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Anisha Rikhy

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Is it possible for a historian to interpret history in an unbiased way ?

Do cultural backgrounds and pre- conceptions influence a historian's interpretation of the sources? Can a historian separate his emotional feelings and thus, write and interpret history in an unbiased way ?
How selective are a historian's views ? How reliable can they be considered?

Topics: history
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    Jan 9 2012: I have always thought that history is written by men. It may or may not have played out as described. The written and oral histories of the world are a variation of the truth. HOWEVER history is written by men. Men are influenced by all manner of factors - social, political, economical, etc. Interpretation of the written histories is also influenced by these things. Much like people who read the Bible and Koran each individual interprets what they read and while both may be written for peace, others interpret to provide themselves a reason to be violent.
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    Dec 13 2011: I'd say that every historian's interpretation is influenced by his/her personal history and ideas. They are also limited by the resources available to them, so the interpretation will be similarly limited. Never put full faith in the interpretation of a single historian. Of course, historians in coercive societies often write what they're required to write, and these should be dismissed altogether, except for the purpose of studying coercion.

    I think no written history can be really true. I'm old enough (71) to be reading young historians writing about the time when I was a young adult. And I often find myself shaking my head: "That wasn't how it was." This young writer, who didn't live in the time he's writing about, just doesn't grasp the attitudes and mores of the people at the time. And I think that's always a problem for historians. The daily fears and small-talk of the people don't necessarily make it into the "resources" available to the later historian. The historians studies old newspapers, but the newspaper columnists, even the few letters that make it into the newspapers, don't reflect the mood of the ordinary people, and this mood, which is so vital to a full interpretation, can hardly be resurrected by the later historian who comes at the study from his own time.

    I'm not saying historians shouldn't study and write about history, just that we need to recognize the limitations on the historian and retain a critical sense. We must expect that further information will always revise what has been written, and that in the end it will never be quite right.
    • Dec 14 2011: Paul
      I agree with you that many times historians get wrapped up in "the big things" and forget that really the rest of the world was marching on. Big events are important because they often shape context for everyone.

      I think what you say about "a critical sense" is very important. All historians have to have that sense they they are just repeating what happened, but trying to make sense of it. Reading source material means you look at even what the actors say with a critical eye.
  • Dec 13 2011: Everyone interprets. If you leave out mentioning one thing, that thing, in 100 years maybe the most important thing in the world. History is always biased in that sense, but not to the point of making it irrelevant. You have to study the sources, weigh the ideas of others, look for patterns and actions that might give hints at explaining things, or at least helping people to understand them (I believe personally that "causes" in history are actually lost causes. Any one event always has multiple causes.) then write the best thing you can. History can be reliable if the writer follows these general guidelines and understands his own bias. I am not sure that anyone who writes, actually does so from an unbiased position.

    I do believe that worldview, prejudices, cultural patterns, mental models all affect an historian's task. But studying and researching history is such fun! There is nothing like digging through 20 sources, sifting through ideas, and coming up with your own conclusions. It is just fun.

    I used to a play a game with my students. What was the big event that happened on 9-12-1948. I would get all sorts of answers.