How to Achieve Objectivity in History
Over the years, objectivity has been a cause of major debate among historians. History is the study of significant past events, but the word ‘significant’ may mean different things to different historians. This has posed a major challenge to what objectivity is and is not.
It is in the light of the above, however, that historians have invested their knowledge on the subject of objectivity and sought a consensus and agreement on this concept, but historians have continued to insist on holding on to their standpoint as far as objectivity is concerned. In this article, we will show ways to achieve objectivity in history research writing.
What is objectivity in history research writing?
Many philosophers have defined objectivity in history. According to Mark Day, in his philosophy of history, objectivity is an epistemic standard, that the subject’s (the historians) account result from the object of inquiry alone. Objectivity demands that features of the subject or his society should not reflect in his account.
To Leopold Von Ranke, objectivity is describing the past as they happened. This means that a historian should base his conclusions on his fact, no more, no less. His personal opinions would not count according to this definition.
Objectivity could also mean impartiality. This means that the historian should be detached from the object of the study and should not allow his emotions to affect his interpretations and presentation. He should not also take sides in an issue. Comments and views of all parties involved should be considered before such a historian should come to any conclusion.
Objectivity does not require the historian to be free from principles, theories, and philosophies, which is, of course, impossible. Individuals possess intrinsic knowledge, emotions, as well as the influence of his environment. It is always impossible to have minute details concerning an event, even if one is a participant or a direct observer. Objectivity does not also mean that a historian should not draw his conclusions, which would be intellectually impossible. Though a historian is not a judge, he could draw out lessons from historical events. Therefore, to be historically objective is to be self-disciplined.
Factors that can inhibit historical objectivity
Certain factors have been seen to hinder the flow of objectivity. These factors are going to be discussed in this part of the article.
Subjectivity of man
One of the factors that can hinder objectivity is the nature of man. A man, by nature, is bound to be subjective. When writing on a certain subject, the historian is indirectly examining himself. A lot of his thinking depends on family, environment, socio-political backgrounds, etc. He thus finds it difficult to detach himself from nature or the community which he is observing.
Role of the historian
Another factor that can make history subjective is that the historian’s function is similar to that of the painter and not of the photographer. It is to discover and set forth and also to single out and stress that which is the nature of the thing and not necessarily to reproduce all the eyes have seen. Therefore history becomes subjective. The historian, in selecting his facts, regards certain facts as important and others unimportant. Even the most accurate of histories, if they do not completely misrepresent and exaggerate the value of things in order to make them more interesting to the ears, omit the basest and least notable. It is worthy to maintain that every form of inquiry is selective. The botanist cannot see every flower a\s of equal interest; therefore, a historian should be at liberty to refer to only those important facts to the issue he is writing on.
Another factor that can make history subjective is what could be called inappropriate titles. A historian that titles his work, ‘The History of England,’ is just doing so much to attract critics. There is no way a historian could write on everything about England; he could only present a fragmentary idea. This makes history irremediably subjective.
Bias and prejudices
Personal bias can also stand against the principles of objectivity. There are bound to be evidence of personal likes and dislikes in the argument of a historical piece and general choice of facts. Our likes and dislikes depend on our feelings.
In addition to the above, group prejudice is another factor that can hinder objectivity. The fact that a historian belongs to a certain group, race, religion, etc. will tilt his argument to favour people of his kind. An example can be cited when the Eurocentric historians wrote about African history; they did not see anything good about Africa’s history; they saw Africans as barbaric, uncivilized, illiterates, e. t. c. examples of these writers were Trevor Roper, A. P. Newton, Hume, e. t. c. In retaliation, Africanist historians overreacted, and nationalist history evolved, which wouldn’t stop at debunking the Eurocentric notion of African history, e.g., K. O. Dike, H. F. E. Smith, J. C. Anene, R. E. Bradbury, J. D. Omer Cooper, A. F. C. Ryder, e. t. c. Ibadan School of History and Dar-es-Salaam assumed the position of advocating the African perspective of history until it became overly exaggerated.
Conflicting theories of historical interpretations can also pose a problem of objectivity. This means the theory of relative importance of various kinds of causal factors in history. There are no generally accepted theories in history; a Marxist historian would tend to view every issue from an economic standpoint while a pluralist historian may always see every idea’s other side.
When a historian relies on one or two sources, he is bound to be subjective. He relies on just the materials and sources he has; that is why it is advised that historians should always cast their nets wide and not rely on a few sources, resulting in subjectivity. Oral tradition is well known to be a good source for reconstructing history, especially in pre-literate societies, but memory distortion, which is a major limitation, can affect the writing of a historian who would like to rely on just one source.
Factors that can enhance historical subjectivity
One of the factors that can help historians pursue objectivity is that a historian should view himself first as a historian before anything else. He must use his imagination and not suppress evidence.
Avoid premeditated notions
A historian should also avoid preconceived notions in his interpretations and should not jump into conclusion. The historian must also argue for both sides of any given issue, his style should be impersonal, and vocabularies should be clear and unambiguous.
Laws of interpretation
Historical objectivity can also be achieved when the historian follows the historical laws of interpretation. There should be no bias or prejudice in the selection of evidence. The facts should be depicted accurately from available evidence and not from other factors, which could be considered extraneous.
A historian should make it a point of duty to question witnesses like a judge would do, no matter what his secret heart’s desire may be. This is done to know the facts and knows the fact would mean arriving at the truth.
Corroborate sources for verification
On the issue of conflicting theories and evaluation, the historian should make use of the principles of corroboration, the point where the various sources agree.
From the above discussion, it is obvious that achieving objectivity when writing a history research paper is quite difficult but not impossible. Always remember that no matter how subjective your idea may prove to be, there are salient facts which are sacred, they contain issues that are true to reality, they are sacrosanct. Following the few tips we have mentioned above can help you reduce your work’s level of subjectivity and make your research paper more acceptable all around.
Ajetunmobi R. O. Historiography and Nature of History (Ikeja: OACE Publishing Co., 2004)
Walsh H. W. An Introduction to Philosophy of History, (London: Hutchinson and Co. (Publishers) Limited, 1951).