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Historical Research – Types, Methods and Examples

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Historical Research

Historical Research


Historical research is the process of investigating and studying past events, people, and societies using a variety of sources and methods. This type of research aims to reconstruct and interpret the past based on the available evidence.

Types of Historical Research

There are several types of historical research, including:

Descriptive Research

This type of historical research focuses on describing events, people, or cultures in detail. It can involve examining artifacts, documents, or other sources of information to create a detailed account of what happened or existed.

Analytical Research

This type of historical research aims to explain why events, people, or cultures occurred in a certain way. It involves analyzing data to identify patterns, causes, and effects, and making interpretations based on this analysis.

Comparative Research

This type of historical research involves comparing two or more events, people, or cultures to identify similarities and differences. This can help researchers understand the unique characteristics of each and how they interacted with each other.

Interpretive Research

This type of historical research focuses on interpreting the meaning of past events, people, or cultures. It can involve analyzing cultural symbols, beliefs, and practices to understand their significance in a particular historical context.

Quantitative Research

This type of historical research involves using statistical methods to analyze historical data. It can involve examining demographic information, economic indicators, or other quantitative data to identify patterns and trends.

Qualitative Research

This type of historical research involves examining non-numerical data such as personal accounts, letters, or diaries. It can provide insights into the experiences and perspectives of individuals during a particular historical period.

Data Collection Methods

Data Collection Methods are as follows:

  • Archival research : This involves analyzing documents and records that have been preserved over time, such as government records, diaries, letters, newspapers, and photographs. Archival research is often conducted in libraries, archives, and museums.
  • Oral history : This involves conducting interviews with individuals who have lived through a particular historical period or event. Oral history can provide a unique perspective on past events and can help to fill gaps in the historical record.
  • Artifact analysis: This involves examining physical objects from the past, such as tools, clothing, and artwork, to gain insights into past cultures and practices.
  • Secondary sources: This involves analyzing published works, such as books, articles, and academic papers, that discuss past events and cultures. Secondary sources can provide context and insights into the historical period being studied.
  • Statistical analysis : This involves analyzing numerical data from the past, such as census records or economic data, to identify patterns and trends.
  • Fieldwork : This involves conducting on-site research in a particular location, such as visiting a historical site or conducting ethnographic research in a particular community. Fieldwork can provide a firsthand understanding of the culture and environment being studied.
  • Content analysis: This involves analyzing the content of media from the past, such as films, television programs, and advertisements, to gain insights into cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Data Analysis Methods

  • Content analysis : This involves analyzing the content of written or visual material, such as books, newspapers, or photographs, to identify patterns and themes. Content analysis can be used to identify changes in cultural values and beliefs over time.
  • Textual analysis : This involves analyzing written texts, such as letters or diaries, to understand the experiences and perspectives of individuals during a particular historical period. Textual analysis can provide insights into how people lived and thought in the past.
  • Discourse analysis : This involves analyzing how language is used to construct meaning and power relations in a particular historical period. Discourse analysis can help to identify how social and political ideologies were constructed and maintained over time.
  • Statistical analysis: This involves using statistical methods to analyze numerical data, such as census records or economic data, to identify patterns and trends. Statistical analysis can help to identify changes in population demographics, economic conditions, and other factors over time.
  • Comparative analysis : This involves comparing data from two or more historical periods or events to identify similarities and differences. Comparative analysis can help to identify patterns and trends that may not be apparent from analyzing data from a single historical period.
  • Qualitative analysis: This involves analyzing non-numerical data, such as oral history interviews or ethnographic field notes, to identify themes and patterns. Qualitative analysis can provide a rich understanding of the experiences and perspectives of individuals in the past.

Historical Research Methodology

Here are the general steps involved in historical research methodology:

  • Define the research question: Start by identifying a research question that you want to answer through your historical research. This question should be focused, specific, and relevant to your research goals.
  • Review the literature: Conduct a review of the existing literature on the topic of your research question. This can involve reading books, articles, and academic papers to gain a thorough understanding of the existing research.
  • Develop a research design : Develop a research design that outlines the methods you will use to collect and analyze data. This design should be based on the research question and should be feasible given the resources and time available.
  • Collect data: Use the methods outlined in your research design to collect data on past events, people, and cultures. This can involve archival research, oral history interviews, artifact analysis, and other data collection methods.
  • Analyze data : Analyze the data you have collected using the methods outlined in your research design. This can involve content analysis, textual analysis, statistical analysis, and other data analysis methods.
  • Interpret findings : Use the results of your data analysis to draw meaningful insights and conclusions related to your research question. These insights should be grounded in the data and should be relevant to the research goals.
  • Communicate results: Communicate your findings through a research report, academic paper, or other means. This should be done in a clear, concise, and well-organized manner, with appropriate citations and references to the literature.

Applications of Historical Research

Historical research has a wide range of applications in various fields, including:

  • Education : Historical research can be used to develop curriculum materials that reflect a more accurate and inclusive representation of history. It can also be used to provide students with a deeper understanding of past events and cultures.
  • Museums : Historical research is used to develop exhibits, programs, and other materials for museums. It can provide a more accurate and engaging presentation of historical events and artifacts.
  • Public policy : Historical research is used to inform public policy decisions by providing insights into the historical context of current issues. It can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of past policies and programs.
  • Business : Historical research can be used by businesses to understand the evolution of their industry and to identify trends that may affect their future success. It can also be used to develop marketing strategies that resonate with customers’ historical interests and values.
  • Law : Historical research is used in legal proceedings to provide evidence and context for cases involving historical events or practices. It can also be used to inform the development of new laws and policies.
  • Genealogy : Historical research can be used by individuals to trace their family history and to understand their ancestral roots.
  • Cultural preservation : Historical research is used to preserve cultural heritage by documenting and interpreting past events, practices, and traditions. It can also be used to identify and preserve historical landmarks and artifacts.

Examples of Historical Research

Examples of Historical Research are as follows:

  • Examining the history of race relations in the United States: Historical research could be used to explore the historical roots of racial inequality and injustice in the United States. This could help inform current efforts to address systemic racism and promote social justice.
  • Tracing the evolution of political ideologies: Historical research could be used to study the development of political ideologies over time. This could help to contextualize current political debates and provide insights into the origins and evolution of political beliefs and values.
  • Analyzing the impact of technology on society : Historical research could be used to explore the impact of technology on society over time. This could include examining the impact of previous technological revolutions (such as the industrial revolution) on society, as well as studying the current impact of emerging technologies on society and the environment.
  • Documenting the history of marginalized communities : Historical research could be used to document the history of marginalized communities (such as LGBTQ+ communities or indigenous communities). This could help to preserve cultural heritage, promote social justice, and promote a more inclusive understanding of history.

Purpose of Historical Research

The purpose of historical research is to study the past in order to gain a better understanding of the present and to inform future decision-making. Some specific purposes of historical research include:

  • To understand the origins of current events, practices, and institutions : Historical research can be used to explore the historical roots of current events, practices, and institutions. By understanding how things developed over time, we can gain a better understanding of the present.
  • To develop a more accurate and inclusive understanding of history : Historical research can be used to correct inaccuracies and biases in historical narratives. By exploring different perspectives and sources of information, we can develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of history.
  • To inform decision-making: Historical research can be used to inform decision-making in various fields, including education, public policy, business, and law. By understanding the historical context of current issues, we can make more informed decisions about how to address them.
  • To preserve cultural heritage : Historical research can be used to document and preserve cultural heritage, including traditions, practices, and artifacts. By understanding the historical significance of these cultural elements, we can work to preserve them for future generations.
  • To stimulate curiosity and critical thinking: Historical research can be used to stimulate curiosity and critical thinking about the past. By exploring different historical perspectives and interpretations, we can develop a more critical and reflective approach to understanding history and its relevance to the present.

When to use Historical Research

Historical research can be useful in a variety of contexts. Here are some examples of when historical research might be particularly appropriate:

  • When examining the historical roots of current events: Historical research can be used to explore the historical roots of current events, practices, and institutions. By understanding how things developed over time, we can gain a better understanding of the present.
  • When examining the historical context of a particular topic : Historical research can be used to explore the historical context of a particular topic, such as a social issue, political debate, or scientific development. By understanding the historical context, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the topic and its significance.
  • When exploring the evolution of a particular field or discipline : Historical research can be used to explore the evolution of a particular field or discipline, such as medicine, law, or art. By understanding the historical development of the field, we can gain a better understanding of its current state and future directions.
  • When examining the impact of past events on current society : Historical research can be used to examine the impact of past events (such as wars, revolutions, or social movements) on current society. By understanding the historical context and impact of these events, we can gain insights into current social and political issues.
  • When studying the cultural heritage of a particular community or group : Historical research can be used to document and preserve the cultural heritage of a particular community or group. By understanding the historical significance of cultural practices, traditions, and artifacts, we can work to preserve them for future generations.

Characteristics of Historical Research

The following are some characteristics of historical research:

  • Focus on the past : Historical research focuses on events, people, and phenomena of the past. It seeks to understand how things developed over time and how they relate to current events.
  • Reliance on primary sources: Historical research relies on primary sources such as letters, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and other artifacts from the period being studied. These sources provide firsthand accounts of events and can help researchers gain a more accurate understanding of the past.
  • Interpretation of data : Historical research involves interpretation of data from primary sources. Researchers analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions about the past.
  • Use of multiple sources: Historical research often involves using multiple sources of data to gain a more complete understanding of the past. By examining a range of sources, researchers can cross-reference information and validate their findings.
  • Importance of context: Historical research emphasizes the importance of context. Researchers analyze the historical context in which events occurred and consider how that context influenced people’s actions and decisions.
  • Subjectivity : Historical research is inherently subjective, as researchers interpret data and draw conclusions based on their own perspectives and biases. Researchers must be aware of their own biases and strive for objectivity in their analysis.
  • Importance of historical significance: Historical research emphasizes the importance of historical significance. Researchers consider the historical significance of events, people, and phenomena and their impact on the present and future.
  • Use of qualitative methods : Historical research often uses qualitative methods such as content analysis, discourse analysis, and narrative analysis to analyze data and draw conclusions about the past.

Advantages of Historical Research

There are several advantages to historical research:

  • Provides a deeper understanding of the past : Historical research can provide a more comprehensive understanding of past events and how they have shaped current social, political, and economic conditions. This can help individuals and organizations make informed decisions about the future.
  • Helps preserve cultural heritage: Historical research can be used to document and preserve cultural heritage. By studying the history of a particular culture, researchers can gain insights into the cultural practices and beliefs that have shaped that culture over time.
  • Provides insights into long-term trends : Historical research can provide insights into long-term trends and patterns. By studying historical data over time, researchers can identify patterns and trends that may be difficult to discern from short-term data.
  • Facilitates the development of hypotheses: Historical research can facilitate the development of hypotheses about how past events have influenced current conditions. These hypotheses can be tested using other research methods, such as experiments or surveys.
  • Helps identify root causes of social problems : Historical research can help identify the root causes of social problems. By studying the historical context in which these problems developed, researchers can gain a better understanding of how they emerged and what factors may have contributed to their development.
  • Provides a source of inspiration: Historical research can provide a source of inspiration for individuals and organizations seeking to address current social, political, and economic challenges. By studying the accomplishments and struggles of past generations, researchers can gain insights into how to address current challenges.

Limitations of Historical Research

Some Limitations of Historical Research are as follows:

  • Reliance on incomplete or biased data: Historical research is often limited by the availability and quality of data. Many primary sources have been lost, destroyed, or are inaccessible, making it difficult to get a complete picture of historical events. Additionally, some primary sources may be biased or represent only one perspective on an event.
  • Difficulty in generalizing findings: Historical research is often specific to a particular time and place and may not be easily generalized to other contexts. This makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions about human behavior or social phenomena.
  • Lack of control over variables : Historical research often lacks control over variables. Researchers cannot manipulate or control historical events, making it difficult to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Subjectivity of interpretation : Historical research is often subjective because researchers must interpret data and draw conclusions based on their own biases and perspectives. Different researchers may interpret the same data differently, leading to different conclusions.
  • Limited ability to test hypotheses: Historical research is often limited in its ability to test hypotheses. Because the events being studied have already occurred, researchers cannot manipulate variables or conduct experiments to test their hypotheses.
  • Lack of objectivity: Historical research is often subjective, and researchers must be aware of their own biases and strive for objectivity in their analysis. However, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity when studying events that are emotionally charged or controversial.
  • Limited generalizability: Historical research is often limited in its generalizability, as the events and conditions being studied may be specific to a particular time and place. This makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions that apply to other contexts or time periods.

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Introduction to Historical Research : Home

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This guide is an introduction to selected resources available for historical research.  It covers both primary sources (such as diaries, letters, newspaper articles, photographs, government documents and first-hand accounts) and secondary materials (such as books and articles written by historians and devoted to the analysis and interpretation of historical events and evidence).

"Research in history involves developing an understanding of the past through the examination and interpretation of evidence. Evidence may exist in the form of texts, physical remains of historic sites, recorded data, pictures, maps, artifacts, and so on. The historian’s job is to find evidence, analyze its content and biases, corroborate it with further evidence, and use that evidence to develop an interpretation of past events that holds some significance for the present.

Historians use libraries to

  • locate primary sources (first-hand information such as diaries, letters, and original documents) for evidence
  • find secondary sources (historians’ interpretations and analyses of historical evidence)
  • verify factual material as inconsistencies arise"

( Research and Documentation in the Electronic Age, Fifth Edition, by Diana Hacker and Barbara Fister, Bedford/St. Martin, 2010)

This guide is meant to help you work through these steps.

Other helpful guides

This is a list of other historical research guides you may find helpful:

  • Learning Historical Research Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer for Environmental Historians and Others by William Cronon and his students, University of Wisconsin A website designed as a basic introduction to historical research for anyone and everyone who is interested in exploring the past.
  • Reading, Writing, and Researching for History: A Guide for College Students by Patrick Rael, Bowdoin College Guide to all aspects of historical scholarship—from reading a history book to doing primary source research to writing a history paper.
  • Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates Rutgers History Department guide to writing historical essays
  • History Study Guides History study guides created by the Carleton College History Department

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  • URL: https://researchguides.library.wisc.edu/introhist

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Chapter 16. Archival and Historical Research


The British sociologist John Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) once remarked, “Any sociologist who is concerned with a theory that can be tested in the present should so test it, in the first place; for it is, in all probability, in this way that it can be tested most rigorously” ( 33 ). Testing can be done through either qualitative or quantitative methods or some mixture of the two. But sometimes a theory cannot be tested in the present at all. What happens when the persons or phenomena we are interested in happened in the past? It’s hardly possible to interview the people involved in abolishing the slave trade, for example. Does this mean social scientists have no role to play in understanding past phenomena? Not at all. People leave traces behind, and although these traces may not be exactly as we would like them to be had we ordered them (as, in a way, we do when we construct an interview guide or a survey with the questions we want answered), they are nevertheless full of potential for exploration and analysis. For examining traces left by persons, we turn to archival methods, the subject of this chapter.

what is the importance of historical research

Things happening in the past are not the only reason we turn to archival methods. Sometimes, the people we are interested in are inaccessible to us for other reasons. For example, we are probably not going to be able to sit down and ask Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos a long list of questions about what it is like to be wealthy. And it is even more unlikely that we can get into the boardrooms of Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, or Amazon to watch how corporate decisions are made. But these men and these companies still leave traces, through public records, media reportage, and public meeting minutes. We can use archival methods here too. They might not be quite as good as face-to-face interviews with billionaires or deep ethnographies of corporate culture, but they are nevertheless valid forms of research with much to tell us.

This chapter introduces archival methods of data collection. We begin by exploring in more detail why and when archival methods should be employed and with what limitations. We then discuss the importance of special collections and archives as potential gold mines for social science research. We will explain how to access these places, for what purposes, and how to begin to make sense of what you find.

Disciplinary Segue: Why Social Scientists Don’t Leave Archives to the Historians

One might suppose that only historians look at the past and that historical archives are no place for social scientists. Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) even suggested this. But it would be a mistake to leave historical analyses entirely to historians because historians “typically do not understand our [social science] intellectual and organizational projects.…Social scientists must learn to use the materials that historians have staked out traditionally as their own” ( Hill 1993:4 ). The key difference for our purposes between history and social science is how each discipline understands the goals of its work and how to understand social life. Historians are (mostly) committed to an idiographic approach, where each case is explored to understand itself (this is the “idios” part, where ιδιοs is Ancient Greek for single self). [1] As an example of an idiographic approach, a historian might study the events of January 6, 2021, to understand how a violent mob attempted to stop the electoral count. This might mean tracing motivations back to beliefs in fanciful conspiracies, measuring the impact of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the violence, or any number of interesting facts and circumstances about that day and what led up to it. But the focus would remain on understanding this case itself. In contrast, social scientists are (mostly) committed to nomothetic research, in which generalizations about the social world are made to understand large-scale social patterns. [2] Whether this generalization is statistical, as quantitative research produces (e.g., we can predict this outcome in other cases and places based on measurable relationships among variables), or theoretical, as qualitative research produces (e.g., we can expect to find similar patterns between conspiratorial belief and action), the point of (most) social science research is to explain the world in such a way that we can possibly expect (if not outright predict) what will happen or be believed in a different place and time . Social scientists are engaged in this “scientific” project of prediction (loosely understood), while historians are (usually) not. It is for this reason that social scientists should not leave archival research to the historians!

When to Use Archival Materials

As mentioned above, sometimes the people we want to hear from or observe are simply not available to us. This may be because they are no longer living or because they are unwilling or unable to be part of a research study, as in the case of elites (e.g., CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, political leaders and other public figures, the very wealthy). In both cases, you might wonder about the ethics of studying people who have not given written consent to be studied. But using archival and historical sources as your research data is not the same thing as studying persons (“human subjects”). When we use archival and historical sources, we are examining the traces that people and institutions have left. Institutional review boards (IRBs) do not have jurisdiction in this area, although we still want to consider the ethics of our research and try to respect privacy and confidentiality when warranted.

In addition to using archival and historical sources when people are inaccessible, there are other reasons we might want to collect this data. First, we may want to explore the generalized discourse about a phenomenon. [3] For example, perhaps we want to understand the historical context of the 2016 US presidential election, so we think it is important to go back in time and collect data that will more vividly paint a picture of how people at the time were evaluating and experiencing the election. We might use archives to collect data about what people were saying about the third presidential debate in 2016 between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are many ways we could go about doing that. We could sample local and national newspapers and collect op-eds and letters to the editor about the debate. Perhaps we can get Twitter feeds #thirddebate , or perhaps some librarian in 2016 collected oral histories of people’s reactions the day after. Unlike previous person-focused qualitative research strategies, where we carefully create a research design that allows us to construct data through questioning and observing, we will spend our time tracking down data and finding out what possibly exists.

A second (or third) reason to employ these archival and historical sources is that we are interested in the historical “record” as the phenomenon itself. We want to know what was written down by Acme Company in letters to its shareholders from 1945 to 1960 about its Acme Pocket Sled (which had the unfortunate habit of accelerating and hurling its bearers off cliffs). [4] Our interest here is not in any particular human subject but in the record left by the company. If we were forced to employ interviews or observational methods to get this record, we could interview current and former employees of Acme or shareholders who received letters from the company, but all of this would actually be second best because what the employees and shareholders remember would probably be nowhere near as accurate as what the records reflect. I once did a study of the development of US political party platforms over the course of the nineteenth century, using a huge volume I randomly found in the library ( Hurst 2010b ). The volume recorded each party’s platform by election year, so I could trace how parties talked about and included “class” and “class inequality” in their platforms. This allowed me to show how third parties pushed the two major parties toward some recognition of labor rights over time. There was obviously no way to get at this information through interviews or observations.

Finally, archival and historical sources are often used to supplement other qualitative data collection as a form of verification through triangulation. Perhaps you interviewed several Starbucks employees in 2021 about their experiences working for the company, particularly how the company responded to labor organizing attempts. You might also search official Starbucks company records to compare and contrast the official line with the experience of workers. Alternatively, you could collect media coverage of local organizing campaigns that might include quotes or statements from Starbucks representatives. The best and most convincing qualitative researchers often employ archival and historical material in this way. In addition to providing verification through triangulation, supplementing your data with these sources can deepen contextualization. I encourage you to think about what possible archival and historical sources could strengthen any interview or observational-based study you are designing. [5]

How to Find Archival and Historical Sources

People and institutions leave traces in a variety of ways. This section documents some of those ways with the hope that the possibilities listed here will inspire you to explore further.

It might help to distinguish between public and private sources. Many public archives have dedicated web addresses so you can search them from anywhere. More on those below. Private individuals are more likely to have donated personal information to particular archives, perhaps the archival center associated with the college they attended. Famous and not-so-famous people’s diaries and letters are often searchable in particular university archives. Each former US president has his (!) own dedicated national archive. Towns and cities often house interesting historical records in their public libraries. Archivists and librarians at special archives have often done monumental work creating and curating collections of various kinds. Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is no exception. In addition to a ton of material related to the history of the university, including private diaries of students, financial aid records, and photographs of carpentry classes from the nineteenth century, the librarians have documented the experiences of LGBTQ people within OSU and Corvallis, the history of hops and brewing in the Northwest, and the history of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, especially around agriculture and forestry.

Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives, The Douglas Strain Reading Room.

It can be overwhelming to think about where to start. Being strategic about your use of archival and historical material is often a large part of an effective research plan. Here are some options for kinds of materials to explore:

Public archives include the following:

  • Commercial media accounts . These are anything written, drawn, or recorded that is produced for a general audience, including newspapers, books, magazines, television program transcripts, drawn comics, and so on.
  • Where to find these: special collections, online newspaper/magazine databases, collected publications [6]
  • Examples: Time Magazine Vault is completely free and covers everything the magazine published from 1923 to today; Harper’s Magazine archives go back to 1859; Internet Archive’s Ebony collection is a wealth of historically important images and stories about African American life in the twentieth century and covers the magazine from 1945 to 2015.
  • Actuarial and military records . These include birth and death records, records of marriages and divorces, applications for insurance and credit, military service records, and cemeteries (gravestones).
  • Where to find these: state archives/state vital records offices, US Census / government agencies, US National Archives
  • Examples: USAgov/genealogy will help you walk through the ordering of various vital records related to ancestry; US Census 1950 includes information on household size and occupation for all persons living in the US in 1950; [7] your local historical cemetery will have lots of information recorded on gravestones of possible historical use, as the case where deaths are clustered around a particular point in time or where military service is involved.
  • Official and quasi-official documentary records . These include organization meeting minutes, reports to shareholders, interoffice memos, company emails, company newsletters, and so on.
  • Where to find these: Historical records are often donated to a special collection or are even included in an official online database. More recent records may have been “leaked” to the public, as in the case of the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016 or the Panama (2016) and Pandora (2021) Papers leaks. The National Archives are also a great source for official documentary records of the US and its various organizations and branches (e.g., Supreme Court, US Patent Office).
  • Examples: The Forest History Society’s Weyerhauser Collection holds correspondences, director and executive files, branch and region files, advertising materials, oral histories, scrapbooks, publications, photographs, and audio/visual items documenting the activities of the Pacific Northwest timber company from its inception in 1864 through to 2010; the National Archive’s Lewis and Clark documents include presidential correspondences and a list of “presents” received from Native Americans.
  • Governmental and legislative documentary records
  • Where to find these: National Archives, state archives, Library of Congress, governmental agency records (often available in public libraries)
  • Example: Records of the Supreme Court of the United States are housed in the National Archives and include scrapbooks from 1880 to 1935 on microfilm, sound recordings, and case files going back to 1792.

Private archives include the following:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs . These might have been published, but they are just as likely to have been written for oneself or one’s family, with no intention of publication. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: if not published, special collections and archives
  • Example: John Adger McCrary graduated from Clemson University in 1898, where he received a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. After graduation, he was stationed at the Washington Navy Yard as senior mechanical engineer. He donated a 1939 unpublished memoir regarding the early days of Clemson College, which includes a description of the first dormitory being built by convict labor.
  • Diaries and letters . These are probably not intended for publication; rather, they are contemporaneous private accounts and correspondences. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress for notable persons’ diaries and letters
  • Examples: Abraham Lincoln’s Papers housed in the Library of Congress; Diary of Ella Mae Cloake , an OSU student, from 1941 to 1944, documenting her daily activities as a high school and college student in Oregon during World War II, located in OSU Special Collections and Archives
  • Home movies, videos, photographs of various kinds . These include drawings and sketches, recordings of places seen and visited, scrapbooks, and other ephemera. People leave traces in various forms, so it is best not to confine yourself solely to what has been written.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian
  • Example: The McMenamins Brewery Collection at OSU SCARC includes digitized brew sheets, digital images, brochures, coasters, decals, event programs, flyers, newspaper clippings, tap handles, posters, labels, a wooden cask, and a six-pack of Hammerhead beer.
  • Oral histories . Oral histories are recorded and often transcribed interviews of various persons for purposes of historic documentation. To the untrained eye, they appear to be qualitative “interviews,” but they are in fact specifically excluded from IRB jurisdiction because their purpose is documentation, not research.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives; Smithsonian
  • Examples: Many archivists and librarians are involved in the collecting of such oral histories, often with a particular theme in mind or to strengthen a particular collection. For example, OSU’s SCARC has an Oregon Multicultural Archive, which includes oral histories that document the experiences and perspectives of people of color in Oregon. The Smithsonian is another great resource on a wide variety of historical events and persons.

How to Find Special Collections and Archives

Although much material has been “digitized” and is thus searchable online, the vast majority of private archival material, including ephemera like scrapbooks and beer coasters, is only available “on site.” Qualitative researchers who employ archival and historical sources must often travel to special collections to find the material they are interested in. Often, the material they want has never really been looked at by another researcher. It may belong to a general catalog entry (such as “Student Scrapbooks, 1930–1950”). For official records at the city or county level, travel to the records office or local public library is often required to access the desired material. You will want to consider what kinds of material are available and what kinds of access are required for that material in your research plan.

The good news is that, even if much material has not been digitized, there are general searchable databases for most archives. If you have a particular topic of interest, you can run a general web search and include the topic and “archives” or “special collection.” The more public and well known the entity, the more likely you will find digitally available material or special collections dedicated to the person or phenomenon. Or you might find an archive housed one thousand miles away that is happy to work with you on a visit. Some researchers become very familiar with a particular collection or database and tend to rely on that in their research. As you gain experience with historical documents, you will find it easier to narrow down your searches. One great place to start, though, is your college or university archives. And the librarians who work there will be more than happy to help answer your questions about both the particular collections housed there and how to do archival research in general.

What to Do with All That Content

Once you have found a collection or body of material, what do you do with that? Analyzing content will be discussed in some detail in chapter 17, but for now, let’s think about what can be made of this kind of material and what cannot. As Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) suggested, using historical material or traces left by people is sometimes second best to actually talking to people or observing them in action. We have to be very clear about recognizing the limitations of what we find in the archives.

First, not everything produced manages to survive the ravages of time. Without digitization, historical records are vulnerable to a host of destroyers. Some vital records get destroyed when the local registry burns down, for example. Some memoirs or diaries are destroyed from mildew while sitting in a box in the basement. Photographs get torn up. Boxes of records get accidentally thrown in the garbage. We call this the historical-trace problem. What we have in front of us is thus probably not the entire record of whatever it is we are looking for.

Second, what gets collected is itself often related to who has power and who is perceived as being worthy of recording and collection. This is why projects like OSU’s multicultural archives are so important, as librarians intervene to ensure that it is not only the stories (diaries, papers) of the powerful that are found in the archives. If one were to read all the newspaper editorials from the nineteenth century, one would learn a lot about particular White men’s thoughts on current events but very little from women or people of color or working-class people. This is the power problem of archives, and we need to be aware of it, especially when we are using historical material to build a context of what a time or place was like. What it was like for whom always needs to be properly addressed.

Third, there are issues related to truth telling and audience. There are no at-the-moment credibility checks on the materials you find in archives. Although we think people tend to write honestly in their personal journals, we don’t actually know if this is the case—what about the person who expected to be famous and writes for an imagined posterity? There could be significant gaps and even falsehoods in such an account. People can lie to themselves too, which is something qualitative researchers know well (and partly the reason ethnographers favor observation over interviews). Despite the absence of credibility checks, historical documents sometimes appear more honest simply by having survived for so long. It is important to remember that they are prone to all the same problems as contemporaneously collected data. A diary by a planter in South Carolina in the 1840s is no more and often less truthful to the facts than an interview would have been had it been possible. Newspapers and magazines have always targeted particular audiences—a fact we understand about our own media (e.g., Fox News is hardly “fair and balanced” toward Democrats) but something we are prone to overlook when reading historic media stories.

Whenever using archival or historical sources, then, it is important to clearly identify and state the limitations of their use and any intended audience. In the case of diaries of Southern planters from the 1840s, “This is the story we get told from the point of view of relatively elite White men whose work was collected and safeguarded (and not destroyed) for posterity.” Or in the case of a Harper’s Magazine story from the 1950s, “This is an understanding of Eisenhower politics by a liberal magazine read by a relatively well-educated and affluent audience.”

Collecting the data for an archival-based study is just the beginning. Once you have downloaded all the advertisements from Men’s Health or compiled all the tweets put out on January 6 or scanned all the photographs of the childcare center in the 1950s, you will need to start “analyzing” it. What does that analysis entail? That is the subject of our next several chapters.

Further Readings

Baker, Alan R. H. 1997. “‘The Dead Don’t Answer Questionnaires’: Researching and Writing Historical Geography.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21(2):231–243. Among other things, this article discusses the problems associated with making geographical interpretations from historical sources.

Benzecry, Claudio, Andrew Deener, and Armando Lara-Millán. 2020. “Archival Work as Qualitative Sociology.” Qualitative Sociology 43:297–303. An editorial foreword to an issue of Qualitative Sociology dedicated to archival research briefly describing included articles (many of which you may want to read). Distinguishes the “heroic moment of data accumulation” from the “ascetic and sober exercise of distancing oneself from the data, analyzing it, and communicating the meaning to others.” For advanced students only.

Bloch, Marc. 1954. The Historian’s Craft . Manchester: Manchester University Press. A classic midcentury statement of what history is and does from a research perspective. Bloch’s particular understanding and approach to history has resonance for social science too.

Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. 1994. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60 . Urbana: University of Illinois Press.* Using corporate records, published advertisements, and congressional testimony (among other sources), Fones-Wolf builds an impressive account of a coordinated corporate campaign against labor unions and working people in the postwar years.

Hill, Michael R. 1993. Archival Strategies and Techniques . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. Guidebook to archival research. For advanced students.

Moore, Niamh, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley, and Maria Tamboukou. 2017. The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences . London: Routledge. An advanced collection of essays on various methodological ideas and debates in archival research.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.* A difficult but rewarding read for advanced students. Using archives in Indonesia, Stoler explores the history of colonialism and the making of racialized classes while also proposing and demonstrating innovative archival methodologies.

