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How to Research and Write History in the Digital Age

Practical advice about asking meaningful questions, formulating a compelling thesis and crafting an engaging and persuasive narrative.

April 5, 2022
 
 

Elementary school students are born scientists, asking, “Why? Why? Why?” College freshmen gravitate toward psychology as they define their identities, redefine their relationship with their parents and form more intimate but also more emotionally fraught relations with others.

As for history, it’s often described by undergraduates as boring and irrelevant. Generally, it’s not until middle age that people became natural historians, eager to connect to the past, situate the present in a broader context and draw lessons from past experience.

What are those lessons? They’re not laws in a Newtonian sense, but rather broadly applicable generalizations. There are, of course, frequently cited adages:

  • That “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
  • That “Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.”
  • That people make history, but “they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”

Then there are gross generalizations, for example, that war has uncontrollable and unpredictable consequences, that appeasing dictators inevitably leads to larger conflicts in the future, and that it’s a mistake to believe that today’s problems are far worse than those faced by people in the past.

There are rules that we ignore to our peril, like the law of unintended consequences: that human or governmental actions tend to have unanticipated effects.

A number of recent popular works remind us that irony and unpredictability are historical mainstays:

  • In Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb reveals that highly improbable events that have massive impact occur with surprising regularity.
  • In This Time Is Different, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff demonstrate that whenever experts claim that old rules no longer apply, history proves them wrong.
  • In his history of Free Speech, Jacob Mchangama shows us that once in power, history’s strongest proponents of free speech often lapse into censorship.

Those open to a highly idiosyncratic and demanding take on the relationship between storytelling, memory and history might look at Mauricio Tenorio-Trillo’s Clio’s Laws: On History and Language, which identifies and critiques a series of “laws” that have shaped historical accounts, including the “Universal Law of Historical Injustice” (which questions the assumption that history is a bearer of justice and progress), “The Law of History’s Permanent Secularization” (which challenges the notion that history represents a falling away from religious impulses) and the “General Theorem of Otherness” (the tendency to overemphasize the badness of history’s villains and the goodness of its purported heroes).

So how should we think about history? The great German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche identified three kinds of history, and his analysis strikes me as still relevant today:

  • Popular histories that consist of tales of “great men” and landmark events that offer simplistic lessons to the present and which is little more than hero worship.
  • Antiquarian history, a misguided attempt to recount the past “as it really was,” which makes no effort to understand why history might be significant, relevant or meaningful.
  • Critical history, which interrogates, interprets and judges the past in order to free us from myths, misconceptions, delusions and false assumptions and to lay bare the historical processes that are reshaping our lives.

What prompts these reflections about history is Zachary M. Schrag’s forthcoming Princeton Guide to Historical Research. The book certainly offers valuable insights into how to undertake archival, library and digital research and extract insights from primary sources, whether textual, numerical, audiovisual or derived from interviews and oral histories. His overarching advice about source interpretation: treat every source as problematic—recognize that every source, even seemingly objective statistical sources, maps or photographs, are constructs that are subject to bias, omissions and error.

This volume also offers valuable up-to-date suggestions about note taking, including the use of spreadsheets, relational databases, note-taking apps, image catalogs and mapping software.

But this volume’s signal contributions lie elsewhere. Readers will benefit greatly from its author’s discussion of historical ethics and his practical advice about how to define and narrow a research topic, formulate meaningful historical questions, interpret sources, take notes and present one’s findings in a compelling manner, whether in a book, a scholarly or popular article, or on social media. Even experienced historians will learn from his discussion of publishing in today’s overcrowded scholarly marketplace.

Anything but a dry compendium of thou shalls and thou shan’ts, Schrag’s guide is written in an engaging style and is interspersed with striking examples drawn from recent historical scholarship.

Unlike the seemingly impersonal, omniscient and seemingly value-free how-to books on historical research that litter library shelves and largely go unread, this volume advances several arguments. Effective historical writing, in Schrag’s view:

  • Combines analysis and storytelling, with characters, conflicts, plots and outcomes.
  • Focuses on individuals and their choices and struggles.
  • Takes part in ongoing debates or tests an existing theory or interpretation.
  • Speaks to the issues of our time.

In his discussion of historical ethics, Schrag offers sage advice about the importance of avoiding confirmation bias, exhibiting historical empathy—even when dealing with individuals we find repellent—the need to refrain from rendering crude and simplistic historical judgments, and the importance of recognizing that historical truth is inevitably provisional.

Students, I suspect, will find Schrag’s counsel about selecting a meaningful research topic and formulating a historical argument especially useful. Dialectics are central to his advice: refine, refute or reaffirm an existing interpretation; fill a gap; introduce a fresh perspective; focus on previously ignored historical actors and sources; or extend an existing debate or interpretation into a novel context.

Especially suggestive is Schrag’s discussion about the introduction of words at particular historical moments—for example, words like “industry,” “factory,” “middle class,” “working class,” “capitalism,” “liberal,” “conservative,” “strike,” “scientists” and “ideology” between 1789 and 1848, or of influential metaphors, like “safety valve,” that shaped public discourse.

I consider the book’s single most valuable contribution its advice about how to write better. Schrag discusses how to craft an engaging lead, write powerful topic sentences, signpost an argument and integrate quotations and nontextual evidence seamlessly. But his most helpful suggestion is to transform an argument and evidence into a story—a narrative with an arc, guiding metaphors, protagonists and antagonists, witnesses and bystanders, and conflict, competition or struggle.

History has maintained its readership precisely because it has remained true to its historical roots:

  • By speaking to enduring philosophical and ethical issues—about contingency and determinism, inevitability and unpredictability, individual agency, accident and long-term historical processes—and to the challenges of rendering historical judgment while recognizing that the past is a foreign country, with its own culture, circumstances and moral frameworks.
  • By studying human nature and character not in the abstract but in authentic historical contexts and circumstances.
  • By connecting past to present in a nuanced manner.
  • By engaging in storytelling, embedding arguments within a narrative framework and recognizing the importance of writing for the ear and the imagination.

History that fails to do those things, as Nietzsche understood, is nothing more than antiquarianism and its authors no more than pedants.

Historians should not forget that Clio was not only the muse of history but of lyre playing. We are custodians, guardians, preservers and protectors of our collective past, but our voices will go unheard unless our words are transformed into music.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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