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Major Features of History as a Field of Study

Updated on / dernière mise à jour : 12/09/2023

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History is an academic subject that studies past events of humanity. It is a discipline that is fundamental in understanding our present as well as societies and cultures. It is essential in comprehending the facts that have shaped present societies and cultures. It enables us to discover how past events have influenced our traditions, values, institutions and conflicts. Therefore, History is indispensable for understanding the society we live in.

History is also of utmost importance for research. Many disciplines such as sociology, political science, economics and even medicine require historical data to develop their analyses and research. For example, to understand the reasons behind a current conflict, it is necessary to analyze the causes of similar conflicts throughout history. It also aids in understanding the cultures, beliefs and practices of past peoples. The study of ancient cultures and civilizations, religions, literature, art, music, and folk traditions is possible due to History. Such knowledge is fundamental in enriching our comprehension of humanity and in preserving the cultural heritage of peoples.

Moreover, it enables the development of essential skills for individuals. Its study enhances the ability to analyze, criticize and synthesize information. It also develops the capability to communicate effectively, research evidence and facts, self-critique and evaluate sources. These skills are necessary for any discipline and any person wanting to comprehend the world around them. History is essential for the development of citizenship. It allows us to understand the roots of democracy, justice and human rights. It also enables the comprehension of power mechanisms, political regimes and social movements. Thus, knowledge of History is indispensable for educating critical, informed and active citizens.

History is a crucial academic subject, essential for research, understanding the present, preserving culture and heritage, developing individual skills and forming enlightened citizenship. Its relevance and value make it an indispensable discipline for the comprehension of humanity and the future of our societies.

Some major features of History

۩ History is partial; hence, our perception of the past will always be imperfect;

۩ there is no absolute truth: no law allows the prediction of history;

۩ history is transcendent;

۩ history is scientific through historical criticism.

How does the work of the historian stands out in comparison to specialists from other disciplines?

۩ The historian must constantly rewrite history;

۩ unlike political scientists, economists, etc.., the historian may deal with various types of history, such as medical history, legal history, and so on;

۩ the historian must constantly work with metaphorical concepts and be guided by his intuition;

۩ and, like other specialists, the historian can never see for himself the facts which he studied and described, unlike physicists who can test their hypotheses.

Qualities which the historian must master

۩ A strong dose of curiosity and initiative;

۩ some objectivity;

۩ some subjectivity;

۩ a faculty of understanding life;

۩ and a great interest in writing and reading (basic working tools).

 

Some major parameters of the methodology in History

۩ The constraints:

a. sources used by the historian will determine the pace of his work;

b. the personality of the historian will determine, more than the sources, the facts he has chosen;

c. apprehends the past not as a past that was a present, but as a present that was past.

۩ The dimensions of the field of the historian:

a. if there are no men or women, there is no history;

b. the time is unidirectional (from the past into the future) and irreversible (back in time is an act of the imagination). There are various times: physical time (days, years, etc..), psychic time (according to different consciousnesses that have diverse perspectives of the passage of time), social time and historical time;

c. freedom: men shape the historical process, and that, by their own will;

d. and the individuals themselves, with all their specific features, are highlighted by the historiographical discourse.

۩ The problem:

a. history is made through the sources;

b. history is about problems;

c. the problems are subjective;

d. and we can analyze the sources of the past; thanks to critical thinking, one can develop questions in regard to various problems.

۩ The hypothesis:

a. the problem is accompanied by a response, which needs to be evaluated through an hypothesis;

b. and the hypothesis comes from a motivated and informed intellectual journey.

۩ The heuristic:

a. the search for traces;

b. and to facilitate its work, the historian has a multitude of tools: library catalogs, museums, archives, inventories, bibliographies, etc..

۩ The fact-finding.

۩ Understanding.

۩ The intelligence of the past: the conceptualization of experience and mastery of the mass of information available.

۩ The presentation of knowledge: the ability to convince the reader.

 

How does the historical method stand in regard to other disciplines?

۩ While history of the earth is the matter of the geologist, that of plants and animals of the paleontologist, and while the history of the universe is the realm of the astronomer, the historian is primarily concerned with men's knowledge, activities and creations.

۩ History is the most human of the humanities.

۩ As for the "territory" of the historian, space-time is a concept that makes sense in the context of his work.

۩ The purpose of history is social change: while the animals have a natural social functioning (invariable as enshrined in the genetic system), social functioning of the human being is, in turn, cultural. So, historian research the understanding of human societies, how they change, how they differ.

