Account, caricature and co. – 6 methods of the subject history simply explained

Reading time: 14 minutes

WORKING METHODS Methods for dealing with historical sources or statistics are important prerequisites for successfully completing the subject of history in the upper school. After all, methods are the basis for all the tasks in your final exams.

My history teacher has warned me that history in the upper school would be very different from what I had learnt before. Today I know what she meant: history is simply exhausting and there is hardly any other subject for which I have to invest so much of my free time. But apart from the extensive learning material, history is actually a thankful subject, because the assignments are mostly oriented towards a selection of basic methods.

In this article, I will explain 6 of the most important methods and show you how to

  1. interpret historical accounts and sources
  2. write your own historical account
  3. analyse statistics
  4. interpret caricatures/posters
  5. write a historical discussion
  6. write an essay with coherent content

1. Interpreting historical accounts/sources

Methode: historische Quelle auswerten
This also is a historical source.

Historical sources are all material evidence (e.g. buildings, paintings) as well as objects of everyday use, languages, etc., which provide us with historical knowledge. Written sources are further divided into narrative sources (e.g. chronicles, biographies) and documentary sources (such as documents, files, newspapers).

The publication of the results that historians draw from their work with historical sources usually takes the form of historical accounts. There they describe scientific findings as well as their own conclusions and evaluations. Scientific accounts are aimed at a professional audience and are written in historical jargon, while popular scientific accounts address a broad audience outside academic circles. Here, detailed references to literature are dispensed with and the historical contexts are presented in a rather abbreviated and easily understandable way.

The interpretation of sources and accounts follows the same method. But be careful: a historical account is not a source! Even though I always speak of sources in the following procedure, you should not confuse the terms in your essay.

A) Leading question

  • This question is part of all the methods listed below and may already be given in the assignment. If not, you have to set it up yourself, using either the main theme of the source at hand or the theme of the investigation of the source.

B) Formal analysis

  • Name title, author incl. his office/social position etc., type of text such as letter/speech/contract etc., topic, time and place of first publication.
  • To whom is the text addressed?
  • Was there a specific reason for the publication or is the author pursuing certain interests/intentions?

C) Content analysis

  • What are the main statements of the text? What arguments does the author use to justify his position (in an account)?
  • Which terms are of particular importance? What is the language of the text (factual, appealing, emotional, manipulative, …)?
  • What effect should the text have on the reader?

D) Historical context

Be more specific about the historical event/conflict/era to which the source refers. Clarify any historical terminology used in the text.

E) Judgement

  • Factual judgement: To which politicalideological point of view does the author belong? Is the text credible/technically correct/conclusive? Can you draw conclusions from other sources/historians? What problematisation results from the text?
  • Value judgement: How can the statements be answered today with regard to the leading question?

2. Writing a historical account

An important historian of Jewish history: Prof. Dr Dan Diner.

Another important method is to write an account yourself. If you are asked to do so, special emphasis is placed on highlighting chronological sequences and the validity of the statements. A statement is definitely substantiated if it is supported by several sources in agreement with each other. Partially substantiated information can only be found in individual sources or hinted at, so it is not considered as comprehensive. Information that can only be inferred from the context, but does not occur directly in sources, is called presumptive. Different assumptions are therefore also possible. There are no statements about unclear contents that can be substantiated by sources.

Here’s the method of procedure:

A) Preparation

The preparation essentially corresponds to points 1 and 3 of the preparation of a lecture. In history, however, the leading question (you will often find it in the assignment or in a current reference example) plays a special role. You use it as a guide for your account (like a red guideline). When you collect the information afterwards, be sure to check the source references.

B) Writing the presentation

Your introduction should contain the following four points:

  • State your leading question.
  • Say to which historical epoch the account refers.
  • Create suspense for the reader, for example, by using a reference to the present.
  • Present how your content is structured in the main part. This is usually included indirectly in your assignment.

Now write the main part:

  • Formulate coherent sentences in which you present the story as clearly as possible. Use technical terms and explain them briefly. Pay attention to chronological connections (what happened when?) and your sources of information (validity). Work towards answering your main question.

End your presentation with a rounded conclusion:

  • Answer your leading question.
  • Draw a bow to your introduction (e.g. to your reference to the present).

3. Evaluating statistics

method: evaluate statistics
Everyone should be able to evaluate statistics.

Statistics can be seen as a mixture of historical source and presentation, because they are based on reliable numerical material, but on the other hand, the author’s selection and processing of the information already leads to an interpretation.

Here’s the method of procedure:

A) Leading question

  • By what question is the study of statistics determined?

B) Formal analysis

  • Who is the author/client (additional information if necessary)?
  • When and where were the statistics published?
  • What is the topic of the statistic?
  • What form of presentation was chosen (table, quantity chart, bar chart …)?

