Historical research is a process of collecting and interpreting data about past events or ideas in order to find how they affected the present events and ideas. It studies possible reasons behind certain events to explain their influence on the events that followed. Historical research may not just help to figure out connections between past and present events, it can also provide the researchers with information regarding possible future events. In his book “Historical Research: A Guide” (2002), W.H.McDowell defines historical research as:
“Historical research represents a systematic enquiry into the past and an attempt to separate true from fictionalized accounts of historical events, based upon the examination of a wide range of relevant source material. This is an important task because history is the source of many of our ideas, beliefs and customs. A better understanding of the past places us in a more advantageous position to appreciate change in the present and to try and learn from past mistakes.”
Historical research mainly relies on first-hand information sources such as historical records, books, photographs, letters, evidence that belongs to the time the research focuses on. To put it simply, those sources are written by someone who was a participant or direct witness of the event. Secondary source materials - books and articles are written sometime after the events can also contribute to research to some extent. However, one should keep in mind that secondary sources of information can be more biased because they usually contain data that the authors wrote using multiple sources. It is worth mentioning that primary sources can also be biased, and because the research is looking for the answers in the past, there is no guarantee for information accuracy.
Researchers should start historical research without any impossible assumptions; they should not look for something that is not there. It is, in fact, a basic rule for all kinds of research, but it should be followed in particular in historical research. Steps in the historical research process are typically the same as other forms of research that start with identifying the issue, followed by defining data collection methods, data collection, and analysis and conclusion.
Advantages and limitations of historical research
Even though historical research has a number of limitations, it comes with benefits that other types of research cannot replicate.
- No other method provides us with an opportunity to find insights about past events.
- Identifying key elements of past negative events can play a significant role in preventing certain similar circumstances. In other words, it can teach a history lesson.
- It can result in an important discovery on a global scale.
- A researcher is not involved with the event.
- Sources may not be reliable and may represent misleading facts about the events.
- Not all past events can be studied because of the lack of evidence and source materials. It gets more challenging to have research if the events are from a more distant past.
- Finding a reason for certain events does not mean that the same reason can lead to similar events. Because it may have happened in a totally different circumstance in the past.
- The research may last longer, depending on the historical event and data availability.
- May require travels between various destinations.
- A researcher does not have control over the result.