An Introduction to Research

Historical questions arise from our monuments, our habits, our documents, and our broader experience in the world. All historical projects begin as an effort to answer questions about origins, happenings, and consequences--like finding a puzzle and trying to solve it. History also represents a special kind of thinking. It involves telling a story, and while facts are essential in telling a story, they are not enough. 

The art of history lies in combining fact and interpretation to tell a story about the past. As time passes, legends and outright lies creep into history. Historians try to distinguish between the true and the false. But in the study of history, "truth" is complicated, contradictory, and usually obscure.

Whatever its subject, the study of history is an unending detective story. Historians try to solve mysteries in the evidence and to tell a story that will give order to the confusion of data we inherit from the past. Historians make connections, assign causes, trace defects, make comparisons, uncover patterns, locate dead ends, and find influences that continue though the generations until the present. 

History is far more than an assembly of facts. It is the interpretation of facts that raise questions, provoke curiosity, and make us ask the questions: who?, what?, where?, when?, and why? The interpretation adds up to what we call a THESIS, a point of view that binds everything together.

Asking Critical Questions

The stories history tells are about human beings living in particular times and places. In every age, motives are complex, mysterious, and often absurd. All this is to say that history involves us both in modes of thought common to the daily life and in the effort to understand acts and ideas utterly foreign to our own. We must weigh evidence, deciding what to believe and what not, what we know and what we think is probable or at least plausible. We tell stories about what happened. We try to discover what it all means--and in so doing try to understand better what it is to be a human being.

Skepticism is one of the historian's finest qualities. Historians don't trust their sources, and they don't trust their own first impressions. They question everything. They test their own insights and their own methods and motives. They do their best to argue against their own points of view to see if their views can withstand opposition.

Good historians are willing to question all the evidence and all the assumptions, and in the end question themselves rigorously. Throughout all historical inquiries, the relentless application of the journalistic questions will make you an active researcher and a historian of authority. Nothing is quite so destructive to a historian's reputation as to present conclusions that prove gullibility, laziness, or the unwillingness to ask questions that make the data provide real insight into the meaning of the past.

"Who?" Questions

The "who?" question can make you think about biography, about responsibility, about the actors in historical events, and about those whom they affect. Sometimes the "who?" question can help satisfy simple curiosity. Who was involved? Who was responsible? Who are the players in this story? Who was influential? Who were victims or those left behind?

"What?" Questions

The "what?" question may involve weeding out legends and misunderstandings to see what really happened. An important what question: What does this mean? Here we try to see what people in the past meant by the words they used. These meanings can confuse us because they often change.


What relations exist between the use of words in different ways? Liberals in both the 19th and 20th centuries have advocated "liberty," the root word of liberal . Nineteenth-century liberals tried to create liberty for the business classes who suffered under customs that gave political power to landed aristocrats. Twentieth-century liberals have tried to create more liberty for the poor, including the liberty to have a public school education, or talent and opportunities for advancement.

Important: When you use such broad terms, you must define what you mean by them. Be on guard against reading today's definition into yesterday's words. Do not rely on simple dictionary definitions. Words are defined by their context in time and place, and you must be sure to understand their context.

"When?" and "Where?" Questions

"When?" and "Where?" questions often illuminate tricky puzzles in history. Sometimes we know exactly when and where something happened. And, sometimes we don't. Asking when something happened in relation to something else can prove a fascinating topic of research.

"Where?" questions involve geography, and geography often makes "where?" questions overlap with "why?" questions. Think geography when you develop your project. Geography may not yield anything special for your work, but if you ask the right questions, geography may open a door in your mind onto an unimagined landscape of events and explanation.

Example 1: 

The Annales school of history in France made geography one of its fundamental concerns, asking such questions as how long it took to travel from one place to another in Europe, what the major trade routes were, where different crops were grown, what cities had the closest relations to one another, etc.

Example 2: 

For all historians, a good topographical map showing roads, rivers, mountains, passes, coasts, and location of towns remains an indispensable resource. The late Hajo Holborn, a professor of history at Yale, used to say that disputes often arise because statesmen draw boundaries along mountain crests or along rivers that can be defended in war. But, he said, in times of peace, the same people settle on both sides of a mountain pass and on both banks of a river so that a military boundary becomes an ethnic division. This principle makes it easier to understand many conflicts that have bloodied recent history.

"Why?" Questions

Sometimes we know what happened, but why did it happen, and why did it have the influence it did? These questions about cause and effect create an eternal fascination and lead us to discuss one of the most important topics in the study of history--cause and effect. Cause and effect are like "unruly twins." In historical study they are inseparable, but it is often difficult to see just how they relate to each other. Keep in mind several considerations:

1. Always distinguish between the precipitating cause and the background causes of a great event. 

You might call the precipitating cause the triggering cause, the cause that sets events in motion. The background causes are those that build up and create the context within which the precipitating cause works. Precipitating causes are often dramatic and fairly clear. Background causes are more difficult to sort out and often ambiguous.