 

The peculiarities of economic history

۩ Economic history makes a juxtaposition of two disciplines and methods which, originally, were very different. Thus, while the historian analyzes the archives in search of problems and assumptions that reveal the past and present, the economist will be more likely to quantify, compare, and build economic theories by way of legislation.

۩ Economic history is not just trying to explain the factors and the facts of economic, it also seeks to feel, to explore the dynamics that are revolutionizing and transforming the economies themselves.

۩ Since the '50s, Friedman positivist methodology is very important in economics.

۩ The economist must be open to expand its field of view: historians and their work will enable him to get out of pure theory to discover multiple models.

۩ Economic history leads the historian to have to use multi-disciplinary and multi-information to prepare a rational analysis.



۩ Although the economy is often linked to short-term events, economic history will often be characterized by longer periods.

۩ Economic history allows integration of various methods of data analysis and representation of the latter: censuses and statistical tables, among others.

 

The peculiarities of labor history

۩ It is closely related to known political history, such as struggles that were designed to get more social and legal protections. As for political representation, many parties were quick to ally themselves to the workers to derive some benefit, notably the Labour Party, the New Democratic Party, many Marxists, socialists, etc..

۩ Influenced and influencing, in turn, economics and history.

۩ Various problems linked to labor history, such as unemployment, can combine several disciplines, be it sociology, economics, geography. In short, labor history is multi-disciplinary. This interaction between disciplines is used to give new meanings to the sources studied, and this, according to the actors who interpret them.

۩ Labor history often refers to activities that emphasize the reactionary social discontent.

۩ Labor history (especially compared to the problem of unemployment) is a socio-economic objective to which one is likely to move.

۩ The historian must often make use of sociological documents, even legal, to learn more about the workers. Thus, the sources are from multiple origins.

۩ Labor history is one of contrasts: the workers versus the bosses, the workers against the workers, but also the workers against the state and its policies, among others. So this is a "breeding ground" for exceptional criticism in all its forms.

۩ Labor history can also be indicative of large human solidarity. This can be seen at major trade union demonstrations, even during major social and political revolutions.

۩ The history of the workers shows how the labor movement and union is the mirror of any healthy society: diverse, complex, quick benefits of any kind, reactionary, rebellious, dynamic…

۩ The history of the workers also highlights the versatility of workers: they are often producers of goods and, sometimes, activists, visionaries, negotiators, and even philosophers. The worker is, pretty much, the best human invention.

 

The peculiarities of historical demography and family history

۩ The problems and sources specific to family history seem inexhaustible, both in ancient times and contemporary history.

۩ The family history was, and still is (in certain circumstances), closely linked to various powers and issues arising from family relationships (political, economical, etc.).

۩ The generalization of the institution of marriage, from a social point of view, is an important part of family history in ancient Rome.

۩ Not everyone has the same vision about marriage and its meaning. Even in ancient times, many authors compare their ideas on the subject.

۩ Justice and law have always been associated with family history, particularly in relation to marriage. From age to age, various laws have been applied to guide the marital institution.

۩ Family history also tells us of ancient traditions, which in some cases are still in practice today.

۩ One can not rule out the influence of the Church on the institution of marriage and family. Altieri, a humanist aristocrat, has a position close enough to the doctrine of the Church in dealing with family history.

۩ As for demographics, history highlights two interesting factors: i) heterogeneity specific to certain communities (thesis), but also ii) certain hereditary diseases caused by inbreeding (antithesis).

۩ The historical demography involves several issues that fall within various religious realities, national, cultural and ethnic groups, among others. Thus, social and political realities affect and are affected by demographics.

۩ three comparative models, linear, convergent and divergent, can group various studies specific to the social mobility of many people.

 

The peculiarities of women's history

۩ Two factors led to the emergence of women's history: the development of feminism since the '60s and a redefinition of the field of study that is history.

۩ There was, historically, a surge in women's studies during the '60s and '70s.

۩ The history of women is itself a fundamental step in the process of formation of the collective consciousness.

۩ There are two exceptions where women were present in history: through the work of lawyers and inside biographies.

۩ The writing of history has been influenced by feminism in three ways: a) research and the study of women in all its forms, b) the introduction of the gender dimension in the main themes of socio-economic history, and c) the reintroduction of the history of women in history.

۩ With some sources, sometimes legal, we realize how much women were ignored by society in the past.

۩ The history of women is one that emphasizes well the suffering and abuse they were subjected throughout history.

۩ As shown in some sources, the reports of investigations of sex crimes will show only part of what really happened. In fact, it is more to draw a general picture of the situation. Even in women's history, the truth remains partial, and highly subjective.

