During the M.A. in History I pursued at McMaster University back in 2006, I became aware that almost every professional historical publication had--indeed, had to have--a introductory chapter on methodology. It seems historians either forgot, or never knew how, to think for themselves. Methodologies are drawn from philosophy (Habermas, for example), sociology (Weber, obviously), economic theory, and so on.
There's nothing inherently wrong with the practice. Different methodologies can be used to illuminate different features of the primary materials. Depending on what you are interested in working on, different meanings can be worked up, or extracted, from texts. This is very different from saying, mind you, that meaning is created and read back into, or imposed on, the evidence. Post-structuralist theories getting at class, gender, or race, for example, get at something that is actually there; but they lift these particular concerns out of their place in an thickly overlayed network of other human concerns. In order to make the particular point, things have to be slightly skewed. It's an occupational hazard; but that doesn't mean that the study of the human past is entirely discredited. Merely that one has to proceed with caution.
Even at the level of a general survey, the tendency was always to focus on a discipline. Eric Hobsbawm's series covering the long nineteenth century (Age of Revolution, Age of Capital, Age of Empire) and the short twentieth century (Age of Extremes) might be characterized as an economist's history. The unintentional companion volumes of the Sources of the Self and A Secular Age by Charles Taylor easily qualifies as a philosopher's history; and maybe also a psychologist's history. The five-part series on The Christian Tradition by Jaroslav Pelikan is explicitly a theologian's history. More examples could be offered, but I think the point is made.
Historians always seem to be doing someone else's work, supplying much longer term information to people who otherwise spend their time studying the present shape of things. There's something essentially interdisciplinary about the study of history; and this takes place as a matter of course, without universities injecting large amounts of cash into so-called interdisciplinary programs.
Very generally, we may say there are two kinds of historian. The first kind, the overwhelming majority, does their work in the clear light of other academic disciplines. This kind of historian is interested, for example, in economic relationships, and not religious outlooks, or only with religious practices insofar as these influence economic relationships. And vice versa for the historian of religion. They tend to conceive of the study of the human past as a 'scientific' discipline and present their findings as if they were the last word on the matter. This is my methodology, they say, and this is where my evidence is coming from; and if we put the two together, these are my conclusions. Everything is stated in very provisional terms; the work is a scholarly offering, offered up for the diligent consideration of others. This is almost the same manner, in fact, a paper describing the chemical composition of some compound or quantum entanglement at the edge of black holes might be drawn up.
The second kind of historian does their work cognizant of the work of academics in other disciplines, but preserves something distinctive for the historian. They like to offer reflections on the reconstructive nature of a historian's task, as well as the inherent difficulties therein. These are historians' historians, among whom I count Susan Wise Bauer, who says,
Anthropologists can speculate about human behavior; archaeologists, about patterns of settlement; philosophers and theologians, about the motivations of "humanity" as an undifferentiated mass. But the historian's task is different: to look for particular human lives that give flesh and spirit to abstract assertions about human behavior...
So rather than beginning with cave painting, or anonymous groups of nomads wandering across the plains, I have chosen to begin this history at the point where particular human lives and audible human voices emerge from the indistinct crowds of prehistory. (Ancient World xxv)I do not think it surprising my example of a historian's historian is not a trained historian, but a professor of literature. Most historians present themselves as turning a key, granting their reader some vantage or other on some portion of the human past. Someone who reads books as books, as tangible material objects, on the other hand, understands that they open up, not onto a flat objective view of the past, but into the world of another person, another mind, filled with its own concerns, predilections, feelings, etc.
This takes a certain mental attunement to seeing things in front of your face, like books, as communications, and not objects in themselves. It also requires that a mental leap be made, so far as one's imagination allows, out of the bodily location one presently occupies. Taking this initial step is not as difficult as it sounds. Our bodies may be situated in place and time; but our minds are free to wander.
The reason why steps like these must be taken is quite simple. The human past, which the historian describes and narrates, is not in front of our eyes like the textual and other material evidences of the human past are right in front of our eyes. We all are able to discriminate between past and present, of course, but it's the business of a historian's historian to hold the difference clearly in mind. The danger, if we don't, is that we end up thinking thoughts on behalf of other people, not just half a world away, but several centuries, or even millenia, away. The danger is that we suppose ourselves able to get in the heads of other people, when quite clearly all we have are a few words, on a few scraps of paper, provided by eye-witnesses or perhaps written down years later. And the danger is especially that we judge people prematurely, without ever attempting to walk a mile in their shoes.
Recognition of the difference demands a certain circumspection, an ability to say the person or people responsible for creating the thing in front of me are like me and at the same time very unlike me. How the two might be separated out is never entirely clear.
Though it may sound disingenuous on my part, there is a sense in which an ancient Egyptian is very much like you and I in exactly the same way they are also very much unlike you and I. They too are, as they say, only human; the difference being that they have traveled the road of all flesh to its end, while we have as yet some unknown distance to go.