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Historical Research – Types, Methods and Examples

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Historical Research

Historical Research


Historical research is the process of investigating and studying past events, people, and societies using a variety of sources and methods. This type of research aims to reconstruct and interpret the past based on the available evidence.

Types of Historical Research

There are several types of historical research, including:

Descriptive Research

This type of historical research focuses on describing events, people, or cultures in detail. It can involve examining artifacts, documents, or other sources of information to create a detailed account of what happened or existed.

Analytical Research

This type of historical research aims to explain why events, people, or cultures occurred in a certain way. It involves analyzing data to identify patterns, causes, and effects, and making interpretations based on this analysis.

Comparative Research

This type of historical research involves comparing two or more events, people, or cultures to identify similarities and differences. This can help researchers understand the unique characteristics of each and how they interacted with each other.

Interpretive Research

This type of historical research focuses on interpreting the meaning of past events, people, or cultures. It can involve analyzing cultural symbols, beliefs, and practices to understand their significance in a particular historical context.

Quantitative Research

This type of historical research involves using statistical methods to analyze historical data. It can involve examining demographic information, economic indicators, or other quantitative data to identify patterns and trends.

Qualitative Research

This type of historical research involves examining non-numerical data such as personal accounts, letters, or diaries. It can provide insights into the experiences and perspectives of individuals during a particular historical period.

Data Collection Methods

Data Collection Methods are as follows:

  • Archival research : This involves analyzing documents and records that have been preserved over time, such as government records, diaries, letters, newspapers, and photographs. Archival research is often conducted in libraries, archives, and museums.
  • Oral history : This involves conducting interviews with individuals who have lived through a particular historical period or event. Oral history can provide a unique perspective on past events and can help to fill gaps in the historical record.
  • Artifact analysis: This involves examining physical objects from the past, such as tools, clothing, and artwork, to gain insights into past cultures and practices.
  • Secondary sources: This involves analyzing published works, such as books, articles, and academic papers, that discuss past events and cultures. Secondary sources can provide context and insights into the historical period being studied.
  • Statistical analysis : This involves analyzing numerical data from the past, such as census records or economic data, to identify patterns and trends.
  • Fieldwork : This involves conducting on-site research in a particular location, such as visiting a historical site or conducting ethnographic research in a particular community. Fieldwork can provide a firsthand understanding of the culture and environment being studied.
  • Content analysis: This involves analyzing the content of media from the past, such as films, television programs, and advertisements, to gain insights into cultural attitudes and beliefs.

Data Analysis Methods

  • Content analysis : This involves analyzing the content of written or visual material, such as books, newspapers, or photographs, to identify patterns and themes. Content analysis can be used to identify changes in cultural values and beliefs over time.
  • Textual analysis : This involves analyzing written texts, such as letters or diaries, to understand the experiences and perspectives of individuals during a particular historical period. Textual analysis can provide insights into how people lived and thought in the past.
  • Discourse analysis : This involves analyzing how language is used to construct meaning and power relations in a particular historical period. Discourse analysis can help to identify how social and political ideologies were constructed and maintained over time.
  • Statistical analysis: This involves using statistical methods to analyze numerical data, such as census records or economic data, to identify patterns and trends. Statistical analysis can help to identify changes in population demographics, economic conditions, and other factors over time.
  • Comparative analysis : This involves comparing data from two or more historical periods or events to identify similarities and differences. Comparative analysis can help to identify patterns and trends that may not be apparent from analyzing data from a single historical period.
  • Qualitative analysis: This involves analyzing non-numerical data, such as oral history interviews or ethnographic field notes, to identify themes and patterns. Qualitative analysis can provide a rich understanding of the experiences and perspectives of individuals in the past.

Historical Research Methodology

Here are the general steps involved in historical research methodology:

  • Define the research question: Start by identifying a research question that you want to answer through your historical research. This question should be focused, specific, and relevant to your research goals.
  • Review the literature: Conduct a review of the existing literature on the topic of your research question. This can involve reading books, articles, and academic papers to gain a thorough understanding of the existing research.
  • Develop a research design : Develop a research design that outlines the methods you will use to collect and analyze data. This design should be based on the research question and should be feasible given the resources and time available.
  • Collect data: Use the methods outlined in your research design to collect data on past events, people, and cultures. This can involve archival research, oral history interviews, artifact analysis, and other data collection methods.
  • Analyze data : Analyze the data you have collected using the methods outlined in your research design. This can involve content analysis, textual analysis, statistical analysis, and other data analysis methods.
  • Interpret findings : Use the results of your data analysis to draw meaningful insights and conclusions related to your research question. These insights should be grounded in the data and should be relevant to the research goals.
  • Communicate results: Communicate your findings through a research report, academic paper, or other means. This should be done in a clear, concise, and well-organized manner, with appropriate citations and references to the literature.

Applications of Historical Research

Historical research has a wide range of applications in various fields, including:

  • Education : Historical research can be used to develop curriculum materials that reflect a more accurate and inclusive representation of history. It can also be used to provide students with a deeper understanding of past events and cultures.
  • Museums : Historical research is used to develop exhibits, programs, and other materials for museums. It can provide a more accurate and engaging presentation of historical events and artifacts.
  • Public policy : Historical research is used to inform public policy decisions by providing insights into the historical context of current issues. It can also be used to evaluate the effectiveness of past policies and programs.
  • Business : Historical research can be used by businesses to understand the evolution of their industry and to identify trends that may affect their future success. It can also be used to develop marketing strategies that resonate with customers’ historical interests and values.
  • Law : Historical research is used in legal proceedings to provide evidence and context for cases involving historical events or practices. It can also be used to inform the development of new laws and policies.
  • Genealogy : Historical research can be used by individuals to trace their family history and to understand their ancestral roots.
  • Cultural preservation : Historical research is used to preserve cultural heritage by documenting and interpreting past events, practices, and traditions. It can also be used to identify and preserve historical landmarks and artifacts.

Examples of Historical Research

Examples of Historical Research are as follows:

  • Examining the history of race relations in the United States: Historical research could be used to explore the historical roots of racial inequality and injustice in the United States. This could help inform current efforts to address systemic racism and promote social justice.
  • Tracing the evolution of political ideologies: Historical research could be used to study the development of political ideologies over time. This could help to contextualize current political debates and provide insights into the origins and evolution of political beliefs and values.
  • Analyzing the impact of technology on society : Historical research could be used to explore the impact of technology on society over time. This could include examining the impact of previous technological revolutions (such as the industrial revolution) on society, as well as studying the current impact of emerging technologies on society and the environment.
  • Documenting the history of marginalized communities : Historical research could be used to document the history of marginalized communities (such as LGBTQ+ communities or indigenous communities). This could help to preserve cultural heritage, promote social justice, and promote a more inclusive understanding of history.

Purpose of Historical Research

The purpose of historical research is to study the past in order to gain a better understanding of the present and to inform future decision-making. Some specific purposes of historical research include:

  • To understand the origins of current events, practices, and institutions : Historical research can be used to explore the historical roots of current events, practices, and institutions. By understanding how things developed over time, we can gain a better understanding of the present.
  • To develop a more accurate and inclusive understanding of history : Historical research can be used to correct inaccuracies and biases in historical narratives. By exploring different perspectives and sources of information, we can develop a more complete and nuanced understanding of history.
  • To inform decision-making: Historical research can be used to inform decision-making in various fields, including education, public policy, business, and law. By understanding the historical context of current issues, we can make more informed decisions about how to address them.
  • To preserve cultural heritage : Historical research can be used to document and preserve cultural heritage, including traditions, practices, and artifacts. By understanding the historical significance of these cultural elements, we can work to preserve them for future generations.
  • To stimulate curiosity and critical thinking: Historical research can be used to stimulate curiosity and critical thinking about the past. By exploring different historical perspectives and interpretations, we can develop a more critical and reflective approach to understanding history and its relevance to the present.

When to use Historical Research

Historical research can be useful in a variety of contexts. Here are some examples of when historical research might be particularly appropriate:

  • When examining the historical roots of current events: Historical research can be used to explore the historical roots of current events, practices, and institutions. By understanding how things developed over time, we can gain a better understanding of the present.
  • When examining the historical context of a particular topic : Historical research can be used to explore the historical context of a particular topic, such as a social issue, political debate, or scientific development. By understanding the historical context, we can gain a more nuanced understanding of the topic and its significance.
  • When exploring the evolution of a particular field or discipline : Historical research can be used to explore the evolution of a particular field or discipline, such as medicine, law, or art. By understanding the historical development of the field, we can gain a better understanding of its current state and future directions.
  • When examining the impact of past events on current society : Historical research can be used to examine the impact of past events (such as wars, revolutions, or social movements) on current society. By understanding the historical context and impact of these events, we can gain insights into current social and political issues.
  • When studying the cultural heritage of a particular community or group : Historical research can be used to document and preserve the cultural heritage of a particular community or group. By understanding the historical significance of cultural practices, traditions, and artifacts, we can work to preserve them for future generations.

Characteristics of Historical Research

The following are some characteristics of historical research:

  • Focus on the past : Historical research focuses on events, people, and phenomena of the past. It seeks to understand how things developed over time and how they relate to current events.
  • Reliance on primary sources: Historical research relies on primary sources such as letters, diaries, newspapers, government documents, and other artifacts from the period being studied. These sources provide firsthand accounts of events and can help researchers gain a more accurate understanding of the past.
  • Interpretation of data : Historical research involves interpretation of data from primary sources. Researchers analyze and interpret data to draw conclusions about the past.
  • Use of multiple sources: Historical research often involves using multiple sources of data to gain a more complete understanding of the past. By examining a range of sources, researchers can cross-reference information and validate their findings.
  • Importance of context: Historical research emphasizes the importance of context. Researchers analyze the historical context in which events occurred and consider how that context influenced people’s actions and decisions.
  • Subjectivity : Historical research is inherently subjective, as researchers interpret data and draw conclusions based on their own perspectives and biases. Researchers must be aware of their own biases and strive for objectivity in their analysis.
  • Importance of historical significance: Historical research emphasizes the importance of historical significance. Researchers consider the historical significance of events, people, and phenomena and their impact on the present and future.
  • Use of qualitative methods : Historical research often uses qualitative methods such as content analysis, discourse analysis, and narrative analysis to analyze data and draw conclusions about the past.

Advantages of Historical Research

There are several advantages to historical research:

  • Provides a deeper understanding of the past : Historical research can provide a more comprehensive understanding of past events and how they have shaped current social, political, and economic conditions. This can help individuals and organizations make informed decisions about the future.
  • Helps preserve cultural heritage: Historical research can be used to document and preserve cultural heritage. By studying the history of a particular culture, researchers can gain insights into the cultural practices and beliefs that have shaped that culture over time.
  • Provides insights into long-term trends : Historical research can provide insights into long-term trends and patterns. By studying historical data over time, researchers can identify patterns and trends that may be difficult to discern from short-term data.
  • Facilitates the development of hypotheses: Historical research can facilitate the development of hypotheses about how past events have influenced current conditions. These hypotheses can be tested using other research methods, such as experiments or surveys.
  • Helps identify root causes of social problems : Historical research can help identify the root causes of social problems. By studying the historical context in which these problems developed, researchers can gain a better understanding of how they emerged and what factors may have contributed to their development.
  • Provides a source of inspiration: Historical research can provide a source of inspiration for individuals and organizations seeking to address current social, political, and economic challenges. By studying the accomplishments and struggles of past generations, researchers can gain insights into how to address current challenges.

Limitations of Historical Research

Some Limitations of Historical Research are as follows:

  • Reliance on incomplete or biased data: Historical research is often limited by the availability and quality of data. Many primary sources have been lost, destroyed, or are inaccessible, making it difficult to get a complete picture of historical events. Additionally, some primary sources may be biased or represent only one perspective on an event.
  • Difficulty in generalizing findings: Historical research is often specific to a particular time and place and may not be easily generalized to other contexts. This makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions about human behavior or social phenomena.
  • Lack of control over variables : Historical research often lacks control over variables. Researchers cannot manipulate or control historical events, making it difficult to establish cause-and-effect relationships.
  • Subjectivity of interpretation : Historical research is often subjective because researchers must interpret data and draw conclusions based on their own biases and perspectives. Different researchers may interpret the same data differently, leading to different conclusions.
  • Limited ability to test hypotheses: Historical research is often limited in its ability to test hypotheses. Because the events being studied have already occurred, researchers cannot manipulate variables or conduct experiments to test their hypotheses.
  • Lack of objectivity: Historical research is often subjective, and researchers must be aware of their own biases and strive for objectivity in their analysis. However, it can be difficult to maintain objectivity when studying events that are emotionally charged or controversial.
  • Limited generalizability: Historical research is often limited in its generalizability, as the events and conditions being studied may be specific to a particular time and place. This makes it difficult to draw broad conclusions that apply to other contexts or time periods.

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Historical Research

Historical Research Examples

One of the most significant historical events that changed the world is the invention of written language around 3500-3000 BCE in Sumer. Originally, Sumerians started to use  writing  to communicate with people from other cities and regions to trade resources. From then on, they did multiple enhancements on the invention to maximize its use. Today, needless to say, this invention has been serving us its purpose in many ways, such as in developing  procedure documentation  and writing a research paper for historical research.

What Is Historical Research?

Historical research is a research methodology that allows people to study past events that have molded the present. This investigation involves systematically retaking the pieces of information from one or more data sources which can let you, as a researcher or a detective, create a theory of how a phenomenon happened to be in its present situation. Although this type of research usually uses primary sources, such as journals and testimonies in many forms, the data it gets may also come from secondary sources, such as textbooks in the public library, newspapers, etc. Due to the nature of historical research, comparing and preserving historical records can also be good reasons to conduct this kind of research.

Strong Historical Research Design

For effective execution of the data collection and analysis for historical research in education and other fields, you will need a strong research design that includes the following stages.

1. Data Collection

We have mentioned earlier that in gathering the necessary data for historical research, you can use either or both primary and secondary data sources. Additionally, although this research is under the vast category of qualitative research , you can use quantitative data to interpret the facts you use.

2. Data Criticism

One of the advantages of conducting historical research is, aside from the present, you may gather evidence to explain the event that is yet to happen, which can be a delicate piece of information. In coming up with an explanation about a future phenomenon, you must evaluate the reliability of your sources. You can do it through  internal and external validity . Through an external validity, you can determine the authenticity of a reference. Meanwhile, with internal validity, you can ensure that the data you gather is reliable by interpreting the content correctly.

3. Data Presentation

Once you have assured that the data you have collected is competent enough, you will analyze it and test the hypothesis of your research. We recommend you to do this step carefully since you will use logical methods instead of statistical tools. Avoid over-simplifying details and incorporating personal observations.

10+ Historical Research Examples

Now, you know the elements to include in your research. Let’s take a look at how researchers write their history research paper.

1. Biography of Historical Research Example

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2. Historical Research in Library Example

historical research in library example

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3. Historical Reserch Agenda Example

historical reserch agenda example

4. Sample Historical Research Example

sample historical research

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5. Historical Research Information Systems Research Example

historical research information systems research

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6. Historical Research in Social Work Example

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7. Stndard Historical Research Example

stndard historical research example

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8. Legal History and Historical Research Example

legal history and historical research

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9. Methods and Principles of Historical Research Example

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10. Historical Research in Communication Example

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11. Historical Research in Education Example

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Best Practices in Conducting Historical Research

Now that you know almost everything that you need to cover about historical research, strengthen your project by keeping the following guidelines in mind.

1. Narrow Down the Direction of Your Project

Before you start writing your research paper , think of the topic that you choose to research. List down the research questions that you will focus on throughout the research process. Gather useful information and take note of the source information such as the author, etc. Then, decide on the specific type of information that you want to focus on. These steps will ensure that your research will not go astray.

2. Be Mindful of Your Sources

There are many sources available to gather information for your inquiry, especially on the internet. However, the question is, are these contents reliable enough? For historical research, we recommend you to ask assistance to the public librarians or historical consultants before you incorporate the information that you have gathered from the internet and the library.

3. Balance your Searches

Nowadays, you can always find the information that you need through the internet. However, when conducting research, you must do well-balanced data gathering. Meaning, aside from one source like the internet, you can gather data that you can only find in a particular root. A good example is local news.

4. Dig Deeper

It is essential to narrow down the scope of your research. It will be more interesting if you use the information that you have gathered to know more about a particular event or topic. It can also be an excellent way to find new leads that can support your research.

Countless historical events changed the way we perceive things. Among these phenomena, is the invention of written language. It also allows us to know how to deal with the obstacles that we are yet to encounter. Enlighten the people of a significant phenomenon by applying what you learned today to the research project that you are going to conduct.

