Asking questions about history
When you are set to do a presentation, you might usually take the easy route. Roam the internet, copy a few things here and there, summarize them and present this summary to your classmates. Doing proper historical research, however, is an interactive process. It involves taking turns, going back and forth, finding the right questions to ask – and hopefully, at the end, to come out wiser than before.
What about dates and facts?
Dates are only relevant to show context and connections, they should not be the guideline of your research. Historical research is rarely done by answering yes and no-questions. Here, we are interested in the how and the why – or, as stated by Mr. Erfurth:
“Don’t ask what happened. Ask why it happened. Ask why that’s the reason that it happened. Then ask “why?” a couple more times. Think in terms of social, economic, political, and environmental dimensions. Find the answer, and then find out why the answer is the answer. Keep going.”https://erfurth.co/history-handbook/asking-historical-questions
The American Historical Association’s Five “C’s”
When we think historically, it is helpful to find a framework for our research. According to the American Historical Association, there are five historical categories1 Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?,” Perspectives on History, Jan 1, 2007. https://www.historians.org/publications-and-directories/perspectives-on-history/january-2007/what-does-it-mean-to-think-historically:
- Change Over Time
In the following, we are going to take a look at each of these categories and evaluate what they mean for our topic.
Change over time
History always invites us to compare a status before and after certain things happen. Only in this way we are able to say whether a certain progress has taken place, or whether historical processes have led to a worsening of circumstances. This is why our study needs to focus on what your personality has changed in his or her time, and how he or she managed to bring this change about.
Everything happens because something else has taken place before. Nothing happens in isolation. It is up to us to understand these causes.
This means studying all the sources we’ve got – and not taking everything at face value. We simply cannot trust, for example, an interview with our influential person: It is necessary to consider what preceded your person’s life. Only like this we gain a full understanding about the influences of our influential person.
We all are influenced by the life that is going on around us – and so are our highly influential persons. We must take a look at…
- the society around them,
- their personal lives,
- their economic status,
- the types of thinking of the people around them.
We must understand that history and life in general is a highly complex issue. Many different perspectives complement or contradict each other. It is therefore necessary to find different viewpoints on the achievements of your influential person.
Contingency means, that our world is interconnected: Everything is related, everything has got something to do with each other. It also means that one choice might provoke one reaction, another choice might provoke or have provoked another one. Mr Erfurth describes these as the “what ifs”:
“[…] what if Hitler had been admitted to the College of Fine Arts in Vienna? What would have happened to Tesla if Edison had died early on?”https://erfurth.co/history-handbook/asking-historical-questions
In no way your person was able to know what the desired outcome of his or her actions would be. That is why, for our research, it is important to identify the choices that your character has made – and to estimate the importance of these choices.
And what do we actually have to do now?
Learn all about that in the next part of this step!