Wilder, Craig Stevens. 2014. Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities . London: Bloomsbury.* Although perhaps more history than social science, this is a great example of using university archival data to tell a story about national development, racism, and the role of universities.

  • This is where the word idiot comes from as well; in Ancient Greece, failing to participate in collective democracy making was seen as “idiotic”—or, put another way, selfish. ↵
  • This word also comes from Greek roots, although it was created recently (we often rummage around in Ancient Greek and Latin when we come up with new concepts!). In Greek, nomos (νομος) means “law.” The use here makes much of the generation of laws or regularities about the social world in the sense of Newton’s “law” of gravity. ↵
  • If this is your interest, see also chapter 17, “Content Analysis”! ↵
  • For those of you too young to remember, this was a standard plot of Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote ( Frazier 1990 ). ↵
  • Note that this would be an example of strength through multiple methods rather than strength through mixed methods (chapter 15). The former deepens the contextualization, while the latter increases the overall validity of the findings. ↵
  • Such as that volume of party platforms I stumbled across in the library! ↵
  • US Census material becomes available to the public seventy years after collection; Census data from the 1950s recently became available for the very first time. ↵

A form of social science research that generally follows the scientific method as established in the natural sciences.  In contrast to idiographic research , the nomothetic researcher looks for general patterns and “laws” of human behavior and social relationships.  Once discovered, these patterns and laws will be expected to be widely applicable.  Quantitative social science research is nomothetic because it seeks to generalize findings from samples to larger populations.  Most qualitative social science research is also nomothetic, although generalizability is here understood to be theoretical in nature rather than statistical .  Some qualitative researchers, however, espouse the idiographic research paradigm instead.

An administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the auspices of the institution with which it is affiliated. The IRB is charged with the responsibility of reviewing all research involving human participants. The IRB is concerned with protecting the welfare, rights, and privacy of human subjects. The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, monitor, and require modifications in all research activities that fall within its jurisdiction as specified by both the federal regulations and institutional policy.

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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Perspectives Daily

Why Study History? Revisited

Peter N. Stearns | Sep 18, 2020

Over two decades ago I was asked to write a pamphlet for the AHA on the reasons to study history . I emphasized the variety of skills involved in history learning, from writing and developing arguments, to assessing evidence, to dealing with the phenomenon of change over time. The essay has been fairly widely used and consistently ranks among the AHA’s most popular webpages.

A rationale for studying history today must acknowledge both the serious challenges to the discipline and the dynamic changes within the discipline that have developed over the past quarter century.

A rationale for studying history today must acknowledge both the serious challenges to the discipline and the dynamic changes within the discipline that have developed over the past quarter century. Flickr/Bob Casey/CC BY-NC 2.0

Recently the London Publishing Partnership asked me to return to the topic with a British colleague, Marcus Collins. The resultant booklet, just released as Why Study History?   gave us a chance to reflect on the ways justifying the study of history must now be reframed. Reviewing a past argument is inevitably somewhat chastening—what might have been better anticipated earlier on? Happily, however, some elements still stand up fairly well. 

A rationale for studying history today must acknowledge both the serious challenges to the discipline and the dynamic changes within the discipline that have developed over the past quarter century. The more utilitarian climate for higher education and the changing nature of the student body must be addressed, aided by the abundant data about the career outcomes of the history major now available. But the substantial transformation of historical research and methodology has also enhanced the ways we can explain our discipline to a student audience. Finally, additional decades of teaching and reflection, plus the good thinking available from colleagues including history learning experts, inevitably alters, and hopefully improves, the presentation as well. 

As Marcus and I considered how to update the argument for history, we began with the recognition that the struggle for enrollments has become far more demanding than was the case in the 1990s. Changes in the economy plus rising student debt have greatly altered the context for promoting the field, while the presence of more first-generation learners enhances the need to address the practical results of studying a discipline like history.

This means, most obviously, that no one advocating for the study of history today can avoid explicit discussion of the kinds of job opportunities that result from a history degree. We can no longer rely on a presentation of the strengths of history education alone. Students, and those who advise them, need to know the practical results of their commitment. The amount of misinformation that has entered public discourse ever since the Great Recession about the career risk of any concentration beyond a STEM degree compels this new focus as well. Fortunately, the news is quite good on this score. Data on rates of employment, clearly competitive pay levels, and job satisfaction all make it clear that the varied careers of history majors rival those of science and business majors. Studying history is a valid professional choice, and we now need to say this vigorously.

No one advocating for the study of history today can avoid explicit discussion of the kinds of jobs that result from a history degree.

Job data alone, however, are not the only spur to a revised approach. The discipline itself has changed greatly over the past quarter century. Several of the new trends contribute directly to professional outcomes: the emergence of public history and digital history most obviously. But the disciplinary shifts also spur student interest directly, providing new ways to explain the connections between historical study and a growing variety of social and personal concerns. 

The capacity of history to explore a wide range of topics and to generate new knowledge is something that many students, based on their high school experience, do not fully realize. Many school history programs have simply shrunk, while others have been constrained by new pressures to teach for a test. To attract students, it is vital to illustrate the dynamic features of our discipline. For an increasingly diverse student body, history offers the opportunity to explore different races, regions, and genders, as part of a fuller understanding of the past. This is a vital and valid part of our argument, far more obvious now than it was a few decades back. More broadly still, building on the AHA’s informal motto—“everything has a history”—can be an exciting revelation to many students, part of a sense of seeing the study of history as a process of discovery. 

This aspect of our discipline extends to insisting, more clearly than seemed necessary a few decades ago, on the links between historical findings and contemporary issues. The early stages of the coronavirus gave us a chance to highlight the value of historical data and perspectives during a time of great uncertainty. Identifying historical precedents but also emphasizing what has changed since the last comparable experience both show the value of “thinking historically” about the world around us. The same holds true for topics like systemic racism (and racial protest) or political polarization. 

Any current explanation of the reasons to study history must, then, take into account employment concerns; a changing student body, faced with a number of new problems; but also the several ways in which the discipline itself has expanded its range—a challenging but exciting combination. 

It is vital to invite students to appreciate the joy of history learning.

With all this, the core argument about basic historical thinking skills—the main thrust of the earlier essay—has not greatly changed. Experience in handling varied data, building critical thinking, enhancing the capacity to understand change—these remain our building blocks, connecting directly to the kinds of career success that history majors enjoy.

Even here, however, minor changes were desirable. Making sure students themselves understand history skills is more important than was the case in 1998, not just in attracting them to the discipline, but in improving their ability to explain their qualifications to potential employers. Experience with data contributes measurably to the greater ability of history students in identifying “fake news,” another contemporary strength. The classic lesson, about learning from past mistakes, remains at least as important as ever, but we can also note the opportunity to learn from more positive outcomes in the past, for example by exploring causes of economic growth or factors that enhance social tolerance.

Overall, it is both possible and necessary to offer a wider argument for the reasons to study history than seemed necessary a quarter century ago. Yet along with the new components, a commitment to the importance of history and its role in constructive citizenship remains very much intact. And for all the essential bows to pragmatism, it is vital as well to invite students to appreciate the joy of history learning; here, too, opportunities have if anything expanded with time. 

Additional resources from the AHA:

Reflecting the wide range of the authors' experiences in work, civic engagement, and teaching, these 2018 essays suggest some of the many opportunities that studying history can offer students.

  • John Fea, " The History Major: Opening Doors to Life in a Global Economy "
  • Johann Neem, " Connecting Past to Present: The History Major in Our Communities "
  • Claire Potter, " An Education to Last a Lifetime: Conversations with the Past, Stories for the Present "
  • John Rowe, " What Employers Want: Thoughts from a History BA in Business "
  • Sarah Shurts, " The Landscape after College: Putting Your History Skills to Work "
  • Frank Valadez, " The Well-Rounded History Graduate: Professional Citizen, Human "

Peter N. Stearns is university professor of history and provost emeritus at George Mason University. He Tweets @StearnsPeter.

Tags: Perspectives Daily Teaching & Learning K-16 Education Teaching Resources and Strategies The History Major

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Educational Research Basics by Del Siegle

Historical research.

 Del Siegle, Ph.D. University of Connecticut [email protected] www.delsiegle.info

updated 2/01/2024

what is the importance of historical research

Why Study History?

For a great many people, history is a set of facts, a collection of events, a series of things that happened, one after another, in the past. In fact, history is far more than these things-- it is a way of thinking about and seeing the world.

T o genuinely make sense of the past, you need to learn how to see it on its own terms, how to make the strange and unfamiliar logical and comprehensible, and how to empathize with people who once thought so differently than we do today. If you learn how to do these things, you begin to cultivate a crucial set of skills that not only help navigate the past, but the present as well. Once you can see the things that history teaches you, once you know how to penetrate unfamiliar modes of thought and behavior and can understand their inner logic, it becomes easier to make sense of the modern world and the diverse peoples and ideas that you will confront within it.

It might seem counterintuitive that one of the best ways to illuminate the present is by studying the past, but that is precisely why history can be so important. When we appreciate that history is not, first and foremost, a body of knowledge, but rather a way of thinking, it becomes a particularly powerful tool.  Not everyone may choose to become a historian. Yet, whatever career you choose,  knowing how to think historically will help.  

By taking History courses at Stanford, you will develop

  • critical, interpretive thinking skills through in-depth analysis of primary and secondary source materials.

the ability to identify different types of sources of historical knowledge.

analytical writing skills and close reading skills.

effective oral communication skills.

History coursework at Stanford is supported by mentorship from our world-class faculty and by unique research opportunities. These experiences enable undergraduate students to pursue successful careers in business, journalism, public service, law, education, government, medicine, and more.   Learn what Stanford History majors and minors are doing after graduation .

Undergraduate Program

We offer the following degree options to Stanford undergraduate students:

Undergraduate Major : Become a historian and chart your path through the B.A. in consultation with your major advisor. 

Honors in History :  Join a passionate group of History majors who conduct in-depth research with Stanford faculty.

Undergraduate Minor : Complete six eligible courses for a minor in History.

  Co-terminal Masters:   Join the selective group of Stanford undergraduates who explore their passion in History before entering graduate school or professional life.

How to Declare

The first step in becoming a History major is finding a Faculty Advisor.  The best way to find an advisor is simply to take a variety of History courses, drop in during faculty office hours, and introduce yourself as a prospective History major. Faculty are happy to suggest coursework and to offer counsel. You are also welcome to reach out to our undergraduate Peer Advisors about how to navigate Stanford History.  Learn more about how to declare .

Herodotus: An Undergraduate Journal

Herodotus is a student-run publication founded in 1986 by  the History Undergraduate Student Association (HUGSA). It bears the name of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, the 5th century BCE historian of the Greco-Persian Wars. Based on a rigorous, supportive peer-review process, the journal preserves and features the best undergraduate research conducted in the department. Browse Herodotus

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Historical Research [without getting hysterical!] In addition to being a scholarly investigation, research is a social activity intended to create new knowledge. Historical research is your informed response to the questions that you ask while examining the record of human experience. These questions may concern such elements as looking at an event or topic, examining events that lead to the event in question, social influences, key players, and other contextual information. This step-by-step guide progresses from an introduction to historical resources to information about how to identify a topic, craft a thesis and develop a research paper. Table of contents: The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Secondary Sources Primary Sources Historical Analysis What is it? Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Choose a Topic Craft a Thesis Evaluate Thesis and Sources A Variety of Information Sources Take Efficient Notes Note Cards Thinking, Organizing, Researching Parenthetical Documentation Prepare a Works Cited Page Drafting, Revising, Rewriting, Rethinking For Further Reading: Works Cited Additional Links So you want to study history?! Tons of help and links Slatta Home Page Use the Writing and other links on the lefhand menu I. The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Back to Top Every period leaves traces, what historians call "sources" or evidence. Some are more credible or carry more weight than others; judging the differences is a vital skill developed by good historians. Sources vary in perspective, so knowing who created the information you are examining is vital. Anonymous doesn't make for a very compelling source. For example, an FBI report on the antiwar movement, prepared for U.S. President Richard Nixon, probably contained secrets that at the time were thought to have affected national security. It would not be usual, however, for a journalist's article about a campus riot, featured in a local newspaper, to leak top secret information. Which source would you read? It depends on your research topic. If you're studying how government officials portrayed student activists, you'll want to read the FBI report and many more documents from other government agencies such as the CIA and the National Security Council. If you're investigating contemporary opinion of pro-war and anti-war activists, local newspaper accounts provide a rich resource. You'd want to read a variety of newspapers to ensure you're covering a wide range of opinions (rural/urban, left/right, North/South, Soldier/Draft-dodger, etc). Historians classify sources into two major categories: primary and secondary sources. Secondary Sources Back to Top Definition: Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, to familiarize ourselves with a topic, and compare that topic with other events in history. In refining a research topic, we often begin with secondary sources. This helps us identify gaps or conflicts in the existing scholarly literature that might prove promsing topics. Types: History books, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and academic (scholarly) articles are secondary sources. To help you determine the status of a given secondary source, see How to identify and nagivate scholarly literature . Examples: Historian Marilyn Young's (NYU) book about the Vietnam War is a secondary source. She did not participate in the war. Her study is not based on her personal experience but on the evidence she culled from a variety of sources she found in the United States and Vietnam. Primary Sources Back to Top Definition: Primary sources emanate from individuals or groups who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the event. They include speeches, memoirs, diaries, letters, telegrams, emails, proclamations, government documents, and much more. Examples: A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source. II. Historical Analysis What is it? Back to Top No matter what you read, whether it's a primary source or a secondary source, you want to know who authored the source (a trusted scholar? A controversial historian? A propagandist? A famous person? An ordinary individual?). "Author" refers to anyone who created information in any medium (film, sound, or text). You also need to know when it was written and the kind of audience the author intend to reach. You should also consider what you bring to the evidence that you examine. Are you inductively following a path of evidence, developing your interpretation based on the sources? Do you have an ax to grind? Did you begin your research deductively, with your mind made up before even seeing the evidence. Historians need to avoid the latter and emulate the former. To read more about the distinction, examine the difference between Intellectual Inquirers and Partisan Ideologues . In the study of history, perspective is everything. A letter written by a twenty- year old Vietnam War protestor will differ greatly from a letter written by a scholar of protest movements. Although the sentiment might be the same, the perspective and influences of these two authors will be worlds apart. Practicing the " 5 Ws " will avoid the confusion of the authority trap. Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Back to Top Historians accumulate evidence (information, including facts, stories, interpretations, opinions, statements, reports, etc.) from a variety of sources (primary and secondary). They must also verify that certain key pieces of information are corroborated by a number of people and sources ("the predonderance of evidence"). The historian poses the " 5 Ws " to every piece of information he examines: Who is the historical actor? When did the event take place? Where did it occur? What did it entail and why did it happen the way it did? The " 5 Ws " can also be used to evaluate a primary source. Who authored the work? When was it created? Where was it created, published, and disseminated? Why was it written (the intended audience), and what is the document about (what points is the author making)? If you know the answers to these five questions, you can analyze any document, and any primary source. The historian doesn't look for the truth, since this presumes there is only one true story. The historian tries to understand a number of competing viewpoints to form his or her own interpretation-- what constitutes the best explanation of what happened and why. By using as wide a range of primary source documents and secondary sources as possible, you will add depth and richness to your historical analysis. The more exposure you, the researcher, have to a number of different sources and differing view points, the more you have a balanced and complete view about a topic in history. This view will spark more questions and ultimately lead you into the quest to unravel more clues about your topic. You are ready to start assembling information for your research paper. III. Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Back to Top Because your purpose is to create new knowledge while recognizing those scholars whose existing work has helped you in this pursuit, you are honor bound never to commit the following academic sins: Plagiarism: Literally "kidnapping," involving the use of someone else's words as if they were your own (Gibaldi 6). To avoid plagiarism you must document direct quotations, paraphrases, and original ideas not your own. Recycling: Rehashing material you already know thoroughly or, without your professor's permission, submitting a paper that you have completed for another course. Premature cognitive commitment: Academic jargon for deciding on a thesis too soon and then seeking information to serve that thesis rather than embarking on a genuine search for new knowledge. Choose a Topic Back to Top "Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them." --Samuel Butler Choosing a topic is the first step in the pursuit of a thesis. Below is a logical progression from topic to thesis: Close reading of the primary text, aided by secondary sources Growing awareness of interesting qualities within the primary text Choosing a topic for research Asking productive questions that help explore and evaluate a topic Creating a research hypothesis Revising and refining a hypothesis to form a working thesis First, and most important, identify what qualities in the primary or secondary source pique your imagination and curiosity and send you on a search for answers. Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive levels provides a description of productive questions asked by critical thinkers. While the lower levels (knowledge, comprehension) are necessary to a good history essay, aspire to the upper three levels (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). Skimming reference works such as encyclopedias, books, critical essays and periodical articles can help you choose a topic that evolves into a hypothesis, which in turn may lead to a thesis. One approach to skimming involves reading the first paragraph of a secondary source to locate and evaluate the author's thesis. Then for a general idea of the work's organization and major ideas read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Read the conclusion carefully, as it usually presents a summary (Barnet and Bedau 19). Craft a Thesis Back to Top Very often a chosen topic is too broad for focused research. You must revise it until you have a working hypothesis, that is, a statement of an idea or an approach with respect to the source that could form the basis for your thesis. Remember to not commit too soon to any one hypothesis. Use it as a divining rod or a first step that will take you to new information that may inspire you to revise your hypothesis. Be flexible. Give yourself time to explore possibilities. The hypothesis you create will mature and shift as you write and rewrite your paper. New questions will send you back to old and on to new material. Remember, this is the nature of research--it is more a spiraling or iterative activity than a linear one. Test your working hypothesis to be sure it is: broad enough to promise a variety of resources. narrow enough for you to research in depth. original enough to interest you and your readers. worthwhile enough to offer information and insights of substance "do-able"--sources are available to complete the research. Now it is time to craft your thesis, your revised and refined hypothesis. A thesis is a declarative sentence that: focuses on one well-defined idea makes an arguable assertion; it is capable of being supported prepares your readers for the body of your paper and foreshadows the conclusion. Evaluate Thesis and Sources Back to Top Like your hypothesis, your thesis is not carved in stone. You are in charge. If necessary, revise it during the research process. As you research, continue to evaluate both your thesis for practicality, originality, and promise as a search tool, and secondary sources for relevance and scholarliness. The following are questions to ask during the research process: Are there many journal articles and entire books devoted to the thesis, suggesting that the subject has been covered so thoroughly that there may be nothing new to say? Does the thesis lead to stimulating, new insights? Are appropriate sources available? Is there a variety of sources available so that the bibliography or works cited page will reflect different kinds of sources? Which sources are too broad for my thesis? Which resources are too narrow? Who is the author of the secondary source? Does the critic's background suggest that he/she is qualified? After crafting a thesis, consider one of the following two approaches to writing a research paper: Excited about your thesis and eager to begin? Return to the primary or secondary source to find support for your thesis. Organize ideas and begin writing your first draft. After writing the first draft, have it reviewed by your peers and your instructor. Ponder their suggestions and return to the sources to answer still-open questions. Document facts and opinions from secondary sources. Remember, secondary sources can never substitute for primary sources. Confused about where to start? Use your thesis to guide you to primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources can help you clarify your position and find a direction for your paper. Keep a working bibliography. You may not use all the sources you record, but you cannot be sure which ones you will eventually discard. Create a working outline as you research. This outline will, of course, change as you delve more deeply into your subject. A Variety of Information Sources Back to Top "A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension." --Oliver Wendell Holmes Your thesis and your working outline are the primary compasses that will help you navigate the variety of sources available. In "Introduction to the Library" (5-6) the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers suggests you become familiar with the library you will be using by: taking a tour or enrolling for a brief introductory lecture referring to the library's publications describing its resources introducing yourself and your project to the reference librarian The MLA Handbook also lists guides for the use of libraries (5), including: Jean Key Gates, Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Sources (7th ed., New York: McGraw, 1994). Thomas Mann, A Guide to Library Research Methods (New York: Oxford UP, 1987). Online Central Catalog Most libraries have their holdings listed on a computer. The online catalog may offer Internet sites, Web pages and databases that relate to the university's curriculum. It may also include academic journals and online reference books. Below are three search techniques commonly used online: Index Search: Although online catalogs may differ slightly from library to library, the most common listings are by: Subject Search: Enter the author's name for books and article written about the author. Author Search: Enter an author's name for works written by the author, including collections of essays the author may have written about his/her own works. Title Search: Enter a title for the screen to list all the books the library carries with that title. Key Word Search/Full-text Search: A one-word search, e.g., 'Kennedy,' will produce an overwhelming number of sources, as it will call up any entry that includes the name 'Kennedy.' To focus more narrowly on your subject, add one or more key words, e.g., "John Kennedy, Peace Corps." Use precise key words. Boolean Search: Boolean Search techniques use words such as "and," "or," and "not," which clarify the relationship between key words, thus narrowing the search. Take Efficient Notes Back to Top Keeping complete and accurate bibliography and note cards during the research process is a time (and sanity) saving practice. If you have ever needed a book or pages within a book, only to discover that an earlier researcher has failed to return it or torn pages from your source, you understand the need to take good notes. Every researcher has a favorite method for taking notes. Here are some suggestions-- customize one of them for your own use. Bibliography cards There may be far more books and articles listed than you have time to read, so be selective when choosing a reference. Take information from works that clearly relate to your thesis, remembering that you may not use them all. Use a smaller or a different color card from the one used for taking notes. Write a bibliography card for every source. Number the bibliography cards. On the note cards, use the number rather than the author's name and the title. It's faster. Another method for recording a working bibliography, of course, is to create your own database. Adding, removing, and alphabetizing titles is a simple process. Be sure to save often and to create a back-up file. A bibliography card should include all the information a reader needs to locate that particular source for further study. Most of the information required for a book entry (Gibaldi 112): Author's name Title of a part of the book [preface, chapter titles, etc.] Title of the book Name of the editor, translator, or compiler Edition used Number(s) of the volume(s) used Name of the series Place of publication, name of the publisher, and date of publication Page numbers Supplementary bibliographic information and annotations Most of the information required for an article in a periodical (Gibaldi 141): Author's name Title of the article Name of the periodical Series number or name (if relevant) Volume number (for a scholarly journal) Issue number (if needed) Date of publication Page numbers Supplementary information For information on how to cite other sources refer to your So you want to study history page . Note Cards Back to Top Take notes in ink on either uniform note cards (3x5, 4x6, etc.) or uniform slips of paper. Devote each note card to a single topic identified at the top. Write only on one side. Later, you may want to use the back to add notes or personal observations. Include a topical heading for each card. Include the number of the page(s) where you found the information. You will want the page number(s) later for documentation, and you may also want page number(s)to verify your notes. Most novice researchers write down too much. Condense. Abbreviate. You are striving for substance, not quantity. Quote directly from primary sources--but the "meat," not everything. Suggestions for condensing information: Summary: A summary is intended to provide the gist of an essay. Do not weave in the author's choice phrases. Read the information first and then condense the main points in your own words. This practice will help you avoid the copying that leads to plagiarism. Summarizing also helps you both analyze the text you are reading and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses (Barnet and Bedau 13). Outline: Use to identify a series of points. Paraphrase, except for key primary source quotations. Never quote directly from a secondary source, unless the precise wording is essential to your argument. Simplify the language and list the ideas in the same order. A paraphrase is as long as the original. Paraphrasing is helpful when you are struggling with a particularly difficult passage. Be sure to jot down your own insights or flashes of brilliance. Ralph Waldo Emerson warns you to "Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen on your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, disappear...." To differentiate these insights from those of the source you are reading, initial them as your own. (When the following examples of note cards include the researcher's insights, they will be followed by the initials N. R.) When you have finished researching your thesis and you are ready to write your paper, organize your cards according to topic. Notecards make it easy to shuffle and organize your source information on a table-- or across the floor. Maintain your working outline that includes the note card headings and explores a logical order for presenting them in your paper. IV. Begin Thinking, Researching, Organizing Back to Top Don't be too sequential. Researching, writing, revising is a complex interactive process. Start writing as soon as possible! "The best antidote to writer's block is--to write." (Klauser 15). However, you still feel overwhelmed and are staring at a blank page, you are not alone. Many students find writing the first sentence to be the most daunting part of the entire research process. Be creative. Cluster (Rico 28-49). Clustering is a form of brainstorming. Sometimes called a web, the cluster forms a design that may suggest a natural organization for a paper. Here's a graphical depiction of brainstorming . Like a sun, the generating idea or topic lies at the center of the web. From it radiate words, phrases, sentences and images that in turn attract other words, phrases, sentences and images. Put another way--stay focused. Start with your outline. If clustering is not a technique that works for you, turn to the working outline you created during the research process. Use the outline view of your word processor. If you have not already done so, group your note cards according to topic headings. Compare them to your outline's major points. If necessary, change the outline to correspond with the headings on the note cards. If any area seems weak because of a scarcity of facts or opinions, return to your primary and/or secondary sources for more information or consider deleting that heading. Use your outline to provide balance in your essay. Each major topic should have approximately the same amount of information. Once you have written a working outline, consider two different methods for organizing it. Deduction: A process of development that moves from the general to the specific. You may use this approach to present your findings. However, as noted above, your research and interpretive process should be inductive. Deduction is the most commonly used form of organization for a research paper. The thesis statement is the generalization that leads to the specific support provided by primary and secondary sources. The thesis is stated early in the paper. The body of the paper then proceeds to provide the facts, examples, and analogies that flow logically from that thesis. The thesis contains key words that are reflected in the outline. These key words become a unifying element throughout the paper, as they reappear in the detailed paragraphs that support and develop the thesis. The conclusion of the paper circles back to the thesis, which is now far more meaningful because of the deductive development that supports it. Chronological order A process that follows a traditional time line or sequence of events. A chronological organization is useful for a paper that explores cause and effect. Parenthetical Documentation Back to Top The Works Cited page, a list of primary and secondary sources, is not sufficient documentation to acknowledge the ideas, facts, and opinions you have included within your text. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers describes an efficient parenthetical style of documentation to be used within the body of your paper. Guidelines for parenthetical documentation: "References to the text must clearly point to specific sources in the list of works cited" (Gibaldi 184). Try to use parenthetical documentation as little as possible. For example, when you cite an entire work, it is preferable to include the author's name in the text. The author's last name followed by the page number is usually enough for an accurate identification of the source in the works cited list. These examples illustrate the most common kinds of documentation. Documenting a quotation: Ex. "The separation from the personal mother is a particularly intense process for a daughter because she has to separate from the one who is the same as herself" (Murdock 17). She may feel abandoned and angry. Note: The author of The Heroine's Journey is listed under Works Cited by the author's name, reversed--Murdock, Maureen. Quoted material is found on page 17 of that book. Parenthetical documentation is after the quotation mark and before the period. Documenting a paraphrase: Ex. In fairy tales a woman who holds the princess captive or who abandons her often needs to be killed (18). Note: The second paraphrase is also from Murdock's book The Heroine's Journey. It is not, however, necessary to repeat the author's name if no other documentation interrupts the two. If the works cited page lists more than one work by the same author, include within the parentheses an abbreviated form of the appropriate title. You may, of course, include the title in your sentence, making it unnecessary to add an abbreviated title in the citation. > Prepare a Works Cited Page Back to Top There are a variety of titles for the page that lists primary and secondary sources (Gibaldi 106-107). A Works Cited page lists those works you have cited within the body of your paper. The reader need only refer to it for the necessary information required for further independent research. Bibliography means literally a description of books. Because your research may involve the use of periodicals, films, art works, photographs, etc. "Works Cited" is a more precise descriptive term than bibliography. An Annotated Bibliography or Annotated Works Cited page offers brief critiques and descriptions of the works listed. A Works Consulted page lists those works you have used but not cited. Avoid using this format. As with other elements of a research paper there are specific guidelines for the placement and the appearance of the Works Cited page. The following guidelines comply with MLA style: The Work Cited page is placed at the end of your paper and numbered consecutively with the body of your paper. Center the title and place it one inch from the top of your page. Do not quote or underline the title. Double space the entire page, both within and between entries. The entries are arranged alphabetically by the author's last name or by the title of the article or book being cited. If the title begins with an article (a, an, the) alphabetize by the next word. If you cite two or more works by the same author, list the titles in alphabetical order. Begin every entry after the first with three hyphens followed by a period. All entries begin at the left margin but subsequent lines are indented five spaces. Be sure that each entry cited on the Works Cited page corresponds to a specific citation within your paper. Refer to the the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (104- 182) for detailed descriptions of Work Cited entries. Citing sources from online databases is a relatively new phenomenon. Make sure to ask your professor about citing these sources and which style to use. V. Draft, Revise, Rewrite, Rethink Back to Top "There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed." --John Kenneth Galbraith Try freewriting your first draft. Freewriting is a discovery process during which the writer freely explores a topic. Let your creative juices flow. In Writing without Teachers , Peter Elbow asserts that "[a]lmost everybody interposes a massive and complicated series of editings between the time words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come off the end of the pencil or typewriter [or word processor] onto the page" (5). Do not let your internal judge interfere with this first draft. Creating and revising are two very different functions. Don't confuse them! If you stop to check spelling, punctuation, or grammar, you disrupt the flow of creative energy. Create; then fix it later. When material you have researched comes easily to mind, include it. Add a quick citation, one you can come back to later to check for form, and get on with your discovery. In subsequent drafts, focus on creating an essay that flows smoothly, supports fully, and speaks clearly and interestingly. Add style to substance. Create a smooth flow of words, ideas and paragraphs. Rearrange paragraphs for a logical progression of information. Transition is essential if you want your reader to follow you smoothly from introduction to conclusion. Transitional words and phrases stitch your ideas together; they provide coherence within the essay. External transition: Words and phrases that are added to a sentence as overt signs of transition are obvious and effective, but should not be overused, as they may draw attention to themselves and away from ideas. Examples of external transition are "however," "then," "next," "therefore." "first," "moreover," and "on the other hand." Internal transition is more subtle. Key words in the introduction become golden threads when they appear in the paper's body and conclusion. When the writer hears a key word repeated too often, however, she/he replaces it with a synonym or a pronoun. Below are examples of internal transition. Transitional sentences create a logical flow from paragraph to paragraph. Iclude individual words, phrases, or clauses that refer to previous ideas and that point ahead to new ones. They are usually placed at the end or at the beginning of a paragraph. A transitional paragraph conducts your reader from one part of the paper to another. It may be only a few sentences long. Each paragraph of the body of the paper should contain adequate support for its one governing idea. Speak/write clearly, in your own voice. Tone: The paper's tone, whether formal, ironic, or humorous, should be appropriate for the audience and the subject. Voice: Keep you language honest. Your paper should sound like you. Understand, paraphrase, absorb, and express in your own words the information you have researched. Avoid phony language. Sentence formation: When you polish your sentences, read them aloud for word choice and word placement. Be concise. Strunk and White in The Elements of Style advise the writer to "omit needless words" (23). First, however, you must recognize them. Keep yourself and your reader interested. In fact, Strunk's 1918 writing advice is still well worth pondering. First, deliver on your promises. Be sure the body of your paper fulfills the promise of the introduction. Avoid the obvious. Offer new insights. Reveal the unexpected. Have you crafted your conclusion as carefully as you have your introduction? Conclusions are not merely the repetition of your thesis. The conclusion of a research paper is a synthesis of the information presented in the body. Your research has led you to conclusions and opinions that have helped you understand your thesis more deeply and more clearly. Lift your reader to the full level of understanding that you have achieved. Revision means "to look again." Find a peer reader to read your paper with you present. Or, visit your college or university's writing lab. Guide your reader's responses by asking specific questions. Are you unsure of the logical order of your paragraphs? Do you want to know whether you have supported all opinions adequately? Are you concerned about punctuation or grammar? Ask that these issues be addressed. You are in charge. Here are some techniques that may prove helpful when you are revising alone or with a reader. When you edit for spelling errors read the sentences backwards. This procedure will help you look closely at individual words. Always read your paper aloud. Hearing your own words puts them in a new light. Listen to the flow of ideas and of language. Decide whether or not the voice sounds honest and the tone is appropriate to the purpose of the paper and to your audience. Listen for awkward or lumpy wording. Find the one right word, Eliminate needless words. Combine sentences. Kill the passive voice. Eliminate was/were/is/are constructions. They're lame and anti-historical. Be ruthless. If an idea doesn't serve your thesis, banish it, even if it's one of your favorite bits of prose. In the margins, write the major topic of each paragraph. By outlining after you have written the paper, you are once again evaluating your paper's organization. OK, you've got the process down. Now execute! And enjoy! It's not everyday that you get to make history. VI. For Further Reading: Works Cited Back to Top Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. Boston: Bedford, 1993. Brent, Doug. Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge,Persuasion and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1992. Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Gibladi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 4th ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995. Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved." Studies in American Fiction , Vol. 17, No. 2, Autum, 1989, pp. 157-167. Republished in the Literature Research Center. Gale Group. (1 January 1999). Klauser, Henriette Anne. Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write. Philadelphia: Harper, 1986. Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way: Using Right Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers. Los Angeles: Houghton, 1983. Sorenson, Sharon. The Research Paper: A Contemporary Approach. New York: AMSCO, 1994. Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1979. Back to Top This guide adapted from materials published by Thomson Gale, publishers. For free resources, including a generic guide to writing term papers, see the Gale.com website , which also includes product information for schools.
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How Institutions Use Historical Research Methods to Provide Historical Perspectives

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Historical research methods enable institutions to collect facts, chronological data, and other information relevant to their interests. But historical research is more than compiling a record of past events; it provides institutions with valuable insights about the past to inform current cultural, political, and social dynamics.

