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Historical Research Essay

Historical research has been defined as the systematic and objective location, evaluation and synthesis of evidence in order to establish facts and draw conclusions about past events. It is an act of reconstruction undertaken in a spirit of critical inquiry designed to achieve a faithful representation of a previous age. In seeking data from the personal experiences and observations of others, from documents and records, researchers often have to contend with inadequate information so that their reconstructions tend to be sketches rather than portraits.

Indeed, the difficulty of obtaining adequate data makes historical research one of the most taxing kinds of inquiry to conduct satisfactorily (William 1949). Reconstruction implies a holistic perspective in that the method of inquiry characterizing historical research attempts to ‘encompass and then explain the whole realm of man’s past in a perspective that greatly accents his social, cultural, economic, and intellectual development’ (Billington 1995).

Ultimately, historical research is concerned with a broad view of the conditions and not necessarily the specifics which bring them about, although such a synthesis is rarely achieved without intense debate or controversy, especially on matters of detail. The act of historical research involves the identification and limitation of a problem or an area of study; sometimes the formulation of a hypothesis (or set of questions); the collection, organization, verification, validation, analysis and selection of data; testing the hypothesis (or answering the questions) where appropriate; and writing a research report.

This sequence leads to a new understanding of the past and its relevance to the present and future. Historical research in education can also show how and why educational theories and practices developed. It enables educationalists to use former practices to evaluate newer, emerging ones. Recurrent trends can be more easily identified and assessed from a historical standpoint—witness, for example, the various guises in which progressivism in education have appeared.

And it can contribute to a fuller understanding of the relationship between politics and education, between school and society, between local and central government, and between teacher and pupil. Historical research may be structured by a flexible sequence of stages, beginning with the selection and evaluation of a problem or area of study. Then follows the definition of the problem in more precise terms, the selection of suitable sources of data, collection, classification and processing of the data, and finally, the evaluation and synthesis of the data into a balanced and objective account of the subject under investigation.

In historical research, it is especially important that the student carefully defines his problem and appraises its appropriateness before committing himself too fully. Many problems are not adaptable to historical research methods and cannot be adequately treated using this approach. Other problems have little or no chance of producing significant results either because of the lack of pertinent data or because the problem is a trivial one. Research, if it is to be fresh and thereby justify itself, ought to start, at least in a general way, where previous research left off.

Thus, it is necessary to find out the present status of scholarly investigation on the subject in hand. This can be ascertained from reliable, up-to-date bibliographical surveys, such as are sometimes found in the more scholarly type of history books now appearing, and from standard bibliographies, general or special, supplemented by notices of new publications in the current historical reviews. The hypothesis provides a framework for stating the conclusions of the study in a meaningful manner.

It enables the historian to determine what is relevant to a study and to screen out irrelevant materials. Within the framework of the hypothesis, of course, the historian will pattern his material in some systematic order, such as chronological, geographical, topical, or a combination of these. He will also make judgments concerning the amount of emphasis or space to give to various evidence. Considerable information may be collected on relatively minor points in a study and little evidence on more significant events. Obviously, reporting everything would produce a distorted picture of the past.

Determining which data are packed with the greatest significance and how many of them to include requires a continuous reevaluation of the hypothesis and the study as a whole. Weaving raw data into a cohesive, well-proportioned, colorful exposition requires painstaking labor. To achieve the twin objectives of maintaining accuracy and interest, a historian refrains from embellishing narratives with dramatic flourishes that distort the truth, but strives for literary excellence. Stretching or supplementing the existing evidence to create a more spirited narrative is not permissible.

Artfully fitting the pieces of established evidence into a simple, vivid mosaic that dramatically delineates past events is the difficult but desired ideal to attain. History is life – and it deserves better than a drab description. The historian cannot sacrifice accuracy for eloquence; but by developing his creative and critical skills he can learn to write lucid, lively, logical accounts without violating the rigorous rules of historical scholarship. Since historians cannot personally view the educational practices of hundreds of years ago, they must rely on observations made by others in bygone days and on the examination of relics.

If investigators are fully aware of the fallibility of human observation, they can check the authenticity and credibility of testimony by subjecting it to intensive external and internal criticism. Ascertaining whether every fact is absolutely true is not possible, for the most reliable witness to an event may have erred in perception or memory. But a research worker can determine the credibility of testimony in degrees of confidence – from confidence that is approximately certain at one end of the scale to confidence that is mingled with considerable doubt on the other end.

Historians can ascertain with a high degree of probability that some data are true facts. But, because the reliability of data is dependent on the character, circumstances, and competence of the creators and interpreters, they are extremely cautious about accepting any historical artifact or report. The reliability of a historical research report is determined not only by how critically the investigator examined witnesses’ observations of past events, but also by the depth and breath of his knowledge about the past and present.

Historical research involves the researcher both in selecting an appropriate problem and devising relevant research techniques. Questions to be asked at this stage are first, ‘Who is to be the object of the study? ’—the great person, the common person, the volunteer, the selected, the coerced? Second, ‘What makes a good informant? ’ Plummer draws attention to key factors such as accessibility of place and availability of time, and the awareness of the potential informant of his/her particular cultural milieu.