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A Step-by-Step Guide to Doing Historical Research [without getting hysterical!] In addition to being a scholarly investigation, research is a social activity intended to create new knowledge. Historical research is your informed response to the questions that you ask while examining the record of human experience. These questions may concern such elements as looking at an event or topic, examining events that lead to the event in question, social influences, key players, and other contextual information. This step-by-step guide progresses from an introduction to historical resources to information about how to identify a topic, craft a thesis and develop a research paper. Table of contents: The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Secondary Sources Primary Sources Historical Analysis What is it? Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Choose a Topic Craft a Thesis Evaluate Thesis and Sources A Variety of Information Sources Take Efficient Notes Note Cards Thinking, Organizing, Researching Parenthetical Documentation Prepare a Works Cited Page Drafting, Revising, Rewriting, Rethinking For Further Reading: Works Cited Additional Links So you want to study history?! Tons of help and links Slatta Home Page Use the Writing and other links on the lefhand menu I. The Range and Richness of Historical Sources Back to Top Every period leaves traces, what historians call "sources" or evidence. Some are more credible or carry more weight than others; judging the differences is a vital skill developed by good historians. Sources vary in perspective, so knowing who created the information you are examining is vital. Anonymous doesn't make for a very compelling source. For example, an FBI report on the antiwar movement, prepared for U.S. President Richard Nixon, probably contained secrets that at the time were thought to have affected national security. It would not be usual, however, for a journalist's article about a campus riot, featured in a local newspaper, to leak top secret information. Which source would you read? It depends on your research topic. If you're studying how government officials portrayed student activists, you'll want to read the FBI report and many more documents from other government agencies such as the CIA and the National Security Council. If you're investigating contemporary opinion of pro-war and anti-war activists, local newspaper accounts provide a rich resource. You'd want to read a variety of newspapers to ensure you're covering a wide range of opinions (rural/urban, left/right, North/South, Soldier/Draft-dodger, etc). Historians classify sources into two major categories: primary and secondary sources. Secondary Sources Back to Top Definition: Secondary sources are created by someone who was either not present when the event occurred or removed from it in time. We use secondary sources for overview information, to familiarize ourselves with a topic, and compare that topic with other events in history. In refining a research topic, we often begin with secondary sources. This helps us identify gaps or conflicts in the existing scholarly literature that might prove promsing topics. Types: History books, encyclopedias, historical dictionaries, and academic (scholarly) articles are secondary sources. To help you determine the status of a given secondary source, see How to identify and nagivate scholarly literature . Examples: Historian Marilyn Young's (NYU) book about the Vietnam War is a secondary source. She did not participate in the war. Her study is not based on her personal experience but on the evidence she culled from a variety of sources she found in the United States and Vietnam. Primary Sources Back to Top Definition: Primary sources emanate from individuals or groups who participated in or witnessed an event and recorded that event during or immediately after the event. They include speeches, memoirs, diaries, letters, telegrams, emails, proclamations, government documents, and much more. Examples: A student activist during the war writing about protest activities has created a memoir. This would be a primary source because the information is based on her own involvement in the events she describes. Similarly, an antiwar speech is a primary source. So is the arrest record of student protesters. A newspaper editorial or article, reporting on a student demonstration is also a primary source. II. Historical Analysis What is it? Back to Top No matter what you read, whether it's a primary source or a secondary source, you want to know who authored the source (a trusted scholar? A controversial historian? A propagandist? A famous person? An ordinary individual?). "Author" refers to anyone who created information in any medium (film, sound, or text). You also need to know when it was written and the kind of audience the author intend to reach. You should also consider what you bring to the evidence that you examine. Are you inductively following a path of evidence, developing your interpretation based on the sources? Do you have an ax to grind? Did you begin your research deductively, with your mind made up before even seeing the evidence. Historians need to avoid the latter and emulate the former. To read more about the distinction, examine the difference between Intellectual Inquirers and Partisan Ideologues . In the study of history, perspective is everything. A letter written by a twenty- year old Vietnam War protestor will differ greatly from a letter written by a scholar of protest movements. Although the sentiment might be the same, the perspective and influences of these two authors will be worlds apart. Practicing the " 5 Ws " will avoid the confusion of the authority trap. Who, When, Where, What and Why: The Five "W"s Back to Top Historians accumulate evidence (information, including facts, stories, interpretations, opinions, statements, reports, etc.) from a variety of sources (primary and secondary). They must also verify that certain key pieces of information are corroborated by a number of people and sources ("the predonderance of evidence"). The historian poses the " 5 Ws " to every piece of information he examines: Who is the historical actor? When did the event take place? Where did it occur? What did it entail and why did it happen the way it did? The " 5 Ws " can also be used to evaluate a primary source. Who authored the work? When was it created? Where was it created, published, and disseminated? Why was it written (the intended audience), and what is the document about (what points is the author making)? If you know the answers to these five questions, you can analyze any document, and any primary source. The historian doesn't look for the truth, since this presumes there is only one true story. The historian tries to understand a number of competing viewpoints to form his or her own interpretation-- what constitutes the best explanation of what happened and why. By using as wide a range of primary source documents and secondary sources as possible, you will add depth and richness to your historical analysis. The more exposure you, the researcher, have to a number of different sources and differing view points, the more you have a balanced and complete view about a topic in history. This view will spark more questions and ultimately lead you into the quest to unravel more clues about your topic. You are ready to start assembling information for your research paper. III. Topic, Thesis, Sources Definition of Terms Back to Top Because your purpose is to create new knowledge while recognizing those scholars whose existing work has helped you in this pursuit, you are honor bound never to commit the following academic sins: Plagiarism: Literally "kidnapping," involving the use of someone else's words as if they were your own (Gibaldi 6). To avoid plagiarism you must document direct quotations, paraphrases, and original ideas not your own. Recycling: Rehashing material you already know thoroughly or, without your professor's permission, submitting a paper that you have completed for another course. Premature cognitive commitment: Academic jargon for deciding on a thesis too soon and then seeking information to serve that thesis rather than embarking on a genuine search for new knowledge. Choose a Topic Back to Top "Do not hunt for subjects, let them choose you, not you them." --Samuel Butler Choosing a topic is the first step in the pursuit of a thesis. Below is a logical progression from topic to thesis: Close reading of the primary text, aided by secondary sources Growing awareness of interesting qualities within the primary text Choosing a topic for research Asking productive questions that help explore and evaluate a topic Creating a research hypothesis Revising and refining a hypothesis to form a working thesis First, and most important, identify what qualities in the primary or secondary source pique your imagination and curiosity and send you on a search for answers. Bloom's taxonomy of cognitive levels provides a description of productive questions asked by critical thinkers. While the lower levels (knowledge, comprehension) are necessary to a good history essay, aspire to the upper three levels (analysis, synthesis, evaluation). Skimming reference works such as encyclopedias, books, critical essays and periodical articles can help you choose a topic that evolves into a hypothesis, which in turn may lead to a thesis. One approach to skimming involves reading the first paragraph of a secondary source to locate and evaluate the author's thesis. Then for a general idea of the work's organization and major ideas read the first and last sentence of each paragraph. Read the conclusion carefully, as it usually presents a summary (Barnet and Bedau 19). Craft a Thesis Back to Top Very often a chosen topic is too broad for focused research. You must revise it until you have a working hypothesis, that is, a statement of an idea or an approach with respect to the source that could form the basis for your thesis. Remember to not commit too soon to any one hypothesis. Use it as a divining rod or a first step that will take you to new information that may inspire you to revise your hypothesis. Be flexible. Give yourself time to explore possibilities. The hypothesis you create will mature and shift as you write and rewrite your paper. New questions will send you back to old and on to new material. Remember, this is the nature of research--it is more a spiraling or iterative activity than a linear one. Test your working hypothesis to be sure it is: broad enough to promise a variety of resources. narrow enough for you to research in depth. original enough to interest you and your readers. worthwhile enough to offer information and insights of substance "do-able"--sources are available to complete the research. Now it is time to craft your thesis, your revised and refined hypothesis. A thesis is a declarative sentence that: focuses on one well-defined idea makes an arguable assertion; it is capable of being supported prepares your readers for the body of your paper and foreshadows the conclusion. Evaluate Thesis and Sources Back to Top Like your hypothesis, your thesis is not carved in stone. You are in charge. If necessary, revise it during the research process. As you research, continue to evaluate both your thesis for practicality, originality, and promise as a search tool, and secondary sources for relevance and scholarliness. The following are questions to ask during the research process: Are there many journal articles and entire books devoted to the thesis, suggesting that the subject has been covered so thoroughly that there may be nothing new to say? Does the thesis lead to stimulating, new insights? Are appropriate sources available? Is there a variety of sources available so that the bibliography or works cited page will reflect different kinds of sources? Which sources are too broad for my thesis? Which resources are too narrow? Who is the author of the secondary source? Does the critic's background suggest that he/she is qualified? After crafting a thesis, consider one of the following two approaches to writing a research paper: Excited about your thesis and eager to begin? Return to the primary or secondary source to find support for your thesis. Organize ideas and begin writing your first draft. After writing the first draft, have it reviewed by your peers and your instructor. Ponder their suggestions and return to the sources to answer still-open questions. Document facts and opinions from secondary sources. Remember, secondary sources can never substitute for primary sources. Confused about where to start? Use your thesis to guide you to primary and secondary sources. Secondary sources can help you clarify your position and find a direction for your paper. Keep a working bibliography. You may not use all the sources you record, but you cannot be sure which ones you will eventually discard. Create a working outline as you research. This outline will, of course, change as you delve more deeply into your subject. A Variety of Information Sources Back to Top "A mind that is stretched to a new idea never returns to its original dimension." --Oliver Wendell Holmes Your thesis and your working outline are the primary compasses that will help you navigate the variety of sources available. In "Introduction to the Library" (5-6) the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers suggests you become familiar with the library you will be using by: taking a tour or enrolling for a brief introductory lecture referring to the library's publications describing its resources introducing yourself and your project to the reference librarian The MLA Handbook also lists guides for the use of libraries (5), including: Jean Key Gates, Guide to the Use of Libraries and Information Sources (7th ed., New York: McGraw, 1994). Thomas Mann, A Guide to Library Research Methods (New York: Oxford UP, 1987). Online Central Catalog Most libraries have their holdings listed on a computer. The online catalog may offer Internet sites, Web pages and databases that relate to the university's curriculum. It may also include academic journals and online reference books. Below are three search techniques commonly used online: Index Search: Although online catalogs may differ slightly from library to library, the most common listings are by: Subject Search: Enter the author's name for books and article written about the author. Author Search: Enter an author's name for works written by the author, including collections of essays the author may have written about his/her own works. Title Search: Enter a title for the screen to list all the books the library carries with that title. Key Word Search/Full-text Search: A one-word search, e.g., 'Kennedy,' will produce an overwhelming number of sources, as it will call up any entry that includes the name 'Kennedy.' To focus more narrowly on your subject, add one or more key words, e.g., "John Kennedy, Peace Corps." Use precise key words. Boolean Search: Boolean Search techniques use words such as "and," "or," and "not," which clarify the relationship between key words, thus narrowing the search. Take Efficient Notes Back to Top Keeping complete and accurate bibliography and note cards during the research process is a time (and sanity) saving practice. If you have ever needed a book or pages within a book, only to discover that an earlier researcher has failed to return it or torn pages from your source, you understand the need to take good notes. Every researcher has a favorite method for taking notes. Here are some suggestions-- customize one of them for your own use. Bibliography cards There may be far more books and articles listed than you have time to read, so be selective when choosing a reference. Take information from works that clearly relate to your thesis, remembering that you may not use them all. Use a smaller or a different color card from the one used for taking notes. Write a bibliography card for every source. Number the bibliography cards. On the note cards, use the number rather than the author's name and the title. It's faster. Another method for recording a working bibliography, of course, is to create your own database. Adding, removing, and alphabetizing titles is a simple process. Be sure to save often and to create a back-up file. A bibliography card should include all the information a reader needs to locate that particular source for further study. Most of the information required for a book entry (Gibaldi 112): Author's name Title of a part of the book [preface, chapter titles, etc.] Title of the book Name of the editor, translator, or compiler Edition used Number(s) of the volume(s) used Name of the series Place of publication, name of the publisher, and date of publication Page numbers Supplementary bibliographic information and annotations Most of the information required for an article in a periodical (Gibaldi 141): Author's name Title of the article Name of the periodical Series number or name (if relevant) Volume number (for a scholarly journal) Issue number (if needed) Date of publication Page numbers Supplementary information For information on how to cite other sources refer to your So you want to study history page . Note Cards Back to Top Take notes in ink on either uniform note cards (3x5, 4x6, etc.) or uniform slips of paper. Devote each note card to a single topic identified at the top. Write only on one side. Later, you may want to use the back to add notes or personal observations. Include a topical heading for each card. Include the number of the page(s) where you found the information. You will want the page number(s) later for documentation, and you may also want page number(s)to verify your notes. Most novice researchers write down too much. Condense. Abbreviate. You are striving for substance, not quantity. Quote directly from primary sources--but the "meat," not everything. Suggestions for condensing information: Summary: A summary is intended to provide the gist of an essay. Do not weave in the author's choice phrases. Read the information first and then condense the main points in your own words. This practice will help you avoid the copying that leads to plagiarism. Summarizing also helps you both analyze the text you are reading and evaluate its strengths and weaknesses (Barnet and Bedau 13). Outline: Use to identify a series of points. Paraphrase, except for key primary source quotations. Never quote directly from a secondary source, unless the precise wording is essential to your argument. Simplify the language and list the ideas in the same order. A paraphrase is as long as the original. Paraphrasing is helpful when you are struggling with a particularly difficult passage. Be sure to jot down your own insights or flashes of brilliance. Ralph Waldo Emerson warns you to "Look sharply after your thoughts. They come unlooked for, like a new bird seen on your trees, and, if you turn to your usual task, disappear...." To differentiate these insights from those of the source you are reading, initial them as your own. (When the following examples of note cards include the researcher's insights, they will be followed by the initials N. R.) When you have finished researching your thesis and you are ready to write your paper, organize your cards according to topic. Notecards make it easy to shuffle and organize your source information on a table-- or across the floor. Maintain your working outline that includes the note card headings and explores a logical order for presenting them in your paper. IV. Begin Thinking, Researching, Organizing Back to Top Don't be too sequential. Researching, writing, revising is a complex interactive process. Start writing as soon as possible! "The best antidote to writer's block is--to write." (Klauser 15). However, you still feel overwhelmed and are staring at a blank page, you are not alone. Many students find writing the first sentence to be the most daunting part of the entire research process. Be creative. Cluster (Rico 28-49). Clustering is a form of brainstorming. Sometimes called a web, the cluster forms a design that may suggest a natural organization for a paper. Here's a graphical depiction of brainstorming . Like a sun, the generating idea or topic lies at the center of the web. From it radiate words, phrases, sentences and images that in turn attract other words, phrases, sentences and images. Put another way--stay focused. Start with your outline. If clustering is not a technique that works for you, turn to the working outline you created during the research process. Use the outline view of your word processor. If you have not already done so, group your note cards according to topic headings. Compare them to your outline's major points. If necessary, change the outline to correspond with the headings on the note cards. If any area seems weak because of a scarcity of facts or opinions, return to your primary and/or secondary sources for more information or consider deleting that heading. Use your outline to provide balance in your essay. Each major topic should have approximately the same amount of information. Once you have written a working outline, consider two different methods for organizing it. Deduction: A process of development that moves from the general to the specific. You may use this approach to present your findings. However, as noted above, your research and interpretive process should be inductive. Deduction is the most commonly used form of organization for a research paper. The thesis statement is the generalization that leads to the specific support provided by primary and secondary sources. The thesis is stated early in the paper. The body of the paper then proceeds to provide the facts, examples, and analogies that flow logically from that thesis. The thesis contains key words that are reflected in the outline. These key words become a unifying element throughout the paper, as they reappear in the detailed paragraphs that support and develop the thesis. The conclusion of the paper circles back to the thesis, which is now far more meaningful because of the deductive development that supports it. Chronological order A process that follows a traditional time line or sequence of events. A chronological organization is useful for a paper that explores cause and effect. Parenthetical Documentation Back to Top The Works Cited page, a list of primary and secondary sources, is not sufficient documentation to acknowledge the ideas, facts, and opinions you have included within your text. The MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers describes an efficient parenthetical style of documentation to be used within the body of your paper. Guidelines for parenthetical documentation: "References to the text must clearly point to specific sources in the list of works cited" (Gibaldi 184). Try to use parenthetical documentation as little as possible. For example, when you cite an entire work, it is preferable to include the author's name in the text. The author's last name followed by the page number is usually enough for an accurate identification of the source in the works cited list. These examples illustrate the most common kinds of documentation. Documenting a quotation: Ex. "The separation from the personal mother is a particularly intense process for a daughter because she has to separate from the one who is the same as herself" (Murdock 17). She may feel abandoned and angry. Note: The author of The Heroine's Journey is listed under Works Cited by the author's name, reversed--Murdock, Maureen. Quoted material is found on page 17 of that book. Parenthetical documentation is after the quotation mark and before the period. Documenting a paraphrase: Ex. In fairy tales a woman who holds the princess captive or who abandons her often needs to be killed (18). Note: The second paraphrase is also from Murdock's book The Heroine's Journey. It is not, however, necessary to repeat the author's name if no other documentation interrupts the two. If the works cited page lists more than one work by the same author, include within the parentheses an abbreviated form of the appropriate title. You may, of course, include the title in your sentence, making it unnecessary to add an abbreviated title in the citation. > Prepare a Works Cited Page Back to Top There are a variety of titles for the page that lists primary and secondary sources (Gibaldi 106-107). A Works Cited page lists those works you have cited within the body of your paper. The reader need only refer to it for the necessary information required for further independent research. Bibliography means literally a description of books. Because your research may involve the use of periodicals, films, art works, photographs, etc. "Works Cited" is a more precise descriptive term than bibliography. An Annotated Bibliography or Annotated Works Cited page offers brief critiques and descriptions of the works listed. A Works Consulted page lists those works you have used but not cited. Avoid using this format. As with other elements of a research paper there are specific guidelines for the placement and the appearance of the Works Cited page. The following guidelines comply with MLA style: The Work Cited page is placed at the end of your paper and numbered consecutively with the body of your paper. Center the title and place it one inch from the top of your page. Do not quote or underline the title. Double space the entire page, both within and between entries. The entries are arranged alphabetically by the author's last name or by the title of the article or book being cited. If the title begins with an article (a, an, the) alphabetize by the next word. If you cite two or more works by the same author, list the titles in alphabetical order. Begin every entry after the first with three hyphens followed by a period. All entries begin at the left margin but subsequent lines are indented five spaces. Be sure that each entry cited on the Works Cited page corresponds to a specific citation within your paper. Refer to the the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers (104- 182) for detailed descriptions of Work Cited entries. Citing sources from online databases is a relatively new phenomenon. Make sure to ask your professor about citing these sources and which style to use. V. Draft, Revise, Rewrite, Rethink Back to Top "There are days when the result is so bad that no fewer than five revisions are required. In contrast, when I'm greatly inspired, only four revisions are needed." --John Kenneth Galbraith Try freewriting your first draft. Freewriting is a discovery process during which the writer freely explores a topic. Let your creative juices flow. In Writing without Teachers , Peter Elbow asserts that "[a]lmost everybody interposes a massive and complicated series of editings between the time words start to be born into consciousness and when they finally come off the end of the pencil or typewriter [or word processor] onto the page" (5). Do not let your internal judge interfere with this first draft. Creating and revising are two very different functions. Don't confuse them! If you stop to check spelling, punctuation, or grammar, you disrupt the flow of creative energy. Create; then fix it later. When material you have researched comes easily to mind, include it. Add a quick citation, one you can come back to later to check for form, and get on with your discovery. In subsequent drafts, focus on creating an essay that flows smoothly, supports fully, and speaks clearly and interestingly. Add style to substance. Create a smooth flow of words, ideas and paragraphs. Rearrange paragraphs for a logical progression of information. Transition is essential if you want your reader to follow you smoothly from introduction to conclusion. Transitional words and phrases stitch your ideas together; they provide coherence within the essay. External transition: Words and phrases that are added to a sentence as overt signs of transition are obvious and effective, but should not be overused, as they may draw attention to themselves and away from ideas. Examples of external transition are "however," "then," "next," "therefore." "first," "moreover," and "on the other hand." Internal transition is more subtle. Key words in the introduction become golden threads when they appear in the paper's body and conclusion. When the writer hears a key word repeated too often, however, she/he replaces it with a synonym or a pronoun. Below are examples of internal transition. Transitional sentences create a logical flow from paragraph to paragraph. Iclude individual words, phrases, or clauses that refer to previous ideas and that point ahead to new ones. They are usually placed at the end or at the beginning of a paragraph. A transitional paragraph conducts your reader from one part of the paper to another. It may be only a few sentences long. Each paragraph of the body of the paper should contain adequate support for its one governing idea. Speak/write clearly, in your own voice. Tone: The paper's tone, whether formal, ironic, or humorous, should be appropriate for the audience and the subject. Voice: Keep you language honest. Your paper should sound like you. Understand, paraphrase, absorb, and express in your own words the information you have researched. Avoid phony language. Sentence formation: When you polish your sentences, read them aloud for word choice and word placement. Be concise. Strunk and White in The Elements of Style advise the writer to "omit needless words" (23). First, however, you must recognize them. Keep yourself and your reader interested. In fact, Strunk's 1918 writing advice is still well worth pondering. First, deliver on your promises. Be sure the body of your paper fulfills the promise of the introduction. Avoid the obvious. Offer new insights. Reveal the unexpected. Have you crafted your conclusion as carefully as you have your introduction? Conclusions are not merely the repetition of your thesis. The conclusion of a research paper is a synthesis of the information presented in the body. Your research has led you to conclusions and opinions that have helped you understand your thesis more deeply and more clearly. Lift your reader to the full level of understanding that you have achieved. Revision means "to look again." Find a peer reader to read your paper with you present. Or, visit your college or university's writing lab. Guide your reader's responses by asking specific questions. Are you unsure of the logical order of your paragraphs? Do you want to know whether you have supported all opinions adequately? Are you concerned about punctuation or grammar? Ask that these issues be addressed. You are in charge. Here are some techniques that may prove helpful when you are revising alone or with a reader. When you edit for spelling errors read the sentences backwards. This procedure will help you look closely at individual words. Always read your paper aloud. Hearing your own words puts them in a new light. Listen to the flow of ideas and of language. Decide whether or not the voice sounds honest and the tone is appropriate to the purpose of the paper and to your audience. Listen for awkward or lumpy wording. Find the one right word, Eliminate needless words. Combine sentences. Kill the passive voice. Eliminate was/were/is/are constructions. They're lame and anti-historical. Be ruthless. If an idea doesn't serve your thesis, banish it, even if it's one of your favorite bits of prose. In the margins, write the major topic of each paragraph. By outlining after you have written the paper, you are once again evaluating your paper's organization. OK, you've got the process down. Now execute! And enjoy! It's not everyday that you get to make history. VI. For Further Reading: Works Cited Back to Top Barnet, Sylvan, and Hugo Bedau. Critical Thinking, Reading, and Writing: A Brief Guide to Argument. Boston: Bedford, 1993. Brent, Doug. Reading as Rhetorical Invention: Knowledge,Persuasion and the Teaching of Research-Based Writing. Urbana: NCTE, 1992. Elbow, Peter. Writing without Teachers. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Gibladi, Joseph. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 4th ed. New York: Modern Language Association, 1995. Horvitz, Deborah. "Nameless Ghosts: Possession and Dispossession in Beloved." Studies in American Fiction , Vol. 17, No. 2, Autum, 1989, pp. 157-167. Republished in the Literature Research Center. Gale Group. (1 January 1999). Klauser, Henriette Anne. Writing on Both Sides of the Brain: Breakthrough Techniques for People Who Write. Philadelphia: Harper, 1986. Rico, Gabriele Lusser. Writing the Natural Way: Using Right Brain Techniques to Release Your Expressive Powers. Los Angeles: Houghton, 1983. Sorenson, Sharon. The Research Paper: A Contemporary Approach. New York: AMSCO, 1994. Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: MacMillan, 1979. Back to Top This guide adapted from materials published by Thomson Gale, publishers. For free resources, including a generic guide to writing term papers, see the Gale.com website , which also includes product information for schools.
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Special Collections/Archival Assistance

Need Help with primary sources or archival materials? LSU Libraries Special Collections has a vast collection on rare books, manuscripts, and other special research materials on a variety of topics. For more information visit their website . 

You can also make an appointment with one of the Special Collections Librarians. Contact them via email to set up an appointment. 

Alia Kempton: [email protected]

Zach Tompkins: [email protected]

Historical Research Process

Historical Research often involves these steps

  • Identify a topic or research question
  • Conduct background research on the topic or question
  • Refine or narrow research topic or question based on background research
  • Identify primary and secondary sources
  • Evaluate the sources for relevancy, authenticity, and accuracy. 
  • Analyze sources and form an argument based on information gathered 

It should be noted that the research process is rarely linear. Many of these steps may occur multiple times throughout the research process. This is normal. 

(Berg & Lune, 2012, 311 and  https://ecu.au.libguides.com/historical-research-method ) 

Primary Sources

Historical Research depends heavily on both Primary and Secondary sources

Primary sources are contemporary to the time period in which they were created. These sources can give researchers insight into various aspects of the time period in question and can be analyzed in a variety of ways depending on the research goal. 

Examples of Primary Sources include but are not limited to the following:

  • Eyewitness accounts of events
  • Newspapers from the time period
  • Personal papers
  • Legal documents
  • Public records
  • Contemporary works of literature

You typically find primary sources in archives. Archives can be associated with a larger organization such as a library, university, or government entity. They can also be independently run. 

Secondary Sources

Secondary sources are resources that are developed through an evaluation of primary source evidence. These can be scholarly or for general consumption. 

Examples of Secondary Sources include but are not limited to the following: 

  • Encyclopedias
  • Journal articles
  • Biographies
  • Documentaries

Secondary sources are typically found among library resources. 

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Comprehensive Guide to Historical Research Methods

Historical research is a meticulous process that involves the exploration and analysis of past events, societies, and cultures. This comprehensive guide aims to assist researchers and historians in navigating the intricate landscape of historical research. From understanding different methodologies to utilizing archival resources effectively, this guide provides valuable insights into the diverse approaches to historical inquiry.

Section 1: Overview of Historical Research Methodologies

1.1 Historiography and Approaches:

  • Explanation of major historiographical approaches (e.g., social history, cultural history, political history) and their significance in shaping historical research.

1.2 Comparative History:

  • Exploration of the comparative method in historical research, highlighting its uses in identifying patterns, differences, and causal relationships across different contexts.

1.3 Quantitative and Qualitative Methods:

  • Differentiation between quantitative and qualitative historical research methods, with examples of how each can be applied to historical inquiries.

Section 2: Conducting Archival Research

2.1 Introduction to Archival Research:

  • Definition and importance of archival research in historical studies, emphasizing the role of primary sources in reconstructing the past.

2.2 Selecting Archives and Repositories:

  • Guidance on choosing the right archives and repositories based on research goals, with a focus on both physical and digital collections.

2.3 Effective Use of Primary Sources:

  • Tips on extracting valuable information from primary sources, including letters, diaries, newspapers, and official documents.

2.4 Paleography and Manuscript Analysis:

  • Introduction to paleography (the study of ancient handwriting) and techniques for analyzing handwritten documents and manuscripts.

Section 3: Analyzing Historical Documents

3.1 Critical Source Analysis:

  • Techniques for critically evaluating historical sources, considering factors such as authorship, context, bias, and reliability.

3.2 Content Analysis:

  • Overview of content analysis methods for systematically examining and interpreting the content of historical documents.

3.3 Historical GIS (Geographic Information Systems):

  • Introduction to GIS applications in historical research, illustrating how spatial analysis can enhance the understanding of historical events and patterns.

Section 4: Writing and Presenting Historical Research

4.1 Structure of Historical Research Papers:

  • Guidelines for structuring a historical research paper, including the introduction, literature review, methodology, analysis, and conclusion.

4.2 Citation Styles in Historical Research:

  • Overview of common citation styles used in historical research, such as Chicago, MLA, and APA, with examples and guidelines.

4.3 Effective Presentation of Historical Findings:

  • Tips for presenting historical research in various formats, including academic articles, presentations, and exhibitions.


This comprehensive guide aims to empower researchers and historians with the tools and knowledge needed to conduct robust historical research. By understanding the diverse methodologies and utilizing archival resources effectively, scholars can contribute meaningfully to the ongoing dialogue about the past.

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Researcher's Realm

examples of historical research studies

The Princeton Guide to Historical Research

  • Zachary Schrag

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The essential handbook for doing historical research in the twenty-first century

  • Skills for Scholars

examples of historical research studies

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The Princeton Guide to Historical Research provides students, scholars, and professionals with the skills they need to practice the historian’s craft in the digital age, while never losing sight of the fundamental values and techniques that have defined historical scholarship for centuries. Zachary Schrag begins by explaining how to ask good questions and then guides readers step-by-step through all phases of historical research, from narrowing a topic and locating sources to taking notes, crafting a narrative, and connecting one’s work to existing scholarship. He shows how researchers extract knowledge from the widest range of sources, such as government documents, newspapers, unpublished manuscripts, images, interviews, and datasets. He demonstrates how to use archives and libraries, read sources critically, present claims supported by evidence, tell compelling stories, and much more. Featuring a wealth of examples that illustrate the methods used by seasoned experts, The Princeton Guide to Historical Research reveals that, however varied the subject matter and sources, historians share basic tools in the quest to understand people and the choices they made.

  • Offers practical step-by-step guidance on how to do historical research, taking readers from initial questions to final publication
  • Connects new digital technologies to the traditional skills of the historian
  • Draws on hundreds of examples from a broad range of historical topics and approaches
  • Shares tips for researchers at every skill level

Skills for Scholars: The new tools of the trade

Awards and recognition.

