A Researcher's Mindset



13 January 2014

As history researchers, we do not speculate. We test. We critically observe and carefully record. Then we weigh the accumulated evidence, analyzing the individual parts as well as the whole, without favoring any theory. Bias, ego, ideology, patronage, prejudice, pride, or shame cannot shape our decisions as we appraise our evidence. To do so is to warp reality and deny ourselves the understanding of the past that is, after all, the reason for our labor.

As careful researchers, we cannot apply an easy, generic label—reliable or unreliable—to any document, much less any type of document. We cannot assign numerical values to pieces of information and add up a score to decide whether we should believe something we have found. We cannot base conclusions on the number of times a source or fact is cited; a dubious factoid repeated over and again cannot outweigh a reality correctly reported by a single, impeccable source.

Research is much more than an accumulation of data. It is a process that requires continual comparison of new information against the old. At every step of that process, we appraise the credibility of each detail in each document. We apply every conceivable test for authenticity, contemporaneousness, and credibility of informants. As we acquire historical and social perspective of a place and time—and gain experience in evaluating its material legacies—evidence analysis becomes a fascinating part of the research process. —EE 1.1