How Historians do History: A Closer Look at Methodology

Studying history hasn’t always been a very scientific endeavor. Texts got copied and tales got told, people sang about military victories, told their children stories and used history as a tool to serve their political or religious agenda. Today however, history definitely is a science! To make that happen, historians make use of a few tools and techniques to study the past in a way that’s as objective as possible. We call these tools their methodology.


Just like with other science disciplines, a historical research paper is based on a historical research question. This question has a very clearly defined subject, time period and geographical scope. A few examples might be:

  • “How did the Industrial Revolution change the educational lives of French children between 1780-1800?”
  • “What role did women play in the early American punk scene?”
  • “How did members of the early Medieval clergy construct their public images through their writings?”
  • “What events or cultural shifts have prompted major changes in Japan’s immigration policies in the past 200 years?”

After we have found a question that we (and hopefully the people reading our paper) are interested in answering, the next step is to find books and articles that already exist on the subject (this is called the existing historiography).  By examining what’s already been written, you can:

  • avoid accidentally duplicating someone else’s work (perhaps the most important consideration before moving forward, plus it also really sucks to figure out that someone already came to the exact same conclusion using the same methodology after you’ve spent so much time writing your own)
  • find gaps in the existing historiography that can be filled (this leads to finding a new and interesting way to approach a topic, which can be especially difficult with topics that have received a lot of attention from previous scholars!)
  • narrow down the initial question enough to make the scope of the research more manageable (for instance, it’s more feasible to research “major trends in men’s fashion in Paris in the 1920s” than it is to research “fashion in Paris”, unless you wanna go ahead and get started on an encyclopedia)
  • start to identify potential primary source material that may be useful (often the same primary sources show up in the footnotes of several books, which makes those sources worth a look)

Once we have a handle on the information in books and articles and a jumping off point for primary source material, what is left is the fun and games!  And by “fun and games” we mean we’ll have to do things like track down that one letter some dude wrote back in 1923 that will definitely prove that top hats were out as high fashion in Paris in that year. Or maybe reading a book that seems promising only to realize that it’s not actually relevant to the question (no matter how interesting it was) and the subsequent search to try to find something else to fill in the blank we thought it would fill. We use historical source criticism to determine whether or not a source is reliable or whether it needs to be taken with a grain of salt (or a truckload of salt in some cases). We’ll talk more about source criticism in a next blog!

The next step after the primary source material has been found, is choosing to either use quantitative and qualitative methodologies, according to what suits the topic best and what angle we’d like to approach the research question from. The quantitative methodology is based on statistics, but it doesn’t have to be complicated if you don’t want it to be. It could be, for example, about counting the number of times women appear in a medieval city’s criminal records and comparing this number to that of men. It could also be about tracking the influence of certain crops and harvests on a city’s population, in which case there are more complicated statistics involved.

Qualitative methodologies, as you probably already guessed, are based on the content of the primary sources. Instead of looking at how many times a woman committed a crime, you could also be looking at what crime she committed, how city clerks wrote about the crime and maybe, with the help of different primary sources, try to figure out who she was and why she might have broken the law.  A combination of qualitative and quantitative methods – each of which has the potential to answer different parts of the question – could give you a more well-rounded understanding of these criminal activities in a medieval city.

The things you’ve read about up to this point are the historical methodologies historians use, but we don’t necessarily just stick to those when we’re writing about history. Sometimes we borrow methodologies from different science fields and choose to make our work interdisciplinary. There are absolutely no limits to the possible methodology combinations of a historian’s work (except, of course, you’ll have to be able to understand how to use a different science in your writing). Just to give you an idea, historians can borrow methodologies from archaeology, diplomatics, sociology, psychology, economics, climatology, etc. We can also adapt different existing methodologies from those fields and create our own unique researching strategy when there’s nothing out there that quite fits the bill. You know, because why follow the rules when you can make the rules, amiright?

So there you have it, a brief overview of how history gets done!  In future posts, we will come back to different aspects of this methodology, but this should be enough to help whet your appetite. Stay tuned!


Sources and further reading:

From Reliable Sources: An Introduction to Historical Methods (Howell & Prevenier, 2001)

What is Quantitative History?

Comparative-Historical Methods (Lange, 2012)


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