  • Winner of the James Harvey Robinson Prize, American Historical Association
  • A Choice Outstanding Academic Title of the Year

examples of historical research studies

  • Introduction: History Is for Everyone
  • History Is the Study of People and the Choices They Made
  • History Is a Means to Understand Today’s World
  • History Combines Storytelling and Analysis
  • History Is an Ongoing Debate
  • Autobiography
  • Everything Has a History
  • Narrative Expansion
  • From the Source
  • Public History
  • Research Agenda
  • Factual Questions
  • Interpretive Questions
  • Opposing Forces
  • Internal Contradictions
  • Competing Priorities
  • Determining Factors
  • Hidden or Contested Meanings
  • Before and After
  • Dialectics Create Questions, Not Answers
  • Copy Other Works
  • History Big and Small
  • Pick Your People
  • Add and Subtract
  • Narrative versus Thematic Schemes
  • The Balky Time Machine
  • Local and Regional
  • Transnational and Global
  • Comparative
  • What Is New about Your Approach?
  • Are You Working in a Specific Theoretical Tradition?
  • What Have Others Written?
  • Are Others Working on It?
  • What Might Your Critics Say?
  • Primary versus Secondary Sources
  • Balancing Your Use of Secondary Sources
  • Sets of Sources
  • Sources as Records of the Powerful
  • No Source Speaks for Itself
  • Languages and Specialized Reading
  • Choose Sources That You Love
  • Workaday Documents
  • Specialized Periodicals
  • Criminal Investigations and Trials
  • Official Reports
  • Letters and Petitions
  • Institutional Records
  • Scholarship
  • Motion Pictures and Recordings
  • Buildings and Plans
  • The Working Bibliography
  • The Open Web
  • Limits of the Open Web
  • Bibliographic Databases
  • Full-Text Databases
  • Oral History
  • What Is an Archive?
  • Archives and Access
  • Read the Finding Aid
  • Follow the Rules
  • Work with Archivists
  • Types of Cameras
  • How Much to Shoot?
  • Managing Expectations
  • Duck, Duck, Goose
  • Credibility
  • Avoid Catastrophe
  • Complete Tasks—Ideally Just Once, and in the Right Order
  • Maintain Momentum
  • Kinds of Software
  • Word Processors
  • Means of Entry
  • A Good Day’s Work
  • Word Count Is Your Friend
  • Managing Research Assistants
  • Research Diary
  • When to Stop
  • Note-Taking as Mining
  • Note-Taking as Assembly
  • Identify the Source, So You Can Go Back and Consult if Needed
  • Distinguish Others’ Words and Ideas from Your Own
  • Allow Sorting and Retrieval of Related Pieces of Information
  • Provide the Right Level of Detail
  • Notebooks and Index Cards
  • Word Processors for Note-Taking
  • Plain Text and Markdown
  • Reference Managers
  • Note-Taking Apps
  • Relational Databases
  • Spreadsheets
  • Glossaries and Alphabetical Lists
  • Image Catalogs
  • Other Specialized Formats
  • The Working Draft
  • Variants: The Ten- and Thirty-Page Papers
  • Thesis Statement
  • Historiography
  • Sections as Independent Essays
  • Topic Sentences
  • Answering Questions
  • Invisible Bullet Points
  • The Perils of Policy Prescriptions
  • A Model (T) Outline
  • Flexibility
  • Protagonists
  • Antagonists
  • Bit Players
  • The Shape of the Story
  • The Controlling Idea
  • Alchemy: Turning Sources to Stories
  • Turning Points
  • Counterfactuals
  • Point of View
  • Symbolic Details
  • Combinations
  • Speculation
  • Is Your Jargon Really Necessary?
  • Defining Terms
  • Word Choice as Analysis
  • Period Vocabulary or Anachronism?
  • Integrate Images into Your Story
  • Put Numbers in Context
  • Summarize Data in Tables and Graphs
  • Why We Cite
  • Citation Styles
  • Active Verbs
  • People as Subjects
  • Signposting
  • First Person
  • Putting It Aside
  • Reverse Outlining
  • Auditing Your Word Budget
  • Writing for the Ear
  • Conferences
  • Social Media
  • Coauthorship
  • Tough, Fair, and Encouraging
  • Manuscript and Book Reviews
  • Journal Articles
  • Book chapters
  • Websites and Social Media
  • Museums and Historic Sites
  • Press Appearances and Op-Eds
  • Law and Policy
  • Graphic History, Movies, and Broadway Musicals
  • Acknowledgments

"This volume is a complete and sophisticated addition to any scholar’s library and a boon to the curious layperson. . . . [A] major achievement."— Choice Reviews

"This book is quite simply a gem. . . . Schrag’s accessible style and comprehensive treatment of the field make this book a valuable resource."—Alan Sears, Canadian Journal of History

"A tour de force that will help all of us be more capable historians. This wholly readable, delightful book is packed with good advice that will benefit seasoned scholars and novice researchers alike."—Nancy Weiss Malkiel, author of "Keep the Damned Women Out": The Struggle for Coeducation

"An essential and overdue contribution. Schrag's guide offers a lucid breakdown of what historians do and provides plenty of examples."—Jessica Mack, Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, George Mason University

"Extraordinarily useful. If there is another book that takes apart as many elements of the historian's craft the way that Schrag does and provides so many examples, I am not aware of it."—James Goodman, author of But Where Is the Lamb?

"This is an engaging guide to being a good historian and all that entails."—Diana Seave Greenwald, Assistant Curator of the Collection, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

"Impressive and engaging. Schrag gracefully incorporates the voices of dozens, if not hundreds, of fellow historians. This gives the book a welcome conversational feeling, as if the reader were overhearing a lively discussion among friendly historians."—Sarah Dry, author of Waters of the World: The Story of the Scientists Who Unraveled the Mysteries of Our Oceans, Atmosphere, and Ice Sheets and Made the Planet Whole

"This is a breathtaking book—wide-ranging, wonderfully written, and extremely useful. Every page brims with fascinating, well-chosen illustrations of creative research, writing, and reasoning that teach and inspire."—Amy C. Offner, author of Sorting Out the Mixed Economy

historyprofessor.org website, maintained by Zachary M. Schrag, Professor of History at George Mason University

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Tools and techniques for historical research

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Research guide

If you are just starting out in HPS, this will be the first time for many years – perhaps ever – that you have done substantial library or museum based research. The number of general studies may seem overwhelming, yet digging out specific material relevant to your topic may seem like finding needles in a haystack. Before turning to the specific entries that make up this guide, there are a few general points that apply more widely.

Planning your research

Because good research and good writing go hand in hand, probably the single most important key to successful research is having a good topic. For that, all you need at the beginning are two things: (a) a problem that you are genuinely interested in and (b) a specific issue, controversy, technique, instrument, person, etc. that is likely to offer a fruitful way forward for exploring your problem. In the early stages, it's often a good idea to be general about (a) and very specific about (b). So you might be interested in why people decide to become doctors, and decide to look at the early career of a single practitioner from the early nineteenth century, when the evidence for this kind of question happens to be unusually good. You can get lots of advice from people in the Department about places to look for topics, especially if you combine this with reading in areas of potential interest. Remember that you're more likely to get good advice if you're able to mesh your interests with something that a potential supervisor knows about. HPS is such a broad field that it's impossible for any department to cover all aspects of it with an equal degree of expertise. It can be reassuring to know that your topic will evolve as your research develops, although it is vital that you establish some basic parameters relatively quickly. Otherwise you will end up doing the research for two, three or even four research papers or dissertations, when all you need is the material for one.

Before beginning detailed work, it's obviously a good idea to read some of the secondary literature surrounding your subject. The more general books are listed on the reading lists for the Part II lecture courses, and some of the specialist literature is listed in these research guides. This doesn't need to involve an exhaustive search, at least not at this stage, but you do need to master the fundamentals of what's been done if you're going to be in a position to judge the relevance of anything you find. If there are lectures being offered in your topic, make sure to attend them; and if they are offered later in the year, try to see if you can obtain a preliminary bibliography from the lecturer.

After that, it's usually a good idea to immerse yourself in your main primary sources as soon as possible. If you are studying a museum object, this is the time to look at it closely; if you're writing about a debate, get together the main papers relevant to it and give them a close read; if you're writing about a specific experiment, look at the published papers, the laboratory notebook, and the relevant letters. Don't spend hours in the early stages of research ferreting out hard-to-find details, unless you're absolutely positive that they are of central importance to the viability of your topic. Start to get a feel for the material you have, and the questions that might be explored further. Make an outline of the main topics that you hope to cover, organized along what you see as the most interesting themes (and remember, 'background' is not usually an interesting theme on its own).

At this stage, research can go in many different directions. At some point, you'll want to read more about the techniques other historians have used for exploring similar questions. Most fields have an established repertoire of ways of approaching problems, and you need to know what these are, especially if you decide to reject them. One of the advantages of an interdisciplinary field like HPS is that you are exposed to different and often conflicting ways of tackling similar questions. Remember that this is true within history itself, and you need to be aware of alternatives. This may well involve looking further afield, at classic books or articles that are not specifically on 'your' subject. For example, it may be that you could find some helpful ideas for a study of modern scientific portraiture in a book on the eighteenth century. The best books dealing with educational maps may not be on the astronomical ones you are studying, but on ones used for teaching classical geography. See where the inspiration for works you admire comes from, and have a look at the sources they have used. This will help you develop the kind of focussed questions that make for a successful piece of work.

As you develop an outline and begin to think through your topic in more detail, you'll be in good position to plan possible lines of research. Don't try to find out everything about your topic: pick those aspects that are likely to prove most fruitful for the direction your essay seems to be heading. For example, it may be worth spending a long time searching for biographical details about a person if their career and life are central to your analysis; but in many other cases, such issues may not be very important. If your interest is in the reception of a work, it is likely to be more fruitful to learn a lot about a few commentaries or reviews (where they appeared, who wrote them, and so forth) than to gather in randomly all the comments you can find.

Follow up hints in other people's footnotes. Works that are otherwise dull or outdated in approach are sometimes based on very solid research. One secondary reference to a crucial letter or newspaper article can save you hours of mindless trawling, and lead you straight to the information you need. Moreover, good historians often signal questions or sources that they think would be worth investigating further.

Remember that the best history almost always depends on developing new approaches and interpretations, not on knowing about a secret archive no one has used before. If you give your work time to develop, and combine research with writing, you will discover new sources, and (better still) a fresh importance for material that has supposedly been known for a long time. As you become familiar with your topic, you are likely to find that evidence you dug out at the beginning of your project is much more significant than you thought it was. In historical research, the most important evidence often isn't sitting there on the surface – it's something you need to dig out through close reading and an understanding of the situation in which the document you are studying was written, or in which the object was produced. This is especially true of instruments, paintings and other non-textual sources.

Some standard reference works

Your research should become more focussed as time goes on. Don't just gather randomly: you should always have at least some idea of why you are looking for something, and what you might hope to find. Make guesses, follow up hunches, see if an idea you have has the possibility to work out. At the beginning, it can be valuable to learn the full range of what is available, but eventually you should be following up specific issues, a bit like a detective tracing the clues to a mystery. It is at this stage of research, which is often best done in conjunction with writing up sections of your project, that knowing where to find answers to specific questions is most useful. There is nothing more disheartening than spending a week to find a crucial fact, only to discover that it's been sitting on the shelf next to you all term. The Whipple has a wide variety of guides, biographical dictionaries and bibliographies, so spend a few minutes early on looking at the reference shelves.

Every major country has a national biographical dictionary (the new version of the British one is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography , available 2004 online). For better-known scientists, a good place to start is Charles C. Gillispie (ed.) Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1970–1980). There are more specialized dictionaries for every scientific field, from entomology to astronomy. The University Library has a huge selection of biographical sources; ask your supervisor about the best ones for your purpose.

Preliminary searching for book titles and other bibliographical information is now often best done online, and every historian should know how to use the British Library's online search facility; COPAC (the UK national library database); and WorldCat (an international database). All of these are accessible through the HPS Whipple Library website (under 'other catalogues'). At the time of writing, the University Library is remains one of the few libraries of its size to have many of its records not available online, so remember that you have to check the green guard-book catalogues (and the supplementary catalogues) for most items published before 1977. It is hoped that this situation will be rectified soon. There are also numerous bibliographies for individual sciences and subjects, together with catalogues of relevant manuscripts. Most of these are listed elsewhere in this guide.

As questions arise, you will want to be able to access books and articles by other historians that touch upon your subject. There are many sources for this listed elsewhere in this guide, but you should definitely know about the Isis Current Bibliography and The Wellcome Bibliography for the History of Medicine . Both are available online, the former through the RLG History of Science, Technology and Medicine database, the latter through the website of the Wellcome Library.

Libraries and museums

Finally, a word in praise of libraries and museums. As the comments above make clear, the internet is invaluable for searching for specific pieces of information. If you need a bibliographical reference or a general reading list from a course at another university, it is an excellent place to begin. If you are looking for the source of an unidentified quotation, typing it into Google (or an appropriate database held by the University Library) will often turn up the source in seconds. Many academic journals are now online, as are the texts of many books, though not always in a paginated or citable form.

For almost all historical topics, however, libraries filled with printed books and journals will remain the principal tools for research, just as museums will continue to be essential to any work dealing with the material culture of past science. The reason for this is simple: what is on the internet is the result of decisions by people in the past decade, while libraries and museums are the product of a continuous history of collecting over several thousand years. Cambridge has some of the best collections for the history of science anywhere. Despite what is often said, this is not because of the famous manuscripts or showpiece books (these are mostly available in other ways), but because of the depth and range of its collections across the whole field. The Whipple Library is small and friendly, and has an unparalleled selection of secondary works selected over many years – don't just go for specific titles you've found in the catalogue, try browsing around, and ask the librarians for help if you can't see what you are looking for. Explore the Whipple Museum and talk to the curator and the staff. There are rich troves of material in these departmental collections, on topics ranging from phrenology and microscopy to the early development of pocket calculators. Become familiar with what the University Library has to offer: it is large and sometimes idiosyncratic, but worth getting to know well if you are at all serious about research. It is a fantastic instrument for studying the human past – the historian's equivalent of CERN or the Hubble Telescope. And all you need to get in is a student ID.

Further reading

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. William, The Craft of Research , 2nd ed. (University of Chicago Press, 2003).

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Historical Methods & Theory

"balancing" the history scales, history scholarship vs. history propogands, primary sources, secondary sources, grey area sources.

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A  primary source  is first hand evidence. It was there at the time of an event.

A  primary source  is contemporary to the period being studied.

Examples  of primary sources are: speeches, letters, comics/cartoons, songs, legislation, court decisions, journals/diaries, interviews, artifacts, autobiographies, statistics, experiments, and photographs.

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Secondary sources interpret original documents and give you background information about the topic you want to research.

Examples of secondary sources are: articles, dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks and books that interpret or review research works.

Sometimes secondary sources can become primary sources. It all depends on how you are using the source.

If you use the source as supporting material for your argument and you are not interpreting the author's intentions or societal influences, it is a secondary source. However, if you use the source as an example for your argument and are interpreting the material, it is a primary source.

For example, if you are doing research on the current economic crisis and you are using newspaper articles to cite what the situation is (such as the banks declaring bankruptcy, unemployment, etc.), the articles are secondary sources. On the other hand, if you are doing research on the economic crisis in the 1930s and discussing the climate of the time, the articles become primary sources.

Common grey areas of historic research include:

  • Newspapers/Magazines
  • Encyclopedias
  • History Texts

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Introduction to Historical Research : Primary Sources

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What are Primary Sources?

Primary sources were either created during the time period being researched or were created at a later date by a participant in the events being examined (as in the case of memoirs).  They often reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer.  Primary sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period and can serve as evidence in making an historical argument.

Examples include:


  •  Audio recordings (e.g. radio programs)
  •  Diaries
  •  Interviews (e.g., oral histories, telephone, e-mail)
  •  Journal articles published in peer-reviewed publications
  •  Letters
  •  Newspaper articles written at the time
  •  Original Documents (i.e. birth certificate, will, marriage license, trial transcript)
  •  Patents
  •  Photographs
  •  Proceedings of Meetings, conferences and symposia
  •  Records of organizations, government agencies
  •  Speeches
  •  Survey Research (e.g., market surveys, public opinion polls)
  •  Video recordings (e.g. television programs)
  •  Works of art, architecture, literature, and music
  •  Web sites
  • How to read a primary source
  • Why Study History Through Primary Sources?
  • Using Historical Sources
  • Primary Sources Research guide

Primary Source Databases

Below are sample library subscription databases with digitized primary sources. More can be found on the Historical/Primary Sources page.

  • American West Contains manuscript materials, broadsides, maps, and printed items documenting the history of the American West from the 18th century to the early 20th century.
  • Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830–1863 15,000 articles and documents written by Black abolitionists during the antebellum period in the United States, Canada, and Europe. The contents include correspondence, speeches, sermons, lectures by African-American leaders; articles and essays published in African-American, abolitionist, and reform newspapers; and related documents.
  • British and Irish Women's Letters and Diaries 1500 - 1950 A vast collection of British and Irish women's diaries and correspondence, spanning more than 300 years, it brings the personal experiences of nearly 500 women.
  • Caribbean Views Caribbean Views draws from the British Library's collection of maps, manuscripts, printed books and newspapers relating to the British West Indies to conjure up a vivid picture of life in the English-speaking Caribbean during the 18th and early 19th centuries. The Library's holdings of material relating to the English slave trade and slavery are particularly strong.
  • Defining Gender 50,000 images of original documents from five centuries of advice literature and related material, from diaries, advice and conduct books, as well as articles from medical and other journals, ballads, cartoons, and pamphlets, all from Europe. Much of the material is British in origin.
  • Early American Imprints, Series I. Evans (1639-1800) The Evans collection is a definitive resource for all aspects of American life in the 17th and 18th centuries. Based on the renowned American Bibliography by Charles Evans and Roger Bristol's Supplement to Evans' American Bibliography. With these bibliographies, Evans and Bristol attempted to identify all works published in America through 1800.
  • Early Encounters in North America--Peoples, Cultures and the Environment Contains 1,482 authors and over 100,000 pages of letters, diaries, memoirs and accounts of early encounters.
  • Early English Books Online Early English Books Online (EEBO) provides full-text images of almost all the books printed in England and her colonies from the beginning of printing to 1700 (about 125,000 titles). more... less... You can search for books on your topic by author, title,and keyword, or search just for illustrations from these books if you wish. EEBO includes the items listed in Pollard & Redgrave's Short-Title Catalogue (1475-1640), Wing's Short-Title Catalogue (1641-1700), the Thomason Tracts (1640-1661), and additional supplementary materials. Gradually, searchable electronic text versions of a selection of these books are being added to the project. These searchable texts are called: EEBO-TCP, the Early English Books Online Text Creation Project. Eventually both EEBO and EEBO-TCP will be combined into one database. For now, in addition to using using Early English Books Online (EEBO), check EEBO-TCP if you want to do want to do keyword searching within an individual work.
  • Eighteenth Century Collections Online An online library of over 180,000 titles published between 1701 and 1800, and printed in English-speaking countries, or countries under British colonial rule. Includes books, pamphlets, essays, broadsides and more. more... less... The majority of works in ECCO are in the English language but there are also works printed in Dutch, French, German, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Welsh. Based on the English Short Title Catalogue Works published in the UK during the 18th century plus thousands from elsewhere
  • Electronic Enlightenment Contains correspondence between the greatest thinkers and writers of the eighteenth century and their families and friends, bankers and booksellers, patrons and publishers. It is an aggregation of 53,000 primary source letters from more than 6,000 writers and numerous presses. more... less... An ongoing scholarly research project of the University of Oxford and other universities and organizations, Electronic Enlightenment offers access to the web of correspondence between the greatest thinkers and writers of the eighteenth century and their families and friends, bankers and booksellers, patrons and publishers. EE is an aggregation of 53,000 primary source letters from more than 6,000 writers and numerous presses. Readers can explore writer's views on history, literature, language, arts, philosophy, science, medicine, and personal, social and political relations.
  • Everyday Life and Women in America c.1800–1920 Hundreds of monographs illuminating all aspects of family life. Also includes periodicals and pamphlets. more... less... Fully-searchable access to 75 rare periodicals ranging from Echoes of the South (Florida) and the Household Magazine (North Carolina) to Lucifer the Lightbearer (Chicago), The Heathen Woman's Friend (Boston) and Women's Work (Georgia). * A rich collection of rare pamphlets. * Hundreds of monographs illuminating all aspects of family life all of which have been screened against Gerritsen, Shaw-Shoemaker, and other relevant projects to avoid needless duplication. * Insightful contextual essays by leading scholars that will help to point students at valuable resources. * Strong coverage of prescriptive literature and manuals for domestic management telling us much about the organisation of the home.
  • Gerritsen Collection: Women's History Online The Gerritsen Collection includes books and periodicals from around the world which document the condition of women, the evolution of feminist consciousness, and women's rights. more... less... The Gerritsen Collection includes books and periodicals from around the world which document the condition of women, the evolution of feminist consciousness, and women's rights. More than 4,000 books and 265 periodicals in the collection are primarily in English with German, French, and Dutch-language materials strongly represented. Other languages included are Italian, Spanish, Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Scandinavian.
  • Library of Latin Texts Contains 3,200 works that are attributed to approximately 950 authors. more... less... The texts which are incorporated are selected by virtue of their having been edited according to best contemporary scholarly practice. Independent research is undertaken to verify facts relating to the text, such as the veracity of the authorial attribution or the dating.
  • Nineteenth Century Collections Online Nineteenth Century Collections Online unites multiple, distinct archives into a single resource, including a wide variety of previously unavailable primary sources ranging from books and monographs, newspapers and periodicals, diaries and personal letters, manuscripts, photographs, pamphlets, and maps. more... less... Initial archival modules include: British Politics and Society; European Literature, 1790-1840: The Corvey Collection; Asia and the West: Diplomacy and Cultural Exchange; and British Theatre, Music, and Literature: High and Popular Culture.
  • North American Immigrant Letters, Diaries and Oral Histories Provides a unique and personal view of what it meant to immigrate to America and Canada between 1800 and 1950. Composed of contemporaneous letters and diaries, oral histories, interviews, and other personal narratives. more... less... In selected cases, users will be able to hear the actual audio voices of the immigrants. The collection will be particularly useful to researchers, because much of the original material is difficult to find, poorly indexed, and unpublished; most bibliographies of the immigrant focus on secondary research; and few oral histories have been published.
  • North American Women's Letters and Diaries (Colonial to 1950) Provides a collection of published and unpublished women's diaries and correspondence, drawn from more than 1,000 sources, including journal articles, pamphlets, newsletters, monographs, and conference proceedings.
  • Oxford African American Studies Center Over 1,000 images, primary sources with specially written commentaries, and over 100 maps have been collected to enhance this reference content related to the African American experience.
  • Past Masters Provides access to searchable full text databases of primary works, letters, journals, and notebooks from important philosophers and women writers. All titles are in the English language, either original as written or in translation.
  • Sixties The Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives, 1960 to 1974 documents the key events, trends, and movements in 1960s America. more... less... The Sixties: Primary Documents and Personal Narratives, 1960 to 1974 documents the key events, trends, and movements in 1960s America vividly conveying the zeitgeist of the decade and its effects into the middle of the next. Alongside 70,000 pages of letters, diaries, and oral histories, there are more than 30,000 pages of posters, broadsides, pamphlets, advertisements, and rare audio and video materials. The collection is further enhanced by dozens of scholarly document projects, featuring richly annotated primary-source content that is analyzed and contextualized through interpretive essays by leading historians.
  • Twentieth Century Advice Literature This collection includes how-to books and guides; employee manuals, sorority and fraternity pledge manuals; scouting manuals; textbooks; commercial literature; and government manuals. more... less... Twentieth Century Advice Literature focuses on gender roles and relations, American consumerism, views of democratic citizenship, character development for children, changes in reaction to each major war (including World Wars I and II, Korea, and Vietnam), class relations, and adjustments to new technology (such as proper manners when using the telephone, point-and-shoot camera, or e-mail). Included are how-to books and guides; employee manuals, sorority and fraternity pledge manuals; scouting manuals; textbooks that deal with home economics, health and hygiene, and sex education; teacher-training and course manuals; commercial literature that promotes specific behaviors; and government instruction manuals for a variety of workplaces and industries.
  • Women and Social Movements in the United States Document projects that interpret and present materials, many of which are not otherwise available online, in U.S. history and U.S. women's history.

