History (General)

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What questions do historians ask to help them understand the past?

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Historians ask many questions when trying to understand the past. One set of questions deal with the who, what, and where surrounding an event. These are the basic questions dealing with who was involved, where the event occurred, and what was the focus of the event. These are similar questions that a news reporter would ask when reporting on something that occurred.

The next question would deal with why the event happened. A historian would want to know what caused the event to occur. Asking why an event occurred also gives a historian an understanding of the issues or factors leading up to the event that took place. For example, a historian would want to know what events led to the start of the American Revolutionary War.

Another question a historian would ask would deal with the effects of the event. A historian would want to know what happened as a result of the event occurring. For example, a historian would want to know what happened as a result of the end of the Civil War in the United States.

In each instance, a historian must be sure that the information that is gathered and the conclusions that are made are based on accurate, reliable, and unbiased sources.

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Historians ask many kinds of questions that help them try to understand the past.  Let us look at three main types of questions that they ask.

First, historians ask what happened in the past.  In other words, they are asking about basic facts.  They need to know things like what empire ruled a given area at a given time.  By asking these questions, they get a general understanding of the facts about a given time and place.

Second, historians ask why things happened the way they did.  Historians are not content to know what happened at a given time and place.  This is not nearly as interesting (in most cases) as trying to find out why things happened.  For example, it is more interesting to try to determine why the ancient kingdoms of the Late Bronze Age in the Middle East fell apart than it is to simply know that they did. (This link, for example, shows how historians think they have found evidence about why those kingdoms fell.)

Finally, historians ask how they can know what happened and why it happened.  In other words, historians ask about the quality and the nature of the evidence that is available.  Historians need to make sure that they are basing their conclusions on solid evidence, not simply on conjecture.  Therefore, they have to question their evidence to be sure that it really tells them what they think it does.

Thus, historians try to understand the past by asking questions such as “what happened,” “why did it happen,” and “how do we know these things?”

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