The Historical Method

and Documentary Research


1. You find a problem.

2. You form a hypothesis.

3. You conduct research.  For a suggested plan of how to do research, click here.  For more on sources, click here.  

Documentary Research: 
official public records (laws, administrative forms, speeches, judgments, treaties), press / journalist�s articles, eye-witness accounts, letter / diary, biography / autobiography / memoir, historical writing, literature / philosophy, inscriptions, etc.

A. External: Is it genuine? Is it what it says it is? 

Authentic to spurious.

When and where was it made? (Dating: terminus post quem...terminus ante quem),

How did it get from original recording to present? 
Tradition? (From original first recording to current document). Published vs. unpublished.
Storage and transmission? (From current document then to here and now). 

What is it made of? (Tests of materials by chemical analysis, carbon-dating).
Is script, handwriting appropriate to age of origin? (Paleography).
Is writing style, diction, word-choice appropriate to age of origin? 
(Formalities: proper date, title, salutation, subscription, sealing, anachronisms, etc.). 
(Chronology, diplomatics, sigillography, textual criticism).

Who is the author? (Identification, attribution).
What is the author's opportunity for making source? Is it his/her own eyewitness information or indirect? Is it consistent with his/her known character?
Any interpolations, emendations, insertions by others?

B. Internal: What is its meaning? How reliable is it? How is it significant?

Valuable to useless.

What is the document's ostensible or intended purpose? (Interpret for style, rhetoric, word-choice, allegory, satire: literal vs. real meaning). Is the audience popular, scholarly, political? Written with anger, apology, justification, argumentation, partisanship? 

How accurate is the author? (Depending on the author's competence, reliability, bias, prejudice, underlying assumptions, distance between event and record, its accuracy may range from plausible-probable-certain).

What is the document's content? (Analysis for connotation vs. denotation, consistency vs. self-contradictions, fact vs. opinion).

How does it compare with what else is known or written by the author and/or with other reliable sources? (Corroboration, logic, common sense).

What do modern scholars say about the source? (Current editions and historiography).

4. You make your argument and conclusions, usually in written form.  For more on writing for history, click here.  

5. You share your knowledge, usually through publication.

Link to the Research Plan


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Last Revision: 2013 January 8

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