How, and the extent to which, history is constructed by historians
History is defined by Joseph & Janda (2008) as the study f the past through investigation. This study is an aspect of almost every aspect of man and life as he attempts to reconstruct the past. Those who study history are referred to as historians and according to Breisach (2007), to achieve this, historians have to use various constructions models to weave out the past. This essay will seek to establish how and the extent to which historians construct history, the effects of the constructions methods and who benefits from such constructions, and the role played by history in understanding the past as well as conceptualization of the present. This will be done through review of past literature.
How and extent to which historians construct history
The work of historians is regarded as being an intellectual task that is founded on a conceptual map that governs and guides and the nature of knowing by a historian. This conceptual map is a product of several elements, the first being the interest by an historian to provide concepts and fact oriented descriptions of situations, circumstances, and events that are known to have happened in the past. To this end, the driving question is; what could have happened or what’s happened at this period in time? What was the happening like? To answer these questions, an historian sets outs to investigate. However, as argued by Berlin (2000), some of the investigation process by an historian involves reconstruction of a complicated story from the various sources littered through history. An example of such is the narrative on Spanish Civil War attempt to reconstruct the series of events that lead to the 1967 Detroit race riot. Nevertheless, most are time that historians have to engage in substantial understanding of the available sources so as to create a construction of what really happened (Little 2010).
Second, in the effort to construct the past, historians seek to answer the question why. Such questions include, what leas to an event xyz happening? Why did event ABC occur? To answer this question, an historian has to provide a backing explanation to the pattern that he/she has explained as being history. The explanation of an event is basically providing an account of the causes of such a happening, the prevailing situation that warranted the happening, and the human factor usually in the form of choices that brought about the event. An example of this is the financial crisis of 2008, the housing bubble, and the risky lending by banks.
Third, in constructing the past, historians seek to answer the question how. This is concerned with establishing how an event came to be, and the processes under which the event came to be. An example of such is how in 1870, the Prussian Army was able to defeat the French Army which was more superior. This explanation as to how according to Joseph & Janda (2008) is usually necessary when the question is how was it possible rather than why was it necessary. As a result, historians will seek to answer the question how when the prevailing sources point towards the event being an impossibility.
Fourth, in the construction of history, historians seek to piece together the human aspects, for example intentions and meanings that are attached to a complex series of historical actions. While this is meant to make the series of events understandable, it is more about appealing to the critical reader who relies on sense and login to accept the piece of information is the true representation or the possible happening of events (Breisach 2007). This way, historians are able to construct a past that makes sense to the reader in terms of motives, thoughts, and mind state of the participants in the event. Some of these questions include why Napoleon III carelessly provoked Prussia as to cause the war in 1870. To answer this question, it requires explanation and interpretation of events, intentions, and meanings of the individuals involved in the turn of events.
Effects of these constructions and who benefits
One of the major effects as to the process of constructing history is on the historians themselves. They have to face a more basic task intellectually that involves discovering and making sense of the archival sources of information that do exist concerning a given event that occurred at a given time. The sources of historical data are simply items that do not speak for themselves; they are ambiguous, incomplete, sometimes contradictory to the already known and confusing. To develop a sensible and acceptable scenario, a historian has to interpret each individual piece of evidence and then assemble the entire mass of information into a single coherent and truthful story.
This method of constructing history will most a times be affected by an historians personal attributes among them biasness (De Vries & Johan 2002). Biasness is an attribute that will tent to divert the information gathered through the various sources of history to a certain perspective as so desired by the historian. The effect of this is that it entirely tilts the story line hence history. Biasness is a major course of misinformation as well as misconstructions of history. To avoid this, historians seek to rely on evidence entirely and what exactly the various pieces of information ‘say’ about the past.
The effects of biasness according to Breisach (2007) can be avoided by having a body of historians deliberate on the various pieces of evidence available and what they actually represent. Through a consultative deliberation, individual historian’s biasness is eliminated. In addition, biasness which can also be due to a limited number of evidences or evidences that are inclined to one side can be eliminated by comparing these sources with those that are presently available. For example, the Spanish Civil War is one of the most complex events in history and it presents an historian with an ocean of traces in archives and historical repositories. These sources in some cases reflect towards an effort by those in power to make unavailable some certain pieces of information, for example, the effort by Franco to vanquish all source of evidence pointing towards a mass killing of republicans after the war had ended (Little 2010). It is the duty of historians to avoid making any assumptive conclusion and find information either archival or modern that would help to unravel the past and make a clear picture of what really happened.
