Historiography: Empirical Approach

Empiricism remains one of the most influencial methods of doing history because it focuses on method. It is about accuracy with primary sources, close work that extracts the evidence and produces an account of the past as close to the evidence as possible. Many footnotes or references should be expected. The sources should be generated at the time the history work is focussing upon.
Sometimes the empiricist is called a reconstructionist and a follower of the correspondence theory of truth. This is because particularly opposers (e.g. Munslow, 2001) say that the historian tries to reproduce the past as if it exists in the documents and they cannot, therefore there is a misleading correspondence between what a historian does now and what people did in the period being researched. The empiricist responds in being less interested in theory and "propaganda" (Marwick, 2001a, 19) and more in simply doing good history according to rigorous standards.
It might seem that such an historian is little more than a transmitter of the primary document from observation. There is however interpretive work to be done, however, but the historian is arguably more of a craftsperson than an artist. The devil is in the detail, and there is no grand plan in the mind of the historian. It is brick by brick work. If an opinion is given, or a connection is made, it has to be justified in terms of the evidence. The sources have to support such an opinion. Of course within any obvious written testimony there may be an unwitting testimony (Marwick) for the historian to expose. It is almost like a court of law, where the historian needs to be sure without reasonable doubt. So jugment is to be avoided except as directed by the evidence. The historian is a judge rather than one of the barristers: the judge listens to everything, writes down what matters, listens to the transcript tapes where necessary, writes a close summary document and makes a justified view, if one can be made. Empiricist historians should refrain from too much judgment.
The process of building the evidence is inductive. This means working from the particular towards the general, held in by the particular. Everything is particular.
Of course the sources must be sound. The question must be asked about their provenance: who made them and how they still exist.
For this sort of history, knowledge is objective. The facts are there, out there independent of us, and we can get them and tell them. Knowledge is like in science, and either working hypotheses come later (perhaps for others) or are unnecessary. Just like the scientist, the historian should be able to stand aside from the present time and place in the pursuit of the recoverable.
There are certainly problems with this approach. The first is that the social winners produce the most documents and they do so partially. Then documents go missing or deteriorate over time. So bias kicks in. Often there is far too much material, in different locations and much is unknown, so threatening a partial view again. The historian might intend to be objective, but the source material is quite partial, and the historian may not be aware of personal bias which could well be rooted in collective ideology and mythic assumptions.
As for inductivism, many historians do have a viewpoint that in effect they test against the evidence, deductively. This is what Karl Popper suggested is done: the hypothesis should be tested to destruction using the evidence (the sources). Thomas Kuhn then said we work by narratives (like hypotheses) which help us understand, but after a time the bulk of facts strain the overall interpretation which gives way to a more convincing explanation. It is explanation which matters.
Historians also do make connections that are inferred (so do judges, but they say this). Making reasonable inference is one of the tasks of the historian. Some historians of course do go further, into some of the analytical tools and outlooks provided by those other perspectives. They do this for example if the sources are all of one social class commenting on another. Thus there are possibilities of a Marxist approach, sociology, gender correctives and techniques of poststructural deconstruction to give but some.
No historian can stand aside from his or her culture in the way the empiricist would like to see. Inevitably, the historian works from a kind of given cultural hindsight. The historian might submerge into a dramatic understanding of the past, but this might be very inferred and imaginary, based on one or two aspects. This brings history closer to the imaginative or recreative elements within narrative and ethnographic history.
All the perspectives exist as correctives to the problem of inherent bias and lack of correspondence of truth within the pure empirical route.
Empiricism still informs every type of historian that discipline is necessary with properly authenticated primary sources. Anyone who ignores good primary (or careful secondary) sources may as well be writing a novel. The problem is with the theory of knowledge and issues of power, imagination, interpretation and writing. The subjective and postmodern as issues are never far away and the historian is as important as the sources.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 33-43.

Marwick, A. (1989), The Nature of History, London: MacMillan, first published 1970.

Marwick, A. (2001a), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave, 1-20.

Marwick, A. (2001b), What is History? Book Review: Author's Response: Marwick, A. (2001), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/marwick2.html [Accessed September 19, 2003, 22:16]

Munslow, A. (2001), What is History? Book Review: Marwick, A. (2001), The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language, Palgrave [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: http://www.history.ac.uk/ihr/Focus/Whatishistory/munslow5.html [Accessed September 19, 2003, 22:04]