“History is indeed the witness of the times, the light of truth”
– Cicero Many agree that history is a recollection of crucial past events that shaped and transformed locations, cultures, modern states and life today. These past events come into our time in various forms of written, artistic and recorded nature. Nonetheless, upon a closer look, history is much more than this and different historians throughout the years have embedded various subcategories to complement their studies and enrich the shared narrative of events, at times even giving vent to personal emotions. Such examples include: anthropology, military, economic, social, diplomatic and environmental history, among others. On the other hand, numerous historians in the 19th and 20th centuries took a step back and put into question the possible hidden or unconscious motifs behind such narratives. When looking at how history is interpreted today, one finds that this field is in a constant phase of renovation, self-reinvention and introspection, and deeper analysis of how and why a particular event is being interpreted and made available for posterity. Although dates and numbers are important in determining a place in time of a particular event, modern day history tends to focus less on the when and more on the why, while trying to take the stand of an impartial observer. 1.1 Working with data: Primary vs. Secondary sources. Historians divide their sources into two distinct yet sometimes overlapping data sets: Primary and Secondary. The difference between the two is based on a crucial aspect, the time and hand that produced the physical object. Such sources could include: writings, paintings, artistic artefacts and descriptions. Although in recent times the thin line between primary and secondary sources has been swiftly narrowing its contrast, both sources are still used as a classification method. Primary sources are sources that have been written at the particular moment of an event or in a short period of time after the happenings. Such sources are usually based on the original ‘word for word’ work of some author that happened to be an eyewitness of the time or who happened to be directly involved in at least part of an episode. These type of sources include: diaries, letters, legal documents and official governmental or state-related documents. Secondary sources are sources that do not reproduce a ‘word for word’ reproduction of the event and would have, most of the time, been inscribed later than when the original events would have taken place. Secondary sources could also include explanations and analyses of primary sources. These type of sources include: journals, biographies, text books and encyclopaedias.
History is one of the oldest social sciences, and although it has not always been classified as thus, the human enquiry into what existed before remains one of the most treasured questions of human existence. Through the study of the past, various historians throughout the decades have tried to explain the current present state or further still predict a possible future course of events. At this point, it is important to take a step back and look at how history developed into a discipline of study and later on as a social science.
One of the earliest historians and incidentally the one who is considered to be the father of history dates back to the 5th century B.C. Herodotus, together with his contemporary fellow Thucydides, recorded facts and stories transcended from one generation to the other. Building on the work of Herodotus, Thucydides shifted away from the realm of divine intervention and rooted his analyses into the human dimension of history. This human dimension was seen as being constituted by set of actions underlying which was a conscious decision-making process. Although later scholars questioned and discredited their work on the grounds that it had no scientific basis, the tasks carried out by Herodotus and Thucydides set the foundational steppingstones for a discipline that kept its vivacity and vibrancy throughout different centuries and geographical locations. On the other side of the world, Sima Qian (145 – 90 B.C) developed a new approach to history. Working at the court of the Han dynasty, Qian models his theory on the concept that historical happenings form part of a bigger picture of events and should be represented as biographies. Categorisation was not made according to date but according to the matter discussed, including ceremonies, economics and treaties. Like Thucydides, Qian perceived the important humanistic aspect of history and that accurate analyses could not be divorced from the role of the individual as an important influential actor in historical events.
The development of history as a discipline of study is, in many levels, different and distinct from the other social sciences the IRISS deals with. It is essentially distinct in the fact that no single point in time or school of analysis established a set of dogmatic knowledge. Although the western model of analysis involved the recollection and redistribution of events in a chronological order, in other parts of the world history was being recorded in a different way and for different reasons.The model that governed the western world till the mid-19th century has been greatly influenced by the political motives of the time and perspective on the role of humans and divine intervention. Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance the study of history fell into the hands of religious entities and kingdoms commissioned studies of past battles and conquests, pretty much in the same spirit of the original hieroglyphic chronicles of the unification by conquest of Ta-Meh (Lower Egypt) and Ta-Shema (Upper Egypt) commonly attributed to the Scorpion King. In historical narratives, interpretation was therefore carried out through the sacred and divine lens of analysis and evaluation crafted in line with stringent political and religious viewpoints. This is the main reason why it is said that whoever controls the past, commands the future, and whoever commands the future, conquers the past (This is really and truly a twist on Owell’s 1984 party slogan that read: who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past).
