A critical approach to historiography – challenging the assumption that history should never be rewritten

A detailed old ceiling on Cardiff University's campus

This article was originally published on Open Access Government. You can read their version here.

Dr. Leanna Brinkley, Head of Quality Assurance and Enhancement, Cardiff University International Study Centre, Study Group, details a critical approach to the past – contextualizing historical events through the historiography

It was arguably the goal of nineteenth-century histories to carefully trace chronologies to produce a version of the past that was undeniably “correct”. Today’s historians are often expected to shoulder the same burden, while avoiding any re-writing of history in favour of preserving “the facts”. However, most would agree that this is neither a feasible nor desirable way of approaching our past.

A paradigm shift?

While we are required to ensure our claims are accurate and support them with sound historical evidence, our interpretations are subject to change, influenced by the worlds in which we live and a constant symptom of our personal experience. I would argue that the historian’s duty is not to “unearth truth” but to critically re-evaluate and reinterpret the historical threads to which we are all bound within the historiography. As Dr. Charlotte Riley has put it, ‘(re-writing history is) literally what we historians do”.

Historical scholarship should be a dialogue. It should challenge, refute, and temper to the opinions of those it involves. It should step back, reflect, and try again.

This is perhaps more easily achieved in some fields than in others. Many consider economics, for example, to be a field in which facts are established and a united “truth” is agreed. But economic interpretations can change just as social or cultural ones do. In the scholarship of sixteenth-century England and Wales, we have seen increasing recognition of the role of female craftspeople, mariners, and merchants who contributed to early modern economies. This shift has called into question a range of other assumptions and interpretations, which have had a knock-on effect on our understanding of major events, such as the establishment of the early British Empire.

For me, this is what makes history an important area for study. History gives us a chance to re-evaluate our understanding of the human experience and re-interpret the foundation on which our world has been built. Doing this then enables us to critique the past and present lenses through which we view ourselves and others – this cultural, social, and philosophical context is where history derives its richness. Importantly, this also enables us to challenge other interpretations and allows a diversity of opinions.

Historiography: considering past events from other perspectives

In any university history classroom, individuals from a range of backgrounds can come together to dissect and discuss the fundamental elements of our world, with the classroom acting as a valuable platform to challenge norms, values and assumptions. For example, a discussion regarding the historiography of sixteenth-century maritime traders can quickly evolve into a debate around the impact of second-wave feminism, which can lead us to challenge problematic or discriminatory views.

Studying history is important not to establish the truths of the past but to provide a lens through which to engage with the human experience critically. That is, to consider how the context of our experience and values shapes our understanding of (and engagement with) the world around us. Perhaps most importantly, this enables us to critically evaluate the information we receive daily via the news, social media, and the people with whom we share our thoughts and ideas.

Moreover, the skills needed to shift our ideological lens to consider past events from another perspective are much the same as the key skills required to engage in meaningful political debate or to differentiate objective fact from opinion or interpretation. Of course, most who study history at an undergraduate or even master’s level will not go on to become fully-fledged historians.

Still, the skills they acquire will enable them to positively contribute to society, both in their careers and personal lives. I will not argue that these skills are required “now more than ever” because critical abilities have always been essential. But, as we push forward towards another election, another war, another controversial figure, I would argue that they are required “now as much as ever”.