Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


A fast-paced novel of conjecture and surprises



core definition

History is the document of 'the past' or the process of interpreting and documenting the past.

explanatory context

Introduction and General Definition

The term history has a number of meanings in common usage. At one level history simply means 'the past'. This may be the history of the world, of a nation, a community or personal history. It is a document of past experiences and happenings.


At a second level, history is an activity, it is the work that historians do, i.e. the process of writing history through an interpretation of past events.


The term historiography is often confused with the term history.


Types of history


There are a number of different ways of doing historical research. These are categorised in a number of ways by different commentators. Here they are categorised into the following three broad approaches: historism, historicism, and historicalism.


Historism sees history as essentially factual. Historicism and historicalism both accept that there is no self-evident history waiting to be 'picked up', but that history is an interpretive process, the product of the activity of the historian. Historicism sees the past as being reconstructed from the standpoint of the present. Historicalism argues that past and present mediate one another. [These are discussed in more detail under separate entries]


Other commentators have suggested alternative ways of categorising history. For example, history is divided into pseudo-political categories such as conservative, liberal (Whig) and radical (Marxist) history (see critical historicism)


Whig history, as for example in the work of Herbert Butterfield has been described as 'as a record of the past inscribed in terms of the present'. That is to say we interpret the past events, of which we have written records, or memories recorded on paper, not in the light of the concerns of that particular time but in terms of our present interests or concerns. In that case 'Whig history' is the same as historicism.

Mandelbaum, who argued that history should look for specific causes of events, distinguishes three types of history: sequential; explanatory; interpretive. Sequential goes through the story. Explanatory works back from an event to seek out the diverse (and otherwise unconnected) causes. Interpretive history provides the context for a given historical moment, i.e. tends to be a 'static picture'.


A similar kind of approach suggests that history may be descriptive, inferential or contextual. The first simply provides an account, the second draws inferences from events, and the third situates events and actions in a wider context.


Nietzsche proposed three types of history: antiquarianism, monumentalism and critical history. These were conceptualised to addrss the issue raised in the Genealogy of Morals, in which Nietzsche asked 'under what conditions did man devise these value judgments of good and evil? and what value do they themselves possess? Have they hitherto hindered or furthered human prosperity?.... We need a critique of moral values, the value of these values themselves must first be called in question—and for that there is needed a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances in which they grew, under which they evolved and changed... a knowledge of a kind that has never yet existed or even been desired'. Nietzsche specified the three types as follows.


Monumental history 'belongs above all to the man of deeds and power, to him who fights a great fight, who needs models, teachers, comforters and cannot find them among his contemporaries.... that which in the past was able to expand the concept 'man' and make it more beautiful must exist everlastingly.... That the great moments in the struggle of the human individual constitute a chain, that this chain unites mankind across the millenia like a range of human mountain peaks'.

Antiquarian history 'belongs in the second place to him who preserves and reveres—to him who looks back whence he has come, to where he came into being, with love and loyalty... By tending with care that which has existed from old, he wants to preserve for those who shall come into

Finally, the critical. 'If he is to live, man must possess and from time to time employ the strength to break up and dissolve a part of the past: he does this by bringing it before the tribunal, scrupulously examining it and finally condemning it; every past, however, is worthy to be condemned'


For Nietzsche: 'Each of the three species of history which exist belongs to a certain soil and a certain climate and only to that: in any other it grows into a devastating weed. If the man who wants to do something great has need of the past at all, he appropriates it by means of monumental history; he, on the other hand, who likes to persist in the familiar and revered of old, tends the past as an antiquarian historian; and only he who is oppressed by a present need, and who wants to throw of this burden at any cost, has need of critical history.'


Nietzsche's monumental history is much the same as Whig history or historicism. Within soiology, for example, Nisbet's concept of the 'Sociological Tradition' is a version of monumentalism. Similarly, Coser and his account of the 'Masters of Sociological Thought' is monumental; the masters serving as 'monuments' of the past.

analytical review

Marwick (undated) defines history as :

The bodies of knowledge about the past produced by historians, together with everything that is involved in the production, communication of, and teaching about that knowledge.

Siena College (undated) defines history and outlines what historians do:

History is the analysis and interpretation of the human past that enables us to study continuity and change over time.. It is an act of both investigation and imagination that seeks to explain how people have changed over time. Historians use all forms of evidence to examine, interpret, revisit, and reinterpret the past. These include not just written documents, but also oral communication and objects such as buildings, artifacts, photographs, and paintings. Historians are trained in the methods of discovering and evaluating these sources, and the challenging task of making historical sense out of them. Nevertheless, historians do not always agree on interpretations of the past. The debated differences help expand and enhance our understanding of human development.