Historical research methods primarily involve collecting information from primary and secondary sources. While differences exist between these sources, organizations and institutions can use both types of sources to assess historical events and provide proper context comprehensively.

Using historical research methods, historians provide institutions with historical insights that can give perspectives on the future.

Individuals interested in advancing their careers as historians can pursue an advanced degree, such as a Master of Arts in History , to help them develop a systematic understanding of historical research and learn about the use of digital tools for acquiring, accessing, and managing historical information.

An Overview of Historical Research Methods

Historians use historical research methods to obtain data from primary and secondary sources and, then, assess how the information contributes to understanding a historical period or event. Historical research methods are used with primary and secondary sources. Below is a description of each type of source.

What Is a Primary Source?              

Primary sources—raw data containing first-person accounts and documents—are foundational to historical and academic research. Examples of primary sources include eyewitness accounts of historical events, written testimonies, public records, oral representations, legal documents, artifacts, photographs, art, newspaper articles, diaries, and letters. Individuals often can find primary sources in archives and collections in universities, libraries, and historical societies.

A primary source, also known as primary data, is often characterized by the time of its creation. For example, individuals studying the U.S. Constitution’s beginnings can use The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, written from October 1787 to May 1788, as a primary source for their research. In this example, the information was witnessed firsthand and created at the time of the event.

What Is a Secondary Source?              

Primary sources are not always easy to find. In the absence of primary sources, secondary sources can play a vital role in describing historical events. A historian can create a secondary source by analyzing, synthesizing, and interpreting information or data provided in primary sources. For example, a modern-day historian may use The Federalist Papers and other primary sources to reveal historical insights about the series of events that led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the secondary source, based on historical facts, becomes a reliable source of historical data for others to use to create a comprehensive picture of an event and its significance.

The Value of Historical Research for Providing Historical Perspectives

Current global politics has its roots in the past. Historical research offers an essential context for understanding our modern society. It can inform global concepts, such as foreign policy development or international relations. The study of historical events can help leaders make informed decisions that impact society, culture, and the economy.

Take, for example, the Industrial Revolution. Studying the history of the rise of industry in the West helps to put the current world order in perspective. The recorded events of that age reveal that the first designers of the systems of industry, including the United States, dominated the global landscape in the following decades and centuries. Similarly, the digital revolution is creating massive shifts in international politics and society. Historians play a pivotal role in using historical research methods to record and analyze information about these trends to provide future generations with insightful historical perspectives.

In addition to creating meaningful knowledge of global and economic affairs, studying history highlights the perspectives of people and groups who triumphed over adversity. For example, the historical fights for freedom and equality, such as the struggle for women’s voting rights or ending the Jim Crow era in the South, offer relevant context for current events, such as efforts at criminal justice reform.

History also is the story of the collective identity of people and regions. Historical research can help promote a sense of community and highlight the vibrancy of different cultures, creating opportunities for people to become more culturally aware and empowered.

The Tools and Techniques of Historical Research Methods

A primary source is not necessarily an original source. For example, not everyone can access the original essays written by Hamilton because they are precious and must be preserved and protected. However, thanks to digitization, institutions can access, manage, and interpret essential information, artifacts, and images from the essays without fear of degradation.

Using technology to digitize historical information creates what is known as digital history. It offers opportunities to advance scholarly research and expand knowledge to new audiences. For example, individuals can access a digital copy of The Federalist Papers from the Library of Congress’s website anytime, from anywhere. This digital copy can still serve as a primary source because it contains the same content as the original paper version created hundreds of years ago.

As more primary and secondary sources are digitized, researchers are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) to search, gather, and analyze these sources. An AI method known as optical character recognition can help historians with digital research. Historians also can use AI techniques to close gaps in historical information. For example, an AI system developed by DeepMind uses deep neural networks to help historians recreate missing pieces and restore ancient Greek texts on stone tablets that are thousands of years old.

As digital tools associated with historical research proliferate, individuals seeking to advance in a history career need to develop technical skills to use advanced technology in their research. Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program prepares students with knowledge of historical research methods and critical technology skills to advance in the field of history.

Prepare to Make an Impact

Through effective historical research methods, institutions, organizations, and individuals can learn the significance of past events and communicate important insights for a better future. In museums, government agencies, universities and colleges, nonprofits, and historical associations, the combination of technology and historical research plays a central role in extending the reach of historical information to new audiences. It can also guide leaders charged with making important decisions that can impact geopolitics, society, economic development, community building, and more.

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History prepares students with knowledge of historical research methods and skills to use technology to advance their careers across many industries and fields of study. The program’s curriculum offers students the flexibility to choose from four concentrations—Public History, American History, World History, or Legal and Constitutional History—to customize their studies based on their career goals and personal interests.

Learn how Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History degree can prepare individuals for career success in the field of history.

Recommended Readings

What Is Digital History? A Guide to Digital History Resources, Museums, and Job Description Old World vs. New World History: A Curriculum Comparison How to Become a Researcher

Getting Started with Primary Sources , Library of Congress What Is a Primary Source? , ThoughtCo. Full Text of The Federalist Papers , Library of Congress Digital History , The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook Historians in Archives , American Historical Association The Value of History Statement , History Relevance How AI Helps Historians Solve Ancient Puzzles , Financial Times Restoring Ancient Text Using Deep Learning: A Case Study On Greek Epigraphy , DeepMind

Historical Research Method: Home

What is historical research.

Historical research  or historiography , "attempts to systematically recapture the complex nuances, the people,meanings,events,and even ideas of the past that have influenced and shaped the present". (Berg & Lure, 2012, p. 305 )

Historical research relies on a wide variety of sources, both primary & secondary including unpublished material. 

Primary Sources

  • Eyewitness accounts of events
  • Can be oral or written testimony
  • Found in public records & legal documents, minutes of meetings, corporate records, recordings, letters, diaries, journals, drawings.
  • Located in university archives, libraries or privately run collections such as local historical society.

Secondary Sources

  • Can be oral or written
  • Secondhand accounts of events
  • Found in textbooks, encyclopedias, journal articles, newspapers, biographies and other media such as films or tape recordings.

Steps in Historical Research

Historical research involves the following steps:

  • Identify an idea, topic or research question
  • Conduct a background literature review
  • Refine the research idea and questions
  • Determine that historical methods will be the method used
  • Identify and locate primary and secondary data sources
  • Evaluate the authenticity and accuracy of source materials
  • Analyze the date and develop a narrative exposition of the findings.

(Berg & Lune, 2012, p.311)

Locating Information: Libraries

In addition to raw data and unpublished manuscripts, libraries also hold back copies of journals and newspapers.

  • Western Australia
  • ECU Library
  • Curtin University
  • Murdoch University
  • Notre Dame University
  • State Library of W.A.
  • Trove Books, images, historic newspapers, maps, music, archives and more
  • WorldCat Can limit to archival and downloadable

Locating information - Archives

  • National Archives of Australia
  • UK Government Web Archive
  • National Archives (U.S.)
  • Nursing History: Historical Methodology Produced by the AAHN

Key Sources

  • Pandora PANDORA, Australia's Web Archive was established by the National Library in 1996 and is a collection of historic online publications relating to Australia and Australians. Online publications and web sites are selected for inclusion in the collection with the purpose of providing long-term and persistent access to them.
  • Directory of Archives in Australia
  • RSL Living History The Listening Post is the official organ of the RSL in Western Australia and was first published in December 1921. The first two decades of the Listening Post, are now available online for viewing with more scheduled releases throughout the year.
  • Internet Archive Digital library of Internet sites and other cultural artifacts in digital form. Free access to researchers, historians, scholars, and the general public.
  • Repositories of primary sources
  • The national union catalog of manuscript collections (United States)
  • National Technical Information Service (U.S.) Provides access to a large collection of historical and current government technical reports that exists in many academic, public, government, and corporate libraries.
  • A history of nursing Four vols available online
  • British Journal of Nursing The journal contains a wide range of information about hospitals, wards, staff, patients, illness and diseases, medicine and treatments, hospital equipment and events.
  • Directory of history of medicine colections U.S. National Library of medicine. National Institutes of Health
  • The Australian Nursing and Midwifery History Project
  • Nursing Studies Index An annotated guide to reported studies, research methods, and historical and biographical materials in periodicals, books, and pamphlets published in English. Prepared by Yale University.
  • Early experieneces in Australasia: Primary sources and personal nattatives, 1788-1901 Provides a unique and personal view of events in the region from the arrival of the first settlers through to Australian Federation at the close of the nineteenth century. Includes first-person accounts, including letters and diaries, narratives, and other primary source materials.

Locating Information: Museums

  • Alfred Archives Alfred Hospital, Melbourne
  • Florence Nightingale Museum (U.K.) London
  • London Museums of Health & Medicine
  • National Museum Australia. Research Centre National Museum Australia
  • Nursing Museum Royal Brisbane & Women's Hospital
  • Virtual Museum South Australian Medical Heritage Society
  • W.A. Medical Museum Harvey House, King Edward Memorial Hospital

Locating Information: Historical Societies

  • Directory of Australian Historical Societies at Society hill Extensive list of historical societies throughout Australia
  • Royal Australian Historical Society Sydney
  • Royal Western Australian Historical Society

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  • 4. Historical Research Capabilities  
  • 4. Historical Research Capabilities

Perhaps no aspect of historical thinking is as exciting to students or as productive of their growth in historical thinking as “doing history.” Such inquiries can arise at critical turning points in the historical narrative presented in the text. They might be generated by encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, a visit to a historic site, a record of oral history, or other evidence of the past. Worthy inquiries are especially likely to develop if the documents students encounter are rich with the voices of people caught up in the event and sufficiently diverse to bring alive to students the interests, beliefs, and concerns of people with differing backgrounds and opposing viewpoints on the event.

Historical inquiry proceeds with the formulation of a problem or set of questions worth pursuing. In the most direct approach, students might be encouraged to analyze a document, record, or site itself. Who produced it, when, how, and why? What is the evidence of its authenticity, authority, and credibility? What does it tell them of the point of view, background, and interests of its author or creator? What else must they discover in order to construct a useful story, explanation, or narrative of the event of which this document or artifact is a part? What interpretation can they derive from their data, and what argument can they support in the historical narrative they create from the data?

In this process students’ contextual knowledge of the historical period in which the document or artifact was created becomes critically important. Only a few records of the event will be available to students. Filling in the gaps, evaluating the records they have available, and imaginatively constructing a sound historical argument or narrative requires a larger context of meaning.

For these purposes, students’ ongoing narrative study of history provides important support, revealing the larger context. But just as the ongoing narrative study, supported by but not limited to the textbook, provides a meaningful context in which students’ inquiries can develop, it is these inquiries themselves that imbue the era with deeper meaning. Hence the importance of providing students documents or other records beyond materials included in the textbook, that will allow students to challenge textbook interpretations, to raise new questions about the event, to investigate the perspectives of those whose voices do not appear in the textbook accounts, or to plumb an issue that the textbook largely or in part bypassed.

Under these conditions, students will view their inquiries as creative contributions. They will better understand that written history is a human construction, that many judgments about the past are tentative and arguable, and that historians regard their work as critical inquiry, pursued as ongoing explorations and debates with other historians. On the other hand, careful research can resolve cloudy issues from the past and can overturn previous arguments and theses. By their active engagement in historical inquiry, students will learn for themselves why historians are continuously reinterpreting the past, and why new interpretations emerge not only from uncovering new evidence but from rethinking old evidence in the light of new ideas springing up in our own times. Students then can also see why the good historian, like the good teacher, is interested not in manipulation or indoctrination but in acting as an honest messenger from the past–not interested in possessing student’s minds but in presenting them with the power to possess their own.


The student conducts historical research:

Therefore, the student is able to

  • Formulate historical questions  from encounters with historical documents, eyewitness accounts, letters, diaries, artifacts, photos, historical sites, art, architecture, and other records from the past.
  • Obtain historical data  from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films, oral testimony from living witnesses, censuses, tax records, city directories, statistical compilations, and economic indicators.
  • Interrogate historical data  by uncovering the social, political, and economic context in which it was created; testing the data source for its credibility, authority, authenticity, internal consistency and completeness; and detecting and evaluating bias, distortion, and propaganda by omission, suppression, or invention of facts.
  • Identify the gaps in the available records and marshal contextual knowledge and perspectives of the time and place  in order to elaborate imaginatively upon the evidence, fill in the gaps deductively, and construct a sound historical interpretation.
  • Employ quantitative analysis  in order to explore such topics as changes in family size and composition, migration patterns, wealth distribution, and changes in the economy.
  • Support interpretations with historical evidence  in order to construct closely reasoned arguments rather than facile opinions.

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The History Department has developed specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) for its majors that enable the department to measure whether students are learning history and acquiring historical skills.

The following guide has been developed as a resource to help you meet departmental expectations.

SLO #1: The student will understand historical research within its historical context.

It is important that the history you are writing uses evidence correctly and shows that you have discerned their relevance to your research interest..

History is not a random set of facts unrelated to each other but rather is ordered according to chronology, topic, culture, group, etc.  As you pursue your research, it is important that you learn and know the facts concerning your topic but also that you be able to connect the dots of the many facts related to your topic.  Look for patterns and themes that come to the surface as you learn and interact with the information.

The evidence also needs to be placed and understood within the larger historical context.

Writing a history paper requires more than simply gathering the evidence that relates to your topic. You also need to find out information concerning the historical background of your topic, because you have to situate your argument and evidence correctly in time and space. You have to examine and evaluate the past through the lens of the past, because our viewpoints today would (often) not be familiar to the contemporary actors at the time you are writing about. As L. P. Hartley pointedly stated in his 1953 novel The Go-Between : “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” [1] Rutgers historians Matt Matsuda and John Gillis assert that every piece of historical writing has to first establish the correct setting. They explain that “the historical context refers to the moods, attitudes, and conditions that existed in a certain time. Context is the ‘setting’ for an event that occurs, and it will have an impact on the relevance of the event.” [2]

In addition to establishing the correct historical context, you need to familiarize yourself with the historiographical debate surrounding your research topic. The term ‘historiography’ refers to the ongoing debate among historians about a certain topic. The perspectives of historians change over time and each era sees the past in a different light and interprets it differently. You will have to review the existing published secondary literature that relates to your topic and demonstrate how your proposed work will build on existing studies while offering a new or improved interpretation. This website explains how to write a historiography that has to be part of the introduction of your paper:

https://www.trentu.ca/history/workbook/documents/HowtoWriteaHistoriography.pdf .

SLO #2: The student will conduct historical research.

An aspect of conducting research is formulating a question..

When trying to formulate a question, the first thing to remember is that there are types of questions, some more useful than others for getting started on a research project.  For instance, a question that can be answered with a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ likely will not lead to other questions that would contribute to a fuller answer.  Sometimes, questions contain an answer and/or a major assumption.  For instance, the question ‘Why was it a good idea for Richard to go on crusade?’ assumes that crusading was a good idea when in fact it might be debated.

In contrast, a question that demonstrates knowledge of the historical context will probably result in a better conceptualized question.  For instance, let’s consider this question: ‘given that Richard I was almost never in England, the kingdom over which he was king, how should he be evaluated as a monarch?’  That in turn might lead to further questions such as, ‘what were the expectations of a medieval English monarch?’, ‘how does his role as duke and count of continental holdings factor into the consideration?’, and ‘were there indications of his subjects’ opinions during his lifetime or shortly after?’

Background reading on the topic should help you begin to formulate a question.  This can consist of encyclopedic sources, both in print and online, lecture materials, and books that are assigned for your class.  Remember that this is not the point in the process where you have a final answer or thesis.  Arriving at firm conclusions and a thesis comes as a result of research and the on-going analysis of the information you have collected.

Once you have a question, how do you identify sources that promise to be useful?

There are several strategies for identifying sources that will likely address your question.  From your background reading, peruse the bibliographies of your sources.  Sometimes, articles have abstracts that will give a brief overview of the argument contained in the piece.  Book prefaces and introductions can also be valuable places to skim to understand the thesis and direction the author intends to take.  Also, the table of contents and index can provide some guidance as to the value of a book for the research.  Finally, do not forget how helpful reference librarians can be!

What sources will be used is influenced by the research question, but it is important to remember that research questions are shaped by the availability of sources.  There have been great questions which could not be answered because the sources are nonexistent or inaccessible.  It could be that the sources that you have explored have raised another question of greater interest to you than the original one.  These types of developments will require that you rethink your question in light of available source materials.

The organization of the information that you gather is key to understanding the topic and formulating a thesis based on the data collected.

Organization can begin by keeping careful track of your sources’ bibliographic information, namely author’s name, source title, and page number.  As the research nears completion, you should review your data and try to discern larger themes or overarching concepts that address your question.  These can serve as the basis for an outline.  Once you have that, you can then place the remainder of your information into the outline that you have developed.  Ask yourself whether the outline makes sense in how it moves from point to point.

How to cite sources used in the research.

a. Why footnote?  On many levels, footnoting is the right and honorable thing to do.  It is your responsibility to give credit to the person(s) who did the work from which you are benefiting.  It also provides the reader with proof that what you have presented as evidence actually exists, and it also gives your reader the information needed to investigate further.   Footnoting is so important in scholarly endeavors that improper footnoting is an infraction of the Honor Code.

b. What to footnote? Views, ideas, facts, charts, statistics, etc. that are not your own and that you learned from the work of another.  Footnoting is not restricted to direct quotations.  A simple test is to ask yourself two questions, 1) did I know this before I read it in this source?  If not, footnote it. If so, 2) ask if it is appropriate to acknowledge this person’s work.  If so, footnote it.  If in doubt, footnote it.

c. Paraphrasing is more than taking an idea or statement and putting in synonyms, and it is more than changing a couple words but leaving the remainder as found in the source. Both of these methods constitute plagiarism. Instead, reformulate the idea in your own words and provide a footnote.  Your goal is to retain the original idea but express it differently and uniquely and cite it correctly.

History papers employ footnotes or endnotes and use superscript numbers as shown below. The citation is placed at the end of the sentence.  You will find the best resource in how to create footnotes and bibliographies at the website of the Chicago Manual of Style.  Historians use the Chicago style because it is the most precise of the various formats, making it clear to other scholars seeking further information.

https://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html .

Footnotes are placed at the end of the sentence which contains the material associated with the source.  You will find helpful directions for using Microsoft Word’s footnoting tool at the following website:

https://office.microsoft.com/en-us/word-help/insert-or-create-footnotes-and-endnotes-HA101854833.aspx .

SLO #3: The student will analyze historical research.

A component of analyzing historical research is being equipped to evaluate the sources that will provide the evidence you gather and from which you will draw your conclusions..

Below is a recommended approach to evaluating sources, first primary followed by a set of questions for secondary sources.

a. Primary Sources:

Who wrote this document? Written historical records were created by individuals in a specific historical setting for a particular purpose. Until you know who created the document you have read, you cannot know why it was created or what meanings its author intended to impart by creating it. Nor is it enough simply to learn the name of the author. It is equally important to learn about authors as people: what social background they came from, what position they held, to what group did they belong.

Who is the intended audience? Identifying the intended audience of a document will tell you much about its language, about the amount of knowledge that the writer is assuming, even sometimes about the best form for the document to take. The relationship between author and audience is one of the most basic elements of communication and one that will tell you much about the purpose of the document. Think of the difference between the audience for a novel and that for a diary, or for a law and a secret treaty.  In each case, knowing the intended audience informs your view of what to expect from the document.

What is the story line? The next question has to do with the content of the document.  To learn the story line, you must take some notes while you are reading and underline or highlight important places in your text. The more often you ask yourself, “What is going on here?” the easier it will be to find out. No matter how obscure a document appears at first, deliberate attention to the story line will allow you to focus your reading.

Why was this document written? Everything is written for a reason. You make notes to yourself to remember, you send cards to celebrate and sympathize, you correspond to convey or request information.  Understanding the purpose of a historical document is critical to analyzing the strategies that the author employs within it. A document intended to convince will employ logic. A document intended to entertain will employ fancy.  A document attempting to motivate will employ emotional appeals. In order to find these strategies, you must know what purpose the document was intended to serve.

What type of document is this? The form of the document is vital to its purpose. You would expect a telephone book to be alphabetized, a poem to be in meter, and a work of philosophy to be in prose. The form or genre in which a document appears is always carefully chosen. Genre contains its own conventions, which fulfill the expectations of author and audience.

What are the basic assumptions made in this document? All documents make assumptions that are bound up with their intended audience, with the form in which they are written, and with their purpose. Some of these assumptions are so integral to the document that they are left unsaid; others are so important to establish that they form a part of the central argument.

Can I believe this document? To be successful, a document designed to persuade, to recount events, or to motivate people to action must be believable to its audience. Every author has a point of view, and exposing the assumptions of the document is an essential task for the reader. You must treat all claims skeptically.

What can I learn about the society that produced this document? All documents unintentionally reveal things that are embedded in the very language, structure, and assumptions of the document that can tell you the most about the historical period or event that you are studying.

What does this document mean to me? In other words, so what? Other than for the practical purpose of passing the course, why should you be concerned with historical documents? What can you learn from them? Only you can answer these questions, but you will not be able to answer them until you have asked them. You should demand the meaning of each document you read: what it meant to the historical actors – authors, audience, and society – and what it means to your own society. [3]

b. Secondary Sources:

Evaluating these sources utilizes some of the same questions.  For instance, you will want to discern the author’s purpose in writing.  In addition, consider also the following:

Did the author make good use of adequate evidence?  What types of sources were used and were they the best available? Did the author analyze the sources critically or simply reflect the positions/conclusions of the sources?

Were the author’s biases, prejudices, and values evident?  What were they?  Do they seem to have distorted the account and analysis, or did the author successfully present a reasonably balanced work of scholarship?

The word ‘bias’ deserves some consideration for it has much negative baggage today, but bias is not necessarily a bad thing.  Everyone sees the world through lenses that have been shaped by values, beliefs, and experiences, and these inevitably affect how a historian interprets evidence.  Be aware that a historian’s specialty is itself a bias. For example, a social or cultural historian will ask different questions and use different sources than a political or military historian.

What contribution does the work make?   Does it provide readers with something important and new in either findings or interpretations?  How does the work fit into larger historiographical debates?  Does it provide an argument for or against a scholarly interpretation?  Does it move debates in new directions?

What might be done by the author or another historian or you to fill the obvious gaps, take the next logical step in the argument, or rectify failings in the work? This step involves both identifying an author’s failings and indicating a direction for future research.   Think how answers to these questions can inspire or inform your own research.

Note: Identifying an author’s failings or weaknesses is trickier than it seems at first. You should move beyond superficial stylistic concerns (“The book was too difficult/ boring) and identify more substantive issues. In addition, when the author clearly indicates that sources are not available, it is not adequate to say that he/she should have used those sources.  You are evaluating the work as a historian, with reasonable expectations about the limits of a historian’s task.

Another aspect of analyzing your research data involves being able to synthesize the information, perspectives, and sources that you have collected.

History is a vast field of study that incorporates the facts and views of many people across many different chronological and cultural boundaries.  As you begin to consider how you will present your research, it is important that you bring these many different facts and views together in a unique and fresh, yet credible way.  Many times, students will record what the different authors have said which amounts to little more than stitching together book reports.  Good synthesis considers how the facts relate to each other and pulls the information together in a manner never seen before.

Analyzing the data brings you to the point where you formulate conclusions.

You have collected information, you have discerned themes and patterns, you have evaluated your sources, you have considered how the pieces fit together, and you are ready to answer your question.  Look yet again at the question, and using your research and analysis of the information, propose an answer.  To what conclusion do the facts point?

SLO #4: The student will develop arguments based on historical research.

Now that you have conducted a good bit of research on your topic, and have consulted the primary and main secondary sources related to your topic, the next step is to develop an answer to your research question.

This begins by formulating a thesis.

Remember, as a student of history, you are not simply rehashing what has already been said about your topic (historians are not fact mongers, but interpreters of the past).  Instead, insert yourself into the debate about your topic and take a position that establishes your point of view.  Your thesis should be presented clearly and concisely in the introduction of your paper, and it should answer your research question.  It should arise from the research that you have done; allow the evidence as you have, know, and understand it to dictate the outcome.

The thesis needs to be supported.

The body of your paper will be the place where you introduce evidence to support your thesis, and it is also where you will mostly be considering your primary sources.  Ultimately, a successful paper is one in which you effectively demonstrate a successful defense of his/her thesis.  Some things to consider:

  • All assertions that you make to defend your thesis should be accompanied by relevant, significant, and quantitatively sufficient evidence.
  • Be sure to keep your essay focused, with your thesis the constant and dominant consideration.  Extraneous details and a rambling, unsupported/unfocused narrative will only come across as so much fluff.
  • Be honest.  If you come across evidence that calls your thesis into question, do not discard it or pretend it does not exist.  Instead, consider it carefully, and use it to help you rethink your original thesis.  Seldom do we find simple answers to historical questions.

SLO #5: The student will demonstrate advanced communication skills.

Now it is time to share what you have learned and what you have decided to be true given the evidence that you have collected.  A lot of good research is lost because the historian does not communicate well his/her findings.

You need to convey complex ideas and information in written form.

Coherent writing is written communication which develops and conveys ideas and knowledge in a lucid and organized manner.  As 18th-century English cleric John Chapman said, “For a text to be recognized as a text rather than a haphazard collection of sentences, it must have an orderly and cohesive construction.”   For historical writing, this means having unity and purpose throughout your paper.  You should begin with an appropriate introduction which captures the attention of the reader.  It should also identify the subject and purpose of the paper and indicate why it is significant, placing it into a historical context.  The introduction should also include your thesis.  As for the structure of the body of the paper, there should be a logical organization which develops your thesis throughout.  Each paragraph of your paper should focus on developing a specific element/theme of your thesis and begin with a topic sentence that argues the point to be made in the paragraph.  To finish, there should be a distinct conclusion which wraps up your argument and recapitulates your thesis in some form.  Throughout the paper, there should be smooth, coherent transitions between sentences and paragraphs.  In terms of style and mechanics, writing should be concise and error-free in terms of grammar, spelling, and formatting.

You need to convey complex ideas and information in an oral form.

Last is the presentation of your research to the public.  This is a prepared, purposeful presentation designed to increase knowledge, to foster understanding, or to promote change in a listener’s attitudes, values, beliefs, or behaviors.   An effective public presentation will be organized and coherent.  You should begin with an appropriate introduction which grabs the attention of the listener.  It should also identify the subject and purpose of the paper and indicate why it is significant, placing it into a historical context.  After the introduction, you should have a precisely stated thesis.  This thesis should become the central message of the presentation and be appropriately repeated and strongly supported throughout the presentation.

As for the structure of the presentation, beyond the introduction and thesis, there should be a logical organization which develops your thesis throughout.  There should be smooth, coherent transitions between topics.  Language should aim to be imaginative, memorable, and compelling, with the intent of enhancing the effectiveness of the presentation.   However, language must be appropriate to the audience.  Delivery techniques, such as posture, gestures, eye contact, and vocal expressiveness, should make the presentation compelling.  You should appear polished and confident.  In terms of evidence and supporting materials (explanations, examples, illustrations, statistics, analogies, quotations from relevant authorities), you should make appropriate reference to information or analysis that significantly supports your thesis.  Your presentation should finish with a conclusion. [4]

Following the conclusion of your presentation, you should invite questions from the audience.  These questions may include points of clarification, counterpoints, or may ask you to speculate based on your findings.  Regardless, you should formulate a direct answer to the question and provide support/explanation for your answers.  In cases where you do not know the answer, it is advised to admit to that fact rather than manufacture some bogus response.

Your oral presentation needs to demonstrate technological literacy.