۩ The history of women can identify the past reality of the entire female population. It is important for history to take a critical look at both mankind and not only on the male half.

 

Features of sociocultural history

۩ The sociocultural history allows comparison of practices and customs among various societies and cultures.

۩ The conflict between social science and history, namely the application of working methods (replacing empiricism), altered the dominance of history.

۩ History responds to the influence of the social sciences: the appearance of the history of mentalities, psychology, history, etc.. Thus, it is a new alliance.

۩ Although sociocultural history can be methodologically and scientifically questionable, popular opinion and popular moral belief also has a say.

۩ Sociocultural history is promoted through the openings of museums and the development of archeology.

۩ The Holy Bible has combined myths and popular beliefs to influence parts of sociocultural history.

 

The peculiarities of religious history

۩ In addition to the worship of saints, relics and pilgrimages are very popular objects of study in religious history.

۩ Some authors reveal revolutionary views regarding the Church and its long domination of social, political and cultural realities: they think the evolution of the Church was facilitated by "naive" and "emotional" people who were, therefore, easy to manipulate, to dominate.

۩ Various types of history are brought to interact with religious history: cultural history, political history, social history and many others. The multidisciplinary approach is always prominent.

۩ The quantitative aspect of religious history should not be overlooked: the well-preserved archives of churches and dioceses have favored a serial approach for their study.

۩ The religious history allows historians even more methods to be used: field studies in ethnology, iconographic studies, surveys, linguistic and semiotic methods, and so on.

۩ The political context has greatly influenced the Church and its actions. Do not forget that the Church has always been an influential political actor, and its history has a lot to do with it.

۩ Religious history is also one of struggles, victories, revolutions, social tensions and schisms. In short, sometimes a real world of hatred in a package of love and peace.

 

Twenty great historians

These 20 historians are indispensable for their contribution to history and understanding of our world. Their works have been widely studied and have influenced the way we see and understand history. They have contributed to the understanding of cultures, societies, and past events, allowing us to better understand the present. They have also proposed methods and theories that have influenced the practice of history as an academic and research discipline. Their works have also been used for research in areas such as sociology, anthropology, philosophy, politics, and international relations.

  1. Herodotus: Considered the father of History, he is the first to have written a universal history, blending myths and realities.
  2. Thucydides: His work, The History of the Peloponnesian War, is considered the first example of a political, rational, and empirical history.
  3. Polybius: His work, Histories, covers a large part of ancient Greek and Roman history and offers an analysis of the causes of Rome's rise.
  4. Tacitus: A Roman historian famous for his analysis of the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Roman Empire.
  5. Ibn Khaldun: Considered the father of sociology, he wrote The History of the Berbers and the Muqaddima, an introduction to universal history.
  6. Ibn Battuta: A famous Muslim traveler and historian who visited much of the Islamic world.
  7. William of Tyre: Wrote A History of the Crusades, an important source for understanding this period.
  8. Ibn Rushd (Averroes): A Muslim philosopher and historian who wrote commentaries on the works of Aristotle.
  9. Ibn al-Qalanisi: A Syrian historian who wrote the history of the First Crusade and the Battle of Hattin.
  10. Ibn Khallikan: Wrote the biographies of many famous Arab personalities in his work The Lives of the Illustrious Men.
  11. Ibn al-Athir: An Arab historian who wrote The Complete History, an encyclopedia of Islamic history up to his time.
  12. Marco Polo: A famous Venetian explorer and merchant who wrote his book The Travels, recounting his travels in Asia.
  13. Ibn Battuta: A Muslim explorer who traveled much of the Islamic world in the 14th century.
  14. Fernand Braudel: A French historian known for his work The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II.
  15. William Shirer: An American journalist and historian known for his book on the rise of Nazism and World War II, Berlin Diary.
  16. Arnold J. Toynbee: A British historian known for his analysis of human civilization and his work A Study of History.
  17. Edward Gibbon: A British historian known for his work The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
  18. Leopold von Ranke: A German historian considered the founder of modern history for his use of primary sources and archival documents.
  19. Marc Bloch: A French historian who wrote Strange Defeat, a testimony on the French defeat in 1940, and founder of the Annales school.
  20. Michel Foucault: A French philosopher and historian known for his analysis of power and knowledge relations and his work Discipline and Punish, a study on punishment systems in society. He has also made important contributions to the history of madness and sexuality.

 

Robert Radford, M.A. © 1999, 2023

Author's note:

The ideas presented above are some basic principles that I associate with the study of history … may they be of interest to neophytes as well as specialists.

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Robert Radford, M.A., Québec (Canada) © MMXXIII.
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