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How (and What) Are Historians Doing?

Historical Method

The article compares history to other disciplines and outlines some of the major philosophical debates surrounding historical research.

History stands out from other disciplines due to its: (1) insistence on time and place as fundamental principles of variation; (2) specialization according to time and place; (3) questions rooted in national politics; (4) interpenetration of professional and amateur efforts; (5) heavy reliance on documentary evidence; (6) emphasis on practices that involve identification of crucial actors and their motivations, the verification of this with documentary evidence, and the presentation of it in narrative form.

The major philosophical choices facing historians include (1) whether the most important phenomena to study are large social processes or individual experiences; (2) whether research should be centered on the systematic observation of human action or the interpretation of individual motives and meanings; (3) whether history and social sciences are the same or distinct fields of research; (4) whether historical writing should stress explanation or narrative.