An essential component of the public presentation of your research is the use of technology.  More often than not, this will take the form of PowerPoint though other platforms may be utilized.  The following are excerpts from Gary Chapman of the LBJ School of Public Affairs on effective use of PowerPoint:

  • PowerPoint, when displayed via a projector, is a useful tool for showing audiences things that enhance what the speaker is saying. It is a useful tool for illustrating the content of a speech, such as by showing photos, graphs, charts, maps, etc., or by highlighting certain text from a speech, such as quotations or major ideas. It should not be used as a slide-show outline of what the speaker is telling the audience.
  • Slides used in a presentation should be spare, in terms of how much information is on each slide, as well as how many slides are used. A rule of thumb is to put no more than eight lines of text on a slide, and with no more than eight to ten words per line. In most cases, less is more, so four lines of text is probably better.
  • Unless you’re an experienced designer, don’t use the transition and animation “tricks” that are built into PowerPoint, such as bouncing or flying text. By now, most people roll their eyes when they see these things, and these tricks add nothing of value to a presentation.
  • Above all, use high-contrast color schemes so that whatever is on your slides is readable. Unless you are a talented graphic designer, use the templates that come with PowerPoint or Keynote, and keep it simple—high concept design in a slide presentation doesn’t help in most circumstances, unless you’re in the fashion or design fields. If you use graphics or photos, try to use the highest quality you can find or afford—clip art and low-resolution graphics blown up on a screen usually detract from a presentation.
  • Rehearse your PowerPoint presentation and not just once. Don’t let PowerPoint get in the way of your oral presentation, and make sure you know how it works, what sequence the slides are in, how to get through it using someone else’s computer, etc. Make sure that you can deliver your presentation if PowerPoint is completely unavailable; in other words, make sure you can give your speech without your PowerPoint presentation.
  • Concentrate on keeping the audience focused on you, not on the screen. You can do this by using slides sparingly, standing in front of the audience in a way that makes them look at you, and, if possible, going to the screen and using your hand or arm to point out things on a slide. If you expect to be using PowerPoint a lot, invest in a remote “clicker” that lets you get away from the computer and still drive your presentation. If you don’t have one of those, it’s better to ask someone to run the presentation than to be behind a screen and keyboard while you talk.
  • If you show something on a computer that requires moving the cursor around, or flipping from one screen to another, or some other technique that requires interaction with the computer itself, remember that people in the audience will see things very differently on the projection screen than you see them on the computer screen. Keep motion on the screen to a minimum, unless you’re showing a movie or a video. It’s better to show a static screenshot of a Web page, embedded on a slide, than to call up the Web page in a browser on a computer. If you want to point out something on a Web page, go to the screen and point at it—don’t jiggle the cursor around what you want people to look at: their heads will look like bobble-headed dolls.
  • Don’t “cue” the audience that listening to your speech means getting through your PowerPoint presentation. If the audience sees that your PowerPoint presentation is the structure of your speech, they’ll start wondering how many slides are left. Slides should be used asynchronously within your speech, and only to highlight or illustrate things. Audiences are bored with oral presentations that go from one slide to the next until the end. Engage the audience, and use slides only when they are useful. [5]

[1] L. P. Hartley, The Go-Between (London: Hamish Hamilton, 1953).

[2] ‘Writing Historical Essays: A Guide for Undergraduates’, Department of History, Rutgers, accessed 3/17/2014: https://history.rutgers.edu/component/content/article/52/106-writing-historical-essays-a-guide-for-undergraduates.

[3] Kishlansky, Mark A. Sources of World History , Volume 1, Third Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thompson, xv-xviii.

[4] See Oral Communication VALUE Rubric, https://www.in.gov/che/files/All_VALUE_Rubrics.pdf.

[5] https://www.utexas.edu/lbj/21cp/syllabus/powerpoint_tips2.htm.

what is the importance of historical research

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What is History For?

What is historical research, purpose of historical research, steps in historical research.

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  • The systematic collection and evaluation of data to describe, explain, and understand actions or events that occurred sometime in the past.
  • There is no manipulation or control of variables as in experimental research.
  • An attempt is made to reconstruct what happened during a certain period of time as completely and accurately as possible.
  • To learn from past successes and failures.
  • Learn how things were done in the past and apply them to current or future events.
  • To assist in prediction.
  • Lead to the confirmation or rejection of relational hypotheses.
  • Understand the present practices and policies by understanding the history surrounding them.

Historical research involves the following steps:

  • Defining the Problem
  • Numerical records
  • Oral statements
  • Summarizing information obtained from historical sources
  • What was meant by the author?
  • How much credibility can be given to the author?
  • What was the author trying to say?
  • How could the authors word be interpreted?
  • Does the document contain bias of any sort?
  • Who wrote the document?
  • For what purpose was the document written?
  • When was the document written?
  • Where was the document written?
  • Under what conditions was the document written?
  • Do different forms or versions of the document exist?
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8 Archives and Historical Research

While a larger and larger proportion of primary sources have been digitized, there will always be physical archives.  In this section, you’ll learn what archives are, why they exist, and how to take advantage of them. Sifting through actual documents and artifacts from the past can be great fun, and if you have the opportunity to visit an archive as a part of writing a historical research paper for a class, you should do so. Read up here and consider visiting an archival collection near you to locate unique sources.

Archives are the documents and records from individuals, organizations, and governments that have been preserved and made available to researchers because of their enduring value.  Archives aren’t just for historians, of course, they are saved for everyone. They are important because they provide evidence of activities and tell us more about individuals and institutions. They also tell stories and increase our sense of identity and understanding of cultures, societies, and human actions. They can even be used to protect hard-won civil, political, legal, and economic rights and to ensure justice. The bottom-line is archives are important to understanding the past and to documenting and protecting our rights as citizens.

Libraries and Archives

Chances are you have used libraries in the past for leisure reading, special programs, school projects, or a host of other activities. Libraries and their look, feel, and organization are familiar to most of us. Not so much archives. On the most basic level, libraries and archives are information providers, though they deliver information in different ways, and the type of information they contain is often different.

For example, libraries contain published works (books, journals, magazines, newspapers, electronic databases, etc.) created to educate, inform, and entertain, while archives contain mostly unpublished materials produced by individuals, organizations, and governments through normal day-to-day activities and only later are saved because they tell us something important about the past. A library’s collection is not unique, since most of the works it acquires are produced in multiple copies and sold to other libraries across the country. Archival holdings, however, are unique. You won’t find archival records in one repository duplicated anywhere else. There is an old cliché that says “libraries are for readers, while archives are for writers.” All sorts of people use libraries, but those planning to create knowledge for others use archives. While there are exceptions to this cliché, of course, we hope you get the point.

Because of their unique holdings, archival institutions oftentimes have well developed preservation, conservation, and security plans in place designed to protect and preserve their collections. After all, if an archival document is destroyed or stolen, it can’t be replaced. The limiting factor for libraries to replace missing items is money—does the library have the funds to purchase replacements? As a result, most libraries allow their materials to circulate outside the library and then replace lost and stolen items as needed. Archival materials are almost never allowed to leave the archives because they can’t be replaced.

Libraries and archives also process materials differently. Generally speaking, libraries catalog resources at the item level. You can search a library’s online catalog by subject, author, title, keyword, etc., and find discrete items focusing on your subject. Archives collections are maintained and processed at the collection level, and many collections have literally thousands of items in them (some considerably more). Rather than cataloging individual items in archival collections, archivists produce finding aids for collections as a whole. These finding aids, rather than library catalog records, are the access tools for researchers.  You can read more about how finding aids work below , but archives are also staffed by archivists, who help researchers as part of their jobs.  Don’t hesitate to ask them for help!

For a full discussion of the principles behind collecting for archives and the pathway to becoming an archivist, see the chapter on archiving as a profession – “Becoming an Archivist.”

Archives in the Dallas-Fort Worth Region

If you’re ready to work with an archive as part of your research project, there are plenty of options in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. These archives could be important for any number of different research topics from those pertaining to local history or to federal history, from cultural or religious history, to the history of technology or politics and many different topics in between.What follows is a list of some of the archives in the DFW metroplex, along with links to their homepages. Accessing their websites will give you information about the types of historical sources they have and what their use policies are.

City Archives

Dallas Municipal Archives

Dallas Public Library Special Collections (has a number of collections focusing on Dallas)

Fort Worth Public Library Genealogy, History, and Archives Department (houses numerous Fort Worth collections)

Most of the public libraries in the suburbs have local history collections too. Many of these collections also contain archival materials.

County Archives

Tarrant County Archives

Museum Collections

Amon Carter Museum of American Art

Dallas Historical Society

Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, Library and Archives

Dallas Jewish Historical Society

Dallas Museum of Art Archives

Documentary Arts, Dallas, Texas African American Photography Archive

Fort Museum of Science and History, Library and Archives

Frontiers of Flight Museum Research Library

Perot Museum of Nature and Science

University Collections

SMU Bridwell Library Archives

SMU DeGolyer Library

SMU Hamon Arts Library Bywaters Special Collections

Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary J. T. and Zelma Luther Archives

TCU Library Special Collections

Texas Woman’s University Library Woman’s Collection

University of Dallas Library Archives and Special Collections 

University of North Texas Library Special Collections

University of Texas at Arlington Libraries Special Collections

University of Texas at Dallas Library Special Collections

Researching in Archives

As mentioned earlier, archives are different animals than libraries, and their policies and procedures reflect this. When visiting an archive for research purposes, be prepared to follow their rules, but also try to understand why these rules are in place. Remember, archival repositories hold unique collections that are impossible to replace, so user policies are more restrictive than those of libraries.

Most archives have a similar set of policies and procedures, including requiring you to register once you arrive to conduct research. In most archives, you will be asked to register as a user by showing some form of personal identification and completing a user form (which the archives will keep to document your visit). You may also be asked to lock up purses, backpacks, notebooks, and other non-essential items, only bringing paper, pencil (ink is prohibited in most archives because an errant mark can damage materials), or a computer into the research room for note-taking. A staff member will then conduct a reference interview with you to find out about your research focus and to help determine if, or how, the archives’ collection can help.

Once appropriate collections are identified, an archivist may provide a finding aid to each collection you want to use. A finding aid is an important access and descriptive tool for archival collections. Finding aids reveal information about who or what organization created the collection, the scope of the topics reflected in the collection, the dates of the materials in the collection, and a container list, showing what is in each box of the collection. By using the finding aid, you will be able to request specific boxes and folders from the collection. (A helpful site to finding aids in a number of archival institutions across Texas can be found at Texas Archival Resources Online .)

At this point, the archives staff will probably ask you to fill out “call-slips,” where you request specific boxes and/or folders from the collections you are interested in. The staff will retrieve the boxes/folders and bring them to you in the research room. Don’t be surprised if they give you one box at a time and require you to sit at a table that is being monitored by staff and/or video cameras. Keep in mind that security is a priority in all archival institutions. You will not be allowed to take the materials out of the research room, so your research must be conducted when the archives is open. Budget your time accordingly, keeping in mind that archives have limited hours, and archival research takes time and is unlike using books and other sources, which have indexes and other precise access tools.

Be sure when taking notes from an archives collection that you include bibliographic information that you will need later in order to cite the collection and its contents in your footnotes and bibliography. Many finding aids will show you how to cite a collection, but not all will. If the finding aid you are using doesn’t give you the bibliographic citation, then record the complete title of the collection, the collection’s unique identifying number (if it has one), the box and folder numbers you used, as well as the folder titles. As long as you have this information, then you will be able to write your footnotes and bibliography using any footnoting style and format.

When you find material that you want to copy or scan, then ask the staff about the archives’ copy policy. Some archives will allow you to scan documents using your phone or camera, while others may require that all copies and scans be done by staff members, who will charge you a fee to defray costs. If you think that publishing some of the items you are using may occur in the future (or even if there is only a remote possibility), then be aware that some archives have publication fees associated with the reproduction of archival materials in books, videos, advertisements, television, and other products, especially if these products are commercial in nature (as opposed to being sponsored by non-profits). It never hurts to request the archives’ fee schedule, so you will have this information.

Once you have completed your research, then return the archival boxes/folders to the staff member at the reference desk, retrieve the personal items you locked up when you registered, and depart. If you find that you have questions after leaving the archives, feel free to contact the archives staff to get the answers. They are happy to help.

How History is Made: A Student’s Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline Copyright © 2022 by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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  • How it works

Historical Research – A Guide Based on its Uses & Steps

Published by Alvin Nicolas at August 16th, 2021 , Revised On August 29, 2023

History is a study of past incidents, and it’s different from natural science. In natural science, researchers prefer direct observations. Whereas in historical research, a researcher collects, analyses the information to understand, describe, and explain the events that occurred in the past.

They aim to test the truthfulness of the observations made by others. Historical researchers try to find out what happened exactly during a certain period of time as accurately and as closely as possible. It does not allow any manipulation or control of  variables .

When to Use the Historical Research Method?

You can use historical research method to:

  • Uncover the unknown fact.
  • Answer questions
  • Identify the association between the past and present.
  • Understand the culture based on past experiences..
  • Record and evaluate the contributions of individuals, organisations, and institutes.

How to Conduct Historical Research?

Historical research involves the following steps:

  • Select the Research Topic
  • Collect the Data
  • Analyse the Data
  • Criticism of Data
  • Present your Findings

Tips to Collect Data

Step 1 – select the research topic.

If you want to conduct historical research, it’s essential to select a research topic before beginning your research. You can follow these tips while choosing a topic and  developing a research question .

  • Consider your previous study as your previous knowledge and data can make your research enjoyable and comfortable for you.
  • List your interests and focus on the current events to find a promising question.
  • Take notes of regular activities and consider your personal experiences on a specific topic.
  • Develop a question using your research topic.
  • Explore your research question by asking yourself when? Why? How

Step 2- Collect the Data

It is essential to collect data and facts about the research question to get reliable outcomes. You need to select an appropriate instrument for  data collection . Historical research includes two sources of data collection, such as primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources  are the original first-hand resources such as documents, oral or written records, witnesses to a fact, etc. These are of two types, such as:

Conscious Information : It’s a type of information recorded and restored consciously in the form of written, oral documents, or the actual witnesses of the incident that occurred in the past.

It includes the following sources:

Unconscious information : It’s a type of information restored in the form of remains or relics.

It includes information in the following forms:

Secondary Sources

Sometimes it’s impossible to access primary sources, and researchers rely on secondary sources to obtain information for their research. 

It includes:

  • Publications
  • Periodicals
  • Encyclopedia

Step 3 – Analyse the Data

After collecting the information, you need to analyse it. You can use data analysis methods  like 

  • Thematic analysis
  • Coding system
  • Theoretical model ( Researchers use multiple theories to explain a specific phenomenon, situations, and behavior types.)
  • Quantitative data to validate

Step 4 – Criticism of Data

Data criticism is a process used for identifying the validity and reliability of the collected data. It’s of two types such as:

External Criticism :

It aims at identifying the external features of the data such as signature, handwriting, language, nature, spelling, etc., of the documents. It also involves the physical and chemical tests of paper, paint, ink, metal cloth, or any collected object.

Internal Criticism :

It aims at identifying the meaning and reliability of the data. It focuses on the errors, printing, translation, omission, additions in the documents. The researchers should use both external and internal criticism to ensure the validity of the data.

Step 5 – Present your Findings

While presenting the  findings of your research , you need to ensure that you have met the objectives of your research or not. Historical material can be organised based on the theme and topic, and it’s known as thematic and topical arrangement. You can follow these tips while writing your research paper :

Build Arguments and Narrative

Your research aims not just to collect information as these are the raw materials of research. You need to build a strong argument and narrate the details of past events or incidents based on your findings. 

Organise your Argument

You can review the literature and other researchers’ contributions to the topic you’ve chosen to enhance your thinking and argument.

Proofread, Revise and Edit

After putting your findings on a paper, you need to proofread it to weed out the errors, rewrite it to improve, and edit it thoroughly before submitting it.

Are you looking for professional research writing services?

We hear you.

  • Whether you want a full dissertation written or need help forming a dissertation proposal, we can help you with both.
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In this world of technology, many people rely on Google to find out any information. All you have to do is enter a few keywords and sit back. You’ll find several relevant results onscreen.

It’s an effective and quick way of gathering information. Sometimes historical documents are not accessible to everyone online, and you need to visit traditional libraries to find out historical treasures. It will help you explore your knowledge along with data collection. 

You can visit historical places, conduct interviews, review literature, and access  primary and secondary  data sources such as books, newspapers, publications, documents, etc. You can take notes while collecting the information as it helps to organise the data accurately.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Historical Research

Frequently asked questions, what are the initial steps to perform historical research.

Initial steps for historical research:

  • Define research scope and period.
  • Gather background knowledge.
  • Identify primary and secondary sources.
  • Develop research questions.
  • Plan research approach.
  • Begin data collection and analysis.

You May Also Like

The authenticity of dissertation is largely influenced by the research method employed. Here we present the most notable research methods for dissertation.

Descriptive research is carried out to describe current issues, programs, and provides information about the issue through surveys and various fact-finding methods.

What are the different types of research you can use in your dissertation? Here are some guidelines to help you choose a research strategy that would make your research more credible.



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  • How It Works

Historical Research Approaches to the Analysis of Internationalisation

  • Research Article
  • Open access
  • Published: 29 September 2016
  • Volume 56 , pages 879–900, ( 2016 )

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  • Peter J. Buckley 1  

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Historical research methods and approaches can improve understanding of the most appropriate techniques to confront data and test theories in internationalisation research. A critical analysis of all “texts” (sources), time series analyses, comparative methods across time periods and space, counterfactual analysis and the examination of outliers are shown to have the potential to improve research practices. Examples and applications are shown in these key areas of research with special reference to internationalisation processes. Examination of these methods allows us to see internationalisation processes as a sequenced set of decisions in time and space, path dependent to some extent but subject to managerial discretion. Internationalisation process research can benefit from the use of historical research methods in analysis of sources, production of time-lines, using comparative evidence across time and space and in the examination of feasible alternative choices.

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1 Introduction

The title of this focused issue is ‘About Time: Putting Process Back into Firm Internationalisation Research’. It would therefore seem obvious that historical research methods, whose primary concern is the role of time, would be at the forefront of the analysis. This is not necessarily the case, as these methods are neglected in internationalisation research, and in international business more generally. Historians face many of the same research problems that business researchers do—notably questions related to the analysis of process—but they have produced different answers, particularly in relation to the nature of causation. As a field, international business researchers need to question our research approaches more deeply.

This paper seeks to examine the types of research approaches from history that might aid in a more rounded analysis of internationalisation. Issues of sequencing, path dependence, contingent choices and the evaluation of alternatives are all critical in the internationalisation process and are grist to the mill of historical research. An examination of historical research methods leads to a new approach to the concept of internationalisation itself.

1.1 Historical Research Approaches: The Challenge of Different Underlying Philosophies

It is the difference in underlying philosophy between history and social science that presents the keenest challenge in integrating the temporal dimension with international business research. The contrast between the philosophy underlying history and that of social science—an issue for over a century (e.g., Simiand 1903 )—is put by Isaiah Berlin:

History details the differences among events, whereas the sciences focus on similarities. History lacks the sciences’ ideal models, whose usefulness varies inversely with the number of characteristics to which they apply. As an external observer the scientist willingly distorts the individual to make it an instance of the general, but the historian, himself an actor, renounces interest in the general in order to understand the past through the projection of his own experience upon it. It is the scientist’s business to fit the facts to the theory, the historian’s responsibility to place his confidence in facts over theories (Berlin 1960 , p. 1 (Abstract). Footnote 1

Gaddis ( 2002 ) suggests that a particular contrast between history and social science is that history insists on the interdependence of variables, whilst mainstream social science methods rely on identifying the ‘independent variable’ which affects (causes) changes in dependent variables (Gaddis 2002 , particularly Chapter 4). He suggests that this parallels the distinction between a reductionist view and an ecological approach ( 2002 , p. 54), and that this arises from the social scientists’ desire to forecast the future ( 2002 , p. 56). This also implies continuity over time—the independent variable persists in its causative effect(s). It is also connected with assumptions of rationality, which also is assumed to be time-invariant. Social scientists would counter that historians are theory resistant, at least to the kind of independent variable/rationalist/context-invariant reductionist theory that (perhaps stereotypically) characterises economistic approaches.

Compromises are possible. Recognising sensitive dependence on initial conditions brings ‘narrative’ and ‘analysis’ much closer together, as does dividing time into manageable units—perhaps ‘short-term and long term’ or ‘immediate, intermediate and distant’ (Gaddis 2002 , p. 95). Causality, interdependence, contingency and moderating variables are more manageable when the time-frame is defined. Research in history therefore demonstrates the importance of time, sequencing and process. It also highlights the role of individuals and their decision making. These elements are particularly important in examining entrepreneurship and individual (manager’s) decisions and their outcome in contexts such as the internationalisation of the firm. Footnote 2

How, then, would we recognise if genuinely historical work had been accomplished in internationalisation studies (or indeed in any area of the social sciences)? Tilley ( 1983 , p. 79) gives us an answer:

By ‘genuinely historical’, I mean studies assuming that the time and place in which a structure or process appears makes a difference to its character, that the sequence in which similar events occur has a substantial impact on their outcomes, and that the existing record of past structures and processes is problematic, requiring systematic investigation in its own right instead of lending itself immediately to social-scientific synthesis.

History matters—the importance of historical effects in international business—is illustrated by Chitu et al. ( 2013 ), who document a ‘history effect’ in which the pattern of foreign bond holdings of US investors seven decades ago continues to influence holdings today. Holdings 70 years ago explain 10–15 % of the cross-country variation in current holdings, reflecting the fixed costs of market entry and exit together with endogenous learning. They note that fixed costs need not be large to have persistent effects on the geography of bilateral asset holdings—they need only to be different across countries. Evidence was also found of a ‘history effect’ in trade not unlike that in finance. The history effect is twice as large for non-dollar bonds as a result of larger sunk costs for US financial investments other than the dollar. Legacy effects loom large in international finance and trade.

It is argued in this paper that time and place (context) do make a difference to the structure and process of an individual firm’s internationalisation, that past structures and processes do influence outcomes and that proper acknowledgement of context is vital in understanding and theorising internationalisation. It is further argued that attention to these issues leads to a new conception of internationalisation.

2 Research Methods

Reflecting on the purpose of his methods in his book Bloodlands , on Eastern Europe in the period 1933–45, the historian Timothy Snyder ( 2010 , p. xviii) states that:

…its three fundamental methods are simple: insistence that no past event is beyond historical understanding or beyond the reach of historical enquiry; reflection upon the possibility of alternative choices and acceptance of the irreducible reality of choice in human affairs; and chronological attention to all of the Stalinist and Nazi policies that labelled large numbers of civilians and prisoners of war.

This paper follows similar principles. These are: (1) that the methods of history are appropriate to the study of the internationalisation of firms; (2) that choices and alternatives at given points of time are central to this process; (3) that the role of sequencing and time are central; and (4) that the comparative method is an aid to comprehension of the process of internationalisation.

This paper now examines research methods widely used in history Footnote 3 that have the capability to improve international business research. These are: (1) source criticism (here it is argued that international business researchers are insufficiently aware of deficiencies in “texts”); (2) the analysis of sequences, including time series analyses and process theorising; (3) comparative methods (not exclusive to historical research); and (4) counterfactual analyses (which are currently less utilised than in previous periods of international business theorising). This followed by a proposed research agenda based on the two key methods of examining change over time and utilising comparative analysis.

2.1 Source Criticism

The use of sources is as prevalent in international business as in history but they are often accepted uncritically. Gottschalk ( 1950 ), noting that few source documents are completely reliable, suggests that, ‘for each particular of a document the process of establishing credibility should be separately undertaken regardless of the general credibility of the author’. Given that reliability cannot be assumed, source criticism, as Kipping et al. ( 2014 ) argue, is fundamental to any historical research.

The trustworthiness of an author may establish a basic level of credibility for each statement, but each element must be separately evaluated. This requires questioning the provenance of the text and its internal reliability (Kipping et al. 2014 )—including, importantly, attention to language translation issues if relevant. This leads to the important checks brought about by triangulating the evidence. Triangulation requires the use of at least two independent sources (Kipping et al. 2014 ). This principle is utilised in international business journals by the requirement that both elements of a dyadic relationship are needed to cross check each other. Examples include licensor and licensee, both partners in a joint venture, parent and subsidiary in a multinational enterprise. The question of how far these are independent sources also needs careful investigation. Documents or statements addressed to different individuals and institutions may serve a variety of purposes. Those addressed to powerful individuals, groups or institutions may be intended for gain by the sender. Interviews may be designed to impress the interlocutor. The purpose of the document needs to be explicated. Documents may be designed for prestige, tax minimisation, satisfaction of guarantees (by government, sponsors or creditors) or to cover deficiencies in performance. The historian’s craft is, in part at least, to expose fraud and error (Bloch 1954 ).

Source criticism includes evaluating what is not present in archives, not just what is. Jones ( 1998 ) points out that the company archives many analysts require often do not survive—those that involve statutory obligations often do, but those involving high-level decision making, such as Board papers, often do not. He points out that ‘issues of capabilities, innovation and culture will necessitate looking at what happens “lower down” within a firm’s structure’ (Jones 1998 , p. 19). Further,

The study of intangibles such as the knowledge possessed within a firm, flows of information, and the corporate culture—and how all these things changes over time can involve a very wide range of historical record far removed from documents on strategies… Oral history—of staff employed at all levels—is of special use in examining issues of culture, information flows and systems (Jones 1998 , p. 19).

These issues—intangible assets, strategy, culture and decision making in the face of imperfect information—are crucial in international business strategy research.

In addition to criticisms based on material that exists in ‘the archive’, we need to recognise that the archive is the result of a selection process and therefore that excluded material may be important. Footnote 4 The selection process may be biased towards particular nations, regions, races, classes, genders, creeds, political groupings or belief systems. This is a key theme of ‘subaltern studies’ growing out of South Asia, and particularly India, in imperial times (Ludden 2001 ). The clear implication of these studies is that the colonial era archive was compiled by the colonial (British) administrators and this presents a largely pro-Imperial bias. However, it is also true that among the dispossessed voices, some were privileged (e.g., the Congress Party spokespeople) and others selected out. The lineage of subaltern studies leads us through Gramsci ( 1973 ) to postmodern views of the text: Derrida ( 1994 ), Foucault ( 1965 ), Barthes ( 2005 ). As well as not ‘hearing’ particular groups, the archive records may not cover particular questions or issues Footnote 5 (see also Belich 2009 Footnote 6 ; Decker 2013 ; Moss 1997 ).

2.2 Analysing Sequences, Time Series and Processes

There are a number of important techniques in historical research which are useful to international business scholars in examining process, sequence, rhythm and speed—all of which are important in internationalisation. As Mahoney points out ( 2004 , p. 88), ‘Causation is fundamentally a matter of sequence’. This is a problem addressed in economics as ‘Granger causality’ ( 1988 ). The critical question is not data access, but careful theorising. Sequence and duration arguments attempt to pick up sensitivity to time and place.

Process analysis holds out the possibility of integrating the time dimension into the internationalisation of firms. Process research, which is contrasted to ‘variance paradigms’, pays particular attention to the sequencing of events that take place within cases (Welch and Paavilainen-Mantymaki 2014 ). Events, not variables, are the crucial writ of analysis and capturing multiple time points builds narrative, event studies and panel data analyses. In combination with variance approaches, process analysis has the potential to explain the effects of context (place) and time in internationalisation. The critical task is the identification of the linking mechanisms that connect cause and effect. This requires connecting qualitative data evaluation with experimental reasoning. It is also a useful check on spurious statistical relationships (Granger and Newbold 1974 ). Easterlin ( 2013 ) argues that cross-sectional relationships are often taken to indicate causation when they may merely reflect historical experience, i.e., similar leader–follower patterns for variables that are causally unrelated. This is particularly the case when similar geographic patterns of diffusion are captured by the data—as may well be the case when studying the internationalisation of firms. This may reflect the fact that one set of (national) firms get an early start whilst others play catch-up.

We must, however, beware of ‘ingrained assumptions about historical periodization where mere temporal succession is insufficiently distinguished from historical explanation’ (Gregory 2012 , p. 9). This provides a connection to ‘path dependence’ and sensitivity to initial conditions. Careful examination of relevant data allows analysts to identify reactive sequences ‘whereby an initial outcome triggers a chain of temporally ordered and causally connected events that lead to a final outcome of interest’ (Mahoney 2004 , p. 91).

Page ( 2006 ), however, shows that path dependence describes a set of models, not a single model. Forms of history dependence can be divided between those where outcomes are history dependent and those in which the equilibria depend on history. Path dependence requires ‘a build-up of behavioural routines, social connections, or cognitive structures around an institution’ (p. 89). Page shows that there is a variety of types of path dependence, each of which can be precisely defined, and that it is insufficient to cite ‘increasing returns’ as evidence of path-dependent processes. The consequences for process research on internationalisation are profound and require researchers to be as precise as possible, when asserting path dependence, to evidence its roots and specify their impact on future trajectories. Jackson and Kollman ( 2010 ) build on Page’s definitions and suggest ‘If social scientists use notions of path dependence, they should have clearly articulated definitions and criteria for what constitutes a path dependent process’ (p. 258): ‘Any such formulation must be able to explain how the effects of initial and early outcomes are maintained over long periods of time and continue to be observed in current outcomes’ (p. 280). This is far stronger than a simple statement that ‘history matters’. Path-dependent sequences raise important theoretical issues and thereby contribute to a further and deeper round of understanding; as with quantitative analysis we need to be constantly attentive to sources of bias (Nickell 1981 ).

Understanding sequences entails additional complexities. Brown ( 2012 , p. xxii) points out that choosing the periodicity (start and end points of data collection and investigation) can risk coming to foregone conclusions and ‘a deceptive teleology’:

Two aspects of history are particularly important for historians: propulsion and periodization. The first concerns the forces that promote change. The second involves mental architecture: the chronological framework within which we set out history. Since all periodization presumes a theory of change, these are linked theoretical properties (Green 1993 , p. 17).

Propulsion and periodization—change and classification—are ultimately constructs and need to be placed both within a theoretical framework and a given context of time and place. This is a challenge to international business research which is often insufficiently theoretical and contextualised.

International business studies need to be sensitive to the period of study. Laidler ( 2012 , p. 5) advises,

The past may be the only source of data against which economic hypotheses can be tested or calibrated, but data never speak entirely for themselves. They need to be interpreted through a theory. When the only theory deemed suitable for this purpose embodies itself as part of its own structure, even on an ‘as if’ basis, then that structure is inevitably projected onto the past, and other perspectives on the historical record are obscured.

This suggests that a fundamental problem is that international business research is often inadequately theorised. Theories which stand up to testing in many historical periods are more robust than those that do not. Jones and Khanna ( 2006 , p. 455) see history as an important source of time series data: ‘historical variation is at least as good as contemporary cross-sectional variation in illuminating conceptual issues’. Although it should be noted that many historians are sensitive to the limits of generalisation across historical periods. Burgelman ( 2011 ) sees longitudinal qualitative research being situated between history as ‘particular generalization’ (Gaddis 2002 ) and reductionism; that is, ‘general particularization’.

