Interpretation in History

Interpretation is one of those words we hear about all the time. Events, data, and pictures are interpreted. Similarly, there are a lot of vague definitions thrown around about interpretation, especially when it comes history. Yet, what exactly is a historical interpretation and how do we know what constitutes a good and a bad interpretation?

What is Historical Interpretation?

Richard Slatta (2020) writes that historical interpretation is the synthesizing process of describing, analyzing, and evaluating past events. It is based on primary and secondary sources, and can explore any variety of topics, such as causality, processes, outcomes, conflicts, etc. (para. 1).

Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris (2000) posit that an interpretation, at its core, is a generalization that “characterizes the entire experience according to its principal elements.” In addition, supporting corroborating details can be given. The idea behind an interpretation is that it elevates a historical work beyond a mere recitation of facts, and readers expect detailed support for any generalization that a historian makes (p. 184).

One important thing to note is that an interpretation is different from an inference which is a conclusion or deduction based on corroborating evidence. Inferences are just one tool used in the interpretation of evidence. They’re speculative in nature and read between the lines to come up with possible answers to questions for which there may not be definitive evidence (Furay & Salevouris, 2000, p. 149 – 152). Put another way, Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider (1967) compare historical inferences with scientific hypotheses. Essentially, inferences are statements based on logical conclusions which show the relationships between facts. They also write that no two historians will see the exact same inferences between facts, but a pattern of meaning will eventually emerge. Regarding their validity, inferences are only as true as the facts they’re based on. By keeping the inferences grounded in the facts, the historian lends plausibility and credibility to their work, even if others disagree with their logic. Without the support of facts, inferences are merely baseless opinions. In the end, an inference is always a personal judgement about the facts and the two should not be confused (p. 25 – 27). Finally, Cantor and Schneider (1967) write that the historian works to establish inferential links between the facts. The greater the number of inferential links that a historian can demonstrate between individual facts, the stronger the causality and the better the history will be (p. 38). What this all tells us is that inferences are not merely guesses because they must be based on corroborating evidence to have some validity; similar to interpretations. One way to think about the difference is that an inference is just a theoretical statement derived from evidence that’s a part of the overall interpretation. Interpretations, on the other hand, constitute a larger body of work that includes a thesis to be examined and a logical breakdown of all of the related evidence. (Five books on the same event written by five different authors can amount to five different interpretations, and each with their own set of inferences between the evidence presented.)

Elements of the Interpretation

*Note: The following elements and categorizations of interpretations from Drew, Furay, and Salevouris could be classified as inferences, but to spare us from arguing over semantics, I’ll keep the author’s word choice.

Richard Drew notes that interpretations have 3 essential elements:

  1. Purposeful and thoughtful efforts: An application of logic and organization to an explanation. They are not spur-of-the-moment opinions.
  2. Representations: An attempt at faithfully representing past events which is grounded in historical evidence.
  3. Reflection on past events: An interpretation is a reflection of the researcher themselves given their temporal distance from past events. By being temporally removed from the event, the researcher can offer a distinct reflection on the past.

(as cited in Slatta, 2020, paras. 7 – 9)

Essentially, an interpretation is an attempt at explaining and rationalizing a past event with supporting evidence. Drew’s third point seems to account for the fact that we all interpret things differently based on our own experiences and frames of reference. Thus, different historians can have wildly different interpretations of the same event(s). Whether or not you agree with those interpretations is another matter.

Types of Interpretation

As Furay and Salevouris (2000) noted, historical interpretations are generalizations supported by facts. However, they further break down generalizations into three types:

  • Summary Generalization: A statement of fact that is so basic and obvious that it requires little proof or argumentation to support it. (e.g. “The Democratic party won the presidential election of 1992.”)
  • Limited Interpretive Generalization: A statement that is supported with evidence and argument, and is concrete enough to be susceptible to a convincing proof. (e.g. “The Democratic party won the presidential election of 1992 because Ross Perot split the opposition votes to Bill Clinton.”)
  • Broad Interpretive Generalization: An all-encompassing statement that is exceedingly difficult to validate with any amount of evidence or argument. Even with a massive amount of evidence, they remain speculative in nature. (e.g. “All history is the history of class conflict.” – Karl Marx.)

(p. 185)

Furay and Salevouris (2000) further specify that broad interpretive generalizations, while often thought-provoking, are best left to philosophers. Worthy historical interpretations are of the limited interpretive generalization variety. Such generalizations provide explanations for the causes of an event (i.e. the how and why it happened the way it did). When supported with solid evidence, they are compelling enough to advance our historical understanding, deepen our knowledge, and signal to the reader that they historian knows the subject. However, they also caution against the historian trying to examine every possible underlying or indirect cause. To do so makes the limited interpretive generalization unsupportable and lessens its impact (p. 185 – 186).