Third, ‘What needs clarifying in the early stages of the research? The motivations of the researcher need to be made explicit to the intended subject. Sources of data in historical research may be classified into two main groups: primary sources, which are the life blood of historical research; and secondary sources, which may be used in the absence of, or to supplement, primary data. Primary sources of data have been described as those items that are original to the problem under study. Secondary sources are those that do not bear a direct physical relationship to the event being studied.

They are made up of data that cannot be described as original. A secondary source would thus be one in which the person describing the event was not actually present but who obtained descriptions from another person or source (Atkinson 1998). Various commentators stress the importance of using primary sources of data where possible. The value, too, of secondary sources should not be minimized. There are numerous occasions where a secondary source can contribute significantly to more valid and reliable historical research than would otherwise be the case.

In his preliminary search for historical data, a researcher will find that the card catalog, periodical indexes, bibliographies, historical reviews, dissertations, and research journals provide helpful leads. Although he may locate useful materials in his local library, his search probably will extend to other institutions and to specialized depositories that have business, government, legal, or private papers relating to his problem. Some individuals and agencies have exerted considerable effort to collect educational records and remains and have established a number of historical depositories to preserve them.

The types of resources and completeness of the accumulations in the various depositories vary greatly: some contain extensive collections of a particular kind of materials and others have fragmentary collections of items from different fields. Owing to the wide expanse of time and the broad scope of educational endeavors, no one depository, however excellent, can possibly house all the available materials. One further point: the review of the literature is regarded as a preparatory stage to gathering data and serves to acquaint researchers with previous research on the topics they are studying (Marwick 1989).

It thus enables them to continue in a tradition, to place their work in context, and to learn from earlier endeavors. The function of the review of the literature in historical research, however, is different in that it provides the data for research; the researchers’ acceptance or otherwise of their hypotheses will depend on their selection of information from the review and the interpretation they put on it. Further, documents required in historical research often date back much further than those in empirical research.

And one final point: documents in education often consist of unpublished material and are therefore less accessible than reports of empirical studies in professional journals. Because workers in the field of historical research gather much of their data and information from records and documents, these must be carefully evaluated so as to attest their worth for the purposes of the particular study. Evaluation of historical data and information is often referred to as historical criticism and the reliable data yielded by the process are known as historical evidence.

Historical criticism is usually undertaken in two stages: first, the authenticity of the source is appraised; and second, the accuracy or worth of the data is evaluated. External criticism is concerned with establishing the authenticity or genuineness of data. It is therefore aimed at the document (or other source) itself rather than the statements it contains; with analytic forms of the data rather than the interpretation or meaning of them in relation to the study. It therefore sets out to uncover frauds, forgeries, hoaxes, inventions or distortions.

To this end, the tasks of establishing the age or authorship of a document may involve tests of factors such as signatures, handwriting, script, type, style, spelling and place-names. Further, was the knowledge it purports to transmit available at the time and is it consistent with what is known about the author or period from another source? Increasingly sophisticated analyses of physical factors can also yield clues establishing authenticity or otherwise: physical and chemical tests of ink, paper, parchment, cloth and other materials, for example.

Investigations in the field of educational history are less likely to encounter deliberate forgeries than in, say, political or social history, though it is possible to find that official documents, correspondence and autobiographies have been ‘ghosted’, that is, prepared by a person other than the alleged author or signer. Having established the authenticity of the document, the researcher’s next task is to evaluate the accuracy and worth of the data contained therein.

While they may be genuine, they may not necessarily disclose the most faithful picture. In their concern to establish the meaning and reliability of data, investigators are confronted with a more difficult problem than external criticism because they have to establish the credibility of the author of the documents. Many documents in the history of education tend to be neutral in character, though it is possible that some may be in error because of these kinds of observer characteristics.

Once the data have been gathered and subjected to external criticism for authenticity and to internal criticism for accuracy, the researcher is next confronted with the task of piecing together an account of the events embraced by the research problem. This stage is known as the process of synthesis. It is probably the most difficult phase in the project and calls for considerable imagination and resourcefulness. The resulting pattern is then applied to the testing of the hypothesis.

The writing of the final report is equally demanding and calls for creativity and high standards of objective and systematic analysis. By far the greater part of research in historical studies is qualitative in nature. This is so because the proper subject-matter of historical research consists to a great extent of verbal and other symbolic material emanating from a society’s or a culture’s past. The basic skills required of the researcher to analyze this kind of qualitative or symbolic material involve collecting, classifying, ordering, synthesizing, evaluating and interpreting.

At the basis of all these acts lies sound personal judgement. In the comparatively recent past, however, attempts have been made to apply the quantitative methods of the scientist to the solution of historical problems (Boyd-Barrett & Scanlon 1991). Of these methods, the one having greatest relevance to historical research is that of content analysis, the basic goal of which is to take a verbal, non-quantitative document and transform it into quantitative data (Allen 2001).

Content analysis itself has been defined as ‘a multipurpose research method developed specifically for investigating a broad spectrum of problems in which the content of communication serves as a basis of inference’, from word counts (Allen 2001) to categorization. Approaches to content analysis are careful to identify appropriate categories and units of analysis, both of which will reflect the nature of the document being analyzed and the purpose of the research. Categories are normally determined after initial inspection of the document and will cover the main areas of content.


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