Longitudinal research and good process research draw on both history’s narrative methods and statistical and mathematical models. Such longitudinal studies clearly need rigorous methods from both history and statistics. A relevant example is Kogut and Parkinson ( 1998 ), who examine the adoption of the multidivisional structure, testing Chandler’s ( 1962 ) core thesis over a long time period, ‘analysing history from the start’. Despite the difficulties of compiling archival data for a large sample of firms, the authors are able to test an innovative methodology on diffusion histories of the ‘M-form’ from the period beginning in 1950. They use a hazard model (of adopting the M-form) with imitation and firm covariates that predict adoption rates. The sample (62 firms) is large enough to be split into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ adopters of this organisational innovation and a comparison of the difference between the two samples enables the authors to confirm Chandler’s historical account and to point to some qualifications concerning flows of information between firms which meant that proximate firms were more likely to adopt the M-form structure. Imitation effects by firms located in the same industry and firms with links to M-form adopters also seemed significant.

The Kogut and Parkinson ( 1998 ) study is a successful example of ‘History Meets Business Studies’ (p. 257) and also of the application of techniques of organisational demography. This approach has also been successfully applied to the birth and death of subsidiaries and foreign market entry strategies (Kogut 2009 ). Historical studies have established an important precedent of ‘the importance of sampling on founders rather than survivors and of the effects of age on mortality’ (Kogut 2009 , p. 721). Shaver ( 1998 ) pointed out that many previous studies had not accounted for endogeneity and were subject to self-selection bias but that such effects could be corrected for using a methodology that factors in the full history of entries, taking account of strategy choice based on firm attributes and industry conditions. Strategy choice is endogenous and self selected based on these conditions and modelling has to account for this. Concepts such as the ‘liability of newness’ (Stinchcombe 1965 ) and the (in International Business) celebrated ‘liability of foreignness’ (Zaheer 1995 after Hymer 1976 ) examine diffusion over time. There are, however, as Kogut ( 2009 ) points out, several unresolved challenges in the organisational demography literature. First, self-selection bias is still unresolved in that successful firms are more likely to venture abroad. Second, because of unobserved variables (such as the quality of the firm) heterogeneity remains in any sample of firms and any heterogeneous population can be shown to suffer ‘liability of newness’. Controls for heterogeneity, of course, are a palliative (e.g., size of firm) but it is difficult to control all such variation. A careful specification of the growth process of firms (despite Penrose ( 1959 ) and her heirs) still eludes us.

In concluding this section, it should be mentioned that cliometrics, or the measurement of history (also called the New Economic History) is not uncontroversial (Diebolt 2012 ). ‘Hypothetico-deductive models’ (utilising the counterfactual position) using ‘propositions contrary to the facts has not escaped criticism’ (Diebolt 2012 , p. 4), and they contrast with the inductive position of the German historical school (Grimmer-Solem 2003 ). The economistic tradition of ‘opportunity cost’ whereby the true costs of any action is the best alternative foregone, provides a firm philosophical link between economics and the counterfactual as discussed below.

2.3 Comparative Methods

The comparative method is of great importance throughout the social sciences. There are three classic comparators in social science research: across space, across time, and against a carefully specified counterfactual state of the world (Buckley et al. 1992 ). International business research has traditionally focused on just one of these—across space. Historical research specialises particularly in comparisons across time, but also has lessons in spatial comparison and in counterfactual analysis.

Research that depends on ex post statistical adjustment (such as cross-country regressions) has recently come under fire; there has been a commensurate shift of focus towards design-based research—in which control over confounding variables comes primarily from research design, rather than model-based statistical adjustment (Dunning 2012 , p. xvii).

The design of a randomised controlled experiment has three characteristics (Freedman et al. 2007 , pp. 4–8):

The response of the experimental subjects assigned to receive a treatment is compared to the response of subjects assigned to a control group. This allows comparisons of outcomes across the two groups.

The assignment of subjects to treatment and control groups is done at random—a coin toss, for example. This establishes ex ante symmetry between the groups and obviates the existence of confounding variables.

The manipulation of the treatment or intervention is under the control of the experimental research. This establishes further evidence for a causal relationship between the treatment and the outcomes (Dunning 2012 , p. 15).

Crucially most extant research utilises ‘as if random’ assignment of interventions rather than ‘natural’. Its success depends upon the plausibility of ‘as if random’, the credibility of models and the relevance of intervention. ‘Qualitative evidence plays a central role in the analysis of natural experiments’ (Dunning 2012 , p. 228). This is because an investigation of the causal process is critical (Collier et al. 2010 ) in avoiding ‘selecting on the dependent’ variable by analysing only those cases where causal-process observations appear to have played a productive inferential role. Indeed, Dunning ( 2012 , p. 229) suggests that a future research agenda should focus on developing a framework that distinguishes and predicts when and what kinds of causal-process observations provide the most useful leverage for causal inference in natural experiments. Results however may be very particular and parochial because of the limited availability of natural experiment possibilities (Yin 2014 ). Experimental results, therefore, come at a price.

The price for success is a focus that is too narrow and too local to tell us ‘what works’ in development, to design policy, or to advance scientific knowledge about development processes (Deaton 2009 , p. 426).

Comparison across places by geographic area or space is frequent in international business research (across nations, cultures, regions, areas, cities). The multinational enterprise is an excellent laboratory or natural experiment because it holds constant the single institution of the firm but varies the location of study. The division, and the later unification, of Germany allowed Kogut and Zander ( 2000 ) the opportunity to conduct a natural experiment by comparing the two sections of the Zeiss Company under socialism and capitalism. The experimental design measured the dependent variable (outcome)—the technological output of the two firms proxied by patents—under ‘treatments’ offered by the different economic contexts of the two different economic systems. This unusual design substituted for a random sample by eliminating the effects of extraneous factors and isolating the effects of the treatment variable on the ‘same’ firm. Comparative management experiments can be done by comparing company A’s subsidiary in Vietnam with its subsidiary in Virginia. This is the stock-in-trade of many international business experiments and was utilised by Hofstede ( 1991 , 1997 , 2001 ), whose work on culture held the host company (IBM) culture constant whilst varying the purported national cultural responses of the firm’s employees.

Comparisons across time, holding place constant, are the essence of ‘history’. They give rise to notions of ‘growth’, ‘progress’, ‘design’, ‘loss’. Chandler ( 1984 ) describes his method as the comparison of detailed case studies to generate ‘non historically specific generalizations’. Research in business history has challenged the Chandler thesis that managerial capitalism is universally becoming the norm (Whittington 2007 ; Rowlinson et al. 2007 ). Hannah ( 2007 ) illustrates the use of comparative historical data to challenge the received wisdom. As noted elsewhere in this piece, such comparisons are fraught with danger unless carefully conducted. Meanings of documents, words, artefacts and statements vary according to different point of time usage and must be carefully analysed as best practice historical research dictates. As Ragin says ( 1987 , p. 27),

many features of social life confound attempts to unravel causal complexity when experimental methods cannot be used… First, rarely does an outcome of interest to social scientists have a single cause… Second, causes rarely operate in isolation. Usually, it is the combined effect of various conditions their intersection in time and space, that produces a certain outcome… Third, a specific cause may have opposite effects depending on context.

These three factors—multiple, interacting causes, differential by context—are the very essence of international business research. Because of the difficulty of designing natural experiments International business research has emphasised statistical control in its methods. Ragin ( 1987 ) points out that statistical control is very different from experimental control. Footnote 7 Statistical control does not equate to experimental control: ‘the dependent variable is not examined under all possible combinations of values of the independent variables, as is possible in experimental investigations’ (Ragin 1987 , p. 61). Ragin presents a Boolean approach to qualitative comparison (after George Boole ( 2003 ) [1854] and also known as the algebra of logic or algebra of sets). Kogut ( 2009 ) shows the relevance of this approach to international business research (see also Saka-Helmhout 2011 ). A recent development of the use of Boolean algebra in international business is the application of fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis in the assessment of different models of capitalism (Judge et al. 2014 ).

Qualitative comparisons are of the essence in (historical) international business research. As Kogut ( 2009 ) shows, a proposition based on a three-cause explanation in order to avoid simplifying assumptions at the outset requires a truth table of 2 3 or eight combinations as in Fig.  1 . Thus, to achieve experimental control, the investigation needs eight cases with the characteristics shown in the table in order to determine which combination of causes (A, B, C) determines the outcome (1). (See Ragin 1987 , particularly Chapters 7 and 8.) Thus historical comparative data can focus our attention on cases as wholes and to explore the combinatorial complexities of causation (Ragin 1987 , p. 171). Footnote 8 It is also suggestive of the answer to the perennial question of how many cases are needed to satisfy a proposition. For instance, it might be suggested that the rise of Japan was due to (1) lifetime work contracts, (2) company unions and (3) the Keiretsu system. In order to prove or disprove the argument, the bottom line where all three proposed casual factors are present must be contrasted with situations where none of them are present (the top line) where only one of the proposed causes is present and where combinations of two causes are present. This enables the analyst to identify necessary and sufficient conditions. In a three cause theoretical proposal, a total of eight cases are needed.

Truth table for a three cause proposition

As Mahoney ( 2004 , p. 82) says, ‘comparative-historical methodology offers tools well adapted to the analysis of necessary and sufficient causes’. This need not rely on deterministic logic because necessary and sufficient causes can be expressed in a probabilistic framework. This also aligns with expressing variables in a continuous rather than in a dichotomous fashion. These techniques are helpful, as Saka-Helmhout ( 2011 ) points out, in analysing cross-case analyses of bundles of conditions, in particular in the identification of patterns of regularities and differences. The methodological stream (and theoretical underpinnings) of comparative historical research therefore lead to the more systematic pinpointing of necessary and sufficient causes in international business case research. For applications to management research, see Oz ( 2004 ).

2.4 Counterfactual Analysis

The third classic comparator is the ‘alternative position’. The counterfactual question—‘what if?’—is a particular type of thought experiment designed to elucidate causality. It is widely (if sometimes unwittingly) used in economics where ‘opportunity cost’ (the real cost of resources) is defined as the cost of the next best alternative foregone. The ‘alternative position’ and its specification have long been a particular problem in international business research—classically in the analysis of foreign direct investment (FDI). What would have happened in the absence of a particular foreign investment? (Reddaway et al. 1968 ; Steuer 1973 ; Cairncross 1953 ; Buckley et al. 1992 , p. 36). Jones and Khanna ( 2006 , p. 464) say that a ‘comparative approach also gets at the spirit of specifying counterfactuals’.

Historians have long had to face this issue. Several variously sophisticated attempts have been made to try to answer the question of what would (might) have happened had some of the crucial turning points of history turned out differently (Beatty 2011 ; Ferguson 1997 ; Cowley 1999 ; Lebow 2014 ). Lebow ( 2012 ) points out that counterfactuals are frequently used in physical and biological sciences to develop and evaluate sophisticated, non-linear models. The counterfactual has to be well defined and this requires a thorough analysis and presentation of the context of the alternative position. Such thought experiments are perhaps history’s closest comparator to a laboratory experiment (Gaddis 2002 , p. 100)—although see the section on natural experiments in the social sciences above. The counterfactual counteracts the static nature of much historical analysis by focusing upon dynamics and processes.

Durand and Vaara ( 2009 , p. 1245) have examined the role of counterfactuals in explicating causality in the field of business strategy. They argue that:

Counterfactual history can add to our understanding of the context-specific construction of resource-based competitive advantage and path dependence, and causal modelling can help to reconceptualize the relationships between resources and performance.

The role of counterfactual reasoning in organisation studies was also explored in two issues of Management & Organizational History [volume 3(1) 2008 and volume 4(2) 2007]. MacKay ( 2007 ) pointed out that counterfactuals can guard against path dependencies in both structure of organisations and perception. Counterfactuals illustrate that the world could be other than it is and help the analyst to evaluate different possibilities including decisions and their outcomes. Thus socio-economic and technical path dependencies can introduce rigidities and cognitive or psychological path dependencies can impair organisational learning. Toms and Beck ( 2007 ) criticise received counterfactuals (on the Lancashire cotton industry) as suffering from the problems of teleology and hindsight that occur when the counterfactual is contaminated by ex post knowledge of the outcome (Maielli and Booth 2008 ). Footnote 9 Toms and Beck ( 2007 , p. 315) attempt to construct a history ‘from the perspective of decision making entrepreneurs as embedded historical actors’. This is surely the model for internationalisation researchers, when examining past decisions and their outcome.

The key, as Leunig ( 2010 ) points out, is to be explicit in specifying the counterfactual position as this provides more evidence than a simple judgement on the impact of (say) a critical innovation. Fogel ( 1964 ) in finding that agricultural land opened up by the railroads might otherwise have been undeveloped, examined the possibility of an alternative network of canals. Footnote 10 This was done not by simple perusal of a map but by examining detailed typographical maps, as a canal builder would do. A limitation of counterfactual analysis is the ability to go on to use comparative analysis because the carefully constructed counterfactual is often locationally or temporally specific. For instance, although in Fogel’s counterfactual, canals could have done most of the work of railroads, he assumed away the vagaries of the weather—in the Northeast of the US at least, canals would have been frozen for at least 4 months of the year. Footnote 11 An excellent example of a carefully constructed counterfactual is Casson’s construction of the (optimal) counterfactual railway network (complete with timetable) for the UK taking account of network performance, the physical geography of the UK, Victorian urbanisation and traffic, engineering constraints, regulation, institutional and political constraints (Casson 2009 ).

The counterfactual has an important place in the development of international business theory as analyses of the impact of FDI on host and source countries have been cast in the terms of the ‘alternative position’—what would have happened in the absence of FDI. Foreshadowing the current debate an offshoring and outsourcing, earlier literature on the impact of FDI following Hufbauer and Adler ( 1968 ) identified three polar ‘alternative positions’ (Buckley and Artisien 1987 , pp. 73, 78–79, 80).

The classical assumption assumes that FDI produces a net addition to capital formation in the host country but a similar decline in capital formation in the source country. This is equivalent to the assumption that FDI substitutes for exports. The reverse classical assumption assumes that the FDI substitutes for investment in the host country but leaves investment in the source country unchanged. This is equivalent to ‘defensive investment’ where the source country firm cannot penetrate the target market via exports and would lose the market to host country firms in the absence of FDI. The anti-classical assumption is that FDI does not substitute for capital investment in the source country, neither does it reduce investment by host country firms. Consequently FDI increases world capital formation (in contrast to the other two assumptions where world capital formation is unchanged).

Anticlassical conditions are most likely when host country firms are incapable of undertaking the projects fulfilled by FDI. Each of these assumptions is static and rigid—not allowing for a growth of demand, perhaps from the ‘presence effect’. An organic model, postulating that FDI substitutes for exports in the short run, but in the long run substitutes for rival investment is more likely. Hood and Young ( 1979 ) pointed out that the relationship between FDI and exports needs to be fully specified in any such examination of effects of FDI.

This debate needs to be updated as it predated studies of MNEs’ foreign market servicing strategies and motives other than market-seeking. A parallel move away from economic counterfactuals towards specifying alternative decision making scenarios for decision-making entrepreneurs would be a step forward here (Toms and Beck 2007 ). A further important question here concerns the identity of the decision maker and whether ownership (foreign versus domestic) matters. As concern with the employment impact of FDI at home and abroad grows, counterfactual analysis is useful in specifying the myriad impacts (employment among them) of modern MNEs.

The ‘historical alternatives approach’ (Zeitlin 2007 ) is a specifically business history variant of counterfactual analysis. The historical alternatives approach is promoted by Zeitlin ( 2007 ) as ‘against teleology and determinism’. The approach suggests that plasticity of technology has been underrated, leading to technological determinism of a particularly narrow type. Strategic action in the face of uncertainty, mutability and hedging strategies gives a far wider range of outcomes than conventionally allowed for and ‘the market’ is dogmatically and narrowly the result of historical construction. Size of firms, strategic action, industry imperatives and rationality are too glibly taken as determining factors and the result is an excessively pre-determined view of business choices. While it is certainly the case that many analyses based on historical reasoning are unduly constrained in terms of other potential outcomes, alternative futures have to be specified extremely carefully and constraints that are to be lifted on outcomes must be spelled out and the degree to which they are assumed to be not binding requires extensive and meticulous research.

In internationalisation research, alternative positions are important concepts in the development of the process. The decisions that key managers make can be evaluated by presenting them with alternative scenarios, as Buckley et al. ( 2007 ) did. This is usually, for practical and cost reasons, a point-of-time rather than a continuous exercise even though, in principle, these choices could be presented to managers frequently throughout the internationalisation process. There are examples of where a single investment is considered as a ‘Go/No go’ decision and others where several alternative investments are simultaneously considered (Buckley et al. 1978 ). In many cases firms will themselves investigate alternative scenarios even if this is done informally rather than through ‘scenario planning’.

3 Discussion

Table  1 shows the areas where the four key methods identified above have been successfully applied in international business.

The application of the above principles of method suggests that a new international business history is called for that relies on the two key principles of examining change over time and using the comparative method. If we accept that the study of history is about change over time, then international business history needs to take a long-run view of change and of the role of multinational firms in large scale social and economic development. This presents a major challenge in view of the material in archives. Company archives cover the world from the point of view of the (single) company. In international business this represents only one actor in a complex drama. The roles of host and source countries are perforce omitted. It behoves the writers of international company histories to take a wider perspective than just the company’s viewpoint. In approaching the comparative method, the spatial comparison encompasses the international dimension but changes over time require a longer run view than most company histories allow for. Comparing the role of a company in the eighteenth century with the nineteenth is not often possible from a single company’s archives (and it can be argued, were this to be so, we would be dealing with an outlier). In short, the writing of international business history needs to be more imaginative, not only in method but also in its engagement with wider theory and technique.

It is equally the case that international business theory and methods can enrich historical research. Footnote 12 In addition to the Chitu et al. ( 2013 ) examination of ‘history effects’ in international finance and trade, international business can be focused on global history in the way that Bell and Dale ( 2011 ) analysed the economic and financial dimensions of the medieval pilgrimage business (using contract and network theory and the analysis of saints’ shrines as business franchise, under an umbrella brand of the Universal Catholic Church).

3.1 Historical Research Approaches and the Internationalisation Process

The question of how firm internationalisation evolves over time is best answered by the careful use of historical research methods duly adapted for the context of international business research (Jones and Zeitlin 2007 ) . The temporal dimension of the internationalisation process needs to be centre-stage and critical decision points and turning points need to be mapped on a timeline and against feasible alternatives. As extant international business research has shown (Buckley et al. 2007 ), managers are only partly guided by rational processes and context and contingency play roles in determining the final decisions. If we know when these critical decisions are made, then it becomes much easier to understand the factors that were in play in the decision makers’ minds. It is frequently remarked that key ‘events’ (a coup, the launch of a rival’s product, a competitive market entry) were the triggers for investment (or non-investment) decisions and a timeline of events—a mapping of process—can be a key to understanding. The temporal sequencing of ‘events’ in the internationalisation process is clearly vital to comprehension of the firm’s strategy and decisions. As well as time, at a given place, we need to add place at a given time for all these events. Thus a double comparative across time and space is necessary for a rounded understanding of outcomes.

Process research also needs to comprehend simultaneous processes as there is not just one sequence of events in internationalisation; rather, there are multiple. Selection of processes to track has to be theoretically driven. Process research cannot stand apart from the theory, it is has to be fully engaged with the appropriate theories and to feed back into them (Paavilainen-Mantymaki and Welch 2013 ). This is fully in accord with Pettigrew’s ( 1997 ) approach to processual analysis. Moreover, as Pettigrew ( 1997 , p. 340) says, ‘The time quality of a processual analysis thereby lies in linking processes to outcomes’. Linking internationalisation processes to outcomes (performance) is a missing element in our understanding—the results of the managerial decisions form an essential element of a feedback loop to further internationalisation.

The four generic methods applied in historical research outlined here—source criticism, time series analysis, the use of comparative methods and counterfactual analysis—are all vital in constructing a proper process analysis of the internationalisation of the firm (or of a firm’s internationalisation). It is fundamental that a critical appraisal of all sources be undertaken, be they company statements, archives, documents or interviews. Wherever possible these should be triangulated against other sources. Nothing should be taken on trust and, if it has to be, this should be clearly stated. Wherever possible, a timeline of relevant events should be made in order to sequence the decision processes and outcomes. The construction of multiple timelines—of different managers, sub-units of the firm and other key actors (such as competitors, agents, customers, suppliers, governmental bodies, support agencies) should be compared and contrasted. The coincidence in time of actions by interested parties is prima facie evidence of joint causality. These techniques can be extended by the use of comparisons not only in time but in space. The geographical mapping of actions and outcomes gives richness to the process analysis. The transmission and impact of decisions from one geographical point (e.g., headquarters) to another (a subsidiary, a potential takeover victim), the time-lags involved and the reaction time of the recipient are all vital in understanding internationalisation. Counterfactual analysis, too, can be a useful tool. Firms often approach internationalisation decisions with a number of contingencies. If they cannot acquire foreign firm X, should they turn to Y, or to a greenfield venture instead? These alternatives are useful to know and it may be possible to construct feasible alternative internationalisation paths.

In summary, historical research methods and approaches provide a research design for internationalisation process studies that enhance the depth of understanding by incorporating concrete timelines, alternatives and decision processes.

3.2 A New Concept of Internationalisation

The new concept of internationalisation that emerges from a consideration of the light shed by historical research on managerial processes is that internationalisation is the outcome of a set of decisions, dependent on context and previous decisions, considering alternative locations, entry and development methods in a choice set of time and space. In these sequential decisions, knowledge of past decisions and their outcomes plays a part in the next round of decisions. Hence companies can create ‘vicious circles’ or ‘virtuous circles’ in their internationalisation processes. In this sense, a knowledge of history of the company making the decision and of similar companies making comparable decisions can be valuable for the manager. History matters to decision-makers as well as analysts. The question of when to take history into account and when to ignore it and ‘take a chance’ is the essence of managerial judgement (and of ‘real options theory’—see Kogut and Kulatilaka 2001 ; Buckley et al. 2002 ). Those who make regular correct calls will develop a ‘track record’ and be valued accordingly. Thus both the weight of history and the judgement of successful individuals will build path dependence into the internationalisation process.

The research approach formulated in this article encompasses the Uppsala approach to internationalisation (Johanson and Vahlne 1977 , 2009 ) as a special case. The Uppsala approach has no explicit role for time. It explains market entry as a sequence which is determined by psychic proximity to the source country in a loose path dependent fashion. A more careful specification of the relationship between market entry and psychic distance and an explicit acknowledgement of the role of time would allow a fully historical analysis of market entry sequencing in the Uppsala tradition.

4 Conclusion: The Response to the Challenge of Historical Research

The last sentences of Butterfield’s ( 1965 , p. 132) The Whig Interpretation of History encompasses the challenge of historical research methods: ‘In other words, the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the market-place. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear’. Historical research methods can help international business researchers to be more questioning, analytical and critical and to think laterally in terms of alternative states of the world, different choices and outcomes. There is a justifiable argument that international business research is insufficiently critical of ‘texts’ in all their forms—company statements, official statistics, interviews with managers among them—and historical research has a number of techniques for improving the penetration of meaning behind texts, as this piece has shown.

In using research methods derived from history we must always factor in ‘Contingency, choice and agency’ (Clark 2012 , p. 362). We should also remember that history interacts with geography—context is crucial. To quote the historian Peter Brown’s work on wealth in the early Christian period, ‘A true history of Latin Christianity requires an unremitting sense of place’ (Brown 2012 , p. xxii). A good example relevant to international business is the combined use of historical, geographical and sectoral data by Becuwe, Blancheton and Charles ( 2012 ) in analysing the decline of French trade power in the ‘first globalization’ of 1850–1913. A sense of place involves understanding both the global macro context and the particular location.

There is an awkward disjunction between traditional historical research and hypothetico-deductive modelling. This is paralleled by the lack of integration between quantitative and qualitative methods in international business research, arising from their philosophical bases in positivism and subjectivism. The careful integration of historical research methods into international business provides us with one channel of progress towards a more complete understanding of the phenomena of international business.

In the particular case of the analysis of the internationalisation of the firm, historical approaches place managerial judgement central to the process. Such judgement, however, is constrained by context. This context is both temporal and spatial. ‘When’ and ‘where’ matter in both an individual decision and the analysis of decisions. The use of the plural here implies sequencing and therefore a focus on process. The choice set faced by the manager is constrained by what has gone before—by history. This does not determine the next decision in the sequence but it influences it. The new concept of internationalisation is that sequence, not events, are at the heart of the international growth of the firm, that spatial issues (including psychic distance to a potential host country) must be accounted for, and that past decisions constrain outcomes.

On the importance of methodology (in international business as elsewhere) we can end with a quote from Kogut ( 2009 , p. 711): ‘It is one of the best-kept secrets of research that a methodological contribution is the most powerful engine for the replication and diffusion of an idea’.

It is suggested by Cannadine ( 2013 , p. 9) that academic histories are often responsible for emphasising divergences rather than similarities: ‘Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities, but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked’. The contrast between history and social science has been an issue for over a century (see Simiand 1903 ).

See also the debate on the ‘historic turn’ in organisation studies (Clark and Rowlinson 2004 ).

Stephanie Decker ( 2013 , p. 6) identified four features that ‘clearly distinguish historical from non-historical research designs’. These are: reconstruction from primary sources (empirical rigour), thick contextualisation in time and space (empirical at times, theoretical rigour), periodization (theoretical rigour when combined with strong historiography) and historical narrative (accessibility, empirical and theoretical rigours).

For an excellent review of the use (and extension) of archive material see Wilkins and Hill ( 2011 ) ‘Bibliographical Essay’ pp. 445–458.

See also Schwarzkopf ( 2012 ).

Belich notes, of trying to identify ‘emigrants’ and their opinions: ‘This problem of the silent majority is, of course, endemic in the social history of ideas. The standard solution, not one to be despised in the absence of alternatives, is to pile up available examples of opinions in the vague hope that these are typical. Once possible refinement is the analysis of the conceptual language of substantial groups of lesser writers who are trying to persuade their still-larger target audience to do something’ (Belich 2009 , p. 148 f.).

‘In most statistical analyses, the effect of a control variable is its average effect on the dependent variable, across all cases, not of the effects of other variables. The subtraction of effects central to statistical control is a purely mechanical operation predicted on simplifying assumptions. It is assumed in multiple regression, for example, that a variable’s effect is the same in each case—that a one-unit change in an independent variable has the same effect on the dependent variable regardless of context, that is, regardless variable’s effect by simple subtraction. The result is a dependent variable whose values have been “corrected” for the effects of one or more independent variables’ (Ragin 1987 , p. 59).

For a full discussion of varieties of comparative history, see Skocpol and Somers ( 1980 ).

See Evans ( 2014 ) for a critical appraisal of counterfactuals.

As a referee points out, Fogel was not posing the ‘what if’ question but rather ‘by how much less would the US economy have grown if there had been no railways’.

I owe this point to Geoff Jones (personal communication 09.07.2013).

Kobrak and Schneider ( 2011 ) make a call for a renewal of historical research methods in business history, ‘reviving some basic historiographical notions’ (p. 401).

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I am grateful for comments on earlier versions from Chris Clark (Cambridge), Simon Ball (Leeds), Andrew Thompson (Exeter), Niall Ferguson (Harvard), Jeremy Black (Exeter), Mark Casson (Reading), Janet Casson (Oxford), Catherine Casson (Birmingham), Jonathan Steinberg (Pennsylvania), Catherine Welch (Sydney), Adrian Bell (Reading), Peter Miskell (Reading), Stephanie Decker (Aston), Geoffrey Jones (Harvard), Mira Wilkins (Florida International University), an anonymous reviewer for the AIBUK 2013 Conference at Aston University, participants at AIBUK Aston 2013, three anonymous reviewers for AIB 2013 and participants at the AIB Conference, Istanbul, July 2013, two anonymous referees and particularly to the editors of this Focused Issue.

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Buckley, P.J. Historical Research Approaches to the Analysis of Internationalisation. Manag Int Rev 56 , 879–900 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11575-016-0300-0

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History Matters: The Critical Contribution of Historical Analysis to Contemporary Health Policy and Health Care

Sally sheard.

University of Liverpool, Liverpool, UK

History is popular with health policymakers, if the regularity with which they invoke historical anecdotes to support policy change is used as an indicator. Yet the ways in which they ‘use’ history vary enormously, as does its impact. This paper explores, from the perspective of a UK academic historian, the development of ‘applied’ history in health policy. It draws on personal experience of different types and levels of engagement with policymakers, and highlights mechanisms through which this dialogue and partnership can be made more efficient, effective, and intellectually rewarding for all involved.

History is popular with health policymakers, if the regularity with which they invoke historical anecdotes to support policy change is used as an indicator. Yet the ways in which they ‘use’ history vary enormously, as does its impact. This paper explores, from the perspective of an academic historian, the development of ‘applied’ history in health policy. It demonstrates, through UK case studies, that historical analysis can improve policymaking and service delivery. By focusing on the actual process of policymaking and implementation, especially what happens when earlier policies have been forgotten or deliberately side-lined, historical analysis helps to open up wider opportunities. The paper highlights the similarities between history and improvement science: both disciplines are concerned with change over time, and have developed methodologies to cope with complexity. There is a case to be made for a greater use of historians in health policy and health care, but this requires policymakers and service providers to be aware of what they offer and where to find them, and to routinely engage with them at the start of new policy or service planning. It requires the development of shared objectives, language and planning schedules.

The paper first outlines how history has become a key component of popular culture, especially in the UK, and suggests that this has enabled UK some health policymakers to feel they can ‘do it themselves’ to the exclusion of professional historians. Second, it sets out some of the methodological issues and challenges around historical analysis, especially in the setting of periods of study, in comparison with improvement science. Third, it discusses how historians of healthcare in the UK have chosen their research topics, and crucially, the style of output, and how this has facilitated or hindered their engagement with policymakers and service providers. Fourth, it provides two case studies which demonstrate how history can be used at different scales: at the local level using an anniversary (of the first UK public health team in 1847) to provoke a city (Liverpool) to reflect on what has enabled population health to improve; at the national level (UK Department of Health) to demonstrate the impact of cuts in medical expertise in the civil service (1980s–1990s) on the ability of the government to respond to emerging infectious diseases (HIV/AIDS; BSE; MRSA).

Fifth, it outlines how UK historians are using new methodologies (witness seminars) and new modes of engagement and dissemination (the History and Policy organisation) to become more proactive in working with policymakers. Although history students are now often taught that their discipline is ‘useful’, or has practical significance, because ‘intelligent action’ invariably draws on past experience, some academic historians are unwilling to see historical ‘lessons’ applied to current ‘real-world’ situations. 1 They would suggest that the uniqueness of a historical event cannot translate perfectly to the present, and so has limited relevance. And, as the US historian Richard Hirsh puts it: ‘More practically, many historians realise that universities rarely provide rewards for work that has direct application outside the ivory tower’. 2 Yet in the UK historians have been developing external work for many years across policy, creative and other arenas, and indeed ‘impact’ is now a key indicator of success for research councils and for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) that helps determine state funding allocations for universities.