Based on these categorizations and incorporating Richard Drew’s three elements of an interpretation, we can deduce the following:

Generalization (Interpretation)Do captureDon’t capture
Summary Generalizations(Element 2) – Representation of facts(Element 1) – Apply thoughtful logic
(Element 3) – reflections on the past
Limited Interpretive Generalizations(Element 1) – Apply thoughtful logic
(Element 2) – Representation of facts
(Element 3) – Reflections on the past
Broad Interpretive Generalizations(Element 3) – Reflections on the past (to some extent)(Element 1) – Apply thoughtful logic
(Element 2) – Representation of facts
  • Summary generalizations only capture Drew’s second element of being a representation of past events. They lack further application of thoughtful logic (element 1), and they offer no further explanation and reflection on the how and why of the events (element 3).
  • Limited interpretive generalizations capture all three elements that Drew specifies. They present a representation of past events with evidence to support it (element 2), they apply logic and a purposeful explanation (element 1), they offer a distinct reflection on the past in conjunction with the explanation and the facts (element 3).
  • Broad interpretive generalizations make some attempt at reflecting on the past (element 3), but their representations of the past (element 2), and the degree at which they apply logic (element 1) is debatable and lacking.

“The Pointless Interpretive Generalization”

An unofficial category of my own is something I like to call the Pointless Interpretive Generalization (AKA Pointless Interpretation). These are usually in the form of the following:

(insert object/subject) is (insert adjective).

The conversation usually goes something like this:

“_______ is good/bad.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Uh…because it just is.” (bad is bad/good is good.)

Alternatively: “…because I agree/disagree with it.” (Personal bias becomes the logic. “I agree/disagree with it, therefore, it’s good/bad.”)

Usually these generalizations occur when people react to the news, provide a quick opinion, or offer unsolicited advice on something. They are simply heavily biased knee-jerk reactions with little in-depth thought. Personally, I find them to be incredibly annoying since they do nothing to improve our understanding of the topic at hand, they provide no supporting evidence or reasoning beyond one or two adjectives, and they are not convincing in the least. They also run afoul of assigning simplistic moral judgements on events without any serious consideration of the context.

I have tried to classify these statements according to Furay and Salevouris’ generalizations, but I would not classify them as a Summary Generalizations because they are mostly statements of opinion and provide little (if any) factual evidence. The closest category they come to is the Broad Interpretive Generalization. Such “pointless interpretative generalizations” lack elements 1 and 2 because they certainly are not thoughtful in their application of logic, nor are they substantive in their representation of the facts. The only element they might contain is the third because they invoke some degree of reflection on the topic. However, I stress that “reflection” is a very generous use of the term in this case. If anything, it is a poor reflection on the person giving the interpretation. Thus, it is probably a Broad Interpretive Generalization, but I think that is stretching the term, and instead, I contend that it is on a level of interpretation that is even lower. I call it pointless.

The Process of Interpretation

Interpretation is one of the more difficult aspects of historical research. It defines what makes your own research unique and distinguishes it from being just another rehashing of historical events. That being said, it is also a process.

For any historical event or topic under research, Furay and Salevouris (2000) write that developing an interpretation requires a historian to examine the issues of causality in an event, consider the context and setting of the event, read up on other historians’ work on the same event, and carefully study the evidence. The historian is attempting to answer the what, why, and how an event happened. More specifically, they note that interpretation is a process of research that is initially guided by a preliminary hypothesis. As the historian continues their research, they slowly begin to synthesize the information into a mental picture. Eventually, a final interpretation or thesis develops that is justified by the historical evidence. Finally, Furay and Salevouris write that the interpretation that arises from the synthesis of research does not simply happen out of nowhere, but is the result of hard work. Historians examine events with expectations of how human motivations, politics, economics, and geography interact with each other. These expectations are not hard rules, but rather tools that may help explain the event under examination (p. 186 – 187). While Furay and Salevouris do not define any specific steps to take when generating an interpretation, they highlight the following elements of the process:

  • Preliminary Hypothesis: Provides a sense of direction to your initial research.
  • Synthesis/Insight: A developed mental organization of the historical event that links the disparate elements into a cohesive whole.
  • Final Interpretation/Thesis: A refined interpretation that comes about as your understanding of the material grows. The thesis must be supportable by the evidence you’ve discovered.