Kean (2011), in revieiwing History at the Crossroads. Australians and the Past (Ashton and Hamilton, 2010) wrote:

As a device to acknowledge the value of different forms of historical research, training and presentation Ashton and Hamilton adopt a metaphorical device to define history as ‘a house with many rooms’. Different types of historian, they suggest, inhabit different rooms and some inhabit more than one and others take visits to different parts of the house. Some residents, notably academic historians, they argue,

'see themselves as occupying the principal room. Indeed, many from the academy insist that they are in possession of the house. But several have been visited by often unwanted guests in the form of politicians and ideologues, who seem hell bent on establishing a set of rules in parts of the house while exhibiting no sign of leaving' (p. 8).

This co-existence between ‘people’s history’ or history in the ‘everyday world’ is used to raise questions about the role of the professional historian and who owns the past. In particular, they write against the political background of the so-called History Wars, in which those historians who had challenged the idea of Australia as a terra nullius or one in which colonisation and destruction of the indigenous peoples was a history of enlightened progress were subject to vilification....


New World Encyclopedia contributors (2014):

History is a word of multiple meanings, all related to the past. When used as the name of a field of study, history traditionally refers to the study and interpretation of the written record of past human activity, people, societies, and civilizations leading up to the present day. More broadly, as explained in the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, "history in the wider sense is all that has happened, not merely all the phenomena of human life, but those of the natural world as well. It is everything that undergoes change; and as modern science has shown that there is nothing absolutely static, therefore, the whole universe, and every part of it, has its history." The term history comes from the Greek historia ... "an account of one's inquiries," and shares that etymology with the English word story.When considering history as an academic field of study, knowledge of history is often said to encompass both knowledge of past events and historical thinking skills. This includes analysis and interpretation of historical accounts (thinking about history), not just the learning of dates and names (knowing history). It involves asking whether alternative accounts might tell a different story, or whether the account contains any bias.

Traditionally, the study of history has been considered a part of the humanities, alongside a subject such as literature. However, in modern academia, history is increasingly classified as a social science, especially when chronology is the focus.

Events occurring before the introduction of the earliest known written and historical records, (which includes more than 99 percent of the time humans have existed) are described as prehistory, a period informed by the fields of paleontology and archaeology. In cultures where written records did not appear until more recent times, oral tradition is used, and even in cultures where written records are common, many historians supplement the written records with oral history. The history of, say, the Australian aborigines is almost all drawn from oral sources.

Thinkers differ as to whether the events of history are entirely arbitrary or whether history possesses an overall organizing theme, meaning, direction, or end. They also differ about the extent to which human beings individually or collectively can purposefully influence the direction of history. For people who sense their responsibility to history, the study of the past can disclose lessons for the present.


associated issues

Danto's (1965) analysis of the nature and purpose of history

Danto points to three enterprises:

1. History: an account of what happened in the past

2. Substantive philosophy of history, which is about the whole of history as opposed to a complete recounting of the past.

I.e. substantive philosophy of history theorises about history either descriptively or in an explanatory way.

Descriptive substantive philosophy of history shows a pattern amongst events that make up the past and projects the pattern into the future.

Explanatory substantive philosophy of history is descriptive substantive philosophy of history with a causal explanation.

E.G. Marxism - history of class struggle- descriptive element and the explanatory element lies in identifying certain causal forces underlying the descriptive pattern, such as economic forces.

3. Analytic philosophy of history is philosophy applied to special conceptual problems that arise out of history and substantive philosophy of history.

Danto draws an analogy with science:

Brahe's observations are synonymous with history.

Kepler's descriptive pattern is synonymous with descriptive substantive philosophy of history.

Newton's explanatory theory and attribution of causality is synonymous with explanatory substantive philosophy of history.

Thus. substantive philosophy of history becomes science of history.

However, history is more sophisticated than the above suggests and the scientific analogy is generous to substantive philosophy of history because it nowhere near matches even the descriptive patterning of e.g., Kepler. It fails to match up to the tenets of science. [Although Danto goes on to reveal the myth of scientific method].

The genre of history is sophisticated because it is highly developed and satisfies 'criteria applicable to that genre' (Danto, 1965, p. 5). It further, does not aim solely for 'testable' single sentences e.g., 'Raleigh was not an atheist', but develops and constructs a pattern of history. [Often on the basis of bitty and scant evidence: it is a detective exercise].

