What is historical interpretation?

  • Historical interpretation is the process by which we describe, analyze, evaluate, and create an explanation of past events. We base our interpretation on primary [firsthand] and secondary [scholarly] historical sources. We analyze the evidence, contexts, points of view, and frames of reference. Yes, it is a complicated process, but historical thinking improves with practice. Interpretation might explore causality (what made something happen), processes (revolutions, economic depressions), conflicts (social class, race, gender), historical outcomes (effects of past events), or many more topics (creative thinking).
  • So what are primary sources in history? We get this definition of primary sources from the Society of American Archivists.
      "Material that contains firsthand accounts of events and that was created contemporaneous to those events or later recalled by an eyewitness. Primary sources emphasize the lack of intermediaries between the thing or events being studied and reports of those things or events based on the belief that firsthand accounts are more accurate. Examples of primary sources include letters and diaries; government, church, and business records; oral histories; photographs, motion pictures, and videos; maps and land records; and blueprints."
  • Historical Interpretation requires synthesizing (combining) a variety of evidence, primary and secondary (critical thinking). Historical thinking involves the ability to arrive at meaningful and persuasive understandings of the past by applying all the other historical thinking skills, by drawing appropriately on ideas from different fields of inquiry or disciplines and by creatively fusing disparate, relevant (and perhaps contradictory) evidence from primary sources and secondary works. Additionally, synthesis may involve applying insights about the past to other historical contexts or circumstances, including the present. These insights (secondary sources) may come from social science theories and perspectives and/or the writings of other historians (historiography).
    The above adapted by Prof. Slatta from materials developed by AP Central, Collegeboard.com.

    Another view of historical interpretation

    adapted from Richard Drew [UK]
  • Interpretations are in essence thoughtful efforts to represent and explain past events. Interpretations include 3 vital elements:
    1. Purposeful, thoughtful efforts--Interpretations are conscious reflections on the past, not simply irrational spur-of-the-moment opinions. Take time to apply logic and organization to your explanation of the past-not merely emote or react to the evidence.
    2. Representations--Interpretations are efforts to give an audience an image or description of the event/issue being focused on. We cannot recreate the past perfectly, but we can try to represent faithfully how events transpired by ground our version in the historical evidence.
    3. Past events--Interpretations are the reflections of those of us studying the past, not of the participants in those events. We refer to the collection representations of the past done by historians as historiography. The views of participants from the past constitute our primary sources or historical evidence. Without the process of reflection removed from the event by time the creator of the view is inevitably partially influenced by the impact the person/event had on them.
  • Put these 3 elements together, linking them to the historical evidence surrounding your topic. The result will be a defensible, intelligible historical interpretation.