The slow process of synthesis is one of the more frustrating elements of creating an interpretation. One analogy I use is to imagine piecing together a very big and convoluted jigsaw puzzle. The individual pieces represent the facts and the final image is the interpretation. The problem is that multiple different pieces can fit into exact same spot (representing multiple causality) and many of the pieces do not mesh well together. Hence, there are multiple solutions to the puzzle, and if you do manage to put it all together, then the resulting picture (one of many valid solutions) is clear in some areas, but blurry and ill-defined in others. It is then up to the individual to make out specific parts and interpret what they are seeing. This represents the objective and subjective elements of interpretations and explains why historians will broadly agree on certain facts (the clear areas), but disagree on others (the blurry areas). Such is the process of forming a coherent interpretation from various historical sources and it explains why you can have multiple valid interpretations based on the same facts.

Variation in Interpretations

Thus far we have examined the three elements that make up an interpretation, the three different types of interpretation (or generalization), and have gotten a rough idea of the process required to form an interpretation. However, we still need to account for why there are often wide variations in historical interpretations.

Furay and Salevouris (2000) first emphasize that “all historical generalizations are probabilistic rather than certain.” If the interpretations have solid evidence behind them, then they are probably valid. Unlike the sciences which deal in far more quantitative data and mathematical formulas, historians rarely have such luxuries aside from historical statistics, but even those can be suspect. In any case, they can never be sure that the evidence is representative. Thus, historical interpretations have a temporary quality and cannot be considered absolute (p. 187). In addition, Furay and Salevouris address the fact that any historical event can be interpreted in any number of different ways. This is because all historians examine events from different view points, with different interests, and at different distances from the topic. History students should expect differences in how separate historians interpret the same event (188 – 189). In many ways, these differences in interpretation are similar to different people witnessing, for example, a car accident. As the police interview the drivers, passengers, and bystanders who were either directly involved in, or witnessed the accident, they will get an assortment of different stories of the same event. Five different people will give five different stories of the same car accident based on their own perspective. Each story will have some validity to it, but be slightly different because of the differing perspectives (similar to the jigsaw puzzle analogy above). There is not necessarily one “true” interpretation, but the good ones are based on facts.

Determining Validity in Interpretations

So if historical interpretations are just probabilistic in their validity due to their tentativeness, and are reflections individual view points, is there such a thing as an acceptable interpretation? Yes. Evaluating interpretations is no easy task, but Furay and Salevouris (2000) write that historians ask two questions when trying to determine the validity of an interpretation:

  1. Does the author adequately support the interpretation with evidence? – The historian should have carefully examined the evidence and located the essential points to support their thesis. Extraneous information should be avoided. While we understand that no one can realistically cover everything, the historian should be applying the relevant material to their interpretation.
  2. Does the author avoid being overwhelmed by personal intellectual preoccupations or theories? – We all have biases that influence how we view evidence. It’s very easy to allow personal attitudes and biases to distort the facts. However, we should do our best to distance ourselves from such attitudes. Examining events dispassionately is difficult, and there is no way to completely eliminate bias from a work. However, a historian who is honest with themselves goes a long way towards being more objective.

(p. 191)

By answering these two questions when evaluating interpretations, a reader can better assess if the historian has done their due diligence and presented a fair view of the material with logical interpretations. Notice that there is no mention of whether or not the reader agrees or disagrees with the interpretation since that has no bearing on the validity of it.

While we all interpret events differently depending on our personal perspective, recognizing when our personal biases are clouding our judgment is one of the biggest challenges in forming an interpretation. It is very easy to interpret events in ways that are not supported by the available facts or data, and instead, influenced by our preconceived notions. In short, be careful of reading into the evidence what is not there.

Challenging the validity of an interpretation is an element of historiography (i.e. how history is written). It is important to avoid ad hominem attacks by personalizing interpretations. Just because you disagree with an interpretation should not be a reflection on the character of the writer. Appropriate disagreements with interpretations are counter-argued in other interpretations. Furthermore, different interpretations can approach the same topic from different perspectives. For example, I have read many interpretations of the Pacific War from any number of different perspectives. Some focus purely on military operations, some on biographical aspects, and others focus on political or economic aspects. All were valid interpretations and some I found more value in than others. Just because an interpretation does not analyze a subject from a certain viewpoint is not grounds for dismissal.

Entire books are published asserting different interpretations of the same events and affirming others. As previously mentioned, such challenges to interpretations are to be expected. One of the difficulties in developing a well-rounded understanding of a historical event is taking the time to read multiple different interpretations, examining the similarities and differences, and synthesizing all of the information into your own understanding.

