5.8 Historical research This Section examines some of the ways in which history is constructed using documentary sources. Such sources range from archaeological finds through oral accounts to written texts. Most of the discussion that follows focuses on written texts. History is a term that has a range of meanings. In one sense it just means things that have happened or the ‘past’. Academically it is the process of reconstructing an account of the past.
5.8.1 Historism At one level the past is conceived of as a fixed factual entity and the role of history is to uncover and recount the fact s that constitute the past. This essentially positivist approach is often referred to as historism. Leopold von Ranke, widely regarded as the first scholar to formalise history writing was a historist. He wrote prodigiously but his books on Western European history, mainly at crucial points in the Germanic and Latin countries’ histories, were premised on the importance of political history, particularly foreign relations. Economic and social history hardly figures in the sources he used. The result was that von Ranke, thinking he was being objective, and identifying the sources that demonstrated the evolution of culture, a concept that underpinned his work, actually failed to understand social change within the modern age. His bias against political and social change, especially the appearance of radical movement was not overcome by his historiographical approach. As Rudolf Vierhaus (1998, np) explained:
History is regarded as a complex process of “historical life,” which assumes its most effective “real spiritual” form in the great states and their tensions. The historian, as objectively as possible, must describe “how it really was,” keeping the whole picture in mind while extracting the essence. Ranke was thus not an analyst but a “visual” historiographer. Aware of the limitations imposed by time and place on every historian, he attempted to achieve maximum objectivity principally by identifying himself not with a “party” but with the state. Yet his work demonstrates that his intellectual credo influenced his political views.
A second approach to the writing of history argues that the past is not a set of facts but that past events have different meanings for different actors. The Highland clearances in Scotland, for example, is an event interpreted quite differently from the point of view of English landowners than from the viewpoint of Scottish crofters exiled from their land. This broadly phenomenological approach is usually referred to as historicism. Historicism accepts that history is an interpretive process and, in the main, historicists reconstruct the past from the standpoint and understanding of the present.