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About the journal

Published since 1923,  Historical Research , flagship publication of the  Institute of Historical Research , is a leading generalist history journal, covering the global history of the early middle ages to the twenty-first century...

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Classic articles from the recent archives

The new virtual issue from Historical Research shines a light on some of the classic articles from the journal’s recent archive. It features some of the most read and most cited articles from the journal’s archives and covers a wide range of topics of perennial interest to both historians and to a wider readership.

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2020 Historical Research lecture, video now available

The video of this year's lecture -- 'Writing histories of 2020' -- held on 29 July, is now available. With panellists Professors Jo Fox, Claire Langhamer, Kevin Siena and Richard Vinen who discuss historians' responses to COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter.

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IHR guide to free research resources

From April 2020, the Institute of Historical Research has created a listing of free research materials for historians currently unable to access libraries and archives. The list is regularly extended as researchers offer new suggestions.

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Latest articles

Latest posts on x, on history blog, using the bibliography of british and irish history (bbih) as a phd research tool – phil winterbottom , glimpses of a transnational life: frank mathew and imports of everyday goods in fifteenth century london., bibliography of british and irish history february 2024 update , new lgbtq+ history acquisitions in the ihr library, victoria county history smartphone app: retirement, the annual pollard prize, about the prize.

The Pollard Prize is awarded annually for the best paper presented at an Institute of Historical Research seminar by a postgraduate student or by a researcher within one year of completing the PhD. The prize is supported by Oxford University Press.

Find out more about the prize and eligibility requirements on the IHR website .

2021 prize winners

Congratulations to Merve Fejzula for winning the Annual Pollard Prize for 2021 with their paper 'Toward a History of Intellectual Labor: Gender, Negritude, and the Black Public Sphere.' Congratulations also to runner up Lucy Clarke  for their paper '"I say I must for I am the King’s shrieve": magistrates invoking the monarch’s name in 1 Henry VI (1592) and The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntingdon (1598)'.

Both papers will be published in  Historical Research  in due course.


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Chapter 16. Archival and Historical Research


The British sociologist John Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) once remarked, “Any sociologist who is concerned with a theory that can be tested in the present should so test it, in the first place; for it is, in all probability, in this way that it can be tested most rigorously” ( 33 ). Testing can be done through either qualitative or quantitative methods or some mixture of the two. But sometimes a theory cannot be tested in the present at all. What happens when the persons or phenomena we are interested in happened in the past? It’s hardly possible to interview the people involved in abolishing the slave trade, for example. Does this mean social scientists have no role to play in understanding past phenomena? Not at all. People leave traces behind, and although these traces may not be exactly as we would like them to be had we ordered them (as, in a way, we do when we construct an interview guide or a survey with the questions we want answered), they are nevertheless full of potential for exploration and analysis. For examining traces left by persons, we turn to archival methods, the subject of this chapter.

examples of historical research studies

Things happening in the past are not the only reason we turn to archival methods. Sometimes, the people we are interested in are inaccessible to us for other reasons. For example, we are probably not going to be able to sit down and ask Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, and Jeff Bezos a long list of questions about what it is like to be wealthy. And it is even more unlikely that we can get into the boardrooms of Facebook (Meta), Microsoft, or Amazon to watch how corporate decisions are made. But these men and these companies still leave traces, through public records, media reportage, and public meeting minutes. We can use archival methods here too. They might not be quite as good as face-to-face interviews with billionaires or deep ethnographies of corporate culture, but they are nevertheless valid forms of research with much to tell us.

This chapter introduces archival methods of data collection. We begin by exploring in more detail why and when archival methods should be employed and with what limitations. We then discuss the importance of special collections and archives as potential gold mines for social science research. We will explain how to access these places, for what purposes, and how to begin to make sense of what you find.

Disciplinary Segue: Why Social Scientists Don’t Leave Archives to the Historians

One might suppose that only historians look at the past and that historical archives are no place for social scientists. Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) even suggested this. But it would be a mistake to leave historical analyses entirely to historians because historians “typically do not understand our [social science] intellectual and organizational projects.…Social scientists must learn to use the materials that historians have staked out traditionally as their own” ( Hill 1993:4 ). The key difference for our purposes between history and social science is how each discipline understands the goals of its work and how to understand social life. Historians are (mostly) committed to an idiographic approach, where each case is explored to understand itself (this is the “idios” part, where ιδιοs is Ancient Greek for single self). [1] As an example of an idiographic approach, a historian might study the events of January 6, 2021, to understand how a violent mob attempted to stop the electoral count. This might mean tracing motivations back to beliefs in fanciful conspiracies, measuring the impact of Donald Trump’s rhetoric on the violence, or any number of interesting facts and circumstances about that day and what led up to it. But the focus would remain on understanding this case itself. In contrast, social scientists are (mostly) committed to nomothetic research, in which generalizations about the social world are made to understand large-scale social patterns. [2] Whether this generalization is statistical, as quantitative research produces (e.g., we can predict this outcome in other cases and places based on measurable relationships among variables), or theoretical, as qualitative research produces (e.g., we can expect to find similar patterns between conspiratorial belief and action), the point of (most) social science research is to explain the world in such a way that we can possibly expect (if not outright predict) what will happen or be believed in a different place and time . Social scientists are engaged in this “scientific” project of prediction (loosely understood), while historians are (usually) not. It is for this reason that social scientists should not leave archival research to the historians!

When to Use Archival Materials

As mentioned above, sometimes the people we want to hear from or observe are simply not available to us. This may be because they are no longer living or because they are unwilling or unable to be part of a research study, as in the case of elites (e.g., CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, political leaders and other public figures, the very wealthy). In both cases, you might wonder about the ethics of studying people who have not given written consent to be studied. But using archival and historical sources as your research data is not the same thing as studying persons (“human subjects”). When we use archival and historical sources, we are examining the traces that people and institutions have left. Institutional review boards (IRBs) do not have jurisdiction in this area, although we still want to consider the ethics of our research and try to respect privacy and confidentiality when warranted.

In addition to using archival and historical sources when people are inaccessible, there are other reasons we might want to collect this data. First, we may want to explore the generalized discourse about a phenomenon. [3] For example, perhaps we want to understand the historical context of the 2016 US presidential election, so we think it is important to go back in time and collect data that will more vividly paint a picture of how people at the time were evaluating and experiencing the election. We might use archives to collect data about what people were saying about the third presidential debate in 2016 between candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. There are many ways we could go about doing that. We could sample local and national newspapers and collect op-eds and letters to the editor about the debate. Perhaps we can get Twitter feeds #thirddebate , or perhaps some librarian in 2016 collected oral histories of people’s reactions the day after. Unlike previous person-focused qualitative research strategies, where we carefully create a research design that allows us to construct data through questioning and observing, we will spend our time tracking down data and finding out what possibly exists.

A second (or third) reason to employ these archival and historical sources is that we are interested in the historical “record” as the phenomenon itself. We want to know what was written down by Acme Company in letters to its shareholders from 1945 to 1960 about its Acme Pocket Sled (which had the unfortunate habit of accelerating and hurling its bearers off cliffs). [4] Our interest here is not in any particular human subject but in the record left by the company. If we were forced to employ interviews or observational methods to get this record, we could interview current and former employees of Acme or shareholders who received letters from the company, but all of this would actually be second best because what the employees and shareholders remember would probably be nowhere near as accurate as what the records reflect. I once did a study of the development of US political party platforms over the course of the nineteenth century, using a huge volume I randomly found in the library ( Hurst 2010b ). The volume recorded each party’s platform by election year, so I could trace how parties talked about and included “class” and “class inequality” in their platforms. This allowed me to show how third parties pushed the two major parties toward some recognition of labor rights over time. There was obviously no way to get at this information through interviews or observations.

Finally, archival and historical sources are often used to supplement other qualitative data collection as a form of verification through triangulation. Perhaps you interviewed several Starbucks employees in 2021 about their experiences working for the company, particularly how the company responded to labor organizing attempts. You might also search official Starbucks company records to compare and contrast the official line with the experience of workers. Alternatively, you could collect media coverage of local organizing campaigns that might include quotes or statements from Starbucks representatives. The best and most convincing qualitative researchers often employ archival and historical material in this way. In addition to providing verification through triangulation, supplementing your data with these sources can deepen contextualization. I encourage you to think about what possible archival and historical sources could strengthen any interview or observational-based study you are designing. [5]

How to Find Archival and Historical Sources

People and institutions leave traces in a variety of ways. This section documents some of those ways with the hope that the possibilities listed here will inspire you to explore further.

It might help to distinguish between public and private sources. Many public archives have dedicated web addresses so you can search them from anywhere. More on those below. Private individuals are more likely to have donated personal information to particular archives, perhaps the archival center associated with the college they attended. Famous and not-so-famous people’s diaries and letters are often searchable in particular university archives. Each former US president has his (!) own dedicated national archive. Towns and cities often house interesting historical records in their public libraries. Archivists and librarians at special archives have often done monumental work creating and curating collections of various kinds. Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives Research Center (SCARC) is no exception. In addition to a ton of material related to the history of the university, including private diaries of students, financial aid records, and photographs of carpentry classes from the nineteenth century, the librarians have documented the experiences of LGBTQ people within OSU and Corvallis, the history of hops and brewing in the Northwest, and the history of natural resources in the Pacific Northwest, especially around agriculture and forestry.

Oregon State University’s Special Collections and Archives, The Douglas Strain Reading Room.

It can be overwhelming to think about where to start. Being strategic about your use of archival and historical material is often a large part of an effective research plan. Here are some options for kinds of materials to explore:

Public archives include the following:

  • Commercial media accounts . These are anything written, drawn, or recorded that is produced for a general audience, including newspapers, books, magazines, television program transcripts, drawn comics, and so on.
  • Where to find these: special collections, online newspaper/magazine databases, collected publications [6]
  • Examples: Time Magazine Vault is completely free and covers everything the magazine published from 1923 to today; Harper’s Magazine archives go back to 1859; Internet Archive’s Ebony collection is a wealth of historically important images and stories about African American life in the twentieth century and covers the magazine from 1945 to 2015.
  • Actuarial and military records . These include birth and death records, records of marriages and divorces, applications for insurance and credit, military service records, and cemeteries (gravestones).
  • Where to find these: state archives/state vital records offices, US Census / government agencies, US National Archives
  • Examples: USAgov/genealogy will help you walk through the ordering of various vital records related to ancestry; US Census 1950 includes information on household size and occupation for all persons living in the US in 1950; [7] your local historical cemetery will have lots of information recorded on gravestones of possible historical use, as the case where deaths are clustered around a particular point in time or where military service is involved.
  • Official and quasi-official documentary records . These include organization meeting minutes, reports to shareholders, interoffice memos, company emails, company newsletters, and so on.
  • Where to find these: Historical records are often donated to a special collection or are even included in an official online database. More recent records may have been “leaked” to the public, as in the case of the Democratic National Committee’s emails in 2016 or the Panama (2016) and Pandora (2021) Papers leaks. The National Archives are also a great source for official documentary records of the US and its various organizations and branches (e.g., Supreme Court, US Patent Office).
  • Examples: The Forest History Society’s Weyerhauser Collection holds correspondences, director and executive files, branch and region files, advertising materials, oral histories, scrapbooks, publications, photographs, and audio/visual items documenting the activities of the Pacific Northwest timber company from its inception in 1864 through to 2010; the National Archive’s Lewis and Clark documents include presidential correspondences and a list of “presents” received from Native Americans.
  • Governmental and legislative documentary records
  • Where to find these: National Archives, state archives, Library of Congress, governmental agency records (often available in public libraries)
  • Example: Records of the Supreme Court of the United States are housed in the National Archives and include scrapbooks from 1880 to 1935 on microfilm, sound recordings, and case files going back to 1792.

Private archives include the following:

  • Autobiographies and memoirs . These might have been published, but they are just as likely to have been written for oneself or one’s family, with no intention of publication. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: if not published, special collections and archives
  • Example: John Adger McCrary graduated from Clemson University in 1898, where he received a degree in mechanical and electrical engineering. After graduation, he was stationed at the Washington Navy Yard as senior mechanical engineer. He donated a 1939 unpublished memoir regarding the early days of Clemson College, which includes a description of the first dormitory being built by convict labor.
  • Diaries and letters . These are probably not intended for publication; rather, they are contemporaneous private accounts and correspondences. Some of these have been digitized, but others will require an actual visit to the site to see the physical object itself.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress for notable persons’ diaries and letters
  • Examples: Abraham Lincoln’s Papers housed in the Library of Congress; Diary of Ella Mae Cloake , an OSU student, from 1941 to 1944, documenting her daily activities as a high school and college student in Oregon during World War II, located in OSU Special Collections and Archives
  • Home movies, videos, photographs of various kinds . These include drawings and sketches, recordings of places seen and visited, scrapbooks, and other ephemera. People leave traces in various forms, so it is best not to confine yourself solely to what has been written.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives, Library of Congress, Smithsonian
  • Example: The McMenamins Brewery Collection at OSU SCARC includes digitized brew sheets, digital images, brochures, coasters, decals, event programs, flyers, newspaper clippings, tap handles, posters, labels, a wooden cask, and a six-pack of Hammerhead beer.
  • Oral histories . Oral histories are recorded and often transcribed interviews of various persons for purposes of historic documentation. To the untrained eye, they appear to be qualitative “interviews,” but they are in fact specifically excluded from IRB jurisdiction because their purpose is documentation, not research.
  • Where to find these: special collections and archives; Smithsonian
  • Examples: Many archivists and librarians are involved in the collecting of such oral histories, often with a particular theme in mind or to strengthen a particular collection. For example, OSU’s SCARC has an Oregon Multicultural Archive, which includes oral histories that document the experiences and perspectives of people of color in Oregon. The Smithsonian is another great resource on a wide variety of historical events and persons.

How to Find Special Collections and Archives

Although much material has been “digitized” and is thus searchable online, the vast majority of private archival material, including ephemera like scrapbooks and beer coasters, is only available “on site.” Qualitative researchers who employ archival and historical sources must often travel to special collections to find the material they are interested in. Often, the material they want has never really been looked at by another researcher. It may belong to a general catalog entry (such as “Student Scrapbooks, 1930–1950”). For official records at the city or county level, travel to the records office or local public library is often required to access the desired material. You will want to consider what kinds of material are available and what kinds of access are required for that material in your research plan.

The good news is that, even if much material has not been digitized, there are general searchable databases for most archives. If you have a particular topic of interest, you can run a general web search and include the topic and “archives” or “special collection.” The more public and well known the entity, the more likely you will find digitally available material or special collections dedicated to the person or phenomenon. Or you might find an archive housed one thousand miles away that is happy to work with you on a visit. Some researchers become very familiar with a particular collection or database and tend to rely on that in their research. As you gain experience with historical documents, you will find it easier to narrow down your searches. One great place to start, though, is your college or university archives. And the librarians who work there will be more than happy to help answer your questions about both the particular collections housed there and how to do archival research in general.

What to Do with All That Content

Once you have found a collection or body of material, what do you do with that? Analyzing content will be discussed in some detail in chapter 17, but for now, let’s think about what can be made of this kind of material and what cannot. As Goldthorpe ( 2000 ) suggested, using historical material or traces left by people is sometimes second best to actually talking to people or observing them in action. We have to be very clear about recognizing the limitations of what we find in the archives.

First, not everything produced manages to survive the ravages of time. Without digitization, historical records are vulnerable to a host of destroyers. Some vital records get destroyed when the local registry burns down, for example. Some memoirs or diaries are destroyed from mildew while sitting in a box in the basement. Photographs get torn up. Boxes of records get accidentally thrown in the garbage. We call this the historical-trace problem. What we have in front of us is thus probably not the entire record of whatever it is we are looking for.

Second, what gets collected is itself often related to who has power and who is perceived as being worthy of recording and collection. This is why projects like OSU’s multicultural archives are so important, as librarians intervene to ensure that it is not only the stories (diaries, papers) of the powerful that are found in the archives. If one were to read all the newspaper editorials from the nineteenth century, one would learn a lot about particular White men’s thoughts on current events but very little from women or people of color or working-class people. This is the power problem of archives, and we need to be aware of it, especially when we are using historical material to build a context of what a time or place was like. What it was like for whom always needs to be properly addressed.

Third, there are issues related to truth telling and audience. There are no at-the-moment credibility checks on the materials you find in archives. Although we think people tend to write honestly in their personal journals, we don’t actually know if this is the case—what about the person who expected to be famous and writes for an imagined posterity? There could be significant gaps and even falsehoods in such an account. People can lie to themselves too, which is something qualitative researchers know well (and partly the reason ethnographers favor observation over interviews). Despite the absence of credibility checks, historical documents sometimes appear more honest simply by having survived for so long. It is important to remember that they are prone to all the same problems as contemporaneously collected data. A diary by a planter in South Carolina in the 1840s is no more and often less truthful to the facts than an interview would have been had it been possible. Newspapers and magazines have always targeted particular audiences—a fact we understand about our own media (e.g., Fox News is hardly “fair and balanced” toward Democrats) but something we are prone to overlook when reading historic media stories.

Whenever using archival or historical sources, then, it is important to clearly identify and state the limitations of their use and any intended audience. In the case of diaries of Southern planters from the 1840s, “This is the story we get told from the point of view of relatively elite White men whose work was collected and safeguarded (and not destroyed) for posterity.” Or in the case of a Harper’s Magazine story from the 1950s, “This is an understanding of Eisenhower politics by a liberal magazine read by a relatively well-educated and affluent audience.”

Collecting the data for an archival-based study is just the beginning. Once you have downloaded all the advertisements from Men’s Health or compiled all the tweets put out on January 6 or scanned all the photographs of the childcare center in the 1950s, you will need to start “analyzing” it. What does that analysis entail? That is the subject of our next several chapters.

Further Readings

Baker, Alan R. H. 1997. “‘The Dead Don’t Answer Questionnaires’: Researching and Writing Historical Geography.” Journal of Geography in Higher Education 21(2):231–243. Among other things, this article discusses the problems associated with making geographical interpretations from historical sources.

Benzecry, Claudio, Andrew Deener, and Armando Lara-Millán. 2020. “Archival Work as Qualitative Sociology.” Qualitative Sociology 43:297–303. An editorial foreword to an issue of Qualitative Sociology dedicated to archival research briefly describing included articles (many of which you may want to read). Distinguishes the “heroic moment of data accumulation” from the “ascetic and sober exercise of distancing oneself from the data, analyzing it, and communicating the meaning to others.” For advanced students only.

Bloch, Marc. 1954. The Historian’s Craft . Manchester: Manchester University Press. A classic midcentury statement of what history is and does from a research perspective. Bloch’s particular understanding and approach to history has resonance for social science too.

Fones-Wolf, Elizabeth A. 1994. Selling Free Enterprise: The Business Assault on Labor and Liberalism, 1945–60 . Urbana: University of Illinois Press.* Using corporate records, published advertisements, and congressional testimony (among other sources), Fones-Wolf builds an impressive account of a coordinated corporate campaign against labor unions and working people in the postwar years.

Hill, Michael R. 1993. Archival Strategies and Techniques . Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE. Guidebook to archival research. For advanced students.

Moore, Niamh, Andrea Salter, Liz Stanley, and Maria Tamboukou. 2017. The Archive Project: Archival Research in the Social Sciences . London: Routledge. An advanced collection of essays on various methodological ideas and debates in archival research.

Stoler, Ann Laura. 2009. Along the Archival Grain: Epistemic Anxieties and Colonial Common Sense . Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.* A difficult but rewarding read for advanced students. Using archives in Indonesia, Stoler explores the history of colonialism and the making of racialized classes while also proposing and demonstrating innovative archival methodologies.

Wilder, Craig Stevens. 2014. Ebony and Ivory: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities . London: Bloomsbury.* Although perhaps more history than social science, this is a great example of using university archival data to tell a story about national development, racism, and the role of universities.

  • This is where the word idiot comes from as well; in Ancient Greece, failing to participate in collective democracy making was seen as “idiotic”—or, put another way, selfish. ↵
  • This word also comes from Greek roots, although it was created recently (we often rummage around in Ancient Greek and Latin when we come up with new concepts!). In Greek, nomos (νομος) means “law.” The use here makes much of the generation of laws or regularities about the social world in the sense of Newton’s “law” of gravity. ↵
  • If this is your interest, see also chapter 17, “Content Analysis”! ↵
  • For those of you too young to remember, this was a standard plot of Looney Tunes cartoons featuring Wile E. Coyote ( Frazier 1990 ). ↵
  • Note that this would be an example of strength through multiple methods rather than strength through mixed methods (chapter 15). The former deepens the contextualization, while the latter increases the overall validity of the findings. ↵
  • Such as that volume of party platforms I stumbled across in the library! ↵
  • US Census material becomes available to the public seventy years after collection; Census data from the 1950s recently became available for the very first time. ↵

A form of social science research that generally follows the scientific method as established in the natural sciences.  In contrast to idiographic research , the nomothetic researcher looks for general patterns and “laws” of human behavior and social relationships.  Once discovered, these patterns and laws will be expected to be widely applicable.  Quantitative social science research is nomothetic because it seeks to generalize findings from samples to larger populations.  Most qualitative social science research is also nomothetic, although generalizability is here understood to be theoretical in nature rather than statistical .  Some qualitative researchers, however, espouse the idiographic research paradigm instead.

An administrative body established to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects recruited to participate in research activities conducted under the auspices of the institution with which it is affiliated. The IRB is charged with the responsibility of reviewing all research involving human participants. The IRB is concerned with protecting the welfare, rights, and privacy of human subjects. The IRB has the authority to approve, disapprove, monitor, and require modifications in all research activities that fall within its jurisdiction as specified by both the federal regulations and institutional policy.

Introduction to Qualitative Research Methods Copyright © 2023 by Allison Hurst is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.

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How Institutions Use Historical Research Methods to Provide Historical Perspectives

student woman library books

Historical research methods enable institutions to collect facts, chronological data, and other information relevant to their interests. But historical research is more than compiling a record of past events; it provides institutions with valuable insights about the past to inform current cultural, political, and social dynamics.

Historical research methods primarily involve collecting information from primary and secondary sources. While differences exist between these sources, organizations and institutions can use both types of sources to assess historical events and provide proper context comprehensively.

Using historical research methods, historians provide institutions with historical insights that can give perspectives on the future.

Individuals interested in advancing their careers as historians can pursue an advanced degree, such as a Master of Arts in History , to help them develop a systematic understanding of historical research and learn about the use of digital tools for acquiring, accessing, and managing historical information.