C) Content analysis

  • To which time period does it refer? To what extent was the geographical area delimited?
  • How are the axes/columns/rows labelled? Which units were used?
  • How were which data related to each other?
  • Now describe the individual correlations. Where are there deflections? Where do regularities appear? Can you draw any comparisons?
  • What is the author’s intention?

D) Historical context

  • Explain in detail the historical background to which the statistics refer.

E) Judgement

  • What does the statistic not tell us? Where are manipulations?
  • With which other sources or statistics can a comparison be made?
  • How can the leading question be answered with the help of statistics?

4 Interpreting caricatures/posters

Bildergebnis für caricature
Caricatures usually appear funny, but
have a deeper background.

Caricatures are pictorial representations that deliberately ridicule reality and thus refer to social/political conditions. The contrast is intended to make the viewer think. Caricatures reflect subjective, contemporary attitudes. 

Posters work with “striking, pointed means of design” and should be easy to understand. Due to their appealing character, they give insight into the intentions and position of the client. Posters are used for public information and advertising.

Here’s the method of procedure:

A) Leading question

  • Which question determines the study of the caricature/poster?

B) Formal analysis

  • Creator/client (and important information about him/her)
  • Date and place of publication
  • Title and additional comments
  • theme/occasion/addressees
  • general intention

C) Content analysis

  • Description of the means of composition: depiction of figures (clothing, facial expressions, gestures), symbols, metaphors, colours, proportions, relationship between image and text, perspective, …
  • Interpretation: What do the means of design and the way they are presented tell us? What is the central message/what effect is to be achieved? Are there any questions left open?

D) Historical context

  • Describe the historical background to which the poster/caricature refers.

E) Judgement

  • Is the poster/caricature representative of its time?
  • Are other comparable sources known?
  • Assessment of historical appropriateness (Do historical facts speak against the image’s message?).
  • Draw conclusions from today’s perspective with regard to the guiding question.

5. Writing a historical discussion

Bildergebnis für discussion

Writing a historical discussion is the king of the methods listed here (as my current history teacher says). You analyse how a historian has analysed history in his or her account. In order to be methodical correctly, pay attention to the fact that historians, depending on their place of origin, their social position or the time in which they live, take certain views and positions, which you are now supposed to question.

The discussion follows the rough structure of analysing an account, but focuses more on the structure of the argument and the author’s intention. Below I have listed the methodical steps one by one.

A) Leading question

  • Find out what question the presentation is exploring – unless the leading question is already indirectly included in your assignment.

B) Formal analysis

  • Name title, author – if possible including his research focus/attitudes already shown etc., text type, central topic, time and place of first publication.
  • To whom is the text addressed?

C) Content analysis

  • Summarise the essential statements (main theses) in your own words. Then examine the arguments given. Avoid retelling and use the subjunctive (indirect speech) as much as possible. Only use the indicative for explanations of terms or processes.
  • Examine the language of the text (appellative, informative, emotional, factual, etc.).
  • Do you notice any specific technical terms used/people or events described?

D) Historical context

  • Now prepare your judgement by describing the exact historical background in detail. Also explain technical terms.

E) Judgement

  • Factual judgement: How is the leading question answered in the text?  Is the text logically structured or are there contradictions? Is information missing? What are the author’s own interests/intentions? What role does the time of origin of the account play and how would contemporaries from their time have described the event?
  • Value judgement: How can you answer the leading question from today’s point of view or how do you answer the central question today?

6. Writing a text with coherent content

Bildergebnis für essayschreiben

In your final exams, you will usually be expected to complete your tasks in a coherent essay and thus incorporate the methods mentioned above into an entire text.

Method of procedure for writing the essay:

Start with a kind of creative introduction (eg. introduction of a self-written essay). First, state your leading question and place the events in time. Create suspense through a current reference to the present, which relates to the topic of your essay. Now present the structure of your essay, either based on individual tasks or on the methodology of the assignment you have been given.

Now direct the reader of your essay to the source/caricature etc. given to you and thus to your actual work assignments; in the case of a presentation, this can be done, for example, by a sentence of facts (title, author, type of text, topic, time and place). When you work through your assignments, make sure that you put all the content into a coherent text. Find appropriate transitions between subtasks, use paragraphs to structure your text, etc.

At the end, you are usually expected to answer the leading question or to give a personal summary. Now you can also refer back to your introduction. For example, by re-emphasising the relevance of the issue for the present (present tense reference), you give your essay a certain historical framework that will please all your teachers (and hopefully you too when you get your essay back).

PS: If you still haven’t had enough of methods, here is the link to the method of perfect group work.

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