The Arab historian Ibn Khaldun (1332 – 1406) introduced the notion of culture into the analysis and interpretation of historical records. Khaldun recognised that for the interpretation of historical data to be accurate, the researcher had to move beyond the shallow practices of recording and deducing data, but rather surround his analysis with external influencing forces, such as: the political climate, power distribution in a given group or society, the environment, as well as social beliefs, norms and customs. While in Europe the idealised and sometimes mythical traits abounded in historical recollections, the Arab world nurtured a philosophical dimension to history. Khaldun also questioned the reasons and interests represented by those who have written these recounts, pushing the role of the historian into the realms of economics, sociology and political studies through a truly remarkable and advanced (especially for its time) level of in-depth analysis and investigation. The comparison of texts and the evaluation of hidden motives behind the recount became of pivotal importance when interpreting data. Although Khaldun’s approach was an important breakthrough at the time, few recognised this revolutionary approach to history, and only later in the 18th and 19th century did European scholars recognise the superiority of this approach, following which they adopted and developed these notions and precepts further.
“Genuine historical knowledge requires nobility of character, a profound understanding of human existence — not detachment and objectivity”
– Friedrich Nietzsche
Changes in the political ideology and ultimately State political structures of the 17th and 18th centuries heavily impinged on the rigorous religious perspective of the previous decades. The secular view was quickly gaining terrain and spreading in major European states and duchies. The work of Hegel marks an important swing in the method of historical analysis, placing the secular aspect as the most important aspect when interpreting past events. Later on in the 19th century, scholars attributed great importance to the realm of data gathering, statistics and facts. The famous saying “facts speak for themselves”, derives from the belief that history could be easily decoded through the mass accumulation of chosen texts. Due to the imperialistic course of events and the need to ascertain political, economic and military power in Europe, various historical recounts of this century are tainted with strong imperialistic aspirations and heroic nationalistic stories. In the 20th century and in a post-World War 1 environment, researchers have taken an interest in the personal motifs of historians and their interpretation of data, giving a philosophical façade to the historical structure. Developing into a multi-disciplinary approach, pioneering scholars introduced and amalgamated different fields with history. Amongst the most important names one finds Fernand Braudel, E.H Carr, Benedetto Croce and Bruce Trigger. A mixture of anthropology, philosophy, psychology, sociology and economics paved the way for the historical analyses and views this social science enjoys today.
“Everything must be recaptured and relocated in the general framework of history, so that despite the difficulties, the fundamental paradoxes and contradictions, we may respect the unity of history which is also the unity of life.”
– Fernand Braudel
History and the study of past events evolved from a small and sometimes individual initiative of inquiry into a multidisciplinary approach that performs constant updates and changes to its methodological structure. Moving beyond the surface area level of interpretation, history nowadays possesses a conscious understanding of the limitations, intentions and possible bias sources might have. Today discussion in the field still revolves around primary and secondary sources. Nonetheless, the debate is being given a stronger philosophical and psychological dimension. Historians and philosophers alike agree that history is not just the recollection of past events and an absolute faithful recount of an important episode. The human component is a pivotal aspect and one that should be given greater importance. Therefore, history is no longer viewed as the doctrinal truth of past events, but rather as a collection of evidence that points to a possible path of knowledge. Another important issue is that related to the choice of particular events at the expense of others. At which point in time does a particular past event become part of history? How important are the historian’s tastes and beliefs? Could this be the result of a conscious strategic plan or is this fact inevitable? This selectivity has serious implications on the reality portrayed and transferred from one generation to the other. History is now a central and vivid discipline within the social sciences fields.Taking on a holistic approach, history managed to move away from the narrative code to a more elaborate and complex set of analysis. In this way, history is now able not only to delve into the past and reproduce explanations, but to also to be in a constant dialectical communication with a number of other disciplines. From a scientific perspective, nowadays history enjoys widespread acknowledgement of its methods and modes of analyses. The IRISS embraces the holistic approach to history and strongly believes in the diversification and triangulation of data gathering, analysis and interpretation. In a complex and dynamicsocio-political-economic setting, a holistic historical approach is important and should be at the centre of every analysis. To this end, IRISS is committed to put history at the centre of its analyses and studies, whilst ensuring that all possible biases have been taken accounted for and wherever possible quantified and documented prior to the issuance of the concluding results.