Why Do Historians Disagree?

Updated Friday 13th May 2005

Hindsight is, supposedly, perfect - and yet history is a deeply controversial subject. John Shaw examines why historians are prone to disagreements about the past

The reasons why historians disagree are many and varied, but the following represent some of them:

  • Questions of the selection and relevance of evidence
  • The method and the techniques of history
  • Ideology and political predisposition
  • The purpose for which history is studied in the first place
  • More recently, arguments about the validity of historical method

Selection and interpretation of evidence

At the level of primary research and evidence, historians often find different evidence on the same subject. In some areas of historical inquiry new information causes new conclusions to be drawn and that evidence as well as those conclusions is then contested.

One example is the debate over the extent and rate of economic growth in England during the industrial revolution. Here are four stages of this complex argument.

  1. Up until the 1970s and 1980s interpretations of the industrial revolution suggested a period of dramatic economic growth in the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries - in part based on data relating to the wages of craftsmen compiled during the 1950s and 1960s by Phelps-Brown and Hopkins.
  2. The estimates of growth rates were revised downwards by Deane and Cole, largely on the basis of alternative data based on new research into Gross Domestic Product as well as wages.
  3. In the mid-1980s a further and more radical downward estimate of growth figures that appeared to undermine the veracity of the term ‘industrial revolution’ was proposed by Crafts and Harley; a tendency pushed even further by Feinstein.
  4. This revision was soon challenged by historians like Berg and Hudson who questioned the data but also contested the approach to the data that Crafts and Harley had adopted. They argued that, amongst other things, the industrial revolution was a phenomenon of regional development, therefore hard to study through the national aggregate statistics used by earlier historians.
  5. There are a number of different sources of disagreement involved here. It is not simply that evidence based on new research superseded evidence based on old research. At any given point in the debate, new data redefines the issue (such as putting the focus on the region) and this often opens the possibility of re-interpreting the existing as well as the new data.

The context in which evidence is interpreted

These disagreements do not happen in a refined atmosphere of pure debate, far removed from the influences of the contemporary world. In a suggestive 1984 article entitled ‘The present and the past in the English industrial revolution’ published in the journal Past and Present David Cannadine demonstrated how historical accounts of the industrial revolution have been influenced by the political, social and economic climate of the time in which the historian was writing rather than that of the time being studied.

In most cases this involves a relationship between the way in which research interests and questions are formulated and the kinds of issues active in the surrounding environment. Crafts and Harley formulated their revision of rapid, large-scale industrial growth in the late eighteenth century against a backdrop of debates about de-industrialisation in the early to mid-1980s, for example.

The role of ideology and politics

Disagreements can also be more overtly ideological in character. They can be articulated as conscious or thinly-veiled political disagreements, or, as the unacknowledged (and sometimes consciously denied) manifestation of ideological predispositions.

At one level, political historians have political views as well an enduring interest in the intricacies of political history and it is hard to believe that there is no relationship between the two.

This does not make them incapable of making independent judgements, or in any way oblige them to subordinate their scholarly integrity to party or political interest. But it might influence the kinds of questions they ask, the themes and subjects which hold their attention and the philosophical and political modes of analysis they bring to bear on the problems they study.

The historian of nineteenth-century Tory politics Norman Gash displays brilliant and exhaustive empirical research, but throughout his work we catch repeated glimpses of sympathy for Robert Peel, the views he espoused, and his formative place in the history of Conservatism.

The great fault-line that defines many disagreements in modern historical writing runs along the division between the political right and left. In the period since the Second World War, fundamental and often irreconcilable disagreements persisted between historians who accepted one or more of the many variants on Marxist historicism and those who rejected this whole understanding of the nature of history.

To simplify hugely, the disputes were not simply local political disagreements but ran to the heart of the question of whether history was a process or not. Very crudely, classical Marxism carries within it a view that history has a particular trajectory or direction and will end at a finite point, even if we cannot have advance knowledge of when and precisely how this will come about. Many left wing historians of, for example, working-class political activity carried this assumption into the archive and interpreted evidence on this basis whilst others rejected it on principle. Given this, disagreement was inevitable.