Challenges in Secondary Education

As a social studies (history) teacher, one of the more annoying things I have to deal with are the occasional emails I get from concerned parents about their “disappointment/disagreement with the current social studies curriculum (and/or standards).” Regardless of wherever the curriculum or standards came from (I do not always build these curricula or choose the standards, mind you), they have a problem with what their child is learning in history class, and they view the teaching of said curriculum/standards as the imposition of a particular social/political agenda. Naturally, they instead want their child to learn the “true history of ____, like they were taught growing up.” Yes, some of them use the term “true history,” as if there is only one accurate version of history. This of course ignores the realities of historical interpretations and assumes there is a one-size-fits-all method of learning history*. Furthermore, such statements seem to operate on this assumption that your average social studies class is doing these deep dives into history. The reality is that there is often so much content to cover and so many different standards to address that it is nearly impossible to do anything other than just skim the surface of the material within the time frame of a single semester or school year. (It’s pretty tough to go deep into the “true history” when you are covering from WWI to the end of the Cold War in about 5 months. I had three months to cover the entire European Renaissance. Give me a break!)

*I often have to remind people that the field of education is constantly changing. Just because you learned it one way does not mean that way works for everyone, nor does it mean it is the superior way. I encounter a lot of older people who literally expect history class to be nothing but a boring series of lectures where the teacher prattles on about dates, people, events, and places because that is how they learned history. (No wonder they don’t remember anything about history.) News flash! This is the 21st century and not your grandpa’s history class. We are not memorizing the textbook, and history is not a game of Jeopardy! with singular answers to questions.

Remember this scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Ben Stein is giving a real economics lecture, but notice how nobody is learning anything? Many high school teacher still give lectures (direct instruction), but the catch is that they are really good at it and they incorporate lots of other activities to keep students engaged. Current education training stresses moving away from direct instruction, and instead making learning more student-centered. Although it’s acknowledged that some direct instruction may still be necessary.

I try to emphasize to my students the following ideas concerning the learning of history and interpretations:

  • History of full of unpleasant ideas, people, events, etc. (There were no “good old days.”)
  • There are many different interpretations of the same historical events.
  • I am not asking you to agree/disagree with either the events/ideas/people or the interpretations. (i.e. This is not a class on morals and ethics. We are not assigning moral judgements or creating a hierarchy of values.)
  • I want you to understand that these historical events occurred and give you the skills to make your own assessment of it and think critically. (i.e. Do not confuse belief with understanding. I am not asking students to believe in something with religious fervor. I am asking them to acknowledge the occurrence of events and study the causes and effects.)

Now, I do not mean to imply that I am expecting complete amorality. The classic example that we can all agree with is that Hitler was pretty much the definition of evil and that the Holocaust happened (and it was horrific). However, we should understand the contexts that underscored those topics. While Hitler is in no way deserving of our sympathy, we should not dehumanize him and perceive him as some kind of comic book supervillain. Of course, the danger in this scenario is that I could one day have a student who is a white supremacist and a Holocaust denier. However, the problems with that student run deeper than any school curriculum or historical interpretation and point more towards the student’s background and home life.

No doubt, I have seen some really strange history papers. For example, I had one student submit a paper with a thesis on how WWII was the result of the Gaia, Earth spirit, harmony, whatever being out of balance which gave rise to Hitler and the Nazis.

It was aliens.

No, I am not joking. That really was their thesis. Ultimately, I gave this paper a poor grade, not because I disagreed with the student’s interpretation, but rather because it was a poorly structured and written paper. The grammar was awful, the spelling abysmal, the organization lacking, there was a clear bias towards the metaphysical, and there was no verifiable evidence or sources cited to support the thesis. Had this student taken the time to correct those things, then I would have graded this paper higher, even if the topic was a bit strange. I have also read student-submitted papers on horrific topics like genocides, war crimes, lynchings, serial killers, etc. However, they were decent pieces of historical writing and I did not dismiss them simply because I found the topics objectionable. The bottom line is that any assertion a student makes about a historical figure or event must be supportable with evidence and not display any overt bias (which includes the harassment or denigration of others).

At the end of the day, developing an interpretation is one of the more difficult tasks that a historian undertakes. Interpretations are a process and the result of hard work, careful thinking, and meticulous planning. Insight is gained, often slowly, but with practice. Worthy interpretations are based on verifiable evidence and attempts at reflecting on the past. We should be wary of simplistic evaluations of the events and of letting our personal views overtly color our understanding of the material. It is very easy to let personal conceptions override our judgement, and subsequently, we read false interpretations into the material and create conclusions that are not supported by the evidence. There are various types of interpretations and they can approach the topic from virtually any aspect. Differences in interpretation are to be expected and there are no absolutes. However, the validity of an interpretation is based on the author’s careful utilization of the evidence and the mitigation of biases.

References

Cantor, N.F., & Schneider, R.I. (1967). How to Study History. Harlan Davidson, Inc.

Furay, C., & Salevouris, M.J. (2000). The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide (2nd ed.). Harland Davidson.

Slatta, R.W. (2020). What is historical interpretation? NC State University. https://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/slatta/.

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