Historical analysis is an integral component of the study of history. Specifically, it entails interpretation and understanding of various historical events, documents and processes. History is best understood as not a series of facts, but rather as a series of competing interpretive narratives. The goal of historical analysis is to develop a narrative about a specific topic based on the evidence at hand. Often this necessitates answering questions of ‘how’ or ‘why’ something happened the way it did. Good historical analysis provides at least tentative answers to questions such as how change occurs in society, how human intentions matter, and how ends are influenced by the means of carrying them out. As such, much historical analysis is inexorably tied to developing causal mechanisms due to their explanatory power. Multi-causal explanations that address a wide range of potential arguments are common based on the complexity of history. Frequently, multiple-causation explanations can include arguments about the importance of the individual, the influence of ideas and belief, and the role of chance and the irrational. Consequently, unlike much political science scholarship, historical analysis may not necessarily aim to generate generally applicable arguments that extend to other similar cases.
Historical analysis requires not only reviewing and interpreting sources, but also encompasses a wide range of analytical skills. Different perspectives must be addressed and appreciated and it is critical to understand the perspective of a source’s author in order to assess the source’s validity and reliability. Both primary sources, created during the time under study, and secondary, scholarly sources should be utilized in order to develop a fuller understanding of the subject matter. Historical analysis frequently requires grasping the scholarly debate on a certain subject and coming to personal conclusions and determinations based on one’s own reading of the materials at hand. From a methodological perspective, it is often useful to begin by formulating historical questions and then attempting to answer them through a thorough review of the sources at hand, recognizing both gaps in available information and both the context and perspective of the topic of analysis. Though much historical analysis is qualitative and based on inferences from written or material sources as well as images, it can also be quantitative, using data and statistics to draw broader conclusions.
Historical Analysis Theory:
- James Mahoney and Dietrich Rueschemeyer, Comparative Historical Analysis in the Social Sciences (Cambridge University Press, 2003).
- Historical Thinking Standards: Historical Analysis and Interpretation” UCLA National Center for History in the Schools (2005).
Examples of Historical Analysis:
- Kutty, V Raman. 2000. Historical Analysis of the Development of Health Care Facilities in Keral State, India. Health and Policy Planning 15 (1): 103-109.
Abstract: Kutty considers the history of health care in Keral State in the context of surrounding cultural and societal development as well as the varying role of the government relative to private entities. Her objective of this historical analysis is to glean policy lessons and proffer policy prescriptions with respect to future government action in the health care arena.
- LeBaron, Garn Jr. 1995. Mormon Fundamentalism and Violence: A Historical Analysis.
Abstract: LeBaron reviews the historical development of the Mormon faith in order to illustrate how Mormon fundamentalist doctrine could be construed in a violent manner. His historical analysis not only drives his central argument, but serves as his primary supporting evidence.
Contributor: Harrison Polans