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  • Print publication year: 2013
  • Online publication date: June 2018

15 - Historical research

from Part 2 - Research methods


History is a meaningful record, evaluation, systematic analysis and synthesis of evidence concerning human achievement. It is not a list of chronological events like we remember at school. It is an integrated account of the relationship between persons, events, times and places.

(Burns, 2000, 481)


Historical research plays a vital role in the development of theory and practice; it has relevance as a research method in all subject disciplines and although very different from the other research methods discussed in this section, it is still a ‘scientific’ method, which must conform to standards of practice. The most notable difference between historical research and all other methods available to the researcher is the nature of the ‘evidence’ used to generate theory or test a hypothesis. Historical research relies on data that already exists in one form or another, unlike other methods, which are designed to create or generate data as a part of the research process. This is not to say that historical research cannot create or generate some data but this is likely to constitute a relatively small part of the dataset to be analysed and will depend on the research topic. History, after all, starts with the minute that has just passed; the sentence you have just read has now become a part of your history, however recent. Historical research is essentially qualitative because of the interpretation that is inevitably involved; there are uses for quantifiable data in some investigations but because this approach depends so much on interpretation, by definition it becomes qualitative. Most historical studies deal with natural behaviour in real-life situations and the interpretations the researcher brings to the evidence. Quantifying evidence can be provided where suitable data exists but it can be difficult to justify quantification of anything other than tangible evidence, such as reported statistics or records.

This research method is concerned with reconstructing the past, identifying pieces of a puzzle and putting them together to provide insight and understanding of a situation, event or process. In the field of information and communication studies historical research can be used to investigate processes, behaviour, individual events or patterns of use.