). This was due to the way Wikipedia defied the traditional conventions of what made a source reliable. Surveys conducted by The Australian Journal of Teacher Education also concluded that most teachers find Wikipedia unreliable (Meishar-Tal 2015, pp.132-133). The report concluded that most assessed teachers and historians who claimed Wikipedia was unreliable had limited knowledge about Wikipedia itself and hadn’t conducted experiments to support their view (Meishar-Tal 2015, pp.132-133). This suggested that these individuals’ opinions were made due to the bandwagon effect. Contrastingly, experts in Chesney’s article rated Wikipedia articles as being more credible than non–experts and concluded that Wikipedia was highly credible (Chesney 2006, p.1). This debate was significant in portraying how a historian’s selection of sources can subjectively vary from each historian depending on what they believe was accurate. If a source was seen as unreliable by most historians, it wouldn’t make the source unreliable; it would be a conclusion based on their opinions. This revealed that it was a historian’s job to analyse the past as required a historian to investigate what sources contain historical facts.

Thinking like a historian | The historian's toolkit | US History | Khan Academy

It was a historian’s role to analyse the past, but how they did so was shaped by their contextual and social norms. Professor J. H Plumb suggested that unless a historian created propaganda for the higher class, they would cease to be read and play any part in their societies (Elton 1987, p.3). This suggested historian risked unemployment, low exposure or historical censorship if they failed to either satisfy mass opinion in society or fail to produce historical propaganda. A recent example that supported Plumb’s argument included Nazan Maksudyan’s claim, “the contradictory position of the Armenian massacres of 1915–1916 to the official ideology of political power and ‘national history writing’ in Turkey leads to processes of self-censorship by translators, editors and publishers, who strive to abide by social and contextual norms and not to conflict with predominant ideas” (Nazan 2009, pp. 635). This indicated that presses wouldn’t accept articles acknowledging the Armenian genocide. This illustrated the issue if historians hoped to be paid for their writing they had to submit to mass opinion, laws and what publishing houses support. The fear of unemployment that made the historians living in Turkey subservient to these prominent ideas. Nazan’s quote encapsulated the way historians were limited by their context. Thus, these examples highlight reasons historians had to conform to socially acceptable views of the past. Hence, it was evident that a historian’s job was to analyse the past, and how they did so depend on what regarded as acceptable within their society.

'Ecclesciastical History of the English People' by Bede is a famous book that demonstrates how history can be approached through a theist perspective.

The way a historian analysed the past depended on their context and their purpose. According to Carr, a historian's conclusions were shaped by their values and their context. (Carr 1961, pp.4-144). While each movement in history, historians had different technological, historiographical and contextual limitations; all historians used their evidence to analyse the past. For example, Bede’s (672 AD-732 AD) goal to use his history to convert pagans to Christianity was the product of his religious upbringing and the spread of Christianity in England (Webb 2012, pp.32-40). The evidence he gained for his The Ecclesial History of the English People reflected this. His evidence included The Old Testament, accounts of monks, interviews, first-hand accounts, consultation from Christian writers and evidence from the Papal archives (Webb 2012, p.37). Bede represented how historians would select what evidence was historical and use them to support their perspective of the past. A historian’s job to analyse the past was also highlighted by recent historiography, which had taken form in the schools of relativism, postmodernism and new empiricism (Webb 2012, pp.108-115). Instead of writing a traditional narrative of a period of history, the Annalists attempted to analyse historical issues by collaborating with other scientific disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, psychology and geography (Webb 2012, p.74). Despite being from different movements and having different perspectives on history, none of these historians was exempt from the method of using evidence to analyse the past. This highlighted how a historian’s method and purpose in history was driven by their own subjective perspectives, thus they used evidence to support their perspective on how history should be presented. Thus, a historian’s job was to analyse the past, as historiography proved historians analysed the past despite their beliefs.


