Subjectivity in Historical Essay Writing
Ideally, historical essay writing seeks to minimize subjectivity.
17:50 16 August 2021
Ideally, historical essay writing – although it inevitably has a subjective element in common with other disciplines that need to establish and interpret facts – seeks to minimize subjectivity. Two separate issues need to be addressed. The first is the facts: what happened, where, and when? The second is the interpretation: why did it happen?
Historians and historical writers favor primary sources, use secondary sources selectively, and look for both witting and unwitting testimony. The use of unwitting testimony is of great objective value since it is unlikely to have been contrived or exaggerated for political or social purposes, or personal reasons. According to the cheap essay writing service KingEssays, the inclusion of references and bibliography in their writing encourages thoroughness of research and enables others to confirm its authority for themselves.
Filling in the Gaps
The reputable historian gains nothing from distorting facts, but where our knowledge of a period or topic of historical significance is sketchy, it is tempting to fill in the gaps by using whatever material is available, and it is important to make clear just what the gaps are. This can be a carefully considered judgment, using whatever evidence is available, and taking into account human and social psychology, thus imparting a sense of continuity by making everything "hang together."
Our imagination helps us to explore possibilities. In his book, Mid-Victorian Britain, 1851-75, Geoffrey Best asks: "Was the nineteenth century to be called an "age of faith?" He concludes that, although church attendance is measurable, it does not necessarily indicate that a person loves God, but possibly that respectability is more likely to be the reason. Maybe it's fair to say that constructive use of the imagination, although it contains elements of subjectivity, is an essential feature of a historian's questioning mind.
Novels as Historical Sources
However, Best also uses quotations from literary sources. There is an extract describing the darker side of London from a Michael Sadleir novel, in which Best asserts that Sadleir's novels are "wonderfully accurate." This seems naive and unsatisfactory, since novelists are not expected to follow a historian's guidelines, and will use writing techniques to make fiction realistic. How does Best know these works are historically accurate?
Some of Best's allusions to Charles Dickens are purely commented upon events in his life, and quotations, followed by Best's opinion. One quotation seems to overstep the prescribed boundaries. It begins: "...drunk and utterly depraved and wicked" and concludes, "Intensely course in talk and always drunk." This is an emotive, literary description, allegedly describing the aristocracy of the time. The fact that it is known and acknowledged that this is a quotation does not, in my view, vindicate Best, despite his attempt to justify himself by the need to fill in gaps that are unspecified.
In reality, Best is inflicting upon his reader someone else's subjective view.
Problems of Interpretation
There will always be elements of subjectivity in history essay writing where there is any attempt at interpretation. This is the reason why historians often disagree. But subjectivity must be minimalized, by looking carefully at extracts or materials, avoiding sensationalism and emotive language.
Another problem with interpretation is that historians can be influenced by the values of his/her own time, culture, morals, and religious beliefs. Psychological traumas in his or her life could cause a bias, particularly when controversial issues arise. This does not devalue the guidelines for accuracy, or the sincere pursuit of truth on the part of historians. Without these guidelines and a sense of responsibility, the term "elements of subjectivity" would surely alter to "purely subjective."
Is an Element of Subjectivity Helpful?
Sometimes, it is possible that the historian's feelings of sympathy can increase our understanding. In an extract "Prostitution among Needlewomen (1849) by Henry Mayhew, (a primary source for Mayhew, since the original content, was taken from a newspaper of the time) and which appeared in the book, Culture and Society in Britain, 1850-1890, - a less compassionate journalist might have concluded from the text that needlewomen were immoral.
The featured girl's ability to describe her dilemma convincingly persuades Mayhew and his readers to reach a more profound judgment. Mayhew identifies with the needlewoman on her terms. History would be poorer without this element of subjectivity. It is valid, an important part of our humanity, provided we are prepared to recognize it and follow through seeking supporting evidence. The fact that Henry Mayhew traveled ten miles to "obtain the character of the young woman" shows his concern for accuracy.
We, as historians, can use Mayhew's account of a primary source and endeavor to compensate for his subjectivity.
The Search for Truth
We cannot always be sure what is true, nor can we be entirely sure what is untrue. We can only strive for truth and that is the purpose of history, which despite its failures and inconsistencies, gives us a sense of identity and wholeness. We must disseminate knowledge and abandon obsolete theories if we wish to grow as social and political human beings.
About the author: Jared Watney is a professional writer on kingessays.com. Besides, he is a passionate stories writer. In this case, he dreams of self-publishing his book. Moreover, Jared started drawing images for it by himself.