Background causes offer rich possibilities for writing about the "why?" of history. They often figure in serious newspaper reports trying to explain events that suddenly made headlines. The triggering cause makes the news; journalists and historians rush to explain the background cause that created a state of affairs where the triggering cause could work. If you pull the trigger of an empty pistol, you get only a snap of the firing pin. The pistol must be loaded before it will fire. Background causes are, in effect, the cartridge loaded in the gun that make the trigger do something important.

Precipitating or triggering causes can be worthwhile subjects in themselves. Exactly what happened at Fort Sumter on that April day in 1861? Why was it that passions were so aroused on that particular day in that particular year? The "what?" question and the "why?" question come together--as they often do.

2. Remember that historical causation is complex. 

It is almost always a mistake to lay too much responsibility for a happening on only one cause. Good history considers different but related causes for a great event. The study of history helps us see how many different influences work on what happens. Causes in history are like tributaries to a great river. While a bad historian sees only the main channel of the largest stream, a good historian looks at the entire watershed and maps the smaller streams that contribute to the whole.

Good historians see things in context--often a large context of people and events surrounding what they seek to describe. Thinking in context means that we try to sort out and weigh the relative importance of various causes when we consider any important happening. The sense of context is especially important today, when historians have discovered the masses, the common people who must follow if others are to lead.

These questions lead us to investigations of mass culture, including the lives of people often scarcely literate who have left few written records behind. Since it is hard to resurrect the life of the masses, the problem of answering the "why?" questions of history becomes complex and uncertain. But these difficulties don't remove from historians the obligation to try to make sense of them.

3. Be cautious in your judgments. 

Do not give easy and simple causes for complex and difficult problems. Many events were caused by complex influences. We become foolish when we try to lay too much responsibility on one dramatic event or famous leader. The caution should also extend to your judgments about motivation in history.

When "why?" questions seem to be answered, inquiring historians may look on the evidence again and discover another possible answer that contradicts accepted wisdom. The process of reconsideration is ongoing in the history profession--that's what historians do--"revisit" or "revise" history. Careful study of the evidence may often turn up new possibilities about questions that seem to have been answered.

More Information on Cause and Effect 

Avoid common fallacies in historical reasoning. "Fallacies" are illogical arguments that pose as logical statements. You may be familiar with the term "straw man." People set up straw men when they argue against positions their opponents have not taken or when, without evidence, they attribute bad motives to opponents.

By all means avoid the fallacy that comes wearing an elaborate Latin name--post hoc ergo proper hoc . The Latin means simply, "After this; therefore because of this," and it refers to the fallacy of believing that if something happens after something else, the first happening caused the second.

Example: A more subtle problem with this fallacy arises with events that are closely related although one does not necessarily cause the other. The stock market in New York crashed in October 1929. The Great Depression followed. The crash contributed to a lack of confidence that made the Great Depression a terrible trauma for Americans and Europeans. But it is a mistake to say that the crash caused the Depression. Both seem to have been caused by the same economic forces. It is in this sort of relation that it becomes most necessary to think out the various strands of causation and to avoid making things too simple.

Avoid the "bandwagon fallacy," the easy assumption that because many historians agree on an issue, they must be right. Consensus by experts is not to be scorned. But experts can also be prone to prejudices. Great historical work has been done by people who went doggedly in pursuit of the evidence against the influence of the consensus. But be sure you have evidence when you attack a consensus. You won't get anywhere if all you have is a gut feeling. Unless you have evidence to support your ideas, you may end with a bad case of mental indigestion.

Use of Inference

When you make an inference important to your study of the sources, you become a questioner. You don't read your sources passively. You read them actively, trying to fill in the gaps you always find in them. 

Historians infer some questions to all the journalistic questions. We strive to make sense of a document, to decide exactly what it is and if it is reliable, and to understand why it might have been written, when it might have been, where, and by whom.

The aim of inference is coherence. We try to fit everything we know into a plausible whole. We infer that there is something fishy about documents that use words not coined until long after the purported age of the document.

Many scholars use wills as points of inference. Wills bequeathing possessions show what the maker of the will owned, and the information can in turn show things about the life that the person lived. 

The laws of any society provide a rich field for inference. Laws don't come out of thin air. They reflect the values of the people who make them, and they respond to conduct that runs counter to values in that society in that time. Laws are not made by just anybody, but by people with some kind of authority - economic, religious, military, or whatever - who may enforce their values on everyone else. We can infer the nature of authority by looking at laws, and we can see conduct that rulers assume runs against those values.

Information was taken from: A Short Guide to Writing About History, 
Richard Marius (New York: Longman, 1999).