Challenges of Using History

There are multiple challenges for historians attempting to engage with non-academic audiences, perhaps the first (in terms of importance and sequence) is the issue of superfluity or irrelevance. I have already noted how historians themselves have been reluctant to let their work be used as crude analogy to contemporary circumstances, but equally, some policymakers do not naturally see history as ‘relevant’ to their work, unless provoked to do so. This is due to a number of factors. They will have an understanding of history based on their personal ‘history’—recollections of their school curricula (which in the UK invariably included the stock favourites of Tudors and Stuarts, and the Second World War)—and they will also draw on how they encounter history as entertainment. It has come to dominate TV scheduling in the UK, from mammoth series such as Kenneth Clarke’s Civilisation to the new generation of international ‘telly dons’ such as Mary Beard and Simon Schama. History as a genre regularly features in publication bestseller lists (often tied to TV series). This history as entertainment is passive: delivered to the audience, and requiring/allowing little interaction with the historians producing it. Even when historians are invited to deliver serious academic content, their raison d’etre can be misinterpreted. The well-known historian David Starkey gave a keynote speech at the 2006 NHS Confederation conference, but one of the organisers later commented that ‘to some extent, he was there as entertainment’. 3

The enthusiasm for mainstream history, as evidenced through its presence in the media and bestseller lists also occasionally surfaces within the policymaking community, where policymakers feel confident, perhaps because they have a history degree, that they can identify and apply historical analogies to current policy issues. Sometimes this is well-intentioned, but can also be seen as ‘history as pancea’. Aneurin Bevan, the Labour Minister of Health who oversaw the introduction of the NHS in 1948, has been regularly name-checked by his successors, usually to support politically contentious policy changes, such as hospital closures and service reorganisations. 4 The repetition of popular historical vignettes, such as the Black Death or the 1918 global influenza pandemic serves to retain and gain them cultural purchase. They also demonstrate preoccupations of their users that are ‘more gothic than historical’. 5

A second challenge—that of ‘time’—causes concerns for both historians and policymakers. Much of the history that is presented as ‘useful’ or ‘relevant’ by historians when consulted by policymakers (or history self-selected by policymakers themselves) can be labelled ‘contemporary history’. Every period has its own contemporary history, and historians differ on how to set our contemporary history’s parameters: whether it covers things within living memory, or as Francis Fukuyama suggests, can be dated from the nineteenth century advent of liberal democracy, in which technology and military competition acted as the twin engines of historical change, as opposed to Marxist theoretical mechanisms of class conflict, politics, and tensions between the individual and the state. 6 Geoffrey Barraclough provides yet another definition: ‘ Contemporary history begins when the problems which are actually in the world today first take visible shape’ (original italics). 7 Historians such as John Gaddis and Peter Catterall have championed contemporary history as a way to deepen the historian’s active engagement in the production of history—someone on the ‘inside’—in contrast to E H Carr’s view of the role of the historian as a general watching from the edge of the battlefield as ‘events’ march past him. 8

Irrespective of how historians conduct their intra-professional debates, for policymakers—especially those politically appointed—the main benefit of using contemporary history context is that it will be familiar to their intended audience: colleagues and/or the public. The supremacy of the recent recognises that ‘every age thinks itself to be the most important age that ever occurred’. 9

This is more than academic turf wars. It determines how history is ‘done’, both by historians and policymakers, as it delimits what is acceptable evidence, how the analytical frameworks handle it, and its potential for further application. Fernand Braudel (1902–1985), editor of Annales and one of the great French historians of the twentieth century, opened a significant debate with his 1958 essay History and the Social Sciences: the Longue Durée . 10 He highlighted the limitations of the historian’s conventional strategy of working with ‘unilinear’ time: in which historical development is presented as continuous on a single (and invariably short) time-scale. This approach, for Braudel, neglected the structures within which change occurred, and prioritised the very recent past. He proposed using an alternative ‘plurality of social time’ in which history operates on three simultaneous levels: the long term (la longue durée: fundamental conditions of life, including the environment); medium term (for social, economic and political systems); the short term (for analysing the individual and the l’histoire événementielle—the ‘event’).

In 1970 an academic symposium on ‘Time’ was convened by the Society for Values in Higher Education that brought together biologists, physicists, psychologists, philosophers and historians. As Dale Porter provocatively stated in his summary of the event, it was the historians who appeared to be least confident in working with the concept of time: ‘In short, historians are working without a viable theory of explanation. Their individual investigations cannot be related to each other in any systematic way, and they are largely irrelevant to studies in other disciplines’. However, their focus on narrative explanations, Dale suggested, were actually similar to the more analytical ‘explanatory models’ used by these other disciplines, and with a bit of effort could be re-purposed to effectively meet the challenges of complex temporal developments, working in a similar way to the ‘process’ philosophy that Alfred North Whitehead had developed earlier in the twentieth century in response to the breakdown in scientific positivism. 11

A third challenge for using history in policymaking centres on how historical explanation requires relative degrees of abstraction, generalisation and complexity. The main difficulty with narrative accounts is that they involve two kinds of understanding of events. The first is gained by following a sequence of incidents of a given duration, and any pattern abstracted from that narrative is therefore only meaningful by reference to what actually happened. The second kind of understanding—analytical—emerges from a natural tendency to use the pattern abstracted from the story as a heuristic device that prompts questions about the similarity or difference between one sequence of events and another. 12 These two modes of understanding—by following and by analysing—appeared to be antithetical, and Porter suggested that this duality within traditional historical narrative accounts was at the root of ‘a great deal of anxiety among historians and their critics in recent years’, whereas in other disciplines, especially in the social sciences, these two modes of understanding had been pursued separately. He proposed a conscious re-balancing in which the reciprocity between hypothesis and empirical evidence would validate the historians’ traditional prioritisation of the narrative form of understanding. 13

Thinking about history as change—of historical events as dynamic relationships between causes and effects that happen ‘over time’—raises a fourth challenge which relates more directly to the concept of ‘improvement’, which also has an inherent dynamism. Some weak history—generally that which is uncritical—is branded ‘Whiggish’: it assumes that the present is always better than the past; that there has been progressive, cumulative, ‘improvement’. 14 In health history/history of medicine, this is often an accurate (if superficial) observation, depending on what measurements are used: life expectancies have improved since the mid-nineteenth century (the upward trajectory only just flattening in the first decade of the twenty-first century). In the fifteenth century more than half the British population were aged under 20; in the early twenty-first century we are already seeing some countries where half the population are over 60. It is tempting to attribute these historical patterns to specific historical events: the introduction of anaesthesia, antisepsis, antibiotics, etc. But when crude national patterns are unpicked it is possible to see that improvement has been relative or unequal: lower mortality rates from the classic infectious diseases such as cholera and smallpox have been paralleled by rising mortality rates for chronic conditions such as diabetes and heart disease. Cancer is in essence a disease of modernity, becoming more visible to society as more human bodies now survive long enough into the new ‘middle ages of 50+’ to allow cell mutations. Underneath Whiggish national improvements in health is an enduring inequality that has been clearly linked to socio-economic factors for nearly two hundred years: Edwin Chadwick, Friedrich Engels and other early nineteenth century reformers were able to demonstrate a significant positive correlation between poverty and ill-health.

Yet ‘long’ health histories—those that begin with the early nineteenth century epidemic disease—are easier, perhaps lazier, and in some ways more politically acceptable, than more recent health history. Politicians are comfortable drawing on the triumph of scientific advances such as anaesthesia and the discovery of germ theory in their rhetoric as evidence of long-term ‘improvement’ in health. To shift to short term history, for the politician, and possibly their policymakers, is more risky. Even using the creation of the NHS in 1948 as a historical era marker raises the potential for political debate on its performance and sustainability. ‘Short’ historical analysis might also be more problematical for historians because it exposes their academic fiefdom to other academic disciplines, especially political scientists and sociologists. It returns us to the first challenge of relevance, and opens up the debate on how to make history useful to policymakers, which requires discussion of historians’ motive, language and agency.

The Emergence of History of Health and Medicine

The history of health and medicine did not emerge as a distinct sub-discipline before the twentieth century. Rankean historians consolidated their professional identity and status through studies of nation states, in which biographical information on the life (health) and death of key players was a by-product of the bigger narrative. 15 Studies of the health of populations by professional historians required source material. The introduction of the decadal census in the UK in 1801, and of vital civil registration (births, marriages and deaths) in England and Wales in 1837, enabled a more comprehensive analysis than was possible using the earlier religious archives. Histories of patients, as well as of the great men of medicine, were now possible. There is an irony to this: doctors have always ‘taken histories’ from their patients.

In the US there was an active community of health historians from the 1920s (united through the American Association for the History of Medicine which was formed in 1925, primarily by physicians with an amateur interest in the discipline). US pioneers in the early years, up to the 1960s, included Henry Sigerist, Erwin Ackerknecht and Owsei Temkin. A second generation responded to the concept of a ‘social construction’ of medical authority and the development of medicine as an industrial and commercial activity. Key scholars included Susan Reverby, Charles Rosenberg, Judith Levitt, David Rosner and Rosemary Stevens, to name some of the most prominent proponents. In European countries there were smaller communities of medical/health historians. In Germany it was primarily the province of medical professionals.

Yet a community of historians of health and medicine was not visible in the UK until the 1950s. 16 The watershed moment of creation of the full British welfare state in 1948 played a critical role in permitting more robust ‘before and after’ historical analysis. Indeed, many of the leading historians working in this area have focused on the achievements of 1948 within their work to support their personal political values. This is not the place in which to digress into a detailed history of the history of health and medicine, but it is useful to outline the leading UK scholars, and a broad split into sub-genres, as this impacts on the UK case studies provided in this paper.

Some, such as Roy Porter and W.F. [Bill] Bynum, focused on science and medicine in the period before the NHS. Others, such as Asa Briggs and Anthony Wohl would be more properly classified as social historians, but their classic books Victorian People and Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain are defining works in the history of public health and early state medicine. 17 Some historians moved into this area having previously worked on related themes. Charles Webster’s early interests were in early modern science. He then widened his scope to consider medicine in the same period, but it was not until the 1980s that he shifted his focus to the twentieth century, and in particular the health of the working classes. 18 He was then invited to write the official history of the National Health Service, which appeared in two volumes in 1988 and 1996. 19

Webster is a ‘proper’ historian, in that he was trained and employed as an academic historian throughout his career. But it is interesting that some of the most influential UK health history books have been written by scholars for whom history was not their ‘day job’. Brian Abel-Smith, a health economist and professor of social administration, produced histories of the British nursing profession and hospitals which remain definitive texts. 20 These were important political and policy histories of aspects of health care: they were written in support of his socialist principles that a universal free health care system was an intrinsic component of social justice in a civilised society, and a basic human right. Abel-Smith actively used historical context and historical analysis in his work as one of the first special advisers to the British government. He worked closely with Richard Crossman, Barbara Castle and David Ennals, when they served as Secretaries of State for Health during the Labour governments of 1964–70 and 1974–79. 21 He routinely incorporated history into his briefing papers, and produced anniversary accounts of the NHS to help secure its position at times of increasing financial attacks from the Treasury. 22

Geoffrey Rivett also used his considerable insider knowledge of the NHS and the DHSS/DH as a former general practitioner and civil servant to write comprehensive histories of the British NHS. 23 Other health care (service) historians with different backgrounds who were writing in the first phase include Rudolf Klein who initially approached health care from a contemporary public policy perspective, and Nicholas Timmins, who was social policy editor for the Financial Times. 24 It has also attracted comparative historical analysis through the work of Dan Fox, a US health policy adviser. 25

‘Applied’ History and Historians in the UK

All of the British health care histories noted above, most of them produced in the 1980s and early 1990s, share common features: they are substantial books (most of them more than 300 pages) and their target audiences were primarily the academic community, although some sought wider policymaking and public audiences. Some, such as Abel-Smith, wished to use their work to consolidate and secure the history and future of the NHS; some of the anniversary histories have also been appropriated by politicians and used to legitimise their revisions to Health Minister Aneurin Bevan’s founding principles, while at the same time canonising him within political history (see for example Prime Minister Tony Blair’s foreword to Geoffrey Rivett’s history of the NHS on its 50th anniversary).

Yet it is labour-intensive to take these ‘gold standard’ comprehensive histories of British health care and to use them to support contemporary health policy making. Policymakers prefer short briefing papers and find synthesis of key analysis into bullet points helpful. It is difficult to take even standard academic papers, focusing on specific health care issues, to generate useful ‘policy-applicable’ history. Health care historians, responding to and building on the pioneers listed above, have increasingly chosen to focus on smaller, more manageable themes: hospitals, diseases, clinical innovations, staffing. There has been a trend since the 1990s to push back the period of study to before the creation of the NHS in 1948—to properly examine the ‘mixed economy’ of health care in the inter-war period, which had traditionally been written up as universally bleak. 26 Another trend has been to look specifically at the history of health care policy development, rather than its delivery and impact. 27

Alongside this trend for thematic health care histories, has been the emergence of overt ‘policy applied’ health historians. The case studies presented below draw on my personal experiences. Other historians who have increasingly adopted this mantle include Virginia Berridge, whose success is evidenced by her creation and leadership of the first Centre for History in Public Health, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in 2003. Berridge’s career has included significant advisory roles to policymakers working on AIDS, drugs and alcohol policy. 28 What policy-applied health historians have collectively experienced can be grouped as three key issues: the role of networking to gain access to policymakers; synchronicity with policymaking schedules; style of engagement. These are common issues in the expert/policymaking arena, as evidenced by policy theory literature. 29

Case Study 1: Public Health in 1847 and 1997

Liverpool experienced some of the worst epidemics of infectious diseases (cholera, typhus, typhoid) of the early nineteenth century. Its image as a dangerously unhealthy place finally persuaded the urban authority to take action. In 1846, a local Act of Parliament was passed which created the first British public health team, and three men were appointed to start work on 1 January 1847 to deliver a radical programme of sanitary reform (Dr William Henry Duncan as Medical Officer of Health, James Newlands as Borough Engineer, and Thomas Fresh as Inspector of Nuisances). Liverpool continued to develop and implement radical policy solutions through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the first public housing schemes, clean air legislation and attempts at introducing a local ban on smoking in public places. In 1995, John Ashton, then Regional Director of Public Health for North West England, who had previously been a professor of public health at the University of Liverpool, and who had a keen amateur interest in history, commissioned a ‘year of public health’ for 1997 to mark the 150th anniversary of the start of professional public health in the UK.

Ashton supported the creation of a research post in the history of public health at the University of Liverpool, to which I was appointed (later converted into a lectureship). Together we discussed how Liverpool’s health history could be used to generate public debate on the changing determinants of health, especially income levels, unemployment, access to healthcare, and lifestyle factors such as smoking, exercise and diet. This deliberate public engagement policy was intended to be used as leverage with national policymakers on the negative impact of cutting benefits and health services, which had had a disproportionate effect in Liverpool since the election of a Conservative government (under Margaret Thatcher) in 1979. I used the history of local health and healthcare to develop an exhibition with the Museum of Liverpool Life and a programme of ‘celebratory events’, including artistic commissions and activities with local schools. The evaluation at the end of 1997 demonstrated that local awareness of the relative role of health determinants had improved. The city council and local NHS authorities were stimulated by understanding how major policy developments had been achieved by three pioneers in 1847, despite a lack of local funding, staffing or national support. They were encouraged to draw contemporary comparisons and to think more broadly and creatively about solutions to Liverpool’s chronic poor health.

The collaboration between myself and local health policymakers in Liverpool was reported to the UK Department of Public Health. As Liverpool’s pioneering 1846 Sanatory Act was also the foundation for the first national legislation: the 1848 Public Health Act, I was invited to brief the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), Sir Kenneth Calman, and to write a section for his annual report. Working with the US health historian Chris Hamlin, I also presented this history to a wider medical professional audience in an article in the British Medical Journal which drew comparisons between the 1848 Act and the plans to re-structure public health in 1998. 30

Case study 2: The Decline of the UK Medical Civil Service

Policymakers’ knowledge of where to go for health history is also highlighted through this second case study, which directly leads from the first. When I presented my analysis of the 1848 Public Health Act and its relevance to the 1998 Act at Calman’s final report launch I met the in-coming CMO, Sir Liam Donaldson. He wrote to me afterwards, expressing an interest in the history of the role of the CMO, and inviting me to write a joint research application, which was subsequently funded by the Nuffield Trust.

Between autumn 1998 and the publication of The Nation’s Doctor: the Role of the Chief Medical Officer 1855 – 1998 in 2006, Donaldson and I met regularly in his Department of Health office in Whitehall, London. We agreed a work plan in which I conducted the historical analysis and wrote the draft chapters, which he then commented on. As the research progressed we discussed emerging issues such as completeness of sources, strengths and weaknesses of oral history, balancing chronological progression with thematic analysis, and historiography: how previous historians had written about CMOs and their work. It emerged that most of the CMOs had faced similar recurrent problems, especially control of adequate staff; relations with the wider civil service and the medical profession; Whitehall culture; the right to speak independently of the government on health issues. These were also issues that Donaldson was then experiencing as the current CMO.

Over the course of 6 years I learnt a lot about how Whitehall works, from reading archive materials deposited by former CMOs, civil servants and politicians, and from discussions with Donaldson about how to achieve policy change, especially on contentious issues such as banning smoking in public places. This was one of his key objectives as CMO, but one which the UK government found tricky as it risked accusations of ‘nanny state-ism’. I researched how previous CMOs had handled the initial discovery of the association between smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s, and then worked towards effective policies to reduce smoking. I demonstrated, through analysis of the archives of the Ministry of Health and the Treasury, that the Conservative governments of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan were reluctant to run effective health education campaigns partly because the relatively new NHS was heavily reliant on revenue from tobacco tax. Sir John Charles, the CMO in post when the association was established, was persuaded not to be too pro-active on this issue. He was allowed to stay in post beyond the usual civil service retirement age because he was ‘amenable’ to pressure from the Treasury, who anticipated that his nominated successor, Sir George Godber, would not be so malleable. Godber did indeed take a much tougher line, and got around the issue of Whitehall policy intransigence by taking it outside government to his medical colleagues in the Royal College of Physicians. He persuaded them to run a hard-hitting, plain English campaign in 1962, which had significant impact in reducing the high levels of smoking in the UK. 31

The policy lessons from the 1950s history of smoking and lung cancer were indirect but helpful. They illuminated the importance of involving external expertise, and of ensuring senior medical civil servants were not intentionally side-lined by other government departments when financial concerns competed with scientific evidence. These were common ‘history lessons’ that emerged from other research for The Nation’s Doctor . One of the case studies that had significant ‘impact’ was on the history of the CMO’s access to medical expertise. From Sir John Simon in 1855 onwards, the CMO had direct line management of medical civil servants, and was able to direct them to conduct rapid investigations into emerging health crises, such as the outbreak of epidemics. This regularly caused friction with the rest of the civil service, especially the Permanent Secretaries in the Ministry/Department of Health, some of whom resented the CMO being able to directly access the Minister without their approval. Sir Arthur Newsholme (CMO between 1908 and 1919) later recorded his frustration that there was:

…an honest belief, common to many government departments, that technical advice is advice not to be given until called for by the secretariat [lay civil service] who, it is assumed, are entirely competent to decide whether such advice is needed. Second, when such advice is on record, it is assumed that it can be safely reapplied in what are regarded by the secretariat as analogous circumstances. 32

Many of the fourteen men who held the CMO role between 1855 and 1998 found ways to manage this issue, but the last two, Sir Donald Acheson (1984–91) and Sir Kenneth Calman (1991–98) came up against a more substantial obstacle: the successive Whitehall efficiency reviews that from 1979 onwards aimed at shrinking the civil service. These culminated in 1994 in the merger of the previously parallel medical and ‘lay’ civil service reporting hierarchies in the Department of Health, effectively reducing the CMO’s capacity to call upon the support of medical civil servants, at a time of several significant new health threats, including HIV/AIDS, BSE and MRSA. At the peak of the medical civil service in the early 1970s, the CMO had direct line management of over 170 medically qualified civil servants, who provided expertise on the development and implementation of new medical treatments as well as on broader health protection and promotion issues. By the time Calman gave evidence to the BSE enquiry in 1998, he was left with, in his own words, ‘a secretary and a mobile phone’. 33 I demonstrated, through analysis of archive papers (made available to the Phillips Enquiry on BSE, which would have been otherwise closed under the government’s 30 years rule), and through a series of oral history interviews with senior civil servants, medical professionals and politicians, that there had been a longer decline in medical manpower in Whitehall, and that this had restricted the effectiveness of responses to emerging health crises.

I used the historical evidence I collected on the issue of the shrinking of medical civil service in several ways. First, it formed sections of The Nation’s Doctor , co-written with Sir Liam Donaldson. Second, I was approached in 2008 by a medically qualified member of the House of Lords, who had read The Nation’s Doctor and wished to use the recent history of the decline of the medical civil service to push the government to invest in staffing and return some of the traditional mechanisms for soliciting external expertise, which had been damaged in the successive Whitehall culls. I re-drafted the analysis for a policy paper published on the website History and Policy . 34 This generated coverage in the Guardian newspaper, and a letter from Lord Ara Darzi, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (2007–09). I later learnt from senior civil servants in the Department of Health that the issues I had raised had generated internal debate and an investigation into how to improve institutional memory. Third, I published a longer version of the paper in the academic journal Social Policy and Administration , in a more conventional academic format. 35

Synchronicity and Styles of Engagement

These personal case studies illuminate the core issues of engagement: the role of networking to gain access to policymakers; synchronicity with policymaking schedules; style of engagement. I have discussed the need to be flexible (accommodating to policymakers’ schedules for meetings, deadlines and focus of outputs). It is worth saying more about the issues of synchronicity and styles of engagement. From my other experiences of working with policymakers I have come to appreciate the need to respond quickly: policymakers work on much shorter timescales, often looking for analysis results within weeks or months. Historians, especially those engaged on large projects, will be more comfortable with planning their research over years rather than months. The conventional format of outputs as monographs (prioritised by the periodic Research Excellence Framework [REF]), and academic journal articles take months or years to write and then work their way through rigorous peer review systems, which then need to be fitted into publishing schedules.

History and Policy, a UK web-based academic organisation, was founded in 2002 partly in response to this ‘constipated’ academic output culture. 36 It now has a membership of over 500 historians, who are encouraged to work up their research into short Policy Papers and Opinion Pieces. These go through quick peer review for rapid web-based publication. The papers are carefully targeted at policymakers and journalists by the organisation’s press officers. Where possible, publications are scheduled to coincide with anticipated government policy statements. The policy papers begin with executive summaries, in the style of policy briefing papers. They contain essential historical context, and provide suggested further sources. History and Policy has developed from its early focus on presenting academic history in a new format, to deliver bespoke services to government departments (seminar series and workshops). It engages directly with policymakers; responds quickly to invitations to collaborate, for example, providing historical content for the No. 10 Downing Street [Office of the Prime Minister] website; and supports historians in preparing written submissions to parliamentary enquiries. 37

Other new styles of engagement between historians and policymakers have been developed within the last couple of decades. Witness seminars provide opportunities for people who were involved in significant policy decisions to come together and reflect on the process and outcomes. The Wellcome Trust has been one of the most active pioneers of this format, convening more than 50 witness seminars on a wide range of health policy issues, from development of hip replacements to epigenetics. 38 Early career historians are offered training in public and policy engagement (History and Policy regularly run workshops, funded by the main research councils), and some are able to take up placements in government departments.

The issue of location of historians is also critical. While most historians are based within traditional university history departments, there is a strong case to be made for ‘embedding’ historians within other academic departments and in external policymaking environments. This provides more opportunities for serendipitous encounters, and encourages policymakers to seek advice. For historians, the benefit of having other homes is that they are there at the moments when policy shifts become apparent, and can respond efficiently. They can develop the necessary language of the policymaking organisation and knowledge of how policy ‘gets done’: the complexities of local and national government committees and reviews, the importance of knowing key staff. These issues are of course not specific to historians, but relevant to all expert policy advisers, and are analysed in Richard Freeman and Steve Sturdy’s excellent edited book, Knowledge in Policy: Embodied, inscribed, enacted . 39

Despite the considerable progress made by historians in engaging with health policymakers in the UK, it is important to be realistic on the authority of historical knowledge in the policy arena. It competes with analyses of the current situation, and predictions of possible future scenarios. The mode of engagement—usually crisis-driven if initiated from the policy community—de-limits a ‘context-only’ or ‘passive–reactive’ response from the historian. Yet history used to be the default policy science. 40 Although historians are still often asked for ‘facts’ rather than analysis, they are getting better at initiating a more useful mode of engagement. 41 Good examples come from the recent health and social care scandals of Mid-Staffordshire Hospital and those triggered by the exposure of Jimmy Savile’s abuse of vulnerable children and adults. Historians from the History and Policy organisation were invited to give evidence to the Savile public inquiry, and several opinion pieces were written that addressed the ‘never again’ issue behind these scandals. 42 However, we rarely reach a critical tipping point that permits policy change on the primary basis of historical evidence. 43 Historical analysis has not yet become an integral and initial part of policy planning process.

Robust and routine historical analysis of new policy issues can add real value. 44 It permits discussion of some of the bigger, or neglected questions in health and health care, such as choice of funding mechanisms, expectations and responsibilities (by both the public and the state). It can illuminate more fundamental issues, such as health as a human right, and demonstrate the implications of politicising access to health care, that may have evolved over centuries, rather than the years which usually delimit the frame of reference for policymakers. Historical analysis can explain the persistence of institutional structures (the NHS) and cultural attitudes (the British public’s love for the NHS) and expose how policymakers use history to reinforce or disrupt the status quo. Its preference for subjective, intuitive analysis (of texts, oral history) can cope with the finer nuances involved in policymaking: the ‘what if’ and ‘so what’ quandaries. It enables a better understanding of the policy development process, and through specific case studies show what happens when potential policies get forgotten or deliberately side-lined. 45 Historians are skilled at handling complexity: there are significant similarities between what historians, improvement scientists and policymakers do. What needs to be further developed are the shared objectives and language to enable a more rewarding collaboration.

1 J. Tosh and S. Lang, The Pursuit of History: Aims, Methods and New Directions in the Study of Modern History (New York 4th edition, Longman Pearson, 2006), p. 1–2.

2 R. Hirsh, ‘Historians of Technology in the Real World: Reflections on the Pursuit of Policy-Oriented History’, Technology and Culture 52; 1 (2011); 6–20.

3 V. Berridge, ‘History Matters? History’s role in health policymaking’, Medical History 52 (2008); 311–326.

4 See for example how the historian Charles Webster took the Labour government to task in 2002 for rewriting NHS history to suit its current reform plans: C. Webster, ‘The Parable of the Incompetent Steward’, British Journal of Health Care Management 8; 3 (2002); 113–14.

5 A. Bashford and C. Strange, ‘Thinking historically about public health’, Medical Humanities 33 (2007): 87–92. ‘Gothic’ is used here to mean a preoccupation with events that are portentously gloomy or horrifying.

6 F. Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1992); P. Catterall, ‘What (if anything) is Distinctive about Contemporary History?’, Journal of Contemporary History 32; 4 (1997); 451.

7 G. Barraclough, An Introduction to Contemporary History (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1967), p. 20.

8 J.L. Gaddis , On contemporary history. An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford 18 May 1993 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995); P. Catterall, ‘What (if anything) is Distinctive about Contemporary History?’, Journal of Contemporary History 32; 4 (1997); 444–52.

9 J.L. Gaddis , On contemporary history. An inaugural lecture delivered before the University of Oxford 18 May 1993 (Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 21.

10 F. Braudel, ‘History and the Social Sciences: la longue durée’ , 1958, reprinted in F. Braudel, On History (trans. Sarah Matthews) (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1980). See also J. Tosh (with S Lang), The Pursuit of History (Harlow, Pearson Education Ltd, 1984).

11 D. Porter, The Emergence of the Past. A Theory of Historical Explanation (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1981), p. ix.

12 Porter, Emergence of the Past , pp. 29–31.

13 Porter, Emergence of the Past , p. 2.

14 The term comes from the Whigs—a British political party active from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century.

15 The German historian Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886) was influential in setting standards for historical methodologies, especially the use of primary sources and an emphasis on narrative history and international politics.

16 As one reviewer pointed out, this was also the period when medical ethics, bioethics and medical law emerged as distinct disciplines. See D. Wilson, ‘What can History Do for Bioethics?’, Bioethics 27;4 (2013); 215–223; J. Harrington, Towards a Rhetoric of Medical Law (London, Routledge, 2016).

17 A. Briggs, Victorian People (1983); A.S. Wohl, Endangered Lives: Public Health in Victorian Britain (London, Dent, 1983).

18 C. Webster, The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine and Reform 1626–1660 (New York, Holmes & Meier, 1975); C. Webster, Health, Medicine and Mortality in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1979); C. Webster, Biology. Medicine and Society 1840-1940 (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1981); C. Webster, ‘, ‘Healthy or Hungry Thirties?’, History Workshop Journal , 13, 1 (1982); 110–29.

19 C. Webster, Problems of Health Care: the National Health Service Before 1957 (London, HMSO, 1988); C. Webster, Government and Health Care: the National Health Service 1958–1979 (London, The Stationery Office, 1996).

20 B. Abel-Smith, A History of the Nursing Profession (London, Heinemann, 1960); B. Abel-Smith, The Hospitals 1800-1948 (London, Heinemann, 1964).

21 S. Sheard, The Passionate Economist. How Brian Abel-Smith shaped global health and social welfare (Bristol, Policy Press, 2013).

22 A. Abel-Smith, The National Health Service: the First Thirty Years (London, HMSO, 1978).

23 G. Rivett, The Development of London’s Hospital Systems (1986); G. Rivett, From Cradle to Grave: 50   Years of the NHS (London, King’s Fund, 1998).

24 R. Klein, The Politics of the National Health Service (London, Longmans, 1983); N. Timmins, The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (London, Fontana, 1996).

25 D. Fox, Health Policies, Health Politics: the British and American Experience, 1911–1965 (Princeton N.J., Princeton University Press, 1986).

26 S. Szreter, ‘Health, Class, Place and Politics; social capital and collective provision in Britain’, Contemporary British History 3(2002); 27–57; J. Stewart, ‘Ideology and Process in the Creation of the British National Health Service’, Journal of Policy History 14 No. 2 (2002); 114–134; M. Gorsky and S. Sheard (eds), Financing Medicine: The British Experience since 1750 (Routledge, 2006); A. Levene, M. Powell, J. Stewart and B. Taylor, Cradle to Grave: Municipal medicine in Inter-war England and Wales (Peter Lang, 2011); M. Gorsky, ‘Local Government Health Services in Interwar England: Problems of Quantification and Interpretation’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine 2011 (85), 384–412; M Gorsky, ‘The British NHS 1948–2008: A review of the historiography’, Social History of Medicine 21 (2008), 437–60.

