Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take, pp. 6 of 7

In this process, two things stand out clearly. The first is the importance of context. One should not look upon a historical source as an answer to an exam or research question. An understanding of the context of the sources (and the information therein) in question is important – what was the purpose behind the source? Who was it written for? Who was the author and what was his / her background, ideological leaning, life circumstances etc when the source was written? And has the source been tampered with? Is it a truncated excerpt from a document no longer extant? Is it part of an edited collection, thus suggesting perhaps editorial manipulation? These questions surrounding the source are important because they help the historian to decide on the reliability and veracity of the information therein.

Secondly, the connections of the source to the larger environment are also crucial. What was the political, social and economic milieu when the source was created? What was actually happening in the background that may have affected the author(s) of the source(s) that they found it worthwhile to record what they had written down.

All this is rather different from school history where sources are curated and arranged neatly in the textbooks, supported by a narrative and leading to particular conclusions or desired learning outcomes. That’s not to say this is inappropriate, though, for schoolchildren may not yet have the mental capacity nor maturity to deal with sources independently the way a historian might. But at the same time, this approach also creates a certain mindset in students that history can somehow be neatly categorized, and, because of the source reading components, one can most definitely find the answer in the sources provided. By fixating on getting students to read and analyze sources and to find the answers therein, without understanding the historiography, context and connections of the sources, it is often difficult to appreciate the essence of history. A study of colonial immigration to Singapore that is linked to the coolie system and the kangani system of recruitment, the need for labourers in Singapore and Malaya and how that was facilitated by the steam transportation, the Chinese secret societies and even by Singapore’s position as a key British port in Southeast Asia would be so much more richer for the narrative than one focusing on push and pull factors.

The essence of history – that it is an argument without ceasing – means that when historians write, they stand ready to be critiqued by their peers. History, as most historians view it, is not so much a recreation of the past as truth, but rather as the historian’s subjective interpretation of what happened in the past, based on his / her research which is built upon whatever sources that are extant and accessible. Rather than be seen as a herald of truth or of what really happened in the past, historians are at best refractors of historical events and the stories they can tell are stories drawn from information that people in the past felt were sufficiently important to record. A historian’s work is only as good as the sources he / she encounters.

So rather than to look upon history as the “truth” of the past, it may be a more nuanced approach to think of the historian’s work as contributing towards a huge canvas of the past that no one has oversight of. I often think of my work as part of a giant, unseen jigsaw puzzle and I am but a jigsaw puzzle enthusiast who is trying to put the pieces of puzzle I hold together in the most meaningful way possible. Where my jigsaw pieces link up with the puzzle pieces of another historian, the picture becomes clearer. Where the links and joints are not congruent, then it’s back to the drawing board to rethink the picture that was crafted. For that reason, a historian’s work is never done.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

Newsletter Subscription

Subscribe to our newsletter and stay up-to-date with new journal issues!