The Dynamism of History

Zainab KhanOctober 10, 2023Now and ThenFeatures

Artwork by Artur Zhuk, age 13

Time has ebbed and flowed in the same pattern since the inception of the world.

Empires have risen and fallen in a cyclical manner, with every force met by a counterforce. Each revolution has been a silhouette of the one that came before it. The existence of such paradigms carry the implication that historical processes are dynamic, much like the study of history itself. What is perceived by many to be a static rendition of the stories of bygone eras is in reality an ever-changing and ongoing process — one that is constantly subject to revision and re-evaluation, criticism, and consolidation. Hence, the definition and nature of historiography — the study of the history of history — has evolved amongst generations of historians, and even more so with the onset of the digital age.

Before we delve into the various approaches to studying history, we must first gain an understanding of the underlying notion of its dynamism: the past itself never changes. While these two concepts may appear paradoxical at first, when put into the context of historiography, it begins to make perfect sense. The past cannot change, but our understanding and interpretation of it is ever-evolving. This idea is elaborated by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thomspon in their article on historiography, which describes the discipline of history as, “an ongoing dialogue, not an unchanging concrete monument to the past.” Once the distinction between historical fact and interpretation becomes clear, we understand why a multitude of approaches and methodologies exist in the first place, and indeed, why the predominant approach shifts within and between generations of historians.

For example, consider the changes to the field of history that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries — an era of change that permanently altered scholarly interpretations of the past. While prior historians adopted the “traditional approach,” characterized by a reliance upon biographies and oral traditions for the basis of their work, the late 19th and early 20th century illustrated a shift in the field of historical research that endorsed a more social-scientific approach to analyzing history. This new approach — later termed “Empiricism” — was introduced by the German historian, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), who believed historiography should aim to reveal the "wie es eigentlich gewesen" (how it actually happened). In essence, he likened the field of history to a scientific discipline, which required scholars to focus on method in an effort to produce the most accurate depiction of past people and events. Empiricists defended the notion that the past was “both observable and verifiable,” and that by taking the scientific approach, their analyses would be unbiased and impartial, thus minimizing the role of perspective and subjectivity in historical narration.

Empiricism had a lasting impact on the way history is perceived today, with historians still attempting to uphold the principles of objectivity and impartiality in their interpretations of the past. The authentication of primary sources, crucial to Empirical research methodology, ensured a structural approach that would not have been possible without the incorporation of science into the field of history — in short, without Empirical research, historical works would have been dependent upon the inclinations of those who wrote them. While 19th-century historians directed their attention toward finding the truth, this was not without its shortcomings. Most documents produced at this time were those of “social winners” (Adrian Worsfold), and hence partial in nature. So despite the historian’s endeavors to be objective, the content of the sources themselves indicated partiality since they largely ignored the contributions made by ordinary people to the course of history. Additionally, historians may well have been oblivious to their inherent personal bias, stemming from the predominant ideologies and cultural influences of their time.

In contrast to late 19th-century historiography, the dawn of the 20th century welcomed a new approach that replaced the “social-scientific” method of research with one that was less logically compelling and featured the use of rhetoric. Revisionist historians of the early- and mid-20th centuries challenged prior approaches by arguing that truths were, in the words of Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, “unattainable … and all statements about history are connected or relative to the position of those who make them.” Consequently, a dramatic transition to new perspectives and approaches occurred, with scholars now focused on “ideologically motivated” history (to quote Mark Donnelly and Claire Norton), increasingly involving studies on social class, gender, and ethnicity. During this period, Marxist historiography emerged as a school of thought influenced by the ideology of revolutionary philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883), and this conformed to the idea that social class and economic restraints were important determinants of historical outcomes.

Whereas Empiricist historians emphasized the rule of the state (which they believed to be the most significant influence on society), Marxist historians gradually shifted the focus away from the state and toward the masses of ordinary people. The effect of this new focus was the introduction of “people's history” — a narrative approach to history that accounted for past events through the eyes of common people instead of “great men” (leaders) and “social winners.” A critical component of this approach involved post-colonial historians and their reconstruction of the concept of imperialism. “People’s history” sought to overturn the belief that contributions made by the West to society at large were purely beneficiary, by taking into account the experiences of colonized groups under imperial domination. In exposing the exploitation of colonized groups by the West, these historians highlighted an aspect of history that had been obscure. Likewise, Marxist historians brought to the fore the oppression of the working class at the hands of the wealthy, by giving a voice to those belonging to the lower strata of society.

The introduction of the “people’s history” approach proved to be a critical juncture for the field of history, and its impact extended into the late 20th century. With the upswing of the Civil Rights and feminist movements in the 1960s and ‘70s, the profession of history began to take into account the profound narratives of minorities (especially Black people) and developments in gender theory. In doing so, a thorough and holistic rendition of history was composed. The transition to such an approach therefore remains relevant for historians in modern times, as they continue their research into previously disempowered and marginalized groups.

So what do approaches to history look like at present? With the transition to the information age, the field of history – like many other fields – has witnessed unprecedented change as it adapts to the digital devices of the future. The advent of the Internet has seen a rapid digitalization of historical archives, which has resulted in history becoming far more accessible than ever before. Where previous historians dealt with a scarcity of sources to produce accounts of the past, there is now an abundance of information that is readily available for anyone to use. This development presents challenges, as voiced by Jani Marjanen, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki: “The openness of the data allows for new interventions from people who have not used their long careers to build up that domain knowledge.” He argues, however, that this is not as bad as it seems. In general, better access to historical material means that people can express new perspectives and interpretations of history that will open up the field to new approaches.

At present, the profession of history leans towards an interdisciplinary approach — an amalgamation of numerous approaches curated by prior generations of historians. Such an approach is denoted by its “comprehensiveness in scope” and “eclecticism,” in the words of T. C. R. Horn and Harry Ritter, meaning that interdisciplinary historians do not belong to any particular school of thought — rather, they take the liberty to select theories and employ methods from various schools of thought. Interestingly, they have made use of concepts and approaches developed by scholars of other disciplines, most notably political science, psychology, sociology, and even statistics and mathematics as of late. This idea is seconded by Professor Rebecca Earle, head of the Department of History at Warwick University: “Insight into the past can be gained from many different sources, and ideas developed in many different disciplines can help us make sense of them.” Hence, the interdisciplinary approach provides the groundwork not only for a more nuanced understanding of history itself but also for a collaboration between scholars of various fields that prompts a better understanding of the future.

In conclusion, historiography, or the way we study the past, is relevant today for a multitude of reasons. It enables us to recognise that historical narratives may be altered by the perceptions of their narrators, often leading to an inadequate representation of history. In challenging conventional narratives, it calls attention to the perspectives of marginalized groups, without which these accounts may have been exclusionary and largely inaccurate. Most crucially, the study of historiography contributes to the progress of history as a discipline, as it encourages both students and historians to think about the methods, biases, and contextual factors that come into play in historical interpretation.

With this being said, the shifts in historiographical approaches and methods within the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries have paved the way for not only a greater degree of impartiality and accuracy in historical research, but also for the emergence of new viewpoints from history enthusiasts and scholars of humanistic disciplines alike. We find that while each approach is distinct in its features and methodologies — whether traditional, social-scientific, ideologically motivated, or interdisciplinary — they all reshape our understanding of the past, and underline the irrefutable fact that history has always been dynamic.


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Zainab Khan is 16 years old and studying at Lahore Grammar School Defence. She loves watching true crime documentaries and fiction writing.