Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.
The Field of History in the 19th and 20th Century
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the field of history underwent a number of fundamental changes that forever altered the ways in which scholars interpreted and viewed the past.
From the science-based era of Leopold von Ranke to the expansion of social history and its incorporation of a “history from below,” the radical shifts encountered over the last two centuries have served to both broaden and legitimize the existing modes of inquiry available to historians today (Sharpe, 25). This article seeks to explore the rise of these new methodologies, why they occurred, and perhaps most importantly, what were the chief contributions of these new shifts in the academic world?
During the late 19th Century, the field of history truly reflected the dominant themes of its time. Elements of the Enlightenment era served to influence both research procedures as well as methodologies for many university disciplines – including history. Whereas prior historians relied heavily upon personal memoirs and oral traditions for the basis of their work, however, the 19th Century embodied a dramatic shift in the historical field that promoted both a scientific and empirically-based set of rules and laws to govern research (Green and Troup, 2).
These new methods and rules —established, primarily, by the German historian, Leopold von Ranke—equated the field of history to a scientific discipline in which scholars made use of empirical observation to arrive at truthful and accurate interpretations of the past. Empiricists, as they were known, believed that the past was “both observable and verifiable,” and that a scientific analysis allowed for objective-based research to be conducted that was free of both bias and partiality (Green and Troup, 3). Through “rigorous examination” of sources, “impartial research…and an inductive method of reasoning,” the empiricist school of thought promulgated the idea that “truth…rests upon its correspondence to the facts,” thus, limiting the power of opinion over historical renditions of the past (Green and Troup, 3).
The effects of this shift are still seen today, as historians attempt to maintain a strong sense of objectivity and impartiality in their interpretations of prior events. Without the inclusion of science into the historical field, studies would be wholly dependent upon the opinions and whims of scholars since no structure would exist to their overall methodology and approach towards research. In this sense, the contributions of Ranke and the empiricist school of thought served to shift the field of history in both an important and dramatic way.
While historians of the late 19th Century focused their energy toward the discovery of absolute truths, not all aspects of historical research during this era were positive. More often than not, historians of the nineteenth century viewed the world in an elite-driven, Eurocentric, and male-focused manner that relegated the contributions of ordinary individuals and minority groups to the periphery of historical inquiry.
Consequently, historical research of this time often portrayed white males and political elites as the primary conduits of historical change. This belief reflected a teleological approach to world affairs since historians from this era believed that history followed a linear progression towards a greater good; more specifically, scholars posited that history continually advanced towards a common endpoint for all. As a result of constructing interpretations that reflected this ideology, ordinary members of society (as well as minority groups) were largely ignored by historians since their contributions to society were seen as marginal, at best. In their eyes, the true forces behind historical progression were kings, statesmen, and military leaders. As a result of this belief, historians of the late nineteenth century often limited their choice of sources to archival research that dealt primarily with government records and documents, all while disregarding the personal effects of lesser-known individuals. As a result, a complete and truthful rendition of the past remained an unattainable reality for many decades.
Whereas historical interpretations of the late 19th Century offered a narrow-minded view of the past that focused primarily on political elites and warfare as the defining elements of society, the 20th Century ushered in a new approach that sought to replace this traditional form of inquiry with methodologies that included the lower echelons of society. The result of this new focus was the creation of a “history from below”—as coined originally by Edward Thompson—in which lesser-known individuals were brought to the forefront of history and were given a proper place alongside elites as important historical figures (Sharpe, 25).
In the early and mid-twentieth century, revisionist historians such as Charles Beard and E.H. Carr sought to challenge old views by proposing a new approach to the study of history. These historians countered earlier methodologies by arguing that absolute truths were “unattainable, and…[that] all statements about history are connected or relative to the position of those who make them” (Green and Troup, 7). By issuing this direct challenge, revisionist historians unknowingly set the stage for a dramatic shift towards “explicitly political and ideologically motivated” histories, as scholars began to overwhelmingly turn towards Marxism, gender, and race as a new basis for inquiry (Donnelly and Norton, 151). This shift, coupled with an expanded interest in the social sciences, resulted in radical new perspectives and approaches that focused predominantly on the creation of a "bottom-up history," in which lesser-known individuals and groups were given priority over the traditional elite-driven narratives of the past.
One of these shifts in the historical field involved post-colonial scholars and their reimagining of imperialism in the 19th Century. Whereas Eurocentric depictions of the past focused heavily upon the positive contributions of Western societies to the world at large, the shift towards a “history from below” quickly dismantled these beliefs as historians gave a newfound “voice” to colonized groups that suffered under imperial oppression (Sharpe, 25).
By focusing on the exploitative nature of the West in regard to indigenous peoples of the world, this new wave of scholars succeeded in demonstrating the negative aspects of imperial power; an aspect largely unheard of in decades prior. Marxist scholars, in a similar manner, also shifted their focus to forgotten individuals as they began to highlight the oppression of elites over working-class laborers of the world and aptly demonstrated the exploitative power of the bourgeoisie over the poor.
Interestingly enough, a bottom-up analysis was not strictly limited to Marxist and post-colonial scholars. Similar methods were also employed by women and gender historians who sought to break away from the traditional focus on white males with a broader analysis that accounted for the contributions and influence of women. This shift in focus demonstrated that not only were women active outside the domain of the private sphere but that their roles had left deep and profound marks on history that were largely overlooked by scholars years prior.
With the advent of the Civil Rights and Feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s, advances in the history of gender, as well as the importance of minority groups (such as blacks, Latinos, and immigrants), came to dominate historical scholarship. Thus, the inclusion of a “history from below” proved to be a decisive turning point for historians in that it allowed for a more complete and thorough retelling of history that had not existed in decades prior (Sharpe, 25). This shift is still relevant and important for modern historians today as scholars continue to expand their research into groups once marginalized by the historical profession.
History From Below
"The result of this new focus was the creation of a “history from below”—as coined originally by Edward Thompson—in which lesser-known individuals were brought to the forefront of history and were given a proper place alongside elites as important historical figures"
In closing, the shifts toward both objective scholarship as well as the inclusion of marginalized social groups have greatly benefited the history field. These transformations have allowed for not only greater truth and impartiality within historiographical research, but have also allowed for tremendous growth in the number (and variety) of individuals studied by historians.
This burgeoning of historical methodologies is particularly important as it gives both a sense of status and history to social groups once relegated to the peripheries of historical research. Forgetting and ignoring their stories would allow for only a partial (one-sided) history to exist; a history that would, ultimately, obscure absolute truth and reality.
Donnelly, Mark and Claire Norton. Doing History. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Green, Anna and Kathleen Troup. The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory. New York: New York University Press, 1999.
Sharpe, Jim. “History From Below” in New Perspectives on Historical Writing, edited by Peter Burke. University Park: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
"Leopold von Ranke." Encyclopædia Britannica. Accessed July 31, 2017. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leopold-von-Ranke
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Larry Slawson
Glen Rix from UK on August 25, 2017:
A very interesting and well-written analysis of the theories behind modern historical research methodology. My interest veers towards social history - much can be gleaned about earlier centuries from the prime unwitting evidence found in literary works by writers such as Shakespeare and Jane Austen.
Jo Miller from Tennessee on August 07, 2017:
Very interesting. I like reading history by scholars, but one of my favorite types of writing are personal journals of people who lived the history.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on July 31, 2017:
I worry about one are here and it ties in with determine a general concept from a specific concept. This especially along the lines of eye witnesses as being the worst proof possible. We see this in war. One foxhole account does very little in historical validation of reporting on a war in general. I hardly think of first hand then hearsay accounts as being empirical.