The Historian’s ‘Problem’

This post comes from postgraduate student Simon Carpenter who is currently undertaking an MA in History by Research.

Before embarking on my MA by research this Autumn, I had researched and had published several histories on mainly local subjects over the years. I was always well aware that no matter how many sources I investigated, the resulting picture of the past I was endeavouring to capture would only be partial. It was also clear to me that any narrative I subsequently produced would be through my lens of interpretation, and despite my best efforts at impartiality, would probably say more about me and my prejudices than anything else. These truths always troubled me, but not being a part of the academic history world I was completely unaware that these very same issues have long been debated among historians. Munslow in ‘Deconstructing History’ (1997) gives a very good example of this intended or unintended bias of historians through their choice of narrative wording. Of the situation of the 1960s Cold War he cites: ‘Saying that after President John F. Kennedy was provided with evidence of offensive Russian missiles in Cuba he then established a naval blockade is rather less causally deterministic than saying because of the evidence of offensive missiles he set up the blockade.’

One of the characters in my present research Is Ivor Gurney, the nationally celebrated First World War poet and classical music composer, and surely one of the most recorded, researched, debated and discussed figures in Gloucester’s history. But even with him, who existed in a world not so far removed from our own in time, how can I, or anyone else, really be sure what career ambitions he had, if any, as an ex-Gloucester Cathedral chorister living in the early years of the twentieth century? Because we can’t go back in time and get inside his head we can never be one hundred per cent sure. OK, so I also was a cathedral chorister, but 1970s Guildford is hardly comparable to Edwardian Gloucester.

So is history research really worth undertaking if it is so fraught with inherent difficulties in research and interpretation? I think so. I think my present researches will result in an improved understanding of the issues I am examining. But like all history narratives it will only produce a flawed image of the past and will need to be read in that light. History is not the same as the past; it is only a historian’s literary representation of a selected part of the past.

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