The criticism of the possibility of historical knowledge

More recently, disputes turn around the special status that historians accord to the kinds of evidence they use and the status of the histories they write as a kind of privileged or true narrative of past events.

Emanating largely from literary theorists like Jacques Derrida, a considerable body of work over the last few decades has contributed towards a critique of both, arguing that historians merely study the relationship between texts that, while being generated in the past, exist purely in the present. Moreover, the narratives they produce are simply that: stories that are not essentially different from those produced by writers of historical novels.

The reactions of the historical profession to this have been various. Many historians have simply disregarded the debate and got on with their business. Others, such as Richard Evans in his In Defence of History have directly countered the arguments of what is known as (perhaps unhelpfully now) postmodernism and defended the status of historical writing.

Yet others have engaged with these trends and, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, tried to incorporate some new perspectives into their work. A positive summation of some of these trends can be found in Rethinking History by Keith Jenkins. This form of disagreement cuts to the very heart of what history is and what historians can legitimately claim to do. It is impossible to be conclusive about it because the arguments are still going on around us.

But there seems at the moment to be a retreat from the position of extreme doubt. Literary historians, taking a lead from Stephen Greenblatt, have argued for a new kind of 'literary historicism', while 'postmodernist' historians of popular politics such as Patrick Joyce, have called for a return to history.

Focus and aim

We should be very cautious, however, about assuming the real root of disagreement among historians lies in the clash of modern political ideologies or the philosophical and methodological disputes associated with postmodernism.

This will become clearer if we flip back two-and-a-half millennia to the men generally regarded as the first two historians. Writing in the fifth century BC, both Herodotus and Thucydides took the origins and course of war as their subject. In spite of this underlying similarity, the differences between them were profound.

The Histories of Herodotus attempt to explain the causes and course of the great war between the Greeks and the Persians but they do much more than this. His interests were vast, taking in what we would now call geography, natural history and anthropology as well as history.

He accounted for the customs and beliefs of Greeks and barbarians as well as their histories, he describes the floods of the Nile and the margins of the known world

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian Wars dealt with the war between Athens and Sparta that tore the Greek world apart. This is accounted for in a much more disciplined, methodical and constrained way. He stuck more conscientiously to the political and military issues related to the wars themselves and gave himself less licence to digress into other areas. Thucydides decided to do less but do it better.

On matters of evidence they were also at odds. Herodotus stretched his history back beyond living memory and famously reported hearsay as evidence. It is not altogether fair to thus accuse him of credulousness; he merely reports these things for his readers to make judgements for themselves. He does, however, on odd occasions ascribe historical causation to the will of the Gods.

Thucydides would have none of this. He stuck to the period of living memory where a principle of verification can be brought more easily to bear and he was more sceptical about what he was told. His views of the cause of events in general reflected a more systematic understanding of the structures of politics and human motivation. We are certainly left with a more satisfying account of why wars start. And the Gods have no part to play at all.

If in this first historical dispute we see a shift to greater disciplinary rigour, it seems to be at the cost of a breadth of vision, a concern with the diversity of human experience and a willingness to take real risks with evidence. Many of the differences between the new cultural history and traditional historical methods today are reflected in Thucydides’ response to the methods of Herodotus – breadth and imagination versus precision and rigour. You could tell a lot about a modern historian by asking how they position themselves in relation to the first two historians.

Taking it further

The Histories
Herodotus, Penguin

History of the Peloponnesian Wars
Thucydides, Hackett Publishing

In Defence of History
Richard Evans, Granta

The Industrial Revolution: Reading History
Pat Hudson, Hodder Arnold

Institute for Historial Research 'Reviews in history' - Historians reviewing each others' books, and responding to the reviews.

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