An Overview of Historical Research Methods

Historians use historical research methods to obtain data from primary and secondary sources and, then, assess how the information contributes to understanding a historical period or event. Historical research methods are used with primary and secondary sources. Below is a description of each type of source.

What Is a Primary Source?              

Primary sources—raw data containing first-person accounts and documents—are foundational to historical and academic research. Examples of primary sources include eyewitness accounts of historical events, written testimonies, public records, oral representations, legal documents, artifacts, photographs, art, newspaper articles, diaries, and letters. Individuals often can find primary sources in archives and collections in universities, libraries, and historical societies.

A primary source, also known as primary data, is often characterized by the time of its creation. For example, individuals studying the U.S. Constitution’s beginnings can use The Federalist Papers, a collection of essays by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, written from October 1787 to May 1788, as a primary source for their research. In this example, the information was witnessed firsthand and created at the time of the event.

What Is a Secondary Source?              

Primary sources are not always easy to find. In the absence of primary sources, secondary sources can play a vital role in describing historical events. A historian can create a secondary source by analyzing, synthesizing, and interpreting information or data provided in primary sources. For example, a modern-day historian may use The Federalist Papers and other primary sources to reveal historical insights about the series of events that led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution. As a result, the secondary source, based on historical facts, becomes a reliable source of historical data for others to use to create a comprehensive picture of an event and its significance.

The Value of Historical Research for Providing Historical Perspectives

Current global politics has its roots in the past. Historical research offers an essential context for understanding our modern society. It can inform global concepts, such as foreign policy development or international relations. The study of historical events can help leaders make informed decisions that impact society, culture, and the economy.

Take, for example, the Industrial Revolution. Studying the history of the rise of industry in the West helps to put the current world order in perspective. The recorded events of that age reveal that the first designers of the systems of industry, including the United States, dominated the global landscape in the following decades and centuries. Similarly, the digital revolution is creating massive shifts in international politics and society. Historians play a pivotal role in using historical research methods to record and analyze information about these trends to provide future generations with insightful historical perspectives.

In addition to creating meaningful knowledge of global and economic affairs, studying history highlights the perspectives of people and groups who triumphed over adversity. For example, the historical fights for freedom and equality, such as the struggle for women’s voting rights or ending the Jim Crow era in the South, offer relevant context for current events, such as efforts at criminal justice reform.

History also is the story of the collective identity of people and regions. Historical research can help promote a sense of community and highlight the vibrancy of different cultures, creating opportunities for people to become more culturally aware and empowered.

The Tools and Techniques of Historical Research Methods

A primary source is not necessarily an original source. For example, not everyone can access the original essays written by Hamilton because they are precious and must be preserved and protected. However, thanks to digitization, institutions can access, manage, and interpret essential information, artifacts, and images from the essays without fear of degradation.

Using technology to digitize historical information creates what is known as digital history. It offers opportunities to advance scholarly research and expand knowledge to new audiences. For example, individuals can access a digital copy of The Federalist Papers from the Library of Congress’s website anytime, from anywhere. This digital copy can still serve as a primary source because it contains the same content as the original paper version created hundreds of years ago.

As more primary and secondary sources are digitized, researchers are increasingly using artificial intelligence (AI) to search, gather, and analyze these sources. An AI method known as optical character recognition can help historians with digital research. Historians also can use AI techniques to close gaps in historical information. For example, an AI system developed by DeepMind uses deep neural networks to help historians recreate missing pieces and restore ancient Greek texts on stone tablets that are thousands of years old.

As digital tools associated with historical research proliferate, individuals seeking to advance in a history career need to develop technical skills to use advanced technology in their research. Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History program prepares students with knowledge of historical research methods and critical technology skills to advance in the field of history.

Prepare to Make an Impact

Through effective historical research methods, institutions, organizations, and individuals can learn the significance of past events and communicate important insights for a better future. In museums, government agencies, universities and colleges, nonprofits, and historical associations, the combination of technology and historical research plays a central role in extending the reach of historical information to new audiences. It can also guide leaders charged with making important decisions that can impact geopolitics, society, economic development, community building, and more.

Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History prepares students with knowledge of historical research methods and skills to use technology to advance their careers across many industries and fields of study. The program’s curriculum offers students the flexibility to choose from four concentrations—Public History, American History, World History, or Legal and Constitutional History—to customize their studies based on their career goals and personal interests.

Learn how Norwich University’s online Master of Arts in History degree can prepare individuals for career success in the field of history.

Recommended Readings

What Is Digital History? A Guide to Digital History Resources, Museums, and Job Description Old World vs. New World History: A Curriculum Comparison How to Become a Researcher

Getting Started with Primary Sources , Library of Congress What Is a Primary Source? , ThoughtCo. Full Text of The Federalist Papers , Library of Congress Digital History , The Inclusive Historian’s Handbook Historians in Archives , American Historical Association The Value of History Statement , History Relevance How AI Helps Historians Solve Ancient Puzzles , Financial Times Restoring Ancient Text Using Deep Learning: A Case Study On Greek Epigraphy , DeepMind

  • How it works

Historical Research – A Guide Based on its Uses & Steps

Published by Alvin Nicolas at August 16th, 2021 , Revised On August 29, 2023

History is a study of past incidents, and it’s different from natural science. In natural science, researchers prefer direct observations. Whereas in historical research, a researcher collects, analyses the information to understand, describe, and explain the events that occurred in the past.

They aim to test the truthfulness of the observations made by others. Historical researchers try to find out what happened exactly during a certain period of time as accurately and as closely as possible. It does not allow any manipulation or control of  variables .

When to Use the Historical Research Method?

You can use historical research method to:

  • Uncover the unknown fact.
  • Answer questions
  • Identify the association between the past and present.
  • Understand the culture based on past experiences..
  • Record and evaluate the contributions of individuals, organisations, and institutes.

How to Conduct Historical Research?

Historical research involves the following steps:

  • Select the Research Topic
  • Collect the Data
  • Analyse the Data
  • Criticism of Data
  • Present your Findings

Tips to Collect Data

Step 1 – select the research topic.

If you want to conduct historical research, it’s essential to select a research topic before beginning your research. You can follow these tips while choosing a topic and  developing a research question .

  • Consider your previous study as your previous knowledge and data can make your research enjoyable and comfortable for you.
  • List your interests and focus on the current events to find a promising question.
  • Take notes of regular activities and consider your personal experiences on a specific topic.
  • Develop a question using your research topic.
  • Explore your research question by asking yourself when? Why? How

Step 2- Collect the Data

It is essential to collect data and facts about the research question to get reliable outcomes. You need to select an appropriate instrument for  data collection . Historical research includes two sources of data collection, such as primary and secondary sources.

Primary Sources

Primary sources  are the original first-hand resources such as documents, oral or written records, witnesses to a fact, etc. These are of two types, such as:

Conscious Information : It’s a type of information recorded and restored consciously in the form of written, oral documents, or the actual witnesses of the incident that occurred in the past.

It includes the following sources:

Unconscious information : It’s a type of information restored in the form of remains or relics.

It includes information in the following forms:

Secondary Sources

Sometimes it’s impossible to access primary sources, and researchers rely on secondary sources to obtain information for their research. 

It includes:

  • Publications
  • Periodicals
  • Encyclopedia

Step 3 – Analyse the Data

After collecting the information, you need to analyse it. You can use data analysis methods  like 

  • Thematic analysis
  • Coding system
  • Theoretical model ( Researchers use multiple theories to explain a specific phenomenon, situations, and behavior types.)
  • Quantitative data to validate

Step 4 – Criticism of Data

Data criticism is a process used for identifying the validity and reliability of the collected data. It’s of two types such as:

External Criticism :

It aims at identifying the external features of the data such as signature, handwriting, language, nature, spelling, etc., of the documents. It also involves the physical and chemical tests of paper, paint, ink, metal cloth, or any collected object.

Internal Criticism :

It aims at identifying the meaning and reliability of the data. It focuses on the errors, printing, translation, omission, additions in the documents. The researchers should use both external and internal criticism to ensure the validity of the data.

Step 5 – Present your Findings

While presenting the  findings of your research , you need to ensure that you have met the objectives of your research or not. Historical material can be organised based on the theme and topic, and it’s known as thematic and topical arrangement. You can follow these tips while writing your research paper :

Build Arguments and Narrative

Your research aims not just to collect information as these are the raw materials of research. You need to build a strong argument and narrate the details of past events or incidents based on your findings. 

Organise your Argument

You can review the literature and other researchers’ contributions to the topic you’ve chosen to enhance your thinking and argument.

Proofread, Revise and Edit

After putting your findings on a paper, you need to proofread it to weed out the errors, rewrite it to improve, and edit it thoroughly before submitting it.

Are you looking for professional research writing services?

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  • Whether you want a full dissertation written or need help forming a dissertation proposal, we can help you with both.
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In this world of technology, many people rely on Google to find out any information. All you have to do is enter a few keywords and sit back. You’ll find several relevant results onscreen.

It’s an effective and quick way of gathering information. Sometimes historical documents are not accessible to everyone online, and you need to visit traditional libraries to find out historical treasures. It will help you explore your knowledge along with data collection. 

You can visit historical places, conduct interviews, review literature, and access  primary and secondary  data sources such as books, newspapers, publications, documents, etc. You can take notes while collecting the information as it helps to organise the data accurately.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Historical Research

Frequently asked questions, what are the initial steps to perform historical research.

Initial steps for historical research:

  • Define research scope and period.
  • Gather background knowledge.
  • Identify primary and secondary sources.
  • Develop research questions.
  • Plan research approach.
  • Begin data collection and analysis.

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Action research for my dissertation?, A brief overview of action research as a responsive, action-oriented, participative and reflective research technique.

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Disadvantages of primary research – It can be expensive, time-consuming and take a long time to complete if it involves face-to-face contact with customers.



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Qualitative study design: Historical

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Looking at the past to inform the future.

Describing and examining past events to better understand the present and to anticipate potential effects on the future. To identify a need for knowledge that requires a historical investigation. Piecing together a history, particularly when there are no people living to tell their story.  

  • Oral recordings

Can provide a fuller picture of the scope of the research as it covers a wider range of sources. As an example, documents such as diaries, oral histories and official records and newspaper reports were used to identify a scurvy and smallpox epidemic among Klondike gold rushers (Highet p3).

Unobtrusiveness of this research method.


Issues with validity – can only use the historical information that is available today.

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  • Navarro, J. A., Kohl, K. S., Cetron, M. S., & Markel, H. (2016). A tale of many cities: a contemporary historical study of the implementation of school closures during the 2009 pA(H1N1) influenza pandemic. Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, 41(3), 393-422. Retrieved from  http://ezproxy.deakin.edu.au/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&AuthType=ip,sso&db=lhh&AN=20163261834&site=ehost-live&scope=site   

Edith Cowan University Library. (2019). Historical Research Method. Retrieved from  https://ecu.au.libguides.com/historical-research-method   

Godshall, M. (2016). Fast facts for evidence-based practice in nursing: Implementing EBP in a nutshell (2nd ed.). New York: Springer Publishing Company. 

Highet, M. J. (2010). "It Depends on Where You Look": The Unusual Presentation of Scurvy and  Smallpox Among Klondike Gold Rushers as Revealed Through Qualitative Data Sources. Past Imperfect, 16, 3-34. doi:10.21971/P7J59D 

Saks, M., & Allsop, J. (2012). Researching health: qualitative, quantitative and mixed methods (2nd ed.). London: SAGE. 

Taylor, B. J., & Francis, K. (2013). Qualitative research in the health sciences: methodologies, methods and processes. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge. 

University of Missouri-St. Louis. Qualitative Research Designs. Retrieved from http://www.umsl.edu/~lindquists/qualdsgn.html   

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Historical Research Approaches to the Analysis of Internationalisation

  • Research Article
  • Open access
  • Published: 29 September 2016
  • Volume 56 , pages 879–900, ( 2016 )

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  • Peter J. Buckley 1  

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Historical research methods and approaches can improve understanding of the most appropriate techniques to confront data and test theories in internationalisation research. A critical analysis of all “texts” (sources), time series analyses, comparative methods across time periods and space, counterfactual analysis and the examination of outliers are shown to have the potential to improve research practices. Examples and applications are shown in these key areas of research with special reference to internationalisation processes. Examination of these methods allows us to see internationalisation processes as a sequenced set of decisions in time and space, path dependent to some extent but subject to managerial discretion. Internationalisation process research can benefit from the use of historical research methods in analysis of sources, production of time-lines, using comparative evidence across time and space and in the examination of feasible alternative choices.

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1 Introduction

The title of this focused issue is ‘About Time: Putting Process Back into Firm Internationalisation Research’. It would therefore seem obvious that historical research methods, whose primary concern is the role of time, would be at the forefront of the analysis. This is not necessarily the case, as these methods are neglected in internationalisation research, and in international business more generally. Historians face many of the same research problems that business researchers do—notably questions related to the analysis of process—but they have produced different answers, particularly in relation to the nature of causation. As a field, international business researchers need to question our research approaches more deeply.

This paper seeks to examine the types of research approaches from history that might aid in a more rounded analysis of internationalisation. Issues of sequencing, path dependence, contingent choices and the evaluation of alternatives are all critical in the internationalisation process and are grist to the mill of historical research. An examination of historical research methods leads to a new approach to the concept of internationalisation itself.

1.1 Historical Research Approaches: The Challenge of Different Underlying Philosophies

It is the difference in underlying philosophy between history and social science that presents the keenest challenge in integrating the temporal dimension with international business research. The contrast between the philosophy underlying history and that of social science—an issue for over a century (e.g., Simiand 1903 )—is put by Isaiah Berlin:

History details the differences among events, whereas the sciences focus on similarities. History lacks the sciences’ ideal models, whose usefulness varies inversely with the number of characteristics to which they apply. As an external observer the scientist willingly distorts the individual to make it an instance of the general, but the historian, himself an actor, renounces interest in the general in order to understand the past through the projection of his own experience upon it. It is the scientist’s business to fit the facts to the theory, the historian’s responsibility to place his confidence in facts over theories (Berlin 1960 , p. 1 (Abstract). Footnote 1

Gaddis ( 2002 ) suggests that a particular contrast between history and social science is that history insists on the interdependence of variables, whilst mainstream social science methods rely on identifying the ‘independent variable’ which affects (causes) changes in dependent variables (Gaddis 2002 , particularly Chapter 4). He suggests that this parallels the distinction between a reductionist view and an ecological approach ( 2002 , p. 54), and that this arises from the social scientists’ desire to forecast the future ( 2002 , p. 56). This also implies continuity over time—the independent variable persists in its causative effect(s). It is also connected with assumptions of rationality, which also is assumed to be time-invariant. Social scientists would counter that historians are theory resistant, at least to the kind of independent variable/rationalist/context-invariant reductionist theory that (perhaps stereotypically) characterises economistic approaches.

Compromises are possible. Recognising sensitive dependence on initial conditions brings ‘narrative’ and ‘analysis’ much closer together, as does dividing time into manageable units—perhaps ‘short-term and long term’ or ‘immediate, intermediate and distant’ (Gaddis 2002 , p. 95). Causality, interdependence, contingency and moderating variables are more manageable when the time-frame is defined. Research in history therefore demonstrates the importance of time, sequencing and process. It also highlights the role of individuals and their decision making. These elements are particularly important in examining entrepreneurship and individual (manager’s) decisions and their outcome in contexts such as the internationalisation of the firm. Footnote 2

How, then, would we recognise if genuinely historical work had been accomplished in internationalisation studies (or indeed in any area of the social sciences)? Tilley ( 1983 , p. 79) gives us an answer:

By ‘genuinely historical’, I mean studies assuming that the time and place in which a structure or process appears makes a difference to its character, that the sequence in which similar events occur has a substantial impact on their outcomes, and that the existing record of past structures and processes is problematic, requiring systematic investigation in its own right instead of lending itself immediately to social-scientific synthesis.

History matters—the importance of historical effects in international business—is illustrated by Chitu et al. ( 2013 ), who document a ‘history effect’ in which the pattern of foreign bond holdings of US investors seven decades ago continues to influence holdings today. Holdings 70 years ago explain 10–15 % of the cross-country variation in current holdings, reflecting the fixed costs of market entry and exit together with endogenous learning. They note that fixed costs need not be large to have persistent effects on the geography of bilateral asset holdings—they need only to be different across countries. Evidence was also found of a ‘history effect’ in trade not unlike that in finance. The history effect is twice as large for non-dollar bonds as a result of larger sunk costs for US financial investments other than the dollar. Legacy effects loom large in international finance and trade.

It is argued in this paper that time and place (context) do make a difference to the structure and process of an individual firm’s internationalisation, that past structures and processes do influence outcomes and that proper acknowledgement of context is vital in understanding and theorising internationalisation. It is further argued that attention to these issues leads to a new conception of internationalisation.

2 Research Methods

Reflecting on the purpose of his methods in his book Bloodlands , on Eastern Europe in the period 1933–45, the historian Timothy Snyder ( 2010 , p. xviii) states that:

…its three fundamental methods are simple: insistence that no past event is beyond historical understanding or beyond the reach of historical enquiry; reflection upon the possibility of alternative choices and acceptance of the irreducible reality of choice in human affairs; and chronological attention to all of the Stalinist and Nazi policies that labelled large numbers of civilians and prisoners of war.

This paper follows similar principles. These are: (1) that the methods of history are appropriate to the study of the internationalisation of firms; (2) that choices and alternatives at given points of time are central to this process; (3) that the role of sequencing and time are central; and (4) that the comparative method is an aid to comprehension of the process of internationalisation.

This paper now examines research methods widely used in history Footnote 3 that have the capability to improve international business research. These are: (1) source criticism (here it is argued that international business researchers are insufficiently aware of deficiencies in “texts”); (2) the analysis of sequences, including time series analyses and process theorising; (3) comparative methods (not exclusive to historical research); and (4) counterfactual analyses (which are currently less utilised than in previous periods of international business theorising). This followed by a proposed research agenda based on the two key methods of examining change over time and utilising comparative analysis.

2.1 Source Criticism

The use of sources is as prevalent in international business as in history but they are often accepted uncritically. Gottschalk ( 1950 ), noting that few source documents are completely reliable, suggests that, ‘for each particular of a document the process of establishing credibility should be separately undertaken regardless of the general credibility of the author’. Given that reliability cannot be assumed, source criticism, as Kipping et al. ( 2014 ) argue, is fundamental to any historical research.

The trustworthiness of an author may establish a basic level of credibility for each statement, but each element must be separately evaluated. This requires questioning the provenance of the text and its internal reliability (Kipping et al. 2014 )—including, importantly, attention to language translation issues if relevant. This leads to the important checks brought about by triangulating the evidence. Triangulation requires the use of at least two independent sources (Kipping et al. 2014 ). This principle is utilised in international business journals by the requirement that both elements of a dyadic relationship are needed to cross check each other. Examples include licensor and licensee, both partners in a joint venture, parent and subsidiary in a multinational enterprise. The question of how far these are independent sources also needs careful investigation. Documents or statements addressed to different individuals and institutions may serve a variety of purposes. Those addressed to powerful individuals, groups or institutions may be intended for gain by the sender. Interviews may be designed to impress the interlocutor. The purpose of the document needs to be explicated. Documents may be designed for prestige, tax minimisation, satisfaction of guarantees (by government, sponsors or creditors) or to cover deficiencies in performance. The historian’s craft is, in part at least, to expose fraud and error (Bloch 1954 ).

Source criticism includes evaluating what is not present in archives, not just what is. Jones ( 1998 ) points out that the company archives many analysts require often do not survive—those that involve statutory obligations often do, but those involving high-level decision making, such as Board papers, often do not. He points out that ‘issues of capabilities, innovation and culture will necessitate looking at what happens “lower down” within a firm’s structure’ (Jones 1998 , p. 19). Further,

The study of intangibles such as the knowledge possessed within a firm, flows of information, and the corporate culture—and how all these things changes over time can involve a very wide range of historical record far removed from documents on strategies… Oral history—of staff employed at all levels—is of special use in examining issues of culture, information flows and systems (Jones 1998 , p. 19).

These issues—intangible assets, strategy, culture and decision making in the face of imperfect information—are crucial in international business strategy research.

In addition to criticisms based on material that exists in ‘the archive’, we need to recognise that the archive is the result of a selection process and therefore that excluded material may be important. Footnote 4 The selection process may be biased towards particular nations, regions, races, classes, genders, creeds, political groupings or belief systems. This is a key theme of ‘subaltern studies’ growing out of South Asia, and particularly India, in imperial times (Ludden 2001 ). The clear implication of these studies is that the colonial era archive was compiled by the colonial (British) administrators and this presents a largely pro-Imperial bias. However, it is also true that among the dispossessed voices, some were privileged (e.g., the Congress Party spokespeople) and others selected out. The lineage of subaltern studies leads us through Gramsci ( 1973 ) to postmodern views of the text: Derrida ( 1994 ), Foucault ( 1965 ), Barthes ( 2005 ). As well as not ‘hearing’ particular groups, the archive records may not cover particular questions or issues Footnote 5 (see also Belich 2009 Footnote 6 ; Decker 2013 ; Moss 1997 ).

2.2 Analysing Sequences, Time Series and Processes

There are a number of important techniques in historical research which are useful to international business scholars in examining process, sequence, rhythm and speed—all of which are important in internationalisation. As Mahoney points out ( 2004 , p. 88), ‘Causation is fundamentally a matter of sequence’. This is a problem addressed in economics as ‘Granger causality’ ( 1988 ). The critical question is not data access, but careful theorising. Sequence and duration arguments attempt to pick up sensitivity to time and place.

Process analysis holds out the possibility of integrating the time dimension into the internationalisation of firms. Process research, which is contrasted to ‘variance paradigms’, pays particular attention to the sequencing of events that take place within cases (Welch and Paavilainen-Mantymaki 2014 ). Events, not variables, are the crucial writ of analysis and capturing multiple time points builds narrative, event studies and panel data analyses. In combination with variance approaches, process analysis has the potential to explain the effects of context (place) and time in internationalisation. The critical task is the identification of the linking mechanisms that connect cause and effect. This requires connecting qualitative data evaluation with experimental reasoning. It is also a useful check on spurious statistical relationships (Granger and Newbold 1974 ). Easterlin ( 2013 ) argues that cross-sectional relationships are often taken to indicate causation when they may merely reflect historical experience, i.e., similar leader–follower patterns for variables that are causally unrelated. This is particularly the case when similar geographic patterns of diffusion are captured by the data—as may well be the case when studying the internationalisation of firms. This may reflect the fact that one set of (national) firms get an early start whilst others play catch-up.

We must, however, beware of ‘ingrained assumptions about historical periodization where mere temporal succession is insufficiently distinguished from historical explanation’ (Gregory 2012 , p. 9). This provides a connection to ‘path dependence’ and sensitivity to initial conditions. Careful examination of relevant data allows analysts to identify reactive sequences ‘whereby an initial outcome triggers a chain of temporally ordered and causally connected events that lead to a final outcome of interest’ (Mahoney 2004 , p. 91).

