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Historian

From Academic Kids

This article refers to those who study the subject of history. For medical uses of the term historian refer to Historian (medical).

An historian is a person who studies history. The term is often reserved for people whose work is recognized in academia, particularly those who have acquired graduate degrees in the discipline. The process of historical analysis is a difficult one, involving investigation and analysis of competing ideas, facts, and purported facts to create coherent narratives that explain "what happened" and "why or how it happened." Modern historical analysis usually draws upon most of the other social sciences, including economics, sociology, politics, and even psychology, philosophy and linguistics, in order to ensure these narratives are thorough, balanced and holistic. The related field in which methods of historical analysis are studied is called historiography.

Contents

The changing nature of the historian

Pre-1900

Although we regularly refer to Ancient writers such as Herodotus, called "The father of History" or Tacitus (c. 56c. 117) as "historians", their works openly mixed oratory, poetry and literature in a way which is incompatible with the contemporary concern for impartiality and objectivity.

The job of the historian has been a significant one for thousands of years to the extent that the definition of history has frequently been simply recorded history. Many of the historians of the past have been called upon to write histories either to furnish a king or a ruling class with a lineage thereby offering it legitimacy or to give a people a cultural heritage and sense of identity. This meant that the works of these historians openly mixed oratory, poetry and literature in a way which is incompatible with the contemporary concern for impartiality and objectivity.

Herodotus, 5th century BC, who is known as "The father of History" for being one of the earliest nameable historians of whose work survive was certainly not free from the faults of early history. He had a particular liking for the tales of the strange and unusual of dubious veracity and in constructing a gripping story despite the available facts. Despite this The Histories of Herodotus display some of the techniques of more modern historians. Interviews with witnesses or more distantly connected oral histories, studying of sources and the weighing of differing accounts with Herodotus pronouncing on the one he regarded as more likely are all features of his work.

The work of Herodotus covered what was then the entire known world, or at least the part regarded as worthy of study, the peoples surrounding the Mediterranean. At about the same time Thucydides pioneered a different form of history much closer to reportage. In his work, History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides wrote about a single long conflict with its origins and results, but as it was mainly within living memory and Thucydides himself was alive at the time of many of the events there was less room for myths and tall tales.

The closely allied job of the chronicler often produces similar work as the historian and are often considered together. The chronicler usually records events as they happen so they engage in less delving back into history and there is often less historical analysis in their work. Many chronicles have short early histories attached so that they will start from the beginning of the world and these prefaces are usually of much less historical interest.

Much of the groundwork in creating the modern figure of the historian was done by Montesquieu (16891755). His wide-ranging Spirit of the Laws (1748) spanned legal, geographical, cultural, economic, political and philosophical study, and this was hugely influential in forging the fundamentally inter-disciplinary historian.

Despite the many flaws in the work of earlier historians their writings are still read and studied. An important part of the job of many modern historians is the verification or dismissal of the claims in their predecessors' accounts with methods such as archeology.

Twentieth century developments

The modern role of the historian (and the disciple of history) is essentially a fairly recent construction. However, even by the turn of the twentieth century, Western history remained notoriously biased towards the so-called "Great Men" school of history - covering wars, diplomacy, large ideas/science, and politics but with an inherent bias towards the study of a small number of powerful actors, almost always drawn from the social elites, and almost always male.

Since the 1960s, history as an academic discipline has undergone several revolutions, in which the number of areas commonly recognized as worthy of historical analysis in academia has increased enormously. Many previously neglected topics became the subject of academic study, such as the history of popular culture, mass culture, and the lives of ordinary people. Historians have also begun to investigate histories of ideas surrounding various categories of people, such as women (including an entire branch of feminist history, sometimes called Herstory), racial minorities, or disabled people (for instance, a historian might study the construction of ideas about disabled people, and the results thereof, perhaps in a specific historical setting, such as Nazi Germany).

There was also a pronounced shift away from crude Whiggish analyses, in favor of a more critical and precise perspective. For example, a common myth is that Thomas Edison invented the electric light bulb; a traditional American history might highlight Edison's story at the expense of all others. In contrast, a modern history of Edison mentions all his predecessors and competitors, in order to show that Edison's real accomplishment was in finding a long-lasting filament, and in engineering the successful commercial deployment of the technology.

Similarly, the contemporary historian is now far less concerned with recording "what happened", instead focussing on the search for insight into historical causation, or "why it happened (how and when it did)".

Like all linguistically-related fields of academia, history was also hugely influenced by postmodernism and the "linguistic turn".

Today, many historians are employed at universities and other facilities for post-secondary education. In addition, it is common, although not required, for many historians to have a PhD in their chosen area of study. When doing their thesis for this degree, many turn it into their first book, since continual publishing is essential for advancement in educative professions.

There is currently a great deal of controversy among academic historians regarding the possibility and desirability of neutrality in historical scholarship.

See also

de:Historiker fr:Historien ja:歴史家 nl:Historicus ru:Историк simple:Historian sl:zgodovinar sv:Historiker uk:Історик zh:历史学家

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