What is history?

Contributed by Sarah Campbell


Napoleon called it a ‘myth’ and Henry Ford said it was ‘bunk’. E.H Carr delved into the topic but the question recently came back to tease me when I was reading Taylor Branch’s new book, The Clinton Tapes: Wrestling History with the President last week. After 79 conversations with President Bill Clinton between 1993 and 2001, Branch begins to question ‘Is history what we do, or what we record?’ Indeed, it is a pertinent question. As historians we are trained to prioritise the precious ‘official’ primary record above all else. Yet by doing so, we nearly always fail to hear the minority voice in history. This is where interviews as a research methodology comes in. Any of us who are lucky enough to study late twentieth century history (yes it IS history, not politics!) have a unique opportunity to talk to those involved in our studies. They themselves become the primary source. But what can we really learn from this methodology?

The use of oral history has focused primarily on two different topics. On the one hand, life histories and in-depth interviewing have offered an ‘alternative’ source of information concerning political events or organisations: on the other hand, they have provided material for the study of mentalities and political culture. For anyone studying the role of identity throughout history, interviews are crucial in order to take into account the perspective of the people involved. The biggest advantage to this methodology is that it enables minorities to take their place in history. Minorities (in my own study, the NICRA, Republicans, IRA members, civil rights activists in Northern Ireland) rarely have any ‘official’ records, and their voice in history may be in danger of being lost unless interviewing as a research methodology is employed, and use is made of sources in addition to the ‘official’ ones.

That said, individuals are said to be the worst narrators of the events in which they have been involved, in so far as they have a direct interest in them. Politicians and social movement activists have characteristic patterns of ‘distortion’ in their narrative, in that they are characterised by a very strong tendency to look for justifications for their behaviour which are in line with their political and ideological beliefs. How can we be sure that our subjects are being candid and open? The biggest problem remains that history is what we record. If we don’t take the time to record it, then future historians won’t know what happened. Yet, the simple act of recording it means that instead, we are making it. Inevitably, any politician or activist will want to be remembered kindly in history. It is unlikely that they can be as transparent as we, the interviewer, would wish them to be. Not only that, but the questions we ask also distorts the account. We may think we are being objective, but the very act of interviewing makes us participant observers in the making of history.

Does that mean we should scrap interviews as a credible research methodology for history, leave it for the journalists and political scientists? Absolutely not. What we should remember is that the same argument applies for official documents. Any account of a meeting or letter written on some topic is also just someone’s opinion; someone with prejudices, agendas, etc. We may strive to find ‘truth’ in history but unfortunately truth, as an absolute concept, does not exist.  All we can hope for is for something approximating as closely to the ‘truth’ as possible.

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One Response to “What is history?”

  1. George Campbell Says:

    You ARE what people think you are.
    Interesting post.

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