[One might argue that history is not aiming at Popperian type single statements but at least at a co-ordinated set (a programme in Lakatosian terms) which is pieced together. I would go further, of course, than Danto appears to go and say that it is interpretive and that historism is irrelevant. Indeed, history must at least be integral to substantive philosophy of history via interpretation of one sort or another. Danto emerges as somewhat ambivalent. While accepting some interpretive role of the historian still wants to retain the idea of history producing true accounts.]

Effectively Danto, in assessing the distinction between history and substantive philosophy of history is saying that they are not distinct realms, but must interact (except, in theory, for historist accounts, given that they may exist) but that substantive philosophy of history is more directed to future prediction than is ordinary history. He concludes that history and substantive philosophy of history attempt to interpret 'meaning' of events - this makes it different from science for which meaning construal 'would be grossly inappropriate' (Danto, 1965, p. 7).

(Danto refers to Marx and Engels in utopian historicist terms)

Concluding attacks on substantive philosophy of history;

I feel nevertheless that substantive philosophy of history is a misconceived activity, and rests upon a basic mistake. It is a mistake, I shall argue, to suppose that we can write the history of events before the events themselves have happened. The error might be represented like this: it is an attempt such philosophers are making to give temporally inappropriate descriptions to events, to describe events in a manner which they cannot be described at the time the attempt is made. I am appealing here to the familiar fact that we write the history of events after those events have happened. But of course, no such appeal constitutes an argument, and the proper philosophical question is why this fact holds, if indeed it holds at all. Scientists make unexceptional claims on the future, as do all of us in practical life. But it is the kindof claim on the future which philosophers of history make, or which their enterprise requires them to make, which I find suspect. Their claims concerning the past and the present are, I maintain, logically connected with their claims on the future, so that if the latter are illegitimate, the former are not compelling. Historians describe some past events with reference to other events which are future to them, but past to the historian, while philosophers of history describe certain past events with reference to other events which are future both to these events and to the historian himself. And I wish to maintain that we cannot enjoy a cognitive standpoint which makes such an activity feasible. The mode of organizing events which is essential to history does not, I shall argue, admit of projection into the future, and in this sense the structures in accordance with which these organisations are effected are not like scientific theories. And this is, in part, due to the fact that historical significance is connected with non-historical significance, and this latter is something which varies with variations in the interests of human beings. The stories historians tell must not be relative merely to their temporal location, but also to the non-historical interests they have as human beings. There is, then, if I am right, an unexpungeable factor of convention and of arbitrariness in historical description, and this makes it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to speak, as the substantive philosophy of history wishes to, of the story of the whole of history, or for that matter, the story of any set of events. Philosophy of history is an intellectual monster, a 'centaur', as Jacob Burkhardt once called it, (Burkhardt, J., 1943, Force and Freedom: Reflections on History. New York, Pantheon. p. 80) which is neither history nor science, though it resembles the one and makes claims for itself which only the other can make.

Historians appear to achieve what Danto 'minimally ascribes to them', viz. 'making true statements about things in their past', (Danto, 1965, p. 27) But are we justified in supposing this? Three objections:

1. The 'extreme logical positivist-type approach (and various offshoots) which demands that non-analytic statements be verified by experience otherwise they are meaningless’. In the event all historical statements are by definition not verifiable by direct experience (they have already taken place) and are therefore meaningless. If historical statements are meaningless there is no point or way of assessing their truth value.

2. Takes the form of 'is there any objective world outside our imagination', in particular how can we know the world has a history? It might have emerged preformed (including our memories etc.) five minutes ago. (Russell).

3. Historians have a worldview - i.e. the theory-laden nature of observation debate- which means that history is interpreted - so in what sense can one make absolutely true statements about the past.

Danto, maybe, misses the essential element of this objection by counterposing the specific temporal/social located statement of a historian with a generalised idea of an 'undistorted objective' statement.


However, Danto adopts this objection, especially as he refers it to interests of the historian, see quote above (Danto, 1965, pp .14–15).

Danto makes the point that scientists do not simply observe 'objective facts'. Indeed they need to go beyond 'fact' and are thus no different from historians who may bemoan the fact that they have no objective data of direct experience.

Danto also contends that science is not more conducive to 'neutrality' (because of its style and subject matter) than history (which seems to call for partisanship). Again a theory-laden nature of observation debate, backed up by historical evidence of debates in science.

Beard (1934) proposed a distinction between history and science in order to substantiate the claim of historical relativism. This amounted to two contrasts discussed by Danto.