Historians analyse the past in the framework of social and contextual norms and values within the historical profession. As highlighted by Tamn, Spiegel and Carr’s opinions, a historian analyses the past depending on their critical analysis of their evidence and what were the conceptions of truth and objectivity practised within the discipline of history. All styles of historical writing included the process of a historian selecting and interpreting information, which made analysis an unavoidable process. Debates such as the Wikipedia debate conveyed how historians analyse the past using evidence that they believed was acceptable. As shown by the contextual limitations imposed on historians in Turkey, historians conform to a socially acceptable way of viewing the past. Historical movements such as the ancient period and post-modernism highlighted how a historian’s profession was to analyse the past in what way they deemed fit. Ultimately, the way historians address history suggests that history is a selective system of cognitive and causal orientations to reality.

Refference List

  1. Carr, Edward 1961, What is History? The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered In The University of Cambridge January-March 1961, Cambridge University Press, London. PDF version, Retrieved 6 April 2017, from Winterbourne International Academy.
  2. Chesney, Thomas 2006, ‘An Empirical Examination of Wikipedia’s Credibility’, First Monday, vol. 11, no. 11, p.1. Viewed 12 April 2017, from First Monday.
  3. de Baets, Antoon 2002, Censorship of Historical Thought: A World Guide 1945-2000, Greenwood Publishing Group, Connecticut.
  4. Elton, Rudolph 1987, The Practice of History, Collins in Association with Sydney Univ. Press, London.
  5. Maksudyan, Nazan 2009, ‘Walls of Silence: Translating the Armenian Genocide into Turkish and Self-Censorship’, Journal of Socialist Theory, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 635-649., Retrieved 1 May 2017, from Taylor & Francis Online Database.
  6. Meishar-Tal, Hagit 2015, Teachers' use of Wikipedia with their Students, Australian Journal of Teacher Education, vol. 40, no. 12., pp. 126-140. Retrieved 1 May 2017, from ERIC Database.
  7. Sims, Amy R. 2003, Intellectuals In Crisis: Historians Under Hitler, Virginia Quarterly Review, vol. 54, no. 2, pp. 1-4., Retrieved online 1 May 2017, from Virginia Quarterly Review Database.
  8. Spiegel, Gabrielle 2009, ‘The Task of the Historian’, American historical review, Am Hist Rev, 1 February, pp. 1-15s. Retrieved 6 April 2017, Oxford Academic Database.
  9. Tamn, Marek 2014, ‘Truth, Objectivity and Evidence in History Writing’, Journal of the philosophy of history, vol. 8, pp. 265–290. Retrieved 6 April 2017, from Brill Database.
  10. Webb, Ken 2012, Extension History: The Historians 2nd Edition, History Teacher’s association, Annandale.
  11. Wesleyan University 2011, Historical Analysis, Wesleyan, Middletown, viewed 3 May 2017 <>
  12. Windschuttle, Keith 1994, The Killing of History: how a discipline is being murdered by literary critics and social theorists, Macleay, Paddington.


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    • Jay C OBrien profile image

      Jay C OBrien 2 months ago from Houston, TX USA

      Alas, history is written by the victor. Very little objectivity is used. History is written to justify a position. For example:

      The Hebrews write their history to claim land by divine right. The Hebrews invaded the land of Canaan and killed men, women and innocent children and claimed their God authorized it. The Rabbis claim this to this day.

      The Hindus claim their God, Lord Krishna, told their hero, Arjuna, to kill his family to uphold religious principles. See Bhagavad-Gita 2.31. Religion is to uplift Man, not to harm Men.

      The Alamo is kept as a shrine in San Antonio, Texas. It is a symbol of the Independence of Texas. Texas was part of Mexico at the time and slavery was illegal in Mexico. The Texans fought for the right to have slaves, which is of course illegal today. The Alamo and the independence of Texas is treated as a good thing, but in reality the war for Texas independence was an atrocity.

      Look carefully at history with a high ideal. Your own ideal determines what you see.