27 V. Berridge (ed.), Making Health Policy: Networks in Research and Policy after 1945 (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 2005).

28 Berridge, ‘History Matters?’ (2008); V. Berridge and J. Stewart, History: a social science neglected by other social sciences (and why it should not be), Contemporary Social Science 7; 1 (2012); 39–54.

29 E. Perdiguero, J Bernabeu, R. Hertas and E. Rodriguez-Ocana, ‘History of health, a valuable tool in public health’, J. Epidemiology and Community Health 55 (2001); 667–673; S. Sheard, ‘History in health and health services: exploring the possibilities’, J. Epidemiology and Community Health 62 (2008); 740–744; R. Freeman and S. Sturdy (eds), Knowledge in Policy: Embodied, inscribed, enacted (Bristol, Policy Press, 2015).

30 C. Hamlin and S. Sheard, ‘Revolutions in public health: 1848, and 1998?’, British Medical Journal 317 (1998); 587–91.

31 Royal College of Physicians of London, Smoking and Health: report of the Royal College of Physicians of London on smoking in relation to cancer of the lung and other diseases (London, Pitman, 1962).

32 A. Newsholme, The Last 30   Years in Public Health (London, George Allen and Unwin, 1936), p. 62.

33 British Medical Journal editorial, ‘Staff cuts would leave the CMO stranded’ , British Medical Journal 317 (1998); 232.

34 S. Sheard, ‘Doctors in Whitehall: how the government manages medical advice at the 60 th anniversary of the NHS, www.historyandpolicy.org.uk (last accessed 27.12.16).

35 S. Sheard, ‘Quacks and Clerks: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Structure and Function of the British Medical Civil Service’ , Social Policy and Administration 44;2 (2010), 193–207.

36 http://www.historyandpolicy.org/ . Last accessed 2.2.17.

37 M. Gorsky, Memorandum submitted to the Health Select Committee Inquiry into Public and Patient Involvement in the NHS. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/hp/docs/gorsky_memo.pdf/ . Last accessed 2.2.17.

38 https://blog.wellcome.ac.uk/2014/09/24/21-years-wellcome-witness/ . Last accessed 2.2.17.

39 Freeman and Sturdy, Knowledge in Policy .

40 V. Berridge and J. Stewart, ‘History: a social science neglected by other social sciences (and why it should not be)’, Contemporary Social Science 7; 1 (2012); 39–54; E. Fee and D. Fox, ‘Introduction: AIDS, public policy and historical enquiry’, in E. Fee and D. Fox (eds ), AIDS and the burdens of history (Berkeley, CA, University of California Press, 1988), 1–11.

41 V. Berridge, Public or Policy Understanding of History? Social History of Medicine 16; 3 (2003); 511–523.

42 See also the US historian Allan Brandt’s contributions as an expert witness in a landmark 2006 court case involving tobacco companies, in which he explained how they manipulated the scientific debate over the risks of smoking in the 1950s. A.M. Brandt, ‘From analysis to advocacy: crossing boundaries as a historian of health policy’, in F. Huisman and J.H. Warner (eds), Locating Medical History (Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004). A. Brandt, The Cigarette Century: The Rise, Fall and Deadly Persistence of the Product that Defined America (New York, Basic Books, 2009).

43 C. Hilton, ‘Whistle-blowing in the National Health Service since the 1960s’, History and Policy paper published 26.8.16. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/policy-papers/papers/whistle-blowing-in-the-national-health-service-since-the-1960s . Last accessed 2.2.17; S. Sheard, Can we never learn? Abuse, complaints and inquiries in the NHS’, History and Policy paper published 26.2.15. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/why-we-never-learn-abuse-complaints-and-inquiries-in-the-nhs . Last accessed 2.2.17; A. Bingham, L.Delap, L. Jackson and L. Settle, ‘” These outrages are going on more than people know”’, History and Policy paper published 26.2.15. http://www.historyandpolicy.org/opinion-articles/articles/these-outrages-are-going-on-more-than-people-know . Last accessed 2.2.17.

44 For a US perspective see J. Zelizer, Clio’s Lost Tribe: Public Policy History since 1978’, Journal of Policy History 12 (2000); 369–94.

45 R.E. Neustadt and E.R. May, Thinking in Time: the Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York, Free Press, 1986).

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Putting science to work for the health of women

Launching into the Future and Building Upon the Past: The Intersection of Autoimmune Disease Awareness and Women’s History Months

By dr. janine a. clayton.

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Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month

March marks Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month, shedding light on the significant impact of these conditions, particularly on women’s health. Autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect the health of women. While approximately 8% of the U.S. population lives with an autoimmune disease, nearly 80% of those affected are women. 

To comprehensively address autoimmune disease research, the Office of Autoimmune Disease Research (OADR-ORWH) was established in the Office of Research on Women’s Health in 2023. I encourage everyone to visit the webpage for more information, resources, and funding opportunities, and to read the June 2023 Director’s Message for an introduction to OADR-ORWH. In addition, the theme and feature story of the ORWH quarterly publication Women’s Health in Focus at NIH Volume 6, Issue 4 is “NIH Supports Research on Autoimmune Diseases in Women.” I invite you to read this issue to learn more about how autoimmune diseases affect women. 

OADR-ORWH hosted roundtable sessions on February 2, Session 1: Community Roundtable , and February 23,  Session 2: Academic Roundtable , to engage with the autoimmune disease community. A third session will occur on May 3, and more details will be available soon. Finally, Victoria Shanmugam, MBBS, MRCP, FACR, CCD (OADR-ORWH Director) and I co-authored a paper Introducing the Office of Autoimmune Disease Research to provide a deeper understanding of the mission and priorities of OADR-ORWH.

Autoimmune Disease Research in the News

In a blog post , NIH Director Monica M. Bertagnolli, M.D., highlighted an article that provides insight into women’s increased susceptibility to autoimmune diseases. The study , partially funded by NIH, uncovers the role of Xist molecules (pronounced “exist”) that are encoded on the X chromosome and transcribed into long-non-coding RNA (lncRNA), as important drivers of sex-biased autoimmunity. Xist lncRNA is expressed only in females to randomly inactivate one of the two X chromosomes to achieve gene dosage compensation. Although many questions remain, understanding the role that Xist molecules play in autoimmune diseases offers new insights for autoimmune disease research. Please register for the upcoming session where experts in the field will discuss and identify opportunities to advance Xist research.

Recently, a team led by scientists from the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences published research that could open avenues to new therapies for autoimmune diseases in the paper Methotrexate-based PROTACs as DHFR-Specific Chemical Probes . Methotrexate is a common drug to treat rheumatoid arthritis, but the drug can produce harsh side effects. The scientists developed an innovative approach to deliver a less toxic version of the drug to treat more autoimmune diseases. Such creative approaches to reshaping existing drug therapies offer new pathways to treat autoimmune diseases more effectively. For additional autoimmune disease resources and research, please visit the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases Autoimmune Diseases webpage .

Sex Differences in the Epidemiology of Autoimmune Diseases

The prevalence of many autoimmune diseases in females is well known, and although recent studies suggest that Xist may play a role in sex differences in autoimmune diseases, the complexity underlying sex-biased autoimmunity is not well understood. Understanding sex differences in biologic systems, particularly in health and disease, is a major focus of work supported by ORWH. 

In autoimmune diseases, changes in disease activity across an individual’s lifespan are well documented and have historically been attributed to hormonal changes. However, it is increasingly recognized that immune responses differ in females and males at a cellular level, independent of hormonal changes, and the mechanistic underpinnings of those differences will be crucial to further understanding why autoimmune diseases disproportionately affect females.

8th Annual Vivian W. Pinn Symposium

On May 15, ORWH will host the  8th Annual Vivian W. Pinn Symposium , an event I look forward to each year. The symposium honors the first full-time director of ORWH, Vivian W. Pinn, M.D. The title of this year’s symposium is “ Synergy in Science: Innovations in Autoimmune Disease Research and Care,” and the keynote speaker is Jane Buckner, M.D., President and Member, Benaroya Research Institute, and one of the six recently announced  EXposome in Autoimmune Disease Collaborating Teams PLANning (EXACT-PLAN) award recipients .

Women’s History Month: Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion

In November 2023, President Joe Biden announced the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research , which emphasizes women’s health research across government agencies and recognizes the importance of prioritizing women’s health research at the presidential level. To continue the Initiative efforts, First Lady Jill Biden spoke at Morehouse School of Medicine’s 2024 Women’s Heart Healthy Luncheon in Atlanta, and visited Cambridge, Mass., to announce that the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health (ARPA-H) will provide $100 million in federal funding for research and development into the health of women. 

While the importance of these efforts extends throughout the year, a particularly valuable resource during Women’s History Month is the Pearls of Wisdom online series. Produced and funded by ORWH, these short videos aim to inspire, motivate, and inform women in the beginning or middle stages of their biomedical careers. The series shares the stories of women scientists at NIH and beyond who have overcome barriers and challenges, offering valuable lessons from their journeys.

March 10 was National Women and Girls HIV/AIDS Awareness Day , and on March 21-22 the Office of AIDS Research (OAR) and ORWH hosted the HIV & Women Scientific Workshop. This scientific workshop facilitated interdisciplinary, intersectional, community-centered knowledge exchange on topics pertinent to HIV and women — including cisgender, transgender, and gender diverse women and individuals assigned female at birth — across the life course. To access the NIH VideoCast links and learn more about this event, please visit the OAR website .

I am pleased to share the recent publication in The Lancet HIV , Centring the Health of Women Across the HIV Research Continuum . This significant contribution was led by Elizabeth Barr, Ph.D., s ocial and behavioral scientist administrator at  ORWH, and co-authored by ORWH and OAR colleagues. We look forward to sharing more insights emerging from the HIV & Women Scientific Workshop this month.

The March 2024 session of  Diverse Voices: Intersectionality and the Health of Women  is titled “Endometriosis,” which is timely because March is also National Endometriosis Awareness Month . The session features presentations by Drs. Bruce J. Nicholson and Jessica Opoku-Anane. Dr. Nicholson will present a talk titled “Cell Mechanisms of Endometriosis Lesion Formation Provide Clues to a Non-Surgical Diagnostic.” Dr. Opoku-Anane is a co-investigator on a fiscal year 2023 Understudied, Underrepresented, and Underreported (U3) project titled “Leveraging Electronic Medical Records and Machine Learning Approaches to Study Endometriosis in Diverse Populations . ”   Her presentation will highlight her work as part of that effort and her work founding University of California, San Francisco’s Endometriosis Center for Discovery, Innovation, Training and Community Engagement (ENACT). 

At the beginning of March, ORWH released Volume 7, Issue 1 of Women’s Health in Focus at NIH , featuring a captivating exploration of “Global Women’s Health.” I want to highlight the Scientist Spotlight section that showcases an interview with Dr. Bertagnolli. In this engaging discussion, Dr. Bertagnolli shares the challenges she faced as a physician-scientist and leader, articulates strategies to support women in biomedical careers, and imparts valuable advice to early-stage researchers. 

Women’s History Month is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the accomplishments and advancements in the health of women. Regarding autoimmune disease research, it is important to recognize the intricate connection between women’s health and autoimmune conditions. New discoveries, such as the Xist molecule, present exciting developments in our understanding of autoimmune diseases. However, many questions remain regarding sex differences and autoimmune diseases.

Exciting new developments have occurred since the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research announcement in November 2023. On March 18 , President Biden issued an Executive Order on Advancing Women’s Health Research and Innovation to announce new actions to improve women’s health research by prioritizing investments in such research, integrating women’s health across the federal research portfolio, galvanizing new research on women’s midlife health, and assessing the unmet needs to support women’s health research. President Biden’s historic Executive Order will ensure that women’s health is prioritized at the federal level, and I look forward to sharing more updates in the weeks to come. 

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Sheep are clever and important in many ways. Here are some ovine facts that may surprise you

Science Sheep are clever and important in many ways. Here are some ovine facts that may surprise you

A close-up of a sheep standing in a paddock

As animals go, the sheep might be considered by some as the perfect embodiment of docility.

It seems like a sedate life, hanging out in paddocks as flocks of round cotton balls, standing around and chewing all day long.

The term "sheep" is also a metaphor for people who follow en masse without question.

But sheep are not mundane mindless mammals — not in the slightest.

There's plenty going on behind their horizontal pupils .

They're clever creatures, deftly thwarting our defences to get to the greener grass (or flowers, as you'll discover) on the other side.

Sheep can recognise and remember dozens of sheep faces . They can also recognise human faces , and like us, they prefer them when they're smiling .

And they've contributed far more to human existence than lamb chops and cosy jumpers.

Their history stretches back millions of years, when …

Sheep ancestors popped up in central Asia

There are hundreds of domestic sheep breeds today, from the Turkish Acıpayam to Zulu sheep in South Africa, but they're pretty much all one species: Ovis aries .

Their earliest ancestors evolved between 10 and 20 million years ago in the mountains of central Asia, according to Sally Coulthard, historian and author of A Short History of the World according to Sheep.

"That really early predecessor split and went different ways and some trotted west, into Europe, some went east into China and Siberia … and some even crossed over what would have been the frozen Bering Strait and went into North America," she says.

As populations separated, and were domesticated and bred, they developed unusual features, such as the twirly spiral horns of the Racka ...

A sheep with curly horns, with mouth open and eyes closed

... the rabbit ears of the Border Leicester ...

A white woolly sheep with rabbit-like ears standing in a pen

... and the North Ronaldsay, which lives on a remote Scottish island and eats only seaweed.

Flocks are dynamic

It may not look like it as you drive past, but a flock of sheep in a paddock is a dynamic little system, splitting and rejoining as conditions change.

Sometimes they huddle together, and other times they spread apart — but rarely, if ever, do sheep hang out alone.

A team led by Stephan Leu, an animal behaviour researcher at the University of Adelaide, found a daily pattern to this ovine fission and fusion .

"The largest group sizes are early in the morning and late in the afternoon. And there's also another sort of peak in the middle of the day," Dr Leu says.

"They meet up with smaller subgroups and form these larger groups."

Those times coincide with lulls in sheep activity, when they forage less and rest more.

"The benefits of being in a larger group are, for instance, spotting predators," Dr Leu says.

"They form these larger groups to be protected because everyone is watching out for each other a little bit."

They're excellent problem-solvers

Like many domesticated animals, sheep are clever creatures. They can solve complex mazes , and remember the solution weeks, even months, later.

This is something sheep farmer and YouTuber Tara Farms knows only too well.

If there's a hole in a fence, the sheep are on it.

"They know where to escape through the fence. You can take a sheep out of a paddock and put them back in there three months later and they'll still find the same hole, if you haven't patched it," Tara says.

"They know."

But the measure of sheep intelligence is perhaps best illustrated by a mystery that hit the English village of Marsden in 2004.

Something was eating the flowers in the village's flowerbeds, and residents simply could not work out who the culprit was, Coulthard says.

There were sheep in the moors around Marsden, but the village was protected by sheep grids, and they were too wide for the sheep to leap over.

The residents finally decided to stay up overnight and watch — and what they saw amazed them.

"Apparently the sheep had learnt to do commando rolls over the sheep grids," Coulthard laughs.

The likeliest scenario was one or two sheep figured out they could lay on their side and roll across, then showed the rest of the flock, she adds.

"So not only is that showing amazing problem solving, but also the communication of knowledge, all of which are things that we associate with higher intelligence.

"Certainly after looking after sheep, I realise sheep are much cannier than people give them credit for."

They were used as contraception

Before rubber, condoms could be made from animals, including sheep — their intestine, to be specific.

"Sheep gut is actually fabulously flexible and robust, and really useful," Coulthard says.

Some of the earliest evidence for condoms in Europe was found in the 1980s.

Archaeologists excavated a toilet at Dudley Castle near Birmingham in England, which was sealed in the middle of the 17th century.

The ruins of a castle with a flag and cannon

Along with remains like coriander seeds and fish bones, the researchers found 10 animal membrane condoms.

Five were burnt and blackened, while the other five were nestled inside each other, like an intestine-condom-Matryoshka doll.

Making them took time and care, according to researchers who published the Dudley Castle condoms in Post-Medieval Archaeology .

The cut intestine was scraped, cleaned (possibly turned inside out), dried and cut to size, which was between 15 and 20 centimetres long.

"In many cases, the open end was trimmed with a ribbon tie," the researchers wrote.

They couldn't say whether the condoms were used primarily for contraception or to protect against sexually transmitted infections, but considering the laborious manufacturing process, a condom was a luxury at the time.

And there's a chance the Dudley Castle sheaths were not single-use.

"Whilst there is some dark staining on some of the Dudley Castle condom tips, some mottled dark patches also occur on … remains of the [condom] shafts; it is unclear whether or not these patches testify to repeated use," the researchers wrote.

Sheep have helped make babies too

Advances in artificial insemination were largely thanks to sheep (and some scientists, of course).

Back in the 1950s, Australia was well and truly riding on the sheep's back.

The US needed wool to make uniforms for soldiers heading to the Korean war, and they bought much of it from Australia.

The price of wool skyrocketed. Where before it sold for a few shillings per pound, woolgrowers suddenly got "a pound a pound" .

Sheep needed to be bred to meet demand. Artificial insemination, where sperm from a ram is inserted directly into a ewe's uterus, was a way to do it quickly.

And a Hungarian agricultural scientist, who spent three years in a Siberian gulag then fled Europe during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, would play a huge role in developing that technology .

That scientist — Steven Salamon — arrived in Australia, where he eventually made his way to the office of the University of Sydney's head of animal husbandry, Terry Robinson.

Professor Robinson recognised Dr Salamon's talent. They led a team that developed ways to freeze sheep sperm, and modify the female reproductive cycle so a bunch of ewes could become pregnant at the same time.

Artificial insemination was born. And it worked, says Gareth Evans, an animal reproduction researcher at the University of Sydney.

"If you get a particularly valuable ram, it might be able to cover 50 ewes or something in a season … whereas it could be many hundreds through artificial insemination," Professor Evans says.

These days, artificial insemination — sometimes known as intrauterine insemination — is a fertility treatment for human animals too.

As is in-vitro fertilisation or IVF … and this had its origins in sheep, too .

In the 1960s, a young agricultural scientist named Alan Trounson, working in a southern NSW woolshed, wondered why some sheep had more lambs than others.

He soon realised it came down to the number of eggs the ewes produced.

After studying embryology, he and collaborators worked on a solution for women who were struggling to conceive. It involved increasing egg production, which increased their likelihood of falling pregnant — just like he'd seen in sheep.

And these days, one in 18 babies in Australia is born via IVF .

Check out What the Duck?! presented by Dr Ann Jones for extra reasons to thank sheep , and subscribe to the podcast for more .

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Office of the Vice President for Research

Ovpr announces recipients of 2024 discovery and innovation awards.

The Office of the Vice President for Research (OVPR) is honoring 11 faculty and staff for their exceptional contributions to research, scholarship, and creative activity as part of the 2024 Discovery and Innovation Awards .

“ The winners represent the best and the brightest of our University of Iowa faculty and staff, who are making an impact across a range of disciplines,”  said Marty Scholtz, vice president for research. “Their research and scholarship enhance undergraduate and graduate education on campus, and their efforts to expand the frontiers of discovery betters our community, state, and world.”

The OVPR solicited nominations from across campus for the awards, which include: Scholar of the Year, Early Career Scholar of the Year, Leadership in Research, and awards that recognize achievement in communicating scholarship with public audiences, community engagement, arts and humanities, mentorship, research administration and safety. A campuswide event on April 30 will celebrate the winners.

Faculty Awards

Jun Wang

Jun Wang , James E. Ashton Professor and interim departmental executive officer in the College of Engineering’s

 Department of Chemical and Biochemical Engineering, is the 2024 Scholar of the Year . The award celebrates nationally recognized recent achievement in outstanding research, scholarship, and/or creative activities. 

Wang’s research centers on the development of novel remote sensing techniques to characterize aerosols and fires from space. He serves as the University of Iowa’s lead investigator on NASA’s TEMPO, Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring Pollution, which Time magazine named one of its best inventions of 2023. 

“Professor Wang's scholarly endeavors over the past two years stand out as a paradigm of excellence, serving as an exemplary model for both emerging and seasoned faculty members to aspire toward,” said Karim Abdel-Malek, professor of biomedical engineering and director of the Iowa Technology Institute.

James Byrne

James Byrne , assistant professor of radiation oncology in the Carver College of Medicine ( CCOM ), is the 2024 Early Career Scholar of the Year . The award honors assistant professors who are currently involved in research, scholarship, and/or creative activity and show promise of making a significant contribution to their field. 

As a physician scientist, Byrne continues to care for patients while developing novel biomedical therapies for cancer, finding inspiration in everything from latte foam to tardigrades. In his first two years as faculty at the UI, he has earned more that $2.5M in external research funding, including a K08 award from the NIH.

“Dr. Byrne’s scientific creativity stems from both an active and curious mind as well as his ability to bridge diverse fields from engineering to biology to medicine,” said Michael Henry, professor and interim director of the Holden Comprehensive Cancer Center. “These interdisciplinary boundaries are where some of the most interesting and important work is happening today.”

Donna Santillan

Donna Santillan , research professor and director of the Division of Reproductive Science Research in the CCOM Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, received the Leadership in Research Award , which recognizes research and scholarly accomplishments throughout a career. 

While Santillan’s research has spanned across the field of reproductive science, she has a particular interest in the deadly diseases of pregnancy, including preeclampsia and its intergenerational effects. She designed and directs the Women’s Health Tissue Repository. Santillan’s work has been cited more than 2,700 times, and she has mentored 114 early career scientists and students, a testament to her expansive impact.

“Dr. Santillan has consistently demonstrated an unwavering commitment to fostering the professional and personal development of trainees in research, including myself,” said Banu Gumusoglu, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology. “Her mentorship extends beyond the confines of traditional academic settings, touching the lives of many aspiring trainees from high school through residency, clinical fellowship, and faculty levels.”

Stephen Warren

Stephen Warren , professor of history and American studies in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS), received the Distinguished Achievement in Publicly Engaged Research Award . The award recognizes an individual faculty member who has put addressing public needs and direct engagement with the public, in the service of improving quality of life through research, at the forefront of his or her academic activities.

A prolific scholar of Native American culture, Warren’s research has centered on the Shawnee people of Oklahoma for the past two decades. He has published four books and co-authored the most recent one , Replanting Cultures: Community-Engaged Scholarship in Indian Country, with Chief Benjamin Barnes of the Shawnee Tribe. 

“Over the last two decades, Professor Warren has established himself as a leading community-engaged scholar, and his achievements in research and publishing demonstrate that community engagement and strong scholarship are not mutually exclusive,” said Nick Benson, director of the Office of Community Engagement. “Professor Warren’s work serves as an inspiration for researchers at Iowa and nationally who seek not only to make a difference in academia, but also in our communities.”

Kaveh Akbar

Kaveh Akbar , associate professor of English in CLAS, received the Distinguished Achievement in Arts and Humanities Research Award . This award honors distinguished achievement in humanities scholarship and work in the creative, visual and performing arts. 

Akbar joined Iowa in 2022 to serve as the director of the English and creative writing major. In January, his new novel, Martyr!, was published to critical acclaim. Akbar previously published two prize-winning poetry collections and has served as poetry editor for The Nation  since 2021. 

“Akbar’s leadership in the profession and on campus continues: his transformative work in our department not only enriches the academic experiences of 700+ English and creative writing majors, but also enhances the profile of UI as ‘The Writing University,’” said Blaine Greteman, professor and departmental executive officer of the Department of English.

Cara Hamann

Cara Hamann , associate professor of epidemiology, received the Faculty Communicating ideas Award . This award recognizes excellence in communication about research and scholarship in the sciences and humanities and the study of creative, visual, and performing arts to a general audience directly or via print and electronic media.

Hamann has frequently shared her work on transportation issues, including teen driving, bike and scooter safety, and pedestrian safety, through peer-reviewed journals and extensive media outreach. Her recent op-ed, “The most deadly traffic policy you’ve never heard of leaves you vulnerable, too,” drew widespread attention to a legal loophole in crosswalk laws and appeared in more than 50 news outlets nationwide, including USA Today .

“Dr. Hamann’s work is not only academically rigorous but also accessible and impactful to a

wide audience,” said Diane Rohlman, associate dean for research in the College of Public Health. “Her ability to communicate with clarity, creativity, and passion coupled with her extensive media outreach, exemplifies how she utilizes multiple approaches to address transportation challenges impacting society.”

Bob McMurray and Caroline Clay

Bob McMurray , F. Wendell Miller Professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, and Caroline Clay , assistant professor of acting in the Department of Theatre Arts, were recipients of the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR) Distinguished Mentor Awards . The awards honors mentors’ dedication to making their students research experiences successful.

“I can’t imagine my research journey without Bob’s welcoming kindness, thriving lab community, and confident mentorship, and I am so deeply grateful for his impact on me,” said Hannah Franke, a psychology and linguistics major mentored by McMurray.

“I know I am far from the only student whose life has been impacted by Caroline Clay,” said Isabella Hohenadel, a second-year theatre arts major. “She deserves to be recognized of all of the wonderful work she does and how much she cares about us as students. I cannot think of anyone more deserving of recognition than her.”

Staff Awards

Angie Robertson

Angie Robertson , department administrator for CCOM’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, received the Distinguished Research Administrator Award . The award recognizes staff members who performed exceptional service in support of research at the UI by exploring funding opportunities, assisting in grant proposal preparation, submission, post-award administration, and operational support. 

In addition to overseeing every aspect of daily operations for the department, Robertson manages nearly 100 research grants for the department and three longstanding NIH T32 training grants. 

“Angie plays a leading role in our department office, inspiring us to achieve all aspects of our missions ,” said Li Wu, professor and department chair. “She is innovative, collaborative, accountable, and respectful  in her daily work. She exceeds any expectations and sets a great example for staff members in the department.”

Min Zhu

Min Zhu , research specialist in the Iowa Institute for Oral Health Research (IIOHR) within the College of Dentistry, received the Distinguished Research Professional Award . The award recognizes staff members who performed exceptional service in support of research at the UI by conducting experiments, collecting, and analyzing results and performing operational duties associated with a laboratory or research program. 

Zhu has worked as a lab bench scientist in the College of Dentistry since 2006, executing experimental work for grants and other research, working closely with IIOHR faculty members, overseeing lab maintenance and environmental health and safety efforts. 

“Beyond her research skills, Dr. Zhu has been an exceptional mentor and educator for my students and other junior researchers,” said Liu Hong, professor of prosthodontics. “Her kindness and willingness to share her knowledge have made her a beloved figure among them.”


Curtis Iberg , manager of sterilization services in the College of Dentistry, received the Innovation in Safety Award, which celebrates exceptional and ground-breaking innovations that advance safety at the UI. Iberg led a major renovation of the College of Dentistry’s instrument processing and sterilization area, with the aim of encouraging better workflow and support for future growth. 

“His innovations in workspace are a valuable asset to the greater University and demonstrates that the most important people to be involved in a space renovation are those that use the area because they can see how the facility can better function and how it can be designed for future needs,” said Kecia Leary, associate dean of clinics.

what is the importance of historical research

History Education Research Journal

  • i Table of Contents: History Education Research Journal 18(1)
  • 1 Editorial: Understanding the role of experience(s) in history education research
  • 7 Discursive differences in teaching the Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka decision and the preservation of narratives of American progress
  • 28 ‘No, no, the Cold War was not that dramatic’: A case study on the use of a drama task to promote Dutch secondary school students’ historical imagination
  • 46 Teaching historical thinking and reasoning: Teacher beliefs
  • 64 Moving in liminal space: A case study of intercultural historical learning in Swedish secondary school
  • 89 What is the purpose of studying history? Developing students’ perspectives on the purposes and value of history education
  • 109 Perspective as a threshold concept for learning history
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What is the purpose of studying history? Developing students’ perspectives on the purposes and value of history education

what is the importance of historical research

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This paper reports on an intervention study conducted with the A level students whom I teach at a sixth form college in the north-west of England. The study aimed to survey the students’ perceptions of the purposes of history education, and to broaden their understanding of the debate. The study drew upon data from 82 online forum posts from 41 history A level students. It consisted of two stages: the first surveyed students’ initial perceptions of the purposes of history education; the second aimed to further develop students’ perceptions through the deployment of stimulus material and activities designed to broaden students’ understanding of the issue. Following these activities, students’ perceptions were surveyed for a second time to facilitate comparison. The study data indicate that students who have chosen to pursue their historical studies to a higher level tend to appreciate the intrinsic value of knowing history (as opposed to its extrinsic value, such as developing transferable skills or for the sake of employability). The study also indicates that students’ perceptions of the purpose and value of historical study can be significantly altered by teacher intervention, although the long-term impact remains unassessed.

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As Barton and Levstik (2004 : 27) have observed, there is ‘no “neutral” or “objective” approach to history that can guide [history curriculum] choices; they can only be guided by the goals we develop for the subject’. In England, the debate surrounding the purposes of history education began at least when, in 1900, the Education Department specified what should be taught in history lessons in English schools for the first time in its Code of Regulations for Day Schools ( Cannadine et al., 2011 : 23). More recently, the debate surrounding the 2013 draft publication of the History Programmes of Study for the national curriculum became public discourse ( Burns, 2013 ; Mansell, 2013 ). (The National Curriculum for England, published by the Department for Education (DfE), specifies the statutory content that must be taught in all state-funded, local-authority-maintained schools in England. It was most recently revised in 2013, with implementation in 2014.) A shift away from second-order conceptual understanding and towards a chronology of Anglocentric history reignited pre-existing and surely lasting debates surrounding the purpose of history education.

Haydn and Harris (2010 : 254) rightly state that ‘there has been an extensive debate between the “grown-ups” about the purpose and nature of a historical education for young people’, yet, they argue that this debate ‘has been conducted largely over the heads’ of the students. Haydn and Harris’s comments are made in conclusion to their research into British students’ perceptions of the purposes and benefits of history education. They surveyed the perceptions of 1,740 Key Stage 3 students (11–14 years old), from 12 different schools, as well as interviewing 160 of those students in focus groups. The most common pattern of responses given by the students in relation to the purpose of history education related to employment and employability. While a significant number directly referenced specific careers (such as history teacher, or museum curator) as the reason for a history education, few considered the intrinsic value of knowing history, such as its being useful in explaining the present (just 3 per cent of students) (cited in Van Straaten et al., 2016 : 480).

While not supporting Van Straaten et al.’s (2016 : 480) assertion that ‘many students consider history largely irrelevant’, and even tentatively suggesting some improvement in British students’ perceptions of the purpose of history education compared to earlier studies ( Schools Council, 1968 ; Hargreaves, 1984 , cited in Haydn and Harris, 2010 ), Haydn and Harris results suggest that many of the arguments surrounding the purpose of history education have not reached the ‘heads of those for whom the [history] curriculum was designed’ ( Haydn and Harris, 2010 : 254), and that ‘if they [the students] think history is important, they struggle to explain why’ ( Van Straaten et al., 2016 : 480).

