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An Overview of the Historical Process

As we begin, recall that we are constantly engaging the question: What is History? There are many responses to the question, but all contain the essential idea that history is the study of the past. Most scholars will generally tell you that history is a narrative (or a formal story) of events; that it is a chronological record of past; which explores the life and development of people and institutions. Historians not only tell a story through themes and dates, they explain or comment on the past. As a formal discipline, History is not just the examination of records and the analysis of past events—history is the foundation for all knowledge.

We also recognize that history is a mediated public discourse, meaning that it is subject to a social and political context, and dependent upon cultural perceptions. In explaining the historical method, Dr. Paul D. Leedy stated that “History is a phenomenon. It is a transcript of the relentless surge of events, the sequential and meaningful record of human activity.”[1] According to Dr. C.T. Keto history, “separates the ‘first fundamental reality’ of a people’s existence, namely, the past, from the second fundamental realty of their existence, namely, the present.” It also possesses, according to Keto “…a third element which completes the triad, namely, the future. But the future exists, by definition, only in a people’s vision and in their plans which only become actualized in the present.”[2] (2)

History, then, given its continual unfolding within the context of the present and the future, is considered one of the highest forms of critical thinking in the humanities and social sciences because it requires a concerted and intense scrutiny of the past. History is a dialogue with, and an interpretation of, the past. History involves a dynamic relationship with knowledge and information. Because everything must address the idea of history in some way, history is an integrative discipline; it involves the acquisition of functioning knowledge of multiple fields. For example, the study of the enslavement of Africans in North America is not possible without a command of United States and world histories.

In terms of the historical process, Historians and students of history engage in rigorous analytical thinking. For our brief purposes here, this involves a five-stage process that encompasses research, organization, analysis, interpretation, and communication. In the area of research, historians rely upon their ability to locate primary and secondary sources. These documents provide the facts and evidence necessary to reconstruct the past. Once a set of materials have been located, the historian reads, makes notes, uncovers other data, and begins the process of organizing information. Once the materials have been read, questioned, and clearly understood, analysis takes place. Analysis also includes the evaluation of sources. Students of history learn how to discern reliable sources from primary and secondary source documents. We move forward to interpret the materials collected. The main goal is to be able to explain the meaning of the sources, draw reasonable conclusions, tell a story, and allow the audience to also draw their conclusions. Remember that historians do not tell people what actually happened in the past, they relate the events of the past based upon the evidence that they have collected and evaluated.  Once interpretation has been conducted, the student of history considers how they will communicate their findings. Historical insights and ideas are shared in writing in a print and/or digital format (through the production of books, articles, etc.) or verbally (through lectures and conference presentations) in an effort to inform and stimulate discussion.

Remember, we currently live in the constructs erected by the past; and we all recede into “history” with each moment.

Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina
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[1] Paul D. Leedy, Practical Research Planning and Design, New York: Macmillian Publishing Co., Inc., 1974, p. 71.

[2] C. Tsehloane Keto, The Africa-Centered Perspective of History, Blackwood, NJ: K.A. Publications, 1989, p. 2.