In their work of constructing the past, historians seek to answer the questions what, how, and why on issues, events, and circumstances of the past. According to Livi-Bacci (2007), constructing the past and the construction models used by historians and discussed here has a number of benefactors. First, given the fact that historians must conceptualize, define, contextualize, discusses, and then make explanation in constructing the past, it leads to many being satisfied by the process of construction. History as earlier stated is an aspect of each and every part of human live and as it has been stated by Berlin (2000); it forms the foundation of the past.
As a result, history is intended to benefit almost every aspect of human life; hence, every reader of history is a potential benefactor. Through the processes of constructing history, historians are able to arrive at hypothesis on social causes and cultural meaning on events (Breisach 2007). Through such a model, the presentation is more convincing and readily acceptable because it appeals to the basic critical aspects of the reader, indentifies with the context, and makes use of the various pieces of information available. Through such construction, the historical scenario created is well appreciated and taken up by the reader as a true reflection of the past. Based on this, it would be convenient to conclude that, the process of constructing history is not directly meant to benefit a particular person, but geared towards ensuring the piece of history created is at best a true representation of the nature and unfold of events.
Roles played by history
The process of studying the past is and has never been static. The practice of history construction has seen various changes, many shifts, and turns in the way readers conceive, perceive, and understand history. According to Little (2010), since mid 20th century history has seen numerous shifts from it being perceived as being a social science through statistical turn to cultural history. The effect of these shifts is that it has created various aspects of the study of history and each of this has a distinct and independent role. Through these shifts, historians have had an opportunity to reflect and write about the changes that have happened over time.
The first role of history is creating a basis for human living in the present time. Every person seeks to find a rooting for their existence. History is a definition of the past and even through as argued by several author (Little 2010; Livi-Bacci 2007; Joseph & Janda 2008) it might not be a true reflection of the past; it helps to create a scenario that the reader of history work can identify with. The fact that history create s a platform of identify and foundation is a motivation for most persons to pursue a given way of life, to undertake an ascribed event, and to generally be proud of who and what they are in the present time. An example of how history plays a role in rooting individuals and creating identity is through cultural history. Through cultural history, communities and societies as well as groups are able to identify their origin and course hence the reason for their being.
In addition to creating an identity and a basis for persons, history plays a motivational role for those in the present. According to Breisach (2007), through the construction of history, persons are able to know and understand some of the situations and circumstances that others have gone through and how they overcame. For example, the evolution of building architectural design over time is a motivation and also a learning ground for modern day architectures to strive in the designing of models that are best suited for the various needs of modern day living.
History is made up of persons who lived in a certain time in the past. The events, circumstances, culture, and the various aspects of history in general are parts that were part of real people’s lives. The challenges were true experience faced by persons. Through such, history plays a critical educational role for the modern day generations not only in devising better suited solutions, but also in appreciating the past and the nature of events so far. An example of how history has been useful in information the present is in policy making. Policies have been made based on past and the nature in which situations have changed with the objective of ensuring absolute posterity to the possible measure. An example is the new Saudi Arabia Real Estate law which has been crafted based on past events in particular the Financial Crisis of 2008 in the US which has been largely attributed to the real estate industry.
History plays a crucial role in familiarizing the present. Most of the events and activities that are experienced in the present have their explanations and causes in the past. Through the study of history, persons are able to better understand the current nature of events therefore able to appreciate the unfolding of events, while at the same time relying on the past to institute change mechanisms that are applicable, practical, and feasible.
History is a construction of historians and to make a story that is acceptable based on sense and the known parts of the past, they have to use the varies pieces of evidence about past events to confirm or disqualify hypotheses. These pieces of information are sources from both the past from archives as well as the present. The primary objective of the construction process used by historians is to create a story that is logical and readily acceptable as the true representation of that happened in the past. The effects of such construction process are that it might bear some personal biasness or evidence-based biasness. This is the main reason why there are sometimes varying accounts of what supposedly happened. Nevertheless, history plays crucial roles for the current reader in appreciating the past, understanding themselves and what surrounds them as well as what happens, and informing current ways and events.
- Berlin I. 2000. Three critics of the Enlightenment: Vico, Hamann, Herder, H. Hardy (ed.), Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press.
- Breisach E. (ed.) 2007. Historiography: ancient, medieval, and modern, 3rd ed., Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- De Vries B. and Johan G. 2002. Mappae mundi: humans and their habitats in a long-term socio-ecological perspective: myths, maps and models, Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
- Joseph B. (Ed.) & Janda R. (Ed.) 2008.The Handbook of Historical Linguistics. Blackwell Publishing. p. 163.
- Little D. 2010. New Contributions to the Philosophy of History, Dordrecht: Springer Science.
- Livi-Bacci M. 2007. A Concise History of World Population, 4th edition, Malden, MA: Blackwell.