In our perennial quest to determine what history is, it doesn't take long before we (students of History at university) attempt to define what a historian is as well. Even if we are satisfied with our definitions of history - a study of the past, a collection of past events, an account of previous events based on evidence, an interpretation of sources and artefacts from past ages to form a narrative - we must ensure that our understanding of the historian is as accurate as our understanding of history.
The most popular way of explaining the concept of the historian, including his or her role, function and limitations, is to compare it with someone from another discipline or in another job. Historians cannot simply study the past, it seems: they must be archaeologists, digging up primary sources, relics and artefacts and examining them; they must be reporters, gathering information from a wide range of backgrounds and publications to make a concise statement about a past event; they must be scientists, not in the same vein as conventional scientists, who make conclusions by observing experiments under prepared conditions, but interested in compiling evidence to form a judgment; and they must be novelists, composing the story or stories of history in a clear and enjoyable enough style for the general public to digest.
Are historians storytellers? This was a question put to History students in a recent assessment. My own joint-honours degree meant that I did not have to take the course that would have challenged me with a similar question, but, hearing about it from single-honours students, I wanted to respond.
At first, I intended to criticize this description. I think that the description of storyteller is a demeaning one for a historian. Storytellers serve a different purpose to historians. Often a story is written in order to entertain an audience. Stories, by definition, are fictional and can be rewritten at the storyteller's whim. History, however, is unchanging. Historians do not have the power to rewrite history and must base their 'stories' on the unchangeable evidence. I preferred to describe historians as journalists of the past. Historians are expected to report the past accurately and clearly, using appropriate evidence and sources to support their accounts. They are duty-bound to report the past fairly, without bias or prejudice, and to acquire their knowledge through honest means.
However, I realised today that these kinds of inquiries don't actually resolve the question, what is a historian? People of other professions do things: scientists construct experiments and carry out scientific research, novelists and storytellers compose stories, journalists report the news and so on. We cannot answer the question, what is a historian? by saying that "a historian is a storyteller" or "a historian is a journalist." It may be that their methodologies bear similarities, but to leave our explanations of historians at simple comparisons with other people and professions is not enough.
To explain what constitutes a historian, I think that we must have a concrete understanding of what a historian does. Anyone who has an interest or a degree of expertise in history can be, or rather be called, a historian, but these kinds of historian may just be people who read a lot of books about history. If this is true, my grandmother is probably a historian. I think the historians who work in academic departments would not take kindly to being equated with a bookworm or a subscriber to History Today, in the same way as a zoologist would be offended if he were compared to a keen watcher of Planet Earth and the Discovery Channel. It's not necessarily about written qualification - you don't need to have a doctorate to be a historian - but there are historians who gather their knowledge by reading other historians' work, and there are historians who play an active role in the discipline, researching and writing up their findings. The former historians are not contributing to the field and, if the accounts they are reading are poor, they will become poor historians themselves. The historian that I'm conceiving, then, is a professional: he is someone who genuinely engages with the sources and scholarship in order to further our knowledge, rather than an armchair reader of a Boris Johnson book or a watcher of a Simon Schama documentary.
Historians investigate a period, theme or event of history. They acquire sources in order to understand the subject of their inquiry. As students know, practically anything can be a source: a book, a newspaper, a photograph, a diary, a letter, a speech, a debate, a cartoon, a radio programme, a musical composition, literature and poetry, a political treatise, a census, minutes from a meeting and so on. Good historians, I would argue, look at the sources themselves and make their own conclusions; bad historians read other historians' books and recycle their arguments to the point where they do no real research of their own.
Many historians are historians of an era or a movement: in my university, for instance, there is a historian specialising in early modern English history, including the Tudor regime. Some historians look at the histories of other disciplines such as science, mathematics and philosophy, or other activities such as sport, public speaking, racing or religion. A historian I met a few years ago, when I mistakenly thought I'd be clever enough to study at Oxford, had recently published a book on the history of sex.
So far in this blog post, historians research areas of history using a variety of sources, coming to a conclusion that is informed by the evidence. However, this is not yet a satisfactory answer to the question, what is a historian? Anyone can read about a particular area of history and make their own conclusion. I could go to the university library tomorrow and pick out a few books about medieval China, Edwardian drama or Hungarian socialism. According to the earlier, primitive account, reading a few books about Edwardian drama would make me a historian of that subject, yet I would likely be rejected if I were to apply for a job at the Department of History here. Therefore, historians' conclusions have to be more than a concise summary of the historical literature they have read; they have to advance something. They have to say something about their subject.
Was the Tudor era a stable period in politics? Was high society in the Georgian era dominated by a culture of extravagance? At what point during the Cold War were relations between the superpowers at their tensest? Who was the most influential figure in the development of the Russian Communist Party? Were the 1970s really as bad as our parents recall? Historians contemplate how our predecessors have perceived previous areas, or how they are currently perceived, and challenge them if they feel that the evidence should indicate something different. If there is something that is missing in a colleague's historical investigation, a historian may choose to pick up on it and make it the topic of their research. Who knows - it might swing the general understanding of the period entirely? History, I think, is intended to be a cumulative study: we build on the work of previous historians, correcting their mistakes and looking into areas that they had not considered.
There is, of course, a danger that a cumulative account revolves around presuming that previous historians always got it right and that we're simply furthering historical knowledge. Part of being a good academic, I think, is the willingness to go over old scholarship and critique it, removing bad ideas and bad investigations and revising them.
The requirement to advance an argument is perhaps one of the most terrifying aspects of studying history, because it requires the historian to go beyond simply gathering information and come to a clear judgment. Students feel that they must smash the consensus in each one of their essays. This is misleading, however: historians are not motivated to smash the consensus while they are researching. Few historians do what they do because they have a deep desire to overturn the historical consensus on any given matter.
Nonetheless, the need to come to a conclusion is still a scary thing, as a historian's conclusion is only as good as his evidence. It is easy for us to quash a conclusion by citing evidence that the historian did not use. For example, one historian might argue that a given decade was a time of a positive, cohesive society, citing promising responses to happiness surveys, high social mobility and rare moments of industrial action. Another historian might argue that the given decade was a terrible time for the society, citing high crime rates, political scandals and poor healthcare. A third historian might come along and synthesise the two historians' accounts to conclude that the decade was pretty average, but a fourth historian might reject one theory and advance the other - not only were crime rates high and healthcare poor, but average pay was low and the national economy's level of growth was sluggish.
The question that is then provoked concerns the purpose of historical inquiry. Historians seek an accurate depiction of the past, but how do we understand accuracy? Some would argue that accuracy concerns fine details: historians should seek to scrutinise elements of the past as much as possible so our understanding is correct. Others would argue that accuracy relates more to the wider picture: by turning the spotlight on new evidence, we can shape our understanding of the big picture accordingly. Putting it another way, do historians seek to improve our understanding of events by uncovering the finest details, or reshape our understanding of events by drawing attention to lesser-known elements?
Arguably, historians engage in both. It wouldn't take much effort to point to historians who do such a thing. Some historians believe that our understanding of a moment of history needs refinement; others believe that our recollection of history is told in the wrong way and needs editing.
Historians do not seek to simply learn about the past - anyone can do that with a visit to the library, or even a browse of Wikipedia. Historians seek to present the past as accurately as possible, adhering to the evidence as closely as possible. Doing this often involves revising old ideas, solving old problems and even contradicting existing scholarship. But we should avoid awarding the historian with someone else's responsibilities. The historian has his own duties and function.