'The first was his contrast between history and science. This turned out to be illegitimate. It was based upon a total misconception of science in that it suggested that science does not, while history does (to history's detriment), employ certain overarching schemes oforganization which go beyond what is given. We destroyed this contrast by pointing out that the employment of such organizational schemes was a generic feature of empirical knowledge. The second contrast was within history itself, a contrast between history which employs such schemes and history which does not. The question is whether, even, ideally, there can be history of the latter sort. I shall proceed to argue that this contrast too is bogus. To be sure, this might be said to follow from our results so far, so that no further argument here is required. Nevertheless, the matter demands some special analysis, and in carrying this out I shall be interested in making two points. First of all, there is an essential mistake, though an understandable one, in the model of historical activity implicit in Beard's language: that there is history-as-actuality, and here is history-as-record, and that it is the task of the historian to seek to reproduce (via history-as- thought) the former by means of the latter, though never quite succeeding. I shall try to show that we cannot succeed in this for rather different kinds of reasons than mere paucity of documentation, and I shall try to bring this out by trying to imagine what a perfect account would look like. Having seen why we cannot have a perfect account, we shall, I hope see why it is not even an ideal for history to achieve, and thatin the nature of the case historians are obliged to aim, not at a reproduction but at a kind of organization of the past. And this, finally, I shall try to exhibit as logically dependent upon topical interests which motivate historians, so that, if I am right, historical relativism will finally be vindicated. It will be vindicated in the sense that it is, in a general way, correct, and that we cannot conceive of history without organizing schemes apart from specific human interests.

My second point will be this. The difference between history and science is not that history does and science does not employ organizing schemes which go beyond what is given. Both do. The difference has to do with the kind of organizing schemes employed by each. History tells stories.' (Danto, 1965, pp. 110–11).

Danto appears, however, to accept that historians can make true statements about the past. He seems to concede on the point of the theory-laden nature of observation but retains 'true' within that framework - i.e. true as empirically validated statement (a concept pertinent to all sciences). In other words, he appears to accept a kind of paradigm framework which provides criteria for establishing 'true’: a framework that provides a means of assessing evidence.

Giving an account of the past, for Danto , also includes interpreting the past. [Such interpretation, it seems, can be true, in the sense of plausible evidence, like a law court analogy].


Danto on von Ranke

In his book, The Theory and Practice of History, Ranke (1881) maintained that his history was a report of 'precisely what happened' i.e. he did not intend to judge the past or to 'instruct the present for the benefit of future ages' (Danto, 1965, p. 131).

This has been taken to mean that either 'nothing of himself should be revealed in this wholly objective history' or 'everything should be mentioned'.

The latter, Danto argues, is an irrelevant attack on Ranke, as it is impossible and pointless to provide everything, history is interpretation and Ranke did not imply a 'complete account'. Danto argues that, in his statement, Ranke describes what historians ideally want to do, i.e. unbiased interpretation.

However this is a normative view, typical of positivistic approaches, but one that sets Ranke (and Danto if he accepts it) at loggerheads with hermeneutic interpretations.

The Problem of General Laws

This boils down to a view that the notion of general law (as in positivism) are established (atemporal) causal connections that are invariate. History, because of its unique character cannot possibly provide such conceptual connections. This view of explanation precludes history from science. For positivists, e.g., Hempel (1942), the nearest history can come to science is to provide explanations via 'explanation sketches', which do not establish general laws but presuppose them (and presuppose that such general laws will be filled out in due course) (Danto, 1965, p. 210).

[This ignores 'general laws' of the kind 'all history is the history of class conflict' - i.e. ontological presuppositions, which, as in the case of Marx, leads one to see the end of history, by definition, when class conflict ends].

related areas

See also





Researching the Real World Section

Critical Social Research section 1.6.8


Ashton, P. and Hamilton, P., 2010, History at the Crossroads. Australians and the Past, Sydney, Halstead Press.

Beard, C.,, 1934, 'Written history as an Act of Faith', American History Review, 39, p. 219.

Danto, A.C. 1965, Analytical Philosophy of History. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press.

Hempel, C.G., 1942, 'The function of general laws in history', Journal of Philosophy', 39

Hobsbawm, E., 1981, 'The contribution of history to social science', International Social Science Journal, 33, pp. 624–40.

Kean, H., Review of History at the Crossroads. Australians and the Past, available at, accessed 13 May 2013, still available 5 June 2019.

Marwick, A., undated, 'The Fundamentals of History', available at, accessed 13 May 2013, still available 5 June 2019.

New World Encyclopedia contributors, 2014, 'History', New World Encyclopedia, last updated 25 February 2014, available at: ht, accessed 21 May 2017, still available 5 June 2019.

Ranke, L. von, 1881, The Theory and Practice of History, W. Humboldt (Ed.), 1973, The European historiography series, Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill.

Siena College, undated, 'What is History & Why Study It?', available at, accessed 13 May 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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