Page ( 2006 ), however, shows that path dependence describes a set of models, not a single model. Forms of history dependence can be divided between those where outcomes are history dependent and those in which the equilibria depend on history. Path dependence requires ‘a build-up of behavioural routines, social connections, or cognitive structures around an institution’ (p. 89). Page shows that there is a variety of types of path dependence, each of which can be precisely defined, and that it is insufficient to cite ‘increasing returns’ as evidence of path-dependent processes. The consequences for process research on internationalisation are profound and require researchers to be as precise as possible, when asserting path dependence, to evidence its roots and specify their impact on future trajectories. Jackson and Kollman ( 2010 ) build on Page’s definitions and suggest ‘If social scientists use notions of path dependence, they should have clearly articulated definitions and criteria for what constitutes a path dependent process’ (p. 258): ‘Any such formulation must be able to explain how the effects of initial and early outcomes are maintained over long periods of time and continue to be observed in current outcomes’ (p. 280). This is far stronger than a simple statement that ‘history matters’. Path-dependent sequences raise important theoretical issues and thereby contribute to a further and deeper round of understanding; as with quantitative analysis we need to be constantly attentive to sources of bias (Nickell 1981 ).

Understanding sequences entails additional complexities. Brown ( 2012 , p. xxii) points out that choosing the periodicity (start and end points of data collection and investigation) can risk coming to foregone conclusions and ‘a deceptive teleology’:

Two aspects of history are particularly important for historians: propulsion and periodization. The first concerns the forces that promote change. The second involves mental architecture: the chronological framework within which we set out history. Since all periodization presumes a theory of change, these are linked theoretical properties (Green 1993 , p. 17).

Propulsion and periodization—change and classification—are ultimately constructs and need to be placed both within a theoretical framework and a given context of time and place. This is a challenge to international business research which is often insufficiently theoretical and contextualised.

International business studies need to be sensitive to the period of study. Laidler ( 2012 , p. 5) advises,

The past may be the only source of data against which economic hypotheses can be tested or calibrated, but data never speak entirely for themselves. They need to be interpreted through a theory. When the only theory deemed suitable for this purpose embodies itself as part of its own structure, even on an ‘as if’ basis, then that structure is inevitably projected onto the past, and other perspectives on the historical record are obscured.

This suggests that a fundamental problem is that international business research is often inadequately theorised. Theories which stand up to testing in many historical periods are more robust than those that do not. Jones and Khanna ( 2006 , p. 455) see history as an important source of time series data: ‘historical variation is at least as good as contemporary cross-sectional variation in illuminating conceptual issues’. Although it should be noted that many historians are sensitive to the limits of generalisation across historical periods. Burgelman ( 2011 ) sees longitudinal qualitative research being situated between history as ‘particular generalization’ (Gaddis 2002 ) and reductionism; that is, ‘general particularization’.

Longitudinal research and good process research draw on both history’s narrative methods and statistical and mathematical models. Such longitudinal studies clearly need rigorous methods from both history and statistics. A relevant example is Kogut and Parkinson ( 1998 ), who examine the adoption of the multidivisional structure, testing Chandler’s ( 1962 ) core thesis over a long time period, ‘analysing history from the start’. Despite the difficulties of compiling archival data for a large sample of firms, the authors are able to test an innovative methodology on diffusion histories of the ‘M-form’ from the period beginning in 1950. They use a hazard model (of adopting the M-form) with imitation and firm covariates that predict adoption rates. The sample (62 firms) is large enough to be split into ‘fast’ and ‘slow’ adopters of this organisational innovation and a comparison of the difference between the two samples enables the authors to confirm Chandler’s historical account and to point to some qualifications concerning flows of information between firms which meant that proximate firms were more likely to adopt the M-form structure. Imitation effects by firms located in the same industry and firms with links to M-form adopters also seemed significant.

The Kogut and Parkinson ( 1998 ) study is a successful example of ‘History Meets Business Studies’ (p. 257) and also of the application of techniques of organisational demography. This approach has also been successfully applied to the birth and death of subsidiaries and foreign market entry strategies (Kogut 2009 ). Historical studies have established an important precedent of ‘the importance of sampling on founders rather than survivors and of the effects of age on mortality’ (Kogut 2009 , p. 721). Shaver ( 1998 ) pointed out that many previous studies had not accounted for endogeneity and were subject to self-selection bias but that such effects could be corrected for using a methodology that factors in the full history of entries, taking account of strategy choice based on firm attributes and industry conditions. Strategy choice is endogenous and self selected based on these conditions and modelling has to account for this. Concepts such as the ‘liability of newness’ (Stinchcombe 1965 ) and the (in International Business) celebrated ‘liability of foreignness’ (Zaheer 1995 after Hymer 1976 ) examine diffusion over time. There are, however, as Kogut ( 2009 ) points out, several unresolved challenges in the organisational demography literature. First, self-selection bias is still unresolved in that successful firms are more likely to venture abroad. Second, because of unobserved variables (such as the quality of the firm) heterogeneity remains in any sample of firms and any heterogeneous population can be shown to suffer ‘liability of newness’. Controls for heterogeneity, of course, are a palliative (e.g., size of firm) but it is difficult to control all such variation. A careful specification of the growth process of firms (despite Penrose ( 1959 ) and her heirs) still eludes us.

In concluding this section, it should be mentioned that cliometrics, or the measurement of history (also called the New Economic History) is not uncontroversial (Diebolt 2012 ). ‘Hypothetico-deductive models’ (utilising the counterfactual position) using ‘propositions contrary to the facts has not escaped criticism’ (Diebolt 2012 , p. 4), and they contrast with the inductive position of the German historical school (Grimmer-Solem 2003 ). The economistic tradition of ‘opportunity cost’ whereby the true costs of any action is the best alternative foregone, provides a firm philosophical link between economics and the counterfactual as discussed below.

2.3 Comparative Methods

The comparative method is of great importance throughout the social sciences. There are three classic comparators in social science research: across space, across time, and against a carefully specified counterfactual state of the world (Buckley et al. 1992 ). International business research has traditionally focused on just one of these—across space. Historical research specialises particularly in comparisons across time, but also has lessons in spatial comparison and in counterfactual analysis.

Research that depends on ex post statistical adjustment (such as cross-country regressions) has recently come under fire; there has been a commensurate shift of focus towards design-based research—in which control over confounding variables comes primarily from research design, rather than model-based statistical adjustment (Dunning 2012 , p. xvii).

The design of a randomised controlled experiment has three characteristics (Freedman et al. 2007 , pp. 4–8):

The response of the experimental subjects assigned to receive a treatment is compared to the response of subjects assigned to a control group. This allows comparisons of outcomes across the two groups.

The assignment of subjects to treatment and control groups is done at random—a coin toss, for example. This establishes ex ante symmetry between the groups and obviates the existence of confounding variables.

The manipulation of the treatment or intervention is under the control of the experimental research. This establishes further evidence for a causal relationship between the treatment and the outcomes (Dunning 2012 , p. 15).

Crucially most extant research utilises ‘as if random’ assignment of interventions rather than ‘natural’. Its success depends upon the plausibility of ‘as if random’, the credibility of models and the relevance of intervention. ‘Qualitative evidence plays a central role in the analysis of natural experiments’ (Dunning 2012 , p. 228). This is because an investigation of the causal process is critical (Collier et al. 2010 ) in avoiding ‘selecting on the dependent’ variable by analysing only those cases where causal-process observations appear to have played a productive inferential role. Indeed, Dunning ( 2012 , p. 229) suggests that a future research agenda should focus on developing a framework that distinguishes and predicts when and what kinds of causal-process observations provide the most useful leverage for causal inference in natural experiments. Results however may be very particular and parochial because of the limited availability of natural experiment possibilities (Yin 2014 ). Experimental results, therefore, come at a price.

The price for success is a focus that is too narrow and too local to tell us ‘what works’ in development, to design policy, or to advance scientific knowledge about development processes (Deaton 2009 , p. 426).

Comparison across places by geographic area or space is frequent in international business research (across nations, cultures, regions, areas, cities). The multinational enterprise is an excellent laboratory or natural experiment because it holds constant the single institution of the firm but varies the location of study. The division, and the later unification, of Germany allowed Kogut and Zander ( 2000 ) the opportunity to conduct a natural experiment by comparing the two sections of the Zeiss Company under socialism and capitalism. The experimental design measured the dependent variable (outcome)—the technological output of the two firms proxied by patents—under ‘treatments’ offered by the different economic contexts of the two different economic systems. This unusual design substituted for a random sample by eliminating the effects of extraneous factors and isolating the effects of the treatment variable on the ‘same’ firm. Comparative management experiments can be done by comparing company A’s subsidiary in Vietnam with its subsidiary in Virginia. This is the stock-in-trade of many international business experiments and was utilised by Hofstede ( 1991 , 1997 , 2001 ), whose work on culture held the host company (IBM) culture constant whilst varying the purported national cultural responses of the firm’s employees.

Comparisons across time, holding place constant, are the essence of ‘history’. They give rise to notions of ‘growth’, ‘progress’, ‘design’, ‘loss’. Chandler ( 1984 ) describes his method as the comparison of detailed case studies to generate ‘non historically specific generalizations’. Research in business history has challenged the Chandler thesis that managerial capitalism is universally becoming the norm (Whittington 2007 ; Rowlinson et al. 2007 ). Hannah ( 2007 ) illustrates the use of comparative historical data to challenge the received wisdom. As noted elsewhere in this piece, such comparisons are fraught with danger unless carefully conducted. Meanings of documents, words, artefacts and statements vary according to different point of time usage and must be carefully analysed as best practice historical research dictates. As Ragin says ( 1987 , p. 27),

many features of social life confound attempts to unravel causal complexity when experimental methods cannot be used… First, rarely does an outcome of interest to social scientists have a single cause… Second, causes rarely operate in isolation. Usually, it is the combined effect of various conditions their intersection in time and space, that produces a certain outcome… Third, a specific cause may have opposite effects depending on context.

These three factors—multiple, interacting causes, differential by context—are the very essence of international business research. Because of the difficulty of designing natural experiments International business research has emphasised statistical control in its methods. Ragin ( 1987 ) points out that statistical control is very different from experimental control. Footnote 7 Statistical control does not equate to experimental control: ‘the dependent variable is not examined under all possible combinations of values of the independent variables, as is possible in experimental investigations’ (Ragin 1987 , p. 61). Ragin presents a Boolean approach to qualitative comparison (after George Boole ( 2003 ) [1854] and also known as the algebra of logic or algebra of sets). Kogut ( 2009 ) shows the relevance of this approach to international business research (see also Saka-Helmhout 2011 ). A recent development of the use of Boolean algebra in international business is the application of fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis in the assessment of different models of capitalism (Judge et al. 2014 ).

Qualitative comparisons are of the essence in (historical) international business research. As Kogut ( 2009 ) shows, a proposition based on a three-cause explanation in order to avoid simplifying assumptions at the outset requires a truth table of 2 3 or eight combinations as in Fig.  1 . Thus, to achieve experimental control, the investigation needs eight cases with the characteristics shown in the table in order to determine which combination of causes (A, B, C) determines the outcome (1). (See Ragin 1987 , particularly Chapters 7 and 8.) Thus historical comparative data can focus our attention on cases as wholes and to explore the combinatorial complexities of causation (Ragin 1987 , p. 171). Footnote 8 It is also suggestive of the answer to the perennial question of how many cases are needed to satisfy a proposition. For instance, it might be suggested that the rise of Japan was due to (1) lifetime work contracts, (2) company unions and (3) the Keiretsu system. In order to prove or disprove the argument, the bottom line where all three proposed casual factors are present must be contrasted with situations where none of them are present (the top line) where only one of the proposed causes is present and where combinations of two causes are present. This enables the analyst to identify necessary and sufficient conditions. In a three cause theoretical proposal, a total of eight cases are needed.

Truth table for a three cause proposition

As Mahoney ( 2004 , p. 82) says, ‘comparative-historical methodology offers tools well adapted to the analysis of necessary and sufficient causes’. This need not rely on deterministic logic because necessary and sufficient causes can be expressed in a probabilistic framework. This also aligns with expressing variables in a continuous rather than in a dichotomous fashion. These techniques are helpful, as Saka-Helmhout ( 2011 ) points out, in analysing cross-case analyses of bundles of conditions, in particular in the identification of patterns of regularities and differences. The methodological stream (and theoretical underpinnings) of comparative historical research therefore lead to the more systematic pinpointing of necessary and sufficient causes in international business case research. For applications to management research, see Oz ( 2004 ).

2.4 Counterfactual Analysis

The third classic comparator is the ‘alternative position’. The counterfactual question—‘what if?’—is a particular type of thought experiment designed to elucidate causality. It is widely (if sometimes unwittingly) used in economics where ‘opportunity cost’ (the real cost of resources) is defined as the cost of the next best alternative foregone. The ‘alternative position’ and its specification have long been a particular problem in international business research—classically in the analysis of foreign direct investment (FDI). What would have happened in the absence of a particular foreign investment? (Reddaway et al. 1968 ; Steuer 1973 ; Cairncross 1953 ; Buckley et al. 1992 , p. 36). Jones and Khanna ( 2006 , p. 464) say that a ‘comparative approach also gets at the spirit of specifying counterfactuals’.

Historians have long had to face this issue. Several variously sophisticated attempts have been made to try to answer the question of what would (might) have happened had some of the crucial turning points of history turned out differently (Beatty 2011 ; Ferguson 1997 ; Cowley 1999 ; Lebow 2014 ). Lebow ( 2012 ) points out that counterfactuals are frequently used in physical and biological sciences to develop and evaluate sophisticated, non-linear models. The counterfactual has to be well defined and this requires a thorough analysis and presentation of the context of the alternative position. Such thought experiments are perhaps history’s closest comparator to a laboratory experiment (Gaddis 2002 , p. 100)—although see the section on natural experiments in the social sciences above. The counterfactual counteracts the static nature of much historical analysis by focusing upon dynamics and processes.

Durand and Vaara ( 2009 , p. 1245) have examined the role of counterfactuals in explicating causality in the field of business strategy. They argue that:

Counterfactual history can add to our understanding of the context-specific construction of resource-based competitive advantage and path dependence, and causal modelling can help to reconceptualize the relationships between resources and performance.

The role of counterfactual reasoning in organisation studies was also explored in two issues of Management & Organizational History [volume 3(1) 2008 and volume 4(2) 2007]. MacKay ( 2007 ) pointed out that counterfactuals can guard against path dependencies in both structure of organisations and perception. Counterfactuals illustrate that the world could be other than it is and help the analyst to evaluate different possibilities including decisions and their outcomes. Thus socio-economic and technical path dependencies can introduce rigidities and cognitive or psychological path dependencies can impair organisational learning. Toms and Beck ( 2007 ) criticise received counterfactuals (on the Lancashire cotton industry) as suffering from the problems of teleology and hindsight that occur when the counterfactual is contaminated by ex post knowledge of the outcome (Maielli and Booth 2008 ). Footnote 9 Toms and Beck ( 2007 , p. 315) attempt to construct a history ‘from the perspective of decision making entrepreneurs as embedded historical actors’. This is surely the model for internationalisation researchers, when examining past decisions and their outcome.

The key, as Leunig ( 2010 ) points out, is to be explicit in specifying the counterfactual position as this provides more evidence than a simple judgement on the impact of (say) a critical innovation. Fogel ( 1964 ) in finding that agricultural land opened up by the railroads might otherwise have been undeveloped, examined the possibility of an alternative network of canals. Footnote 10 This was done not by simple perusal of a map but by examining detailed typographical maps, as a canal builder would do. A limitation of counterfactual analysis is the ability to go on to use comparative analysis because the carefully constructed counterfactual is often locationally or temporally specific. For instance, although in Fogel’s counterfactual, canals could have done most of the work of railroads, he assumed away the vagaries of the weather—in the Northeast of the US at least, canals would have been frozen for at least 4 months of the year. Footnote 11 An excellent example of a carefully constructed counterfactual is Casson’s construction of the (optimal) counterfactual railway network (complete with timetable) for the UK taking account of network performance, the physical geography of the UK, Victorian urbanisation and traffic, engineering constraints, regulation, institutional and political constraints (Casson 2009 ).

The counterfactual has an important place in the development of international business theory as analyses of the impact of FDI on host and source countries have been cast in the terms of the ‘alternative position’—what would have happened in the absence of FDI. Foreshadowing the current debate an offshoring and outsourcing, earlier literature on the impact of FDI following Hufbauer and Adler ( 1968 ) identified three polar ‘alternative positions’ (Buckley and Artisien 1987 , pp. 73, 78–79, 80).

The classical assumption assumes that FDI produces a net addition to capital formation in the host country but a similar decline in capital formation in the source country. This is equivalent to the assumption that FDI substitutes for exports. The reverse classical assumption assumes that the FDI substitutes for investment in the host country but leaves investment in the source country unchanged. This is equivalent to ‘defensive investment’ where the source country firm cannot penetrate the target market via exports and would lose the market to host country firms in the absence of FDI. The anti-classical assumption is that FDI does not substitute for capital investment in the source country, neither does it reduce investment by host country firms. Consequently FDI increases world capital formation (in contrast to the other two assumptions where world capital formation is unchanged).

Anticlassical conditions are most likely when host country firms are incapable of undertaking the projects fulfilled by FDI. Each of these assumptions is static and rigid—not allowing for a growth of demand, perhaps from the ‘presence effect’. An organic model, postulating that FDI substitutes for exports in the short run, but in the long run substitutes for rival investment is more likely. Hood and Young ( 1979 ) pointed out that the relationship between FDI and exports needs to be fully specified in any such examination of effects of FDI.

This debate needs to be updated as it predated studies of MNEs’ foreign market servicing strategies and motives other than market-seeking. A parallel move away from economic counterfactuals towards specifying alternative decision making scenarios for decision-making entrepreneurs would be a step forward here (Toms and Beck 2007 ). A further important question here concerns the identity of the decision maker and whether ownership (foreign versus domestic) matters. As concern with the employment impact of FDI at home and abroad grows, counterfactual analysis is useful in specifying the myriad impacts (employment among them) of modern MNEs.

The ‘historical alternatives approach’ (Zeitlin 2007 ) is a specifically business history variant of counterfactual analysis. The historical alternatives approach is promoted by Zeitlin ( 2007 ) as ‘against teleology and determinism’. The approach suggests that plasticity of technology has been underrated, leading to technological determinism of a particularly narrow type. Strategic action in the face of uncertainty, mutability and hedging strategies gives a far wider range of outcomes than conventionally allowed for and ‘the market’ is dogmatically and narrowly the result of historical construction. Size of firms, strategic action, industry imperatives and rationality are too glibly taken as determining factors and the result is an excessively pre-determined view of business choices. While it is certainly the case that many analyses based on historical reasoning are unduly constrained in terms of other potential outcomes, alternative futures have to be specified extremely carefully and constraints that are to be lifted on outcomes must be spelled out and the degree to which they are assumed to be not binding requires extensive and meticulous research.

In internationalisation research, alternative positions are important concepts in the development of the process. The decisions that key managers make can be evaluated by presenting them with alternative scenarios, as Buckley et al. ( 2007 ) did. This is usually, for practical and cost reasons, a point-of-time rather than a continuous exercise even though, in principle, these choices could be presented to managers frequently throughout the internationalisation process. There are examples of where a single investment is considered as a ‘Go/No go’ decision and others where several alternative investments are simultaneously considered (Buckley et al. 1978 ). In many cases firms will themselves investigate alternative scenarios even if this is done informally rather than through ‘scenario planning’.

3 Discussion

Table  1 shows the areas where the four key methods identified above have been successfully applied in international business.

The application of the above principles of method suggests that a new international business history is called for that relies on the two key principles of examining change over time and using the comparative method. If we accept that the study of history is about change over time, then international business history needs to take a long-run view of change and of the role of multinational firms in large scale social and economic development. This presents a major challenge in view of the material in archives. Company archives cover the world from the point of view of the (single) company. In international business this represents only one actor in a complex drama. The roles of host and source countries are perforce omitted. It behoves the writers of international company histories to take a wider perspective than just the company’s viewpoint. In approaching the comparative method, the spatial comparison encompasses the international dimension but changes over time require a longer run view than most company histories allow for. Comparing the role of a company in the eighteenth century with the nineteenth is not often possible from a single company’s archives (and it can be argued, were this to be so, we would be dealing with an outlier). In short, the writing of international business history needs to be more imaginative, not only in method but also in its engagement with wider theory and technique.

It is equally the case that international business theory and methods can enrich historical research. Footnote 12 In addition to the Chitu et al. ( 2013 ) examination of ‘history effects’ in international finance and trade, international business can be focused on global history in the way that Bell and Dale ( 2011 ) analysed the economic and financial dimensions of the medieval pilgrimage business (using contract and network theory and the analysis of saints’ shrines as business franchise, under an umbrella brand of the Universal Catholic Church).

3.1 Historical Research Approaches and the Internationalisation Process

The question of how firm internationalisation evolves over time is best answered by the careful use of historical research methods duly adapted for the context of international business research (Jones and Zeitlin 2007 ) . The temporal dimension of the internationalisation process needs to be centre-stage and critical decision points and turning points need to be mapped on a timeline and against feasible alternatives. As extant international business research has shown (Buckley et al. 2007 ), managers are only partly guided by rational processes and context and contingency play roles in determining the final decisions. If we know when these critical decisions are made, then it becomes much easier to understand the factors that were in play in the decision makers’ minds. It is frequently remarked that key ‘events’ (a coup, the launch of a rival’s product, a competitive market entry) were the triggers for investment (or non-investment) decisions and a timeline of events—a mapping of process—can be a key to understanding. The temporal sequencing of ‘events’ in the internationalisation process is clearly vital to comprehension of the firm’s strategy and decisions. As well as time, at a given place, we need to add place at a given time for all these events. Thus a double comparative across time and space is necessary for a rounded understanding of outcomes.

Process research also needs to comprehend simultaneous processes as there is not just one sequence of events in internationalisation; rather, there are multiple. Selection of processes to track has to be theoretically driven. Process research cannot stand apart from the theory, it is has to be fully engaged with the appropriate theories and to feed back into them (Paavilainen-Mantymaki and Welch 2013 ). This is fully in accord with Pettigrew’s ( 1997 ) approach to processual analysis. Moreover, as Pettigrew ( 1997 , p. 340) says, ‘The time quality of a processual analysis thereby lies in linking processes to outcomes’. Linking internationalisation processes to outcomes (performance) is a missing element in our understanding—the results of the managerial decisions form an essential element of a feedback loop to further internationalisation.

The four generic methods applied in historical research outlined here—source criticism, time series analysis, the use of comparative methods and counterfactual analysis—are all vital in constructing a proper process analysis of the internationalisation of the firm (or of a firm’s internationalisation). It is fundamental that a critical appraisal of all sources be undertaken, be they company statements, archives, documents or interviews. Wherever possible these should be triangulated against other sources. Nothing should be taken on trust and, if it has to be, this should be clearly stated. Wherever possible, a timeline of relevant events should be made in order to sequence the decision processes and outcomes. The construction of multiple timelines—of different managers, sub-units of the firm and other key actors (such as competitors, agents, customers, suppliers, governmental bodies, support agencies) should be compared and contrasted. The coincidence in time of actions by interested parties is prima facie evidence of joint causality. These techniques can be extended by the use of comparisons not only in time but in space. The geographical mapping of actions and outcomes gives richness to the process analysis. The transmission and impact of decisions from one geographical point (e.g., headquarters) to another (a subsidiary, a potential takeover victim), the time-lags involved and the reaction time of the recipient are all vital in understanding internationalisation. Counterfactual analysis, too, can be a useful tool. Firms often approach internationalisation decisions with a number of contingencies. If they cannot acquire foreign firm X, should they turn to Y, or to a greenfield venture instead? These alternatives are useful to know and it may be possible to construct feasible alternative internationalisation paths.