Haydn and Harris (2010 : 246) found significant variation between history departments in percentages of students considering history to be a valuable subject (62.2 per cent to 80 per cent), and an even more striking impact on students’ justifications of the importance of history. For example, responses such as history being ‘useful to help avoid repeating the mistakes of the past’ varied from between 2 per cent and 28.5 per cent of students ( Haydn and Harris, 2010 : 248). From this, they conclude that teachers should ‘not make assumptions about pupils’ understanding of the purposes and benefits of studying the subject that they teach’, but rather ‘devote some time and thought to these issues in order to maximize the motivation, engagement, and sense of purpose that their pupils accord to the subject’ ( Haydn and Harris, 2010 : 254).

This paper reports on my attempts to heed their advice and address these issues with my own A level students, rather than merely assume that they were secure in their understanding of the purpose of history education, having chosen to continue it past the age of 16. (A levels are optional qualifications in England, usually studied by students between the ages of 16 and 18. At the age of 16, most English students choose to continue to study three subjects to A level standard, although other, more vocational, qualifications are also available. Around 7 per cent of English students opt to study history A level (based upon 2016 data; Carrol and Gill, 2018 ; Gill, 2019 )). As such, it seemed necessary to first survey their initial perceptions. I needed to identify whether there was, or was not, a need to address my students’ understanding about the purposes of history education, which I felt I had devoted insufficient time and thought to discussing and debating with them. I therefore devised an intervention that attempted to broaden students’ understanding of the purposes of history education, to make them more aware of the debates that exist, to encourage them to question and refine their own views, and to be able to better articulate why it is that we study history.

The purposes of history education: Literature review

While it is neither plausible nor necessary to fully explore all arguments and debates about the purposes of history education here, some key arguments and perspectives should be outlined.

The most obvious function of history education is to pass on knowledge of the past. One possible reason for doing so is to encourage the development of cultural literacy – having the ‘traditional literate knowledge, the information, attitudes, and assumptions’ ( Hirsch, 1988 , cited in McDaniel, 2009 : 202) required to understand the conversations of our communities. Cultural literacy is also sometimes seen as a tool for identity building, and even a necessary precondition for national belonging ( Anderson, 2006 ; Hirsch, 1988 ), but mastering the knowledge deemed necessary to become culturally literate does not necessarily lead to appropriating and assimilating it into a sense of identity ( Wertsch, 2002 ). While criticizing cultural literacy as an aim of history education by equating it to ‘cultural indoctrination’ might go too far, the idea of prescribing a body of historical knowledge in order to develop a ‘shared cultural experience’ does indeed raise many questions ( McDaniel, 2009 : 202), especially with regard to single, national stories in diverse societies.

In contrast to history providing an ‘inward-looking identification’ based on ‘our’ national past, Barton and Levstik (2004 : 64) have emphasized its importance in nurturing ‘identification with the common good’ (2004: 40), as a preparation for a pluralist democracy, providing students with the understanding and skills necessary to participate as citizens within democratic society.

Critical of any history education concerned with memorizing facts from some national canon (not least because of his research showing students’ failure in this), Sam Wineburg (2018) focuses on the skills it encourages young people to develop. Through history education, students can develop the tools and understanding that allow them to separate truth from distortion, to cultivate reasoned scepticism, and to counter the tendency to confirm their own biases. These important benefits for the individual and for wider society render history education more vital than ever before, especially in a post-truth era of ‘fake news’ and unprecedented access to information/disinformation ( Wineburg, 2018 ; Collins and Stearns, 2020 ).

Furthermore, Collins and Stearns (2020) aim to challenge the perception that, in comparison to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), studying history is largely useless with regard to its use and value in the workplace, arguing that the skills and understanding gained from it (for example, handling evidence, extended writing, and assessing competing interpretations) are not only vital in navigating the modern world, but also highly desirable in the world of work.

While Wineburg (2018) and Collins and Stearns (2020) focus on the importance of transferable skills and understanding, others have highlighted the importance of developing metahistorical (second-order conceptual) understanding. Students must come to understand the structural basis of the discipline – the concepts of causation ( Lee and Shemilt, 2009 ), change ( Blow, 2011 ), evidence ( Lee and Shemilt, 2003 ) and historical accounts ( Lee and Shemilt, 2004 ) – if they are truly to understand history. Others, while recognizing the importance of second-order conceptual understanding, have emphasized the value of understanding substantive (first-order) concepts ( Fordham, 2016 ). Concepts such as ‘slavery’, ‘peasant’, ‘parliament’ or ‘revolution’ require far more than a dictionary definition to be fully understood. History education illuminates and adds meaning to these concepts, and therefore illuminates students’ understanding of the world, past and present.

In addition to learning about the past, it is also argued that we should learn from the past. Chapman highlights three different types of lessons to be taken from the past. The first are deontological lessons about how one should act, behave, think or feel from a moral or ethical point of view ( Chapman, 2020 : 56). While some consider such lessons not to be historical concerns, as they are not answerable through empirical research ( Fordham, 2020 ), others include the ‘ethical dimension’ among the essential parts of history study ( Seixas and Morton, 2013 ). The second type of lesson that Chapman (2020) identifies are conseqentialist lessons, addressing the prudential lessons from history about what to do (or not) in order to achieve or avoid a particular outcome. The third type are ontological lessons about ‘the nature of humans, or some social or political reality’ ( Chapman, 2020 : 56), either in general form about how humans behave in a particular situation (such as, for example, the Hobbesian view of human nature) or about particular socio-economic contexts tending to lead to certain behaviours (for example, economic hardship causing political extremism).

Taking lessons from the past is not without its dangers, and so there is controversy as to whether this should be an aim of history education. Barbara Tuchman (1978 , cited in Blow et al., 2015 : 303) refers to lessons from the past as being ‘distant mirrors’, whereby we inevitably view the past through the lens of our own experiences and beliefs, and therefore become ahistorical. The process of taking lessons from the past is also invariably selective, with ‘disregard for “irrelevant” differences as well as tendentious highlighting of “significant” similarities’ ( Blow et al., 2015 : 303).

Despite these concerns, there are those who advocate the importance of taking lessons from the past in order to ensure that history education remains relevant to young people. Van Straaten et al. (2017) argue for the use of past–present analogies (consequentialist lessons) and questions about enduring human issues (ontological lessons) as a way to help students connect past, present and future.

Connecting past, present and future as a possible purpose of history education has been the subject of much discussion in recent years. There have been calls for long-term developmental narratives (sometimes referred to as the longue durée ) that might help students better understand the challenges that we and our planet currently face, and better consider possible futures ( Shemilt, 2000 ; Nuttall, 2013 ; Guldi and Armitage, 2014 ). This ability to orient yourself in time, by understanding your place within a past–present–future continuum, can be described as historical consciousness ( Rüsen, 2006 ). Whether the development of historical consciousness should be an aim of history education is a relatively new debate, and one that currently seems far from reaching any consensus.

A final purpose, often overlooked in the relevant literature, is simply its aesthetic value. The potential of the subject to move us, to inspire us, or to make us feel some sense of awe, should not be ignored.

Statutory guidance on the purpose of history education

Some elements of the debate above can be identified within the statutory guidance for history education in England. In the Department for Education’s 2014 National Curriculum for England, the ‘purpose of study’ for history focuses on both the acquisition of knowledge and the understanding of particular givens – ‘Britain’s past and that of the wider world’, ‘the lives of others’, ‘their own identity’, ‘the challenges of their own times’ – as well as the development of particular attitudes (‘curiosity’, ‘thinking critically’) and skills (‘weighing evidence’, ‘asking perceptive questions’) ( DfE, 2013 : 1). In its ‘aims and objectives’ for A level history ( Ofqual, 2014 : 13), the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual; the government body responsible for qualifications and examinations in England) presents a similar picture of the government’s aims for history education. A focus on aesthetic value, on understanding the contexts and diversity of others, on asking perceptive questions, on developing critical thinkers, on using evidence and making judgements: all these remain similar between the two documents. Yet there are some additional aims included at A level that do not appear in the national curriculum. These include a focus on developing independent learning skills, as well as the ability to organize and communicate understanding. In the A level aims, there is a greater sense of history being a subject of exploration, ambiguity and reflection. There are two notable omissions from the A level aims, when compared to the national curriculum: the focus on understanding their ‘own identity’ has disappeared, as has the reference to understanding the present ‘challenges of their time’.

Context and Stage 1 methodology

The data in this study are taken from entries to an online discussion forum that were made between December 2019 and January 2020. The 82 responses are from 41 students in two classes in a single sixth form college in the north-west of England. All participants were aged 16 or 17, and in their first year of studying A level history.

All student participants were fully informed, in writing, of the purpose of the study, the usage of their data and its full anonymization; they were given the option to withhold or withdraw their data at any time prior to publication, and they consented by signature.

The study had two stages. The first intended to gather students’ initial perceptions of the purpose of history education, both to be compared to the statutory aims outlined by the DfE and Ofqual, and as a benchmark against which to ‘measure’ progress following Stage 2 of the study: to what extent could I further develop their ideas and perceptions?

To achieve this aim, students were asked, without any prior warning, discussion or instruction, to write an online post of a hundred words or more answering the question, ‘What is the purpose of studying history?’ In an effort to reduce conformity, students were not permitted to discuss their ideas and nor could they read the posts of others until they had submitted their own response.

Stage 1: Initial data and discussion

The 41 first responses collected were categorized using the Chapman et al. (2018) coding scheme ( Table 1 ), which was extended with custom codes to capture concepts not included there ( Table 2 ). The results are summarized in Table 3 .

Explanation and illustration of codes deployed ( Chapman et al., 2018 : 8)

Additional codes added to those developed by Chapman et al. (2018)

The incidence of the coded ideas within students’ Stage 1 responses

Students’ responses were more complex than Haydn and Harris’s (2010) research suggested. This difference is possibly explained by two factors: (1) all students who participated in this study had chosen to continue their historical studies past the age of 16, so they must have seen some benefit in doing so; and (2) the students were older than those surveyed in previous studies, and so likely to be capable of more sophisticated thinking and/or to have been exposed to different ideas.

Mapping the data against the purposes of history education as proposed by the Department for Education ( DfE, 2013 ) reveals that some of those purposes were clearly recognized by the students (see Table 4 ).

Comparing the purposes of history education stated by the DfE (2013) with students’ responses

*Understanding change is only one aspect of disciplinary knowledge.

It is perhaps striking that no students made any mention of their own identity, in contrast to the DfE’s (2013 : 1) stated purpose that students should come to ‘understand … their own identity’. There was also no consideration of the study of the past as a means to understand oneself or one’s own nation. Similarly, none of the students referenced developing independent learning skills as a purpose of studying history, as specified in Ofqual’s (2014) aims for A level history. Two (4.9 per cent) did, however, highlight the role of historical study in developing their communication skills.

Overall, most students seem to appreciate the intrinsic value of knowing history. The three most common ideas presented within the responses (Pru, UP and FA) were all concerned with the value of historical knowledge and understanding in its own right (to draw lessons from it, to understand the present world or simply due to its aesthetic appeal), as opposed to some extrinsic purpose, such as developing transferable skills or for employability purposes. This is in stark contrast to Haydn and Harris’s (2010) findings, where student responses relating to employability were the most common.

Considering that 68.3 per cent of students made reference to prudential uses of history (Pru), this deserves further discussion. The prevalence of this idea was far greater than that of any other, which is particularly noteworthy as neither of the government documents discussed earlier consider the prudential uses of history as a desired aim for the subject ( DfE, 2013 ; Ofqual, 2014 ).

The way students worded the idea varied somewhat, but generally there was a high degree of uniformity in response. This student response is a typical example:

I think the purpose of studying history is to look at the past in order to make the future better. We look at the mistakes of the past and learn about them and what negative consequences it had but also what people did right and what made it positive and we can apply this to everyday life in order to improve society as a whole.

None of the 68.3 per cent of students who answered to this effect successfully exemplified how or when, in practice, humans have applied lessons from the past to direct them towards a more positive future. While this does not necessarily mean that they are unable to, it seems more than possible that, rather than any deeper understanding, the high incidences of such responses reflect a common acceptance of the idea in popular culture. Variations of George Santayana’s (1905 : 284) statement that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ are likely to be familiar to most students.

For comparison, in Chapman et al.’s (2018 : 9) study, only 20 per cent of student-teachers’ posts made reference to prudential uses of history, far lower than in my study. This could reflect the more sophisticated understanding that student-teachers have of the debate surrounding the purpose of historical study, in particular the controversies and complications relating to taking lessons from the past, discussed above.

Some student posts gave reasons for studying the past that fell outside the applied coded reasons. One student identified history as a kind of comforting antidote against an alienated (‘disconnected’) modern world, which allowed them to experience continuity and stability of life in a very abstract sense (the ‘idea that no matter what happens, some things will always be the same’).

In a different anomalous response, one student wrote:

History teaches us to ask questions and see the world in grey tones rather than black and white, to be empathetic and critical of views and evidence. It teaches us to reflect on our moral compass and questions our position to be activists for our future.

Here, while there is clear reference to transferable skills (TG) and empathy (UG), the mentioning of the moral dimension (see Seixas, 2017 ) singularly goes beyond the statutory guidance for British history education.

Stage 2: Intervention

Stage 2 involved delivering a lesson (1.5 hours long) that presented the students with stimulus material and activities that aimed to broaden their understanding of the discussion surrounding the purpose of studying history, and perhaps to re-evaluate some of their pre-existing perceptions. Table 5 shows the lesson outline.

The sequence of activities deployed in the intervention lesson

what is the importance of historical research

Worksheet 1

what is the importance of historical research

Worksheet 2

Choosing the stimulus material was not an easy task. While there has been much written about the purpose of historical study, I was limited by time, and by the varied literacy levels of the students.

As the strongest pattern of responses in Stage 1 related to prudential uses of history, it seemed logical that the first stimulus used should address this issue. For this purpose, Harari’s ‘History of lawns’ in Homo Deus (2016: 67–74) was chosen. In this history, Harari demonstrates how lawns developed across time, and how humans came to identify them with political and economic power and status. Taking the example of the lawn was a particularly powerful one, as lawns are something that all students would be familiar with, yet it was likely that none would have ever considered their meaning or their history. Therefore they make for an excellent example of how humans tend to accept the present as absolute and inevitable, rather than questioning the things that exist in our time. Harari (2016 : 74) concludes his history of lawns with:

Having read this short history of the lawn, when you come to plan your dream house you might think twice about having a lawn in the front yard. You are of course still free to do so. But you are also free to shake off the cultural cargo bequeathed to you … This is the best reason to learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies. Of course, this is not total freedom – we cannot avoid being shaped by the past. But some freedom is better than none.

While the use of Harari’s (2016) work was considered to be beneficial, the whole set of material presented aimed not to promote a particular view of the purpose of studying history, but to expose students to a range of different ideas. To this end, Stearns’s excellent summary of eight principal arguments, ‘Why study history?’ (1998), was used, with adaptations for the purposes of the intervention – mainly by rendering the arguments more distinct in preparation for the sorting activity within the lesson (see Figure 2 ), via changes to the headings, and by adding a ‘historical consciousness’ subsection (below), heavily relying on Cooper and Chapman (2009 : 2) and Lee (2004) :

History allows us to orientate ourselves in time

Whether people realize it or not, everything in their lives is shaped both by the legacies of the past and by the ‘history stories’ we all tell ourselves. So, there is no alternative to thinking historically. By thinking about our lives, as we all do, we have to consider history. Therefore, the choice is between trying to do this well – by applying historical knowledge, understanding and thinking to the problems that we all face as historical beings – or by setting out to do it badly, without historical education and in a way that only views our world and our lives through the lens of the present. Past, present and future are a continuum. By being conscious of our place in a continuum of time, and aware of the patterns that have led us here, we can better assess our present situation and consider possible futures. This orientation allows us to cope with life in our own time.

Sorting activities can be a very effective way of eliciting students’ thoughts about ideas that they do not usually talk about ( Barton, 2015 : 184–5). The task (see Table 5 ) allowed students to debate with one another and to arrive at divergent conclusions, so as not to direct their thinking about what they perceive to be the ‘correct’ conclusion (that is, to reduce participant bias).

Having completed the tasks shown in Table 5 , students were then asked the same question as in Stage 1. As during Stage 1, students could not see the responses of others until after they had submitted their own.

Stage 2: Anecdotal observations

Some anecdotal observations may highlight students’ reactions and responses during the stimulus lesson as a backdrop to the analysis of the data.

The students’ reactions to the Harari (2016) stimulus when reading and discussing it were both positive and surprising. Pleasure gained from comprehending a new and challenging idea seemed to be visible on the students’ faces, and it was discernible in exclamations such as ‘That’s blown my mind!’, and, in turn, is corroborated in their comments.

One student had a particularly interesting reaction to Harari’s work:

Student: It [Harari’s extract] is freaking me out.

Teacher: In what way?

Student: If I’ve never considered lawns before, what else is there in the present that I just accept without question?

Teacher: Isn’t that Harari’s point, though?

Student: Yes, I get it, but I still don’t like it.

The revelation that we often accept the present (and, by extension, the future) without question or consideration had actually felt threatening to at least this one student. Despite this, though, she had understood Harari’s argument.

Others instead reveal tentative changes of their historical consciousness (in terms of Rüsen’s (2006) patterns of sense-making). For example, in discussion with a group of students, we unintentionally wandered into a conversation about different types of historical consciousness, as defined by Rüsen (2006) . Furthermore, it was clear from the discussion that these students were thinking with history, rather than solely thinking about history. The following is a paraphrase of that discussion, following the reading of the Harari extract:

Teacher: So is Harari saying that we should not have lawns?

Student 1: No, that’s not what he’s saying. [Other students agree with Student 1]

Student 2: I don’t think I want a lawn any more.

Teacher: Why not?

Student 2: Well, I don’t like what they represent – displays of wealth and status.

Teacher: So your understanding of the past has made you critical of something in the present and might impact your future choices? You want to break with the past? We call that critical historical consciousness.

Student 1: Well, I still want a lawn.

Teacher: Why, do you want a status symbol outside of your home?

Student 1: No, I understand the history of lawns, but the meaning that we associate with them today is not the same as in the past. We can just accept that they look nice to us.

Teacher: So you are conscious of the history, but choose not to let that influence your response. Why else might someone who knows the history of lawns still want one?

Student 3: They might want one in order to show status – to continue the history.

Teacher: True, they might be aware of the history and choose to continue or to honour that history. We might call that traditional historical consciousness.

Teacher: So, how has your understanding of the history of lawns affected you?

Student 1: It gets you thinking about your options for the future more.

Stage 2: Data and discussion

In spite of there being no difference in task instruction, the number of different ideas about the purpose of studying history in the posts increased notably between Stages 1 and 2 in the average number of different purposes addressed within the students’ responses (from 2.6 to 3.0 per response) ( Table 6 ).

The number of different ideas regarding the purpose of studying history within the students’ responses

This could suggest that students were considering a greater range of ideas due to the stimuli presented during the lesson. However, students could have simply been ‘parroting’ or listing different ideas. Of more interest and significance is the nature/content of the students’ responses, rather than the number of different ideas contained within them. Table 7 compares the results from Stage 1 to those of Stage 2.

Comparing the incidence of the different coded ideas in the students’ responses

While the incidence of some of the ideas remained fairly similar from Stage 1 to Stage 2 (FA, DK, EC, CC), there are some notable changes within the data.

First, there is a notable decrease in the number of students identifying knowledge of the past (KP) as a purpose of historical study. It is important to highlight that in the applied definition of that code, this refers to ‘knowledge of the past ( without further explanation )’ ( Chapman et al., 2018 : 8, my emphasis). This indicates that, due to the stimuli and discussions during the intervention lesson, in their Stage 2 responses, students were more able to fully explain and articulate their ideas.

There is also an evident change in relation to identity. While no students made reference to identity in their Stage 1 responses, 19.5 per cent of students mentioned some form of personal identity (PI) formation in their Stage 2 responses, as well as 7.3 per cent mentioning national identity (NI) and 7.3 per cent mentioning group identity (GI). This change is somewhat surprising, as the issue of identity had not featured strongly in the intervention lesson, appearing as one of the reasons for studying history in the Stearns (1998) material, but not in the Harari (2016 : 67–74) extract.

Yet students’ comments about identity tended to be brief and underdeveloped. Furthermore, their references almost exclusively highlighted the potential for history to build the identities of others, rather than of themselves. For example, one student wrote, ‘ People can feel a certain pride in learning about the history of their country or religion’, which is notably different to saying, ‘ I feel a certain pride’. Another said, ‘history can help fuel an identity’, which again is significantly different to, ‘history fuels my identity’. Only one student stated that history ‘gives me a sense of identity’ (my emphasis added to all quotations in this paragraph).

As such, it is hard to be certain about the impact of the intervention lesson in relation to consideration of identity. I suspect that students have been introduced to a new idea about the purpose of history that they had not previously considered, so they felt that they wanted to include it (or felt that they should, due to participant bias), but they have not fully grasped the issue. The issue of identity is, therefore, certainly one that should be further explored and discussed with the students in the future.

By far the most significant change in responses between Stage 1 and Stage 2 is the decline in the incidences of references to prudential uses of history (Pru, a decrease of 26.8 per cent), and the increase in consideration of historical consciousness (HC, an increase of 24.4 per cent). These are discussed together, as what can be seen in the responses is a reduction in comments of the type, ‘we have to learn from the mistakes of the past’, and a move towards explanations that show understanding of the temporal dimension that spans past, present and future. It is important to emphasize that none of the students used the term ‘historical consciousness’, but 31.7 per cent presented an understanding of that temporal dimension, or, as Chapman et al. (2018 : 8) define it, they ‘understand living in time’.

In the extracts below, the influence of Harari’s (2016) ideas on their thinking can clearly be identified. In what could be considered the most sophisticated response, one student fully explained her thinking:

Our reality is built up of a sequence of historical events – the past – which influences how we perceive the world and guides our expectations of the future. Only when the fact that each person – in the past and alive now – has acted and continues to act in the context of their own historical reality is recognised, can we truly progress in our attempt to answer the question of why our species acts the way that we do. In this way, history not only provides an opportunity to understand ourselves and each other but is in fact a necessity for anyone trying to gain this understanding. How can one begin to have an understanding of the present without first having the knowledge of what has shaped it? History allows us to recognise that what we have been born into – the society, political system, the culture – is not the ‘natural’ or inherently right way to live because there is no ‘natural’ way to live – only what was done first, what was done by the most or what was done by those with the most power and influence … Therefore, I believe that the purpose of history is to appreciate the presence of a possibility for the future that does not necessarily lie within the confines of the path that our historical context has projected for us.

A similar idea was expressed by another student:

We are born into a society which already has predetermined values and normalities that we will conform to simply because we are unaware of possible alternatives. Only by studying history can you unlock the origins of our modern standards, which can date back thousands and thousands of years. Perhaps upon discovery of said origins one might decide that they no longer agree or want to associate with this societal constant, subsequently creating innovation and change.

While these responses, and others like them, indicate that students can grasp some complex ideas about the purpose of historical study, it is also necessary to balance this somewhat by stating that there were some misconceptions that had clearly emerged due to the choice of stimulus material. One student incorrectly understood Harari’s (2016) argument to mean that the future is inevitable, so there is no point in trying to anticipate what it might hold. What Harari (2016 : 68) actually argues is that people tend to see the present as an inevitable outcome of the past, meaning they neither question the present nor, by extension, consider possible futures. This is a significant difference in ideas (with the former undermining the importance of historical study, and the latter emphasizing its value).

Another student wrote:

I believe that history is a source of random events that happened due to the circumstances of that time period and despite knowing history we can never try predicting it or improve our own as we are faced with different issues.

Harari (2016) does make a point about the unpredictability of events and the challenges of anticipating the future, but this particular student has extended this further to mean that we should not try to improve the future as events are ‘random’. This is a concerning misconception, both in terms of the importance of studying history, and also in respect of an individual’s sense of agency within the world.

While responses such as this were a small minority, it is important to consider what misconceptions may be established or reinforced in the students’ minds.

Contrary to the findings of earlier research, conducted with younger students, it was apparent even from Stage 1 responses that students did see value in the study of history. What was also clear was that students valued the subject for itself: its fascination, its role in understanding the present and understanding others, and its value in providing us with lessons, both positive and negative. As already stated, it is possible that this difference may be explained by the fact that the student participants in this study were both older and had chosen to study history at A level and, to do so, they must have seen some value in it. It would be interesting to conduct a study using the same methodology assessing the views of those students who did not choose to continue a history education past the age 16 years old.

While the findings of this study cannot evidence a lasting change in students’ understanding, they do indicate that an impact can be made on the breadth and complexity of students’ understanding about the purpose of studying history within a fairly short space of time. After just 1.5 hours of studying two short stimulus materials, students were beginning to consider ideas that they had not explored before (about identity and historical consciousness), they were questioning some of their own ideas (about prudential uses of history), and they were better able to articulate their ideas (explaining the value of knowledge of the past). This latter point is very important. Our students are ambassadors for our subject. Their perceptions of its value will be shared with friends and family. If they cannot articulate why history is valuable, then this has wider implications for the subject.

Yet, this said, 1.5 hours was not enough. Unfamiliar ideas, such as those surrounding identity, were not explored enough. Some students were questioning their views about prudential uses of history, but seemed unclear as to why. Other students had misconceptions surrounding the more complex concepts. As one student commented within the lesson, ‘I cannot rank the ideas [in the diamond nine] as I haven’t got my head around them all.’ It was a valid and important point. For some students, there was a sense that the intervention lesson had caused them to deconstruct some of their existing ideas, without allowing them the thinking time to fully reconstruct new ideas. In my future teaching, it will be necessary to revisit some of the ideas explored within the intervention lesson. Perhaps a further lesson that allows students to delve more deeply into some of the key ideas and debates will be beneficial.

Although this paper presents only a small-scale study, its findings may have wider implications. England is one of only a few European countries where students can choose to stop studying history before the age of 16 (many drop it at the age of 13 or 14) ( Historical Association, 2014 ). In 2017, for example, 45.1 per cent of English students studied history at GCSE level (usually 14–16 years old) ( Carroll and Gill, 2018 ). In the same year, only 16 per cent of those students progressed from GCSE to A level history ( Gill, 2019 ). As professionals who work in history education, it can be assumed that we would like to see this figure increasing. Yet for this to happen, students need to be convinced of the value of the subject. This study strongly suggests that those students who have been convinced of its value (and so chose to study it at A level) recognize the intrinsic merits of the subject. It would appear that they did not choose to study history because it is the route to a particular career or because they are developing transferable skills. They seem to have chosen to study it because they recognize the importance of history in explaining the present, in explaining others, in helping us to consider or better determine possible futures, or simply because it fascinates them. Perhaps the history teaching community needs to focus less on ‘selling’ history on its extrinsic merits. Instead, if earlier in their history education, more students were exposed to the ideas about the intrinsic value of the subject, then maybe we would witness more students choosing to continue their historical studies further.

Notes on the contributor

Dan Nuttall is a practising history teacher with 15 years’ experience, predominantly working in state schools in England. As well as authoring history textbooks and educational resources, he engages with classroom-based research. His particular interests concern scale-switching, historical consciousness, and debates surrounding the purposes and aims of history education. The research considered here was conducted for his master’s studies with UCL Institute of Education.

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Computer Science > Computation and Language

Title: realm: reference resolution as language modeling.

Abstract: Reference resolution is an important problem, one that is essential to understand and successfully handle context of different kinds. This context includes both previous turns and context that pertains to non-conversational entities, such as entities on the user's screen or those running in the background. While LLMs have been shown to be extremely powerful for a variety of tasks, their use in reference resolution, particularly for non-conversational entities, remains underutilized. This paper demonstrates how LLMs can be used to create an extremely effective system to resolve references of various types, by showing how reference resolution can be converted into a language modeling problem, despite involving forms of entities like those on screen that are not traditionally conducive to being reduced to a text-only modality. We demonstrate large improvements over an existing system with similar functionality across different types of references, with our smallest model obtaining absolute gains of over 5% for on-screen references. We also benchmark against GPT-3.5 and GPT-4, with our smallest model achieving performance comparable to that of GPT-4, and our larger models substantially outperforming it.

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Why April Could See the Stock Market Move Even Higher

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Photo illustration of a US dollar paper airplane flying upwards with a stock line trace behind it

The stock market has steadily climbed this year, and as April approaches, investors have reason to expect more of the same given that month's track record for strong stock performances.

After gaining 24% last year, the S&P 500 — the benchmark index used to measure how stocks are performing overall — has continued its bullish run in 2024 by posting a nearly 11% gain through the first quarter of 2024.

This is welcome news for investors who have recently seen that index as well as the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the Nasdaq set record highs in the first quarter of the year.

However, overshadowing this is the uncertainty surrounding the Federal Reserve’s decision on when to begin slashing interest rates. According to data from the American Association of Individual Investors, sentiment pulled back from 51.7% bullishness in the first week of March to 43.2% bullishness through last week, demonstrating a more reserved outlook among investors.

But with April arriving, there’s new cause for optimism. Historically, April tends to be a great month for the stock market . And while p ast performance is never indicative of how stocks will behave going forward, looking at seasonality can provide insight into how stocks typically perform at certain times of the year .

Is April a good month for the stock market?

According to Reuters , since 1945, April and December are tied as the best-performing months of the year for stocks, with an average return of 1.6%. (September is notoriously the worst, with an average loss of -0.6%.)

During recessions, April’s positive performances can be even more pronounced. In 2008 and 2009 amid the Great Recession, April produced returns of 4.8% and 9.4%, respectively. And in the wake of COVID-19’s arrival, April 2020 saw an enormous 12.7% gain — the 12th best monthly performance for the S&P 500 dating back to 1928.

One theory behind April's positive performance is that investors receive tax refunds that month and inject that money into the market pushing prices higher. No matter what the cause, April is historically such a strong month for stocks that it has only posted losses twice in the past 18 years (in 2012 and again in 2022 during an extended bear market) and was the best performing month in the year seven times dating back to 2001.

What April stock market trends mean for investors

Financial advisors contend that investors shouldn't base their strategies on seasonality and historical trends since they don't necessarily indicate what is likely to happen in the future. That’s why the old adage — time in the market beats timing the market — remains relevant today.

For example, pulling out of the market to avoid investing in September, historically the worst performing month of the year, may seem logical at first. Yet investors that did so in 2010 missed out on that month's 8.8% gain, which was the largest single-month increase that year for the S&P 500 .

For buy-and-hold investors, if the Fed's uncertainty is causing di stress , keep in mind that over time stock prices tend to tick upwards , which has been the case with the S&P 500 in 68% of the years it has existed. Notably, a significant amount of those gains have come in the month of April.

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