In summary, historical research methods and approaches provide a research design for internationalisation process studies that enhance the depth of understanding by incorporating concrete timelines, alternatives and decision processes.

3.2 A New Concept of Internationalisation

The new concept of internationalisation that emerges from a consideration of the light shed by historical research on managerial processes is that internationalisation is the outcome of a set of decisions, dependent on context and previous decisions, considering alternative locations, entry and development methods in a choice set of time and space. In these sequential decisions, knowledge of past decisions and their outcomes plays a part in the next round of decisions. Hence companies can create ‘vicious circles’ or ‘virtuous circles’ in their internationalisation processes. In this sense, a knowledge of history of the company making the decision and of similar companies making comparable decisions can be valuable for the manager. History matters to decision-makers as well as analysts. The question of when to take history into account and when to ignore it and ‘take a chance’ is the essence of managerial judgement (and of ‘real options theory’—see Kogut and Kulatilaka 2001 ; Buckley et al. 2002 ). Those who make regular correct calls will develop a ‘track record’ and be valued accordingly. Thus both the weight of history and the judgement of successful individuals will build path dependence into the internationalisation process.

The research approach formulated in this article encompasses the Uppsala approach to internationalisation (Johanson and Vahlne 1977 , 2009 ) as a special case. The Uppsala approach has no explicit role for time. It explains market entry as a sequence which is determined by psychic proximity to the source country in a loose path dependent fashion. A more careful specification of the relationship between market entry and psychic distance and an explicit acknowledgement of the role of time would allow a fully historical analysis of market entry sequencing in the Uppsala tradition.

4 Conclusion: The Response to the Challenge of Historical Research

The last sentences of Butterfield’s ( 1965 , p. 132) The Whig Interpretation of History encompasses the challenge of historical research methods: ‘In other words, the truth of history is no simple matter, all packed and parcelled ready for handling in the market-place. And the understanding of the past is not so easy as it is sometimes made to appear’. Historical research methods can help international business researchers to be more questioning, analytical and critical and to think laterally in terms of alternative states of the world, different choices and outcomes. There is a justifiable argument that international business research is insufficiently critical of ‘texts’ in all their forms—company statements, official statistics, interviews with managers among them—and historical research has a number of techniques for improving the penetration of meaning behind texts, as this piece has shown.

In using research methods derived from history we must always factor in ‘Contingency, choice and agency’ (Clark 2012 , p. 362). We should also remember that history interacts with geography—context is crucial. To quote the historian Peter Brown’s work on wealth in the early Christian period, ‘A true history of Latin Christianity requires an unremitting sense of place’ (Brown 2012 , p. xxii). A good example relevant to international business is the combined use of historical, geographical and sectoral data by Becuwe, Blancheton and Charles ( 2012 ) in analysing the decline of French trade power in the ‘first globalization’ of 1850–1913. A sense of place involves understanding both the global macro context and the particular location.

There is an awkward disjunction between traditional historical research and hypothetico-deductive modelling. This is paralleled by the lack of integration between quantitative and qualitative methods in international business research, arising from their philosophical bases in positivism and subjectivism. The careful integration of historical research methods into international business provides us with one channel of progress towards a more complete understanding of the phenomena of international business.

In the particular case of the analysis of the internationalisation of the firm, historical approaches place managerial judgement central to the process. Such judgement, however, is constrained by context. This context is both temporal and spatial. ‘When’ and ‘where’ matter in both an individual decision and the analysis of decisions. The use of the plural here implies sequencing and therefore a focus on process. The choice set faced by the manager is constrained by what has gone before—by history. This does not determine the next decision in the sequence but it influences it. The new concept of internationalisation is that sequence, not events, are at the heart of the international growth of the firm, that spatial issues (including psychic distance to a potential host country) must be accounted for, and that past decisions constrain outcomes.

On the importance of methodology (in international business as elsewhere) we can end with a quote from Kogut ( 2009 , p. 711): ‘It is one of the best-kept secrets of research that a methodological contribution is the most powerful engine for the replication and diffusion of an idea’.

It is suggested by Cannadine ( 2013 , p. 9) that academic histories are often responsible for emphasising divergences rather than similarities: ‘Most academics are trained to look for divergences and disparities rather than for similarities and affinities, but this relentless urge to draw distinctions often results in important connections and resemblances being overlooked’. The contrast between history and social science has been an issue for over a century (see Simiand 1903 ).

See also the debate on the ‘historic turn’ in organisation studies (Clark and Rowlinson 2004 ).

Stephanie Decker ( 2013 , p. 6) identified four features that ‘clearly distinguish historical from non-historical research designs’. These are: reconstruction from primary sources (empirical rigour), thick contextualisation in time and space (empirical at times, theoretical rigour), periodization (theoretical rigour when combined with strong historiography) and historical narrative (accessibility, empirical and theoretical rigours).

For an excellent review of the use (and extension) of archive material see Wilkins and Hill ( 2011 ) ‘Bibliographical Essay’ pp. 445–458.

See also Schwarzkopf ( 2012 ).

Belich notes, of trying to identify ‘emigrants’ and their opinions: ‘This problem of the silent majority is, of course, endemic in the social history of ideas. The standard solution, not one to be despised in the absence of alternatives, is to pile up available examples of opinions in the vague hope that these are typical. Once possible refinement is the analysis of the conceptual language of substantial groups of lesser writers who are trying to persuade their still-larger target audience to do something’ (Belich 2009 , p. 148 f.).

‘In most statistical analyses, the effect of a control variable is its average effect on the dependent variable, across all cases, not of the effects of other variables. The subtraction of effects central to statistical control is a purely mechanical operation predicted on simplifying assumptions. It is assumed in multiple regression, for example, that a variable’s effect is the same in each case—that a one-unit change in an independent variable has the same effect on the dependent variable regardless of context, that is, regardless variable’s effect by simple subtraction. The result is a dependent variable whose values have been “corrected” for the effects of one or more independent variables’ (Ragin 1987 , p. 59).

For a full discussion of varieties of comparative history, see Skocpol and Somers ( 1980 ).

See Evans ( 2014 ) for a critical appraisal of counterfactuals.

As a referee points out, Fogel was not posing the ‘what if’ question but rather ‘by how much less would the US economy have grown if there had been no railways’.

I owe this point to Geoff Jones (personal communication 09.07.2013).

Kobrak and Schneider ( 2011 ) make a call for a renewal of historical research methods in business history, ‘reviving some basic historiographical notions’ (p. 401).

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40 Interesting Historical Research Topics

  • Last modified 2024-03-14
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examples of historical research studies

History is typically a required course in high school, under the umbrella of social science. History is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea; however, understanding American, European, and World History will give you an opportunity to escape your little bubble of life and gain broader perspectives about historical events and how they influence current and future events. History repeats itself, is often said. Learning about history will not only give you knowledge of the past but also predictions  for  the future.   

History may sound boring at first, but historical events were influenced by numerous factors, ranging from politics, technological advancement, and social circumstances. Especially, when you dive deeper into history with historical research, you will develop critical analysis and technical analysis skills by uncovering events and analyz ing  how they have impacted the future through convincing arguments.     

So now, you’re very interested in doing historical research, but you don’t know where to start. Every research paper starts with an interesting topic. So, ask yourself, what topic is of the most interest to you and most unique and interesting to readers? Maybe you are interested in learning more about European History during the Renaissance period, or the decolonization of Asia under the event of the Second World War .  Depending on the topic, you will be able to integrate and discuss multiple perspectives that contribute to the events or incidents. Examples include: the economy, education, politics, social life, etc. While brainstorming a topic, you should also look for reliable resources. Reliable resources can come from your school’s library, scholarly and peer-reviewed articles, etc. For more details about steps in the research process, we’ve written in detail  8 critical steps while doing research  you should check out.   

Before going into the list, we recommend that you should have a clear direction of what historical aspect you should focus on. There are 5 main aspects when it comes to historical events:   

  • Religion/Philosophy: belief, creator, place of worship, ideas  
  • Politics: government, laws, leaders, crimes, war, military, democracy  
  • Economics: currency, jobs, bank, trade, stocks, gold, production  
  • Society: communication, personality, age, nationality, gender, religion  
  • Culture: traditions, clothing, appearance, festivals, food, language, sports, education, architecture  

You can write  any  one of those  preceding  aspects, or  a  combination of two or three aspects in relation to  each historical event. We’ve compiled and categorized topics to guide you in your historical research paper writing process. Using the topics, you can dive deeper into exploring which topics you’re most interested in writing about, and should be most relevant to your history career in high school and college.  Now, let’s get started!   

1. World History 

world history

World History is a broad and diverse research topic that covers a wide period of time: from civilization to social movement. Therefore, there are multiple topics students can choose from. Remember, world history discusses the development in the world in response to interchanges among significant countries in the world.   

  • World Wars I and II, the links between them, and how they could have been  prevented   
  • American Revolution – Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783   
  • Trade in the Roman World designed by The Romans created one of the most impressive road networks of the ancient world.  
  • The rise and fall of empires, in relation to conflicts, protests, and riots against corporate globalization, and the threat of worldwide terrorism against the West.  
  • Cradle of civilization: Ancient Discoveries of China, Egypt, Mesoamerica, or India, or any other civilization that le d  to a high level of craft specialization and artistic production from each civilization, creating opportunities for trade   
  • Architecture through the ages: the changes in architecture through various traditions, regions, and dates, growing from human’s basic needs of shelter and protection.   
  • Women’s rights movement around the world. To see the overall timeline of women’s rights movements, you can explore women’s activism from generations past and present on  the UN Women’s website .   
  • Math and Science discoveries throughout ancient history that contribute to how we apply math and science today  
  • Ancient conquests and their influence on the modern world map formation  
  • Nuclear warfare, a military conflict or political strategy which deploys nuclear weaponry.   

2. United States History

us history

For students studying in the US, United States History has always been fascinating, given its Declaration of Independence in 1776. American History ranges from prehistory, European colonization, the American Revolution, the Federal period, the Gilded Age, the Great Depression, and the Cold War. Below are some examples for U.S. historical Research paper:  

  • Attack on Pearl Harbor, the military strike by Imperial Japanese Navy Air Service upon the United States against the naval base at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii.  
  • The Vietnam War: Social consequences and  treatment of  veterans   returning from the war  
  • Immigration in the late 1800s: the “melting pot” and “salad bowl” metaphors  
  • Gold Rush and its development of  the  California state  
  • Civil War and the participation of women and African America ns  
  • JFK Presidency, Policy and Assassination   
  • My Lai Massacre, incident of American violence committed against unarmed civilians during the Vietnam War  
  • Sept 11, 2001 attacks and  their  impact on American security policies, foreign policy, and views on Islam through media and movies  
  • Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, its tactics, movements, and outcomes  
  • Yellow journalism and its impact on the Spanish-American War  

3. European History

european history

The history of Europe began with the first appearance of anatomically modern humans in Europe. European History is considered the best-documented history  compared to that of other regions  in the world of history. Through conducting European studies, you will be able to understand its people, culture, and the way they saw the world.   

  • The Nude in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: religious or erotic?   
  • Italian unification   
  • The relationship between Turkey and the European Union, and its impact on the position that Turkey has today  
  • Black Death, cause, symptoms and impact   
  • Religious crisis in the 16th century: the birth of Protestantism  
  • The Agricultural Revolution and the development of market economies  
  • The spread of Christianity: the political aspects  
  • European imperialism, in relation to the economic and political power overseas  
  • The Industrial Revolution and societal consequences  
  • The influence of Locke and French philosophies on the rise of liberal political thought in Europe in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries  

4. Asian History

asian history

Asian History  remains unknown to many people in the Western world . However, in the discussion of world history, the civilizations of Asia display a preeminence prior to the age of Western civilization.  

  • Western imperialism in Asia and Asia n  transformation in  the areas of  religion, economy, and society   
  • The Story of Viet n am: From Prehistory to the Present  
  • Open Door policy and its impact on  the economies in the  US and  China  
  • Ancient Korean & Chinese Relations   
  • The Forgotten History of South Korean Massacres in Vietnam  
  • Invasions of the Korean Peninsula and its struggle for unification   
  • Yasuke  and its defense on Japan’s Greatest Warlord  
  • British Malaya: British involvement in Malay Politics  
  • The Great Game: a political and diplomatic confrontation between the British Empire and the Russian Empire over Afghanistan and neighboring territories in Central and South Asia.  
  • The Indus Valley Civilization, one of the world’s earliest civilizations  

History is a topic of great breadth and depth. Historians today are fascinated by the new findings of history through the examination of archaeology and anthropology. The above are the few examples we hope will inspire you to take the next step to conduct historical research. If you are passionate about history and would like to conduct a research project in preparation for history or other liberal arts majors in college or a history career in the future, we are here to help! We recently launched a new Historical Research project, along with the long-standing American, European, and World History courses.

Aralia’s History tutors are inspired teachers and professors who are committed to student success. They are recognized in their field or are currently teaching at top high schools and colleges/universities in the US.

Through Historical Research and Writing, students will learn about choosing a topic, composing research questions, effective research methods, drafting, composing, and revising. These skills will be taught with an emphasis on historical research, allowing students to engage in analysis of primary and secondary sources, discover interesting insights in history, and partake in the active pursuit of understanding the importance of the historical study.

In AP United States History (APUSH), students will review key content concepts and course objectives found in the APUSH course description through writing long essay questions (LEQ), document-based question essays (DBQs), and short answer questions (SAQs). Furthermore, students will practice using historical thinking skills tested on the exam by answering stimuli-based multiple-choice questions and through their written responses.

In this course, we will cover a period from the height of Ancient Greece to the middle of the sixteenth century, as we study the emergence of the first civilizations around modern day Europe and the trajectory of their development into Western society. We will examine the contributions of Greece and Rome and how they expanded their empires; how ideas are conceived, put into practice, and have social consequences; how and why their empires collapsed; how people and societies existed during the Middle Ages; how numerous cultures developed values and coexisted/clashed with others; and how a broken Europe, after several starts, reinvigorated itself with the Renaissance, and split again in the Reformation.

This course will allow students to discover important moments in World History while developing academic, writing, and communication skills. By studying, reading, and writing about World History, students will gain a better understanding of how the modern world came to be and how past events dictate current ones.

Explore the rise and fall of empires, the clash, and encounter of cultures, plagues, religious fervor, and political intrigue and war. This course aims to discover the complex interactions between Native Americans, Europeans, and Africans in different regions of North America across more than 500 years of history​.

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March 25, 2024

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Study finds political beliefs shape the way the public interprets history

by City University London

election campaign

Research shows that when exploring attitudes in the U.S., UK, Italy, South Africa, Mexico, and Poland—countries with different economies, cultures and political regimes (past and present)—right- compared to left-wing supporters evaluated the past more positively.

The data reveal that, in part, this occurs because right-wing supporters are more nostalgic about tradition. While the right looked more favorably to the past, in the U.S. and Poland (and potentially in the UK too), the left was more optimistic about what humanity can potentially achieve in the future. Though these observations indicate that political opinions matter when people consider the past and the future, the study found no difference in how people on the right versus left evaluate the present.

Published in the journal Political Psychology , the paper shows that how history is interpreted is central not only to political elites but also to lay people reporting divergent political opinions. These findings are particularly relevant today, given the number of prominent election campaigns taking place this year.

Politics and history

When looking at classical political texts, one realizes that the way history is interpreted is one of the major aspects. Marxism, for example, offers a view of history where, following original communism characterizing ancient hunter-gatherer societies, new economic systems replace old ones, with class conflict being common to all. This process is believed to culminate in a new age of communism, where economic scarcity is finally overcome and class conflict ends.

As another example, central to many classical liberal writings is the idea that, before civilization emerged, mankind lived in a state of nature where individuals survived without being part of an institutionalized community. History is central to fascist ideology too, where people are mobilized towards a struggle to recreate a mythical past during which the folk expressed all its power and glory.

As these examples illustrate, the pivotal role of history in the thinking of political elites is well established. This raises the following question: is history interpreted differently also by laypeople with divergent political opinions?

Assessing history

To understand more about how history is assessed by lay people reporting different political orientations, Dr. Francesco Rigoli, Reader in the Department of Psychology at City, conducted an online study with 1,200 participants from the U.S., the UK, Italy, South Africa, Mexico, and Poland where, in addition to reporting their positioning on a left-right political spectrum, participants evaluated the recent past (i.e., the period ranging from 1950 to 2000), the present, and the near future (i.e., society in 25 years).

The data show that, in all countries, right- compared to left-wing supporters evaluated the past as more positive. To elucidate this effect, a second study manipulated the appraisal of the past between groups, but found that this did not influence participants' political ideas.

A third study manipulated the prominence of political opinions between groups. Here, the high-prominence group displayed a stronger link between political ideas and evaluation of the past, indicating that embracing certain political opinions encourages a specific interpretation of the past.

Exploring the factors mediating this effect, one last study found that nostalgia for tradition partially explains why right-wing supporters cherish the past more.

Dr. Rigoli said, "It is remarkable that the rhetoric employed by politicians often evokes images of the past or visions of the future, such as the recent slogans of Barack Obama ('Yes we can') and Donald Trump ('Let's make America great again'). I wanted to explore whether these messages resonate with the general public by exploring whether people on the right of the political spectrum appraise the past, present, and future differently from people on the left.

"My observations indicate that a better appraisal of the past distinguishes the right from the left, an effect evident in all nations and thus reflecting a general phenomenon. Moreover, the data suggest that this does not arise because people with a better opinion about the past are attracted towards the right, but rather because the right-wing ideology provides a framework to interpret the past as being a better age.

"This suggests that nostalgia for tradition might mediate this effect, at least partially: people on the right report a longing for tradition, for hierarchical order, and for family connections, which they attribute to the recent past.

"The analyses also reveal that left-wing supporters believe that human actions can make a difference: their opinion is that, if appropriate choices are made, the future can improve substantially. However, the left's optimism was evident only in the U.S., Poland and possibly the UK, indicating that this is not a general phenomenon.

"These observations may help to clarify why people on the right often resist change: this may occur not much because they like the present, but, rather, because they like the past and they may view change as being a further step away from the past."

Provided by City University London

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  • Published: 26 March 2024

Genetic similarity between relatives provides evidence on the presence and history of assortative mating

  • Hans Fredrik Sunde   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-8797-5422 1 , 2 ,
  • Nikolai Haahjem Eftedal   ORCID: orcid.org/0009-0006-1328-9861 3 ,
  • Rosa Cheesman 3 ,
  • Elizabeth C. Corfield   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0002-0119-157X 4 , 5 ,
  • Thomas H. Kleppesto   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0001-5342-3478 1 , 6 ,
  • Anne Caroline Seierstad 3 ,
  • Eivind Ystrom   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-4390-6171 3 , 5 ,
  • Espen Moen Eilertsen   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3444-4251 3 &
  • Fartein Ask Torvik   ORCID: orcid.org/0000-0003-3984-5978 1 , 3  

Nature Communications volume  15 , Article number:  2641 ( 2024 ) Cite this article

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  • Behavioural genetics
  • Human behaviour

Assortative mating – the non-random mating of individuals with similar traits – is known to increase trait-specific genetic variance and genetic similarity between relatives. However, empirical evidence is limited for many traits, and the implications hinge on whether assortative mating has started recently or many generations ago. Here we show theoretically and empirically that genetic similarity between relatives can provide evidence on the presence and history of assortative mating. First, we employed path analysis to understand how assortative mating affects genetic similarity between family members across generations, finding that similarity between distant relatives is more affected than close relatives. Next, we correlated polygenic indices of 47,135 co-parents from the Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) and found genetic evidence of assortative mating in nine out of sixteen examined traits. The same traits showed elevated similarity between relatives, especially distant relatives. Six of the nine traits, including educational attainment, showed greater genetic variance among offspring, which is inconsistent with stable assortative mating over many generations. These results suggest an ongoing increase in familial similarity for these traits. The implications of this research extend to genetic methodology and the understanding of social and economic disparities.

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Richard Border, Sean O’Rourke, … Matthew C. Keller


Assortative mating – the non-random pairing of individuals with similar traits – has long been a challenging topic of interest across various fields, including genetics 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 6 , 7 , 8 , 9 , sociology 10 , 11 , 12 , and economics 13 , 14 . Consequences of assortative mating are wide-ranging, affecting topics such as genetic research methods 15 , 16 , relationship quality 10 , 17 , 18 , and the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities 10 , 13 , 14 . Although partner similarity have been documented for numerous characteristics 15 , 16 , 19 , it remains uncertain to what extent these similarities result from assortative mating or other processes, such as convergence over time 18 , 20 . Hence, the genetic consequences are unknown. Recent advances in data availability have enabled empirical investigation into the genetic consequences of assortative mating, wherein two are of key interest: First, partners should exhibit genetic similarity for assorted traits; and second, genetic similarity between relatives should increase for the assorted traits in subsequent generations 1 , 2 , 3 . In this paper, we aim to: 1) clarify the theoretical consequences of assortative mating on genetic similarity in extended families; 2) use polygenic indices to assess trait-specific genetic similarity between partners for a range of psychosocial, anthropometric, and health-related traits; 3) investigate whether these traits also exhibit increased genetic similarity among relatives; and 4) use the observed genetic similarity in mother-father-child trios to investigate the stability of assortative mating over many generations.

According to a recent meta-analysis, phenotypic correlations between partners exist for many traits 16 . The correlations are particularly high for cognitive and social traits like educational attainment (0.53) and political values (0.58), but moderate correlations exist for many diverse traits such as height (0.23), depression (0.14), and personality (0.08–0.21). Positive correlations between partners can arise from numerous processes, including convergence (partners becoming more alike over time due to mutual influence), common environments (partners originating from similar environments that affect their traits, but without influencing partner formation), and assortative mating (individuals tending to form partnerships with those having similar traits) 18 . If partner similarity arises because of assortative mating, then this will induce cross-partner correlations between factors that are associated with the trait. If the trait is heritable – which most traits are 21 , 22 – then partners will tend to carry genetic variants with similar effects on the trait. Genetic similarity between partners has been documented for some traits, including height and educational attainment 6 , 19 , 23 , 24 , 25 . For example, Yengo et al. 25 investigated genetic similarity in partners from the UK Biobank across 32 complex traits, but lack of statistical power left the question unresolved for most traits. Here, we remedy this by investigating partners in the Norwegian Mother, Father, and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) 26 , 27 , the largest cohort of confirmed partners with available genetic data ( n  = 47,135).

If assortative mating leads to genetic similarity between partners, then any resulting offspring are likely to inherit trait-specific genetic variants with similar effects from both parents. This has two important consequences: First, the trait-specific genetic variance in the population will increase because genetic variants with similar effects will tend to co-occur in the same individuals (i.e., variants will be in linkage disequilibrium) 3 , 8 , 28 , 29 . Second, trait-specific genetic similarity between relatives will increase because other family members are more likely to inherit genetic variants with similar effects 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 8 . With no assortative mating, genotypic correlations between family members for a trait should equal the coefficient of relationship. For example, full siblings (not including monozygotic twins) and parent-offspring pairs are first-degree relatives, with a coefficient of 0.50; aunt/uncle-niece/nephew and grandparent-grandchild pairs are second-degree relatives, with a coefficient of 0.25; and first cousins are third-degree relatives, with a coefficient of 0.125. Under assortative mating, however, the trait-specific genotypic correlations will be higher than the corresponding coefficients of relationship. Importantly, assortative mating only induces correlations between trait-associated loci and should not be confused with inbreeding, which induces correlations between all loci 30 . With successive generations of stable assortative mating, trait-specific genetic variance and genotypic correlations between relatives increase asymptotically towards an equilibrium, at which point they become constant across generations 3 , 8 , 28 , 29 . (See also Supplementary Note  2 ).

In this paper, we study the extent of assortative mating on a range of phenotypes and its historical consequences by using genetic data from extended family members. Our first aim is to derive the expected genotypic correlations between family members under various assumptions using path analysis. There are earlier theoretical papers that lays out the consequences of assortative mating on familial resemblance 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 , 31 . However: 1) they often focus on phenotypic rather than genotypic resemblance; 2) they don’t consider imperfectly measured genetic factors (i.e., polygenic indices); 3) they often do not consider gene-environment correlations; and 4) they either don’t consider disequilibrium or do so only under simplistic assumptions. We use path analysis because it offers a ready way to relax assumptions while making the theory accessible for non-specialists. In doing so, we describe a general formula for finding such correlations between any two extended family members under assortative mating at equilibrium. Our results imply that genetic similarity between distant relatives should be more affected by assortative mating than similarity between close relatives 1 , 3 , 32 . Our second aim is to document polygenic index correlations for various traits among partners in MoBa 26 , 27 . We find genetic evidence of assortative mating for nine out of sixteen investigated traits. Our third aim is to investigate whether genetic similarity between relatives was increased as predicted for these traits. We find that polygenic index correlations among relatives was increased in a way that broadly corresponded to the theoretical expectations. Trait-specific genetic similarity between partners and elevated genetic similarity between relatives indicate that many of the previously observed phenotypic correlations are partly attributable to assortative mating. Our fourth aim is to use mother-father-child trios to test whether the observations were consistent with equilibrium. Although some traits did not significantly deviate from equilibrium expectations, psychosocial traits like education attainment did. This would imply that that the genetic variance and genetic similarity between relatives for these traits are still increasing across generations.

Figure  1 shows a theoretical model of similarity in extended families in the presence of assortative mating at intergenerational equilibrium. The model includes eight individuals ( \(i\) ) in three generations ( \(t\) ): two partners in the first generation, their two children in the second generation (who are each other’s full sibling) along with their respective partners, and two children in the third generation (who are each other’s first cousin). The phenotype that is assorted on is denoted with \({P}_{{it}}\) , whereas trait-associated additive genetic factors and unique environmental factors are denoted with \({A}_{{it}}\) and \({E}_{{it}}\) , respectively. The genotypic correlation between any two individuals is the sum of all valid chains of paths between their respective additive genetic factors and the value of a single chain is the product of its path coefficients 33 , 34 . Valid chains always begin by tracing backward (←) in relation to the direction of arrows, incorporating exactly one double-headed arrow (↔), after which tracing continues in a forward direction (→). Because the variables in Fig.  1 have unit variances, all valid chains connecting a variable to itself will sum to 1, allowing us to immediately trace in a forward direction (i.e., change direction at once). Copaths (—), which are arrowless paths representing associations arising from assortment 35 , link together valid chains per the rules above, forming longer, valid chains. For a more detailed description of path tracing rules involving copaths, see Balbona et al. 36 or Keller et al. 37 Path diagrams with relaxed assumptions (e.g., gene-environment correlations) are presented and discussed in Supplementary Notes  1 – 3 , whereas simulations validating our theoretical expectations are presented in Supplementary Notes  4 and 5 .

figure 1

Path diagram for a model of genetic similarity in extended families under phenotypic assortative mating at intergenerational equilibrium (i.e., equal variance across generations). The partner correlation attributable to assortment is denoted by \(\mu\) , the recombination variance is denoted by \({V}_{K}\) , and \(h\) and \(e\) denote the effect of additive genetic ( \({A}_{{it}}\) ) and environmental factors ( \({E}_{{it}}\) ), respectively, on the phenotype ( \({P}_{{it}}\) ) of individual \(i\) in generation \(t\) . All variables have unit variance, meaning \(e=\sqrt{1-{h}^{2}}\) and \({V}_{K}=\frac{1-\mu {h}^{2}}{2}\) . See the Supplementary Notes  1 – 3 for path diagrams with relaxed assumptions.

Expected genotypic correlations in the nuclear family

In Fig.  1 , there is only one valid chain between partners’ additive genetic factors (e.g., \({A}_{11}\)  ↔  \({A}_{21}\) ): \(h\times \mu \times h\) . The genotypic correlation between partners (denoted \({\rho }_{g}\) ) is thus the phenotypic correlation attributable to assortative mating, \(\mu\) , weighted by the trait’s heritability, \({h}^{2}\) :

Similarly, we can trace the valid chains between the additive genetic factors of a parent and their offspring (e.g., \({A}_{11}\)  ↔  \({A}_{22}\) ). There are two valid chains: one directly from parental genetic factors to offspring genetic factors, \(\frac{1}{2}\) , and one through the other parent via the assorted phenotype: \(h\times \mu \times h\times \frac{1}{2}\) . The genotypic correlation between parent and offspring is therefore \(\frac{1}{2}+\frac{h\mu h}{2}\) . With no assortative mating ( \(\mu=0\) ), this reduces to \(\frac{1}{2}\) . For siblings ( \({A}_{22}\)  ↔  \({A}_{32}\) ), there are four valid chains: \(\frac{1}{4}+\frac{1}{4}+\frac{h\mu h}{4}+\frac{h\mu h}{4}\) , which can be rearranged so that it equals the genotypic parent-offspring correlation. Because they are equal, we can define a common denotation ( \({r}_{{g}_{1}}\) ) for first-degree relatives. We can also substitute \(h\times \mu \times h\) with \({\rho }_{g}\) giving us:

In other words, the genotypic correlation between first-degree relatives, \({r}_{{g}_{1}},\) is increased by half the genotypic correlation between partners at equilibrium. (Note that the phenotypic correlation will not be the same for siblings and parent-offspring despite the same genotypic correlation 3 ). An advantage of using path analysis is how easy path diagrams are to expand. In the Supplementary Information, we detail how relaxing the assumption of equilibrium (Note 2) and including polygenic indices (Note 3) changes the correlations. During disequilibrium, the genotypic correlation between partners will still conform to Eq. ( 1 ), but the correlation between relatives will be less than what Eq. ( 2 ) would predict. For polygenic index correlations, one must include a term representing the imperfect correlation between the polygenic index and the true genetic factor. The polygenic index correlation between partners should therefore be:

where \({s}^{2}\) is the shared variance between the polygenic index and the true additive genetic factor (i.e., the genetic signal 19 ). Assortative mating will induce covariance between different loci (i.e., linkage disequilibrium), which is included in the genetic signal. This means that \(s\) may be larger than the correlation between the true direct effects and the polygenic index weights, and as such do not represent the accuracy of the polygenic index weights (see Supplementary Notes  3 , 4.4, and 5.6). If the genetic signal is low, the polygenic index correlation between partners will be biased towards zero compared to the true genotypic correlation 19 . For first-degree relatives, the equation becomes similarly altered, but because the error terms in the polygenic indices are correlated between relatives, the polygenic index correlation will be biased towards the coefficient of relatedness rather than zero:

Expected genotypic correlations in the extended family

The model in Fig.  1 has two properties that allow a general algorithm to find the expected genotypic correlation between any two members in extended families. First, all the chains that connect the genotypes of first-degree relatives can readily be continued without breaking path tracing rules. Second, all chains between the genotypes of any two related individuals are mediated sequentially through the genotypes of first-degree relatives. The genotypic correlation between \({k}^{{th}}\) -degree relatives, denoted \({r}_{{g}_{k}}\) , can thus be attained by raising the genotypic correlation between first-degree relatives to the degree of relatedness:

For example, the expected genotypic correlation between third-degree relatives like first cousins is \({(\frac{1+{\rho }_{g}}{2})}^{3}\) , which can be verified by manually tracing all valid chains between \({A}_{13}\) and \({A}_{23}\) in Fig.  1 . The genotypic correlation between non-blood relatives like in-laws, which will be non-zero under assortative mating, can be attained by linking together chains of \({r}_{{g}_{k}}\) and \({\rho }_{g}\) (for example, \({Corr}\left({A}_{12},{A}_{42}\right)={r}_{{g}_{1}}{\rho }_{g}^{2}\) ). As for polygenic index correlations, they can be approximated by replacing \({\rho }_{g}\) with \({\rho }_{{pgi}}\) in Eq. ( 5 ), although depending on the genetic signal, the true correlation between polygenic indices may be slightly higher (see Supplementary Note  3 ).

Figure  2 shows how assortative mating changes genotypic correlations between relatives at equilibrium. In Panels A and B, it is evident that assortative mating has a much larger effect on first cousins than full siblings. For example, for a trait where \(\mu=.50\) and \({h}^{2}=50\%\) (meaning \({\rho }_{g}=.25\) ), siblings (Panel A) will have a correlation of \({r}_{{g}_{1}}=.625\) whereas cousins (Panel B) will have a correlation of \({r}_{{g}_{3}}=.244\) , reflecting increases of 25% and 95%, respectively, compared to random mating. Panel C shows how this pattern extends to more distant relatives, with the genotypic correlation between second cousins 3.5 times higher than normal if \({\rho }_{g}=.25\) ( \({r}_{{g}_{5}}=.095\) vs . \(.031\) ). The larger relative increase is not merely because the correlations are smaller to begin with: Panel D shows that the largest absolute increase typically occurs in second-degree relatives like uncles/aunts and nephews/nieces.

figure 2

A , B The expected genotypic correlation ( \({r}_{g}\) ) at equilibrium between full siblings (i.e., first-degree relatives) and first cousins (i.e., third-degree relatives) under different combinations of assortment strengths ( \(\mu\) ) and heritabilities ( \({h}^{2}\) ). C , D The relative and absolute increase in genotypic correlation at equilibrium for various relatives and genotypic correlations between partners ( \({p}_{g}\) ).

The relatively greater increase in correlation between cousins is because third-degree relatives are affected by three assortment processes: Mother-father, uncle-aunt, and grandfather-grandmother partnerships are all correlated under assortative mating and contribute to the increased correlation (Fig.  1 ). For each additional degree of relatedness, there is an additional assortment process opening pathways for relatives to correlate. This pattern extends to unrelated individuals like siblings-in-laws, who would have a genotypic correlation of \({\rho }_{g}{r}_{{g}_{1}}=.157\) if \({\rho }_{g}=.25\) . It is evident that assortative mating has a relatively larger impact on the genotypic correlation between distant relatives compared to close relatives, and that heritable traits subject to strong assortment can produce significant genotypic correlations between family members who would otherwise be virtually uncorrelated.

Gene-environment correlations, shared environment, and dominance effects

One limitation with most earlier work, such as Fisher 1 , is that they assume a simplistic model where genetic similarity is the only cause of familial resemblance. In Supplementary Note  1 , we detail how genetic similarity between relatives are affected by dominance effects, shared environmental effects, and various forms of environmental transmission. If genetic and environmental transmission occur simultaneously, assortative mating will induce (and greatly increase) correlations between genetic and environmental factors. Such gene-environment correlations will, in this context, mimic higher heritability, leading to higher genotypic correlations between partners and thereby exacerbated genetic consequences of assortative mating. However, the relationship between the genotypic correlation between partners and the genotypic correlation between first-degree relatives will stay the same, meaning Eq. ( 2 ) and Eq. ( 4 ) can be used without making assumptions about gene-environment correlations or other sources of familial resemblance.

This is not the case for distant relatives. If there are substantial shared environmental effects, gene-environment correlations, or other sources of familial resemblance, the properties of Fig.  1 that allow the general algorithm in Eq. ( 5 ) are no longer present. This is because non-genetic causes of familial resemblance result in pathways between distant relatives that bypass the genotypes of intermediate relatives, thus increasing the true genotypic correlation to beyond what Eq. ( 5 ) would predict. Equation ( 5 ) still serves as a rough approximation, although any statistical model that relies on it could be biased if such extra pathways exist.

Empirical polygenic index correlations between partners and relatives

Figure  3 shows polygenic index correlations between family members for a range of traits. Nine out of sixteen traits were significantly correlated between partners (Panel A), including height (0.07), body mass index (0.04), intelligence (0.04), and educational attainment (0.14). When educational attainment was split into cognitive and non-cognitive factors (GWAS-by-subtraction 38 ), we find roughly equal partner correlations for both components. Psychiatric traits like ADHD, depression, cross-psychiatric disorder, and bipolar disorder exhibited no significant correlations between partners. Keep in mind that the correlations will be biased downwards to the extent the genetic signal is poor (ref. Equation ( 3 )).

figure 3

Polygenic index correlations (with 95% CIs) for various traits between various family members: ( A ) partners ( N  = 47,135), ( B ) full siblings ( N  = 22,575), ( C ) parent-offspring ( N  = 117,041), and ( D ) first cousins ( N  = 28,330). The vertical dashed lines are the expected correlation under random mating (i.e., the coefficient of relatedness), and the black crosses are the expected correlation at equilibrium given Eq. ( 5 ). Abbreviations: EA educational attainment, BMI body mass index, IQ intelligence, ADHD attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Correlations are also reported in Supplementary Table  17 .

Panels B, C, and D show polygenic index correlations between full siblings, parents and offspring, and first cousins, respectively (see Supplementary Fig.  29 for other family members). The vertical dashed lines are the expected correlations under random mating and the black crosses are the expected correlations at equilibrium given the partner correlation and Eq. ( 5 ). All traits with significant correlations between partners had significantly higher parent-offspring correlations than would be expected under random mating, and we observed similar patterns for other relatives. For example, the polygenic index correlation for educational attainment was 0.56 (instead of 0.50) between full siblings and 0.20 (instead of 0.125) between first cousins.

Testing intergenerational equilibrium

We fitted structural equation models using mother-father-child trios to see if a model constrained to equal variance across generations (i.e., equilibrium) resulted in significantly worse fit (see Supplementary Note  6 ). Six out of nine traits were significantly different from equilibrium. We also investigated two consequences of disequilibrium, namely greater variance in the offspring generation (Fig.  4A ) and smaller-than-expected parent-offspring correlations (Fig.  4B ). During disequilibrium, the ratio of offspring polygenic index variance to parental polygenic index variance should be positive: \({Q}_{{pgi}}=\frac{{Offspring\; Variance}}{{Parental\; Variance}}\) (see Supplementary Notes  2.1 and 3.3 ). However, this ratio is quite sensitive to the genetic signal of the polygenic index, and therefore provides limited information about the history of assortative mating beyond demonstrating disequilibrium. An alternative measure that is less sensitive to the genetic signal is the observed increase in polygenic index correlation as a percentage of the expected increase 19 : \({U}_{{pgi}}=\frac{{Observed\; Increase}}{{Expected\; Increase}}\) (see Supplementary Notes  2.3 and 3.4 ). This provides a measure of how close the trait is to equilibrium. By comparing \({U}_{{pgi}}\) to reference values under various heritabilities and assortment strengths, it is possible to infer the equivalent number of generations of stable assortative mating if starting from a random mating population. If the parental generation was the first generation to mate assortatively, we would expect \({U}_{{pgi}}\,\approx\, 70\%\) , while we would expect \({U}_{{pgi}}=100\%\) if the trait was in equilibrium.

figure 4

Parameter estimates (with 95% likelihood-based CIs) from structural equation models using mother-father-child trios (N = 87,896 families, 35,025 of which were complete). A Ratio of offspring polygenic index variance to parental polygenic index variance ( \({Q}_{{pgi}}\) , see Supplementary Note  2.1 ). A value above 1 would indicate that the variance is greater in the offspring generation compared to the parental generation, as expected during disequilibrium. B Observed increase in parent-offspring correlation compared to expected increase at equilibrium ( \({U}_{{pgi}}\) , see Supplementary Note  2.3 ). A value of about 70% would indicate that the parent generation was the first generation to assort on this trait, whereas 100% would indicate that the trait is in intergenerational equilibrium. Only traits with significant correlations between partners are shown. Shape corresponds to trait types in Fig.  3 , where circles are anthropometric traits and squares are psychosocial traits. Abbreviations: EA educational attainment, BMI body mass index, IQ intelligence.

Height did not deviate from equilibrium: There was no significant difference between the parental and offspring variance nor between the observed and expected correlations. The results for drinking and smoking behavior were also consistent with equilibrium, although the observed partner correlation was too small to make this test informative. Body mass index and other psychosocial traits, on the other hand, did deviate from equilibrium: For example, the polygenic index variance for educational attainment was 2.46% greater in the offspring generation compared to the parental generation. The true genetic variance ratio is likely much larger: For example, if the polygenic index captures one third of the true genetic factor ( \({s}^{2}=1/3\) ), then the true variance increase would be approximately 7.4% (see Supplementary Note  3.3 ). The parent-offspring polygenic index correlation was also slightly but significantly lower than expected at equilibrium ( \({U}_{{pgi}}=90\%\) , 95% CIs: \(87{-}93\%\) ). When we compared this to calculations of what the observed increase would have been after successive generations of assortative mating, we found that \({U}_{{pgi}}=90\%\) is equivalent to approximately three generations of stable assortment (see Supplementary Note  2.3 ). Results were similar for other psychosocial traits, albeit with somewhat shorter implied histories. Body mass index, on the other hand, had a parent-offspring polygenic index correlation that would imply that the parent generation was the first to mate assortatively ( \({U}_{{pgi}}=71\%\) , 95% CIs: \(60{-}81\%\) ). This would also explain why the sibling correlation – many of whom are in the parent generation – was not higher than expected under random mating.

In this study, our goal was to clarify the theoretical consequences of assortative mating on genetic similarity in extended families and assess empirical measures of genetic similarity to provide insights into the presence and history of assortative mating. We first employed path analysis to deduce the expected polygenic index correlations between relatives under assortative mating. We then presented empirical evidence that assortative mating is present for many traits, leading to significantly increased genetic similarity among relatives for those traits. Finally, we showed that – while assortative mating does not appear to be a recent phenomenon for most traits – genetic similarity is still increasing across generations for psychosocial traits. Here, we discuss the implications of our findings.

Our first aim was to clarify the theoretical consequences of assortative mating. One key finding is the stronger impact of assortative mating on genotypic correlations between more distant relatives. Although not a novel discovery – even Fisher mentioned it offhandedly in his seminal paper 1 – this effect has been largely overlooked in the literature (cf 32 .). This is despite important implications. A Swedish economics paper reported that nearly one-third of persistence in inequality across generations – traditionally attributable to parent-offspring relationships – is attributable to the extended family 39 . Assortative mating’s effects on similarity in extended families may be key to understanding these issues. Similar logic may also apply to environmentally mediated sources of similarity 40 . We also described how assortative mating can induce and increase gene-environment correlations, which mimic higher heritability and thereby exacerbate the genetic consequences of assortative mating – especially correlations between distant relatives.

The second aim of this study was to investigate which traits show genetic evidence of assortative mating. One key challenge when evaluating the pervasiveness of assortative mating is that phenotypic partner similarity can come about from multiple processes. Genotypic similarity, on the other hand, can more confidently be attributed to assortative mating. Most anthropometric traits and psychosocial traits had significant polygenic index correlations between partners. The largest correlation was for educational attainment (0.14), which adds to the growing list of evidence that variants associated with educational attainment are undergoing assortative mating 6 , 19 , 23 , 25 , 41 .

Psychiatric traits did not show evidence of assortative mating despite pervasive phenotypic partner correlations 15 , 16 . Similarly, a recent study found no genetic partner similarity on general risk for psychopathology (i.e., the “p-factor”) 42 . These findings seemingly contradict Torvik et al. 19 , who reported evidence of assortative mating on depression using a smaller subset of the same cohort. However, that paper used a structural equation model requiring both genetic and phenotypic data, and the polygenic index correlations reported in that paper match those we report here. This could indicate that phenotypic partner similarity in mental health is caused by processes other than assortative mating, such as convergence 20 (which was not modelled in Torvik et al. 19 ). On the other hand, the results could also be false negatives resulting from low-quality polygenic indices. The depression polygenic index only correlates \(.11\) with the phenotype in the current cohort 19 , meaning the expected partner correlation is only about \({.11}^{2}\times .14=.0017\) under direct assortment. A false negative is therefore highly likely. Reports of smaller but non-zero phenotypic correlations prior to partner formation suggests that both convergence and assortment play an important role 43 , 44 .

As highlighted in Eq. ( 3 ), the polygenic index correlation between partners should be the product of the phenotypic correlation attributable to assortative mating ( \(\mu\) ), the heritability ( \({h}^{2}\) ), and the genetic signal ( \({s}^{2}\) ). If the polygenic index fails to adequately measure the relevant genetic factors (meaning \({s}^{2}\,\approx\, 0\) ), for example due to lack of statistical power or other measurement issues 45 in the underlying genome-wide associations study (GWAS), then the polygenic index correlation will be biased towards zero. The highest observed correlations were for educational attainment and height, which are among the traits with the largest sample sizes in the underlying GWAS. A corollary is that the correlations reported here do not quantify the exact degree of assortative mating because it is confounded by the genetic signal of the polygenic index. Complicating inference further is that the genetic signal is itself increased under assortative mating.

Our third aim was to investigate whether relatives were more genetically similar for traits that exhibit evidence of assortative mating. Our findings broadly correspond to theoretical expectations: Traits with significant polygenic index correlations between partners showed increased similarity between relatives, whereas traits with no correlations between partners broadly exhibit patterns as expected under random mating. These empirical patterns demonstrate the theoretical expectations derived earlier, meaning we should expect distant relatives to be highly correlated for traits under strong assortment. The correlations reported here are underestimated by the quality of the polygenic index, meaning the true genotypic correlations between relatives are likely much larger. Our findings have at least two implications. First, genetic variants associated with traits undergoing assortment, such as educational attainment, cluster in extended families, thus increasing or maintaining societal stratification by families 39 (i.e. between-family variation); and second, genetic studies that unknowingly involve numerous distantly related individuals may be biased if the genotypic correlations between them are not negligible.

For educational attainment, the polygenic index correlations between first-degree relatives are lower than expected (indicating disequilibrium, see below) while correlations between third- and fourth-degree relatives are higher than expected. This is consistent with substantial gene-environment correlations for educational attainment 46 , 47 , 48 . In Supplementary Notes  1 and 5 , we showed theoretically and with simulations that correlations between higher-degree relatives (but not first-degree relatives) will be higher than expected given Eq. ( 5 ) if such gene-environment correlations are present.

Our fourth aim was to investigate the history of assortative mating. Our findings differed across traits: Height did not deviate from equilibrium expectations, whereas psychosocial traits such as educational attainment did. This was evident in both lower-than-expected parent-offspring polygenic index correlations and greater variance in the offspring generation. Whether or not a trait is in intergenerational equilibrium has important implications for the consequences of assortative mating because it decides whether differences are increasing across generations or merely maintained. We found that polygenic index variance was stable across generations for height (as well as for traits not undergoing assortative mating). However, psychosocial traits have greater variance in the offspring generation, implying that the traits are in disequilibrium and that assortative mating is currently leading to increased genetic differences in these traits. Although the non-genetic consequences may differ, assortative mating may therefore play a key role in explaining recent increases in inequality 10 , 13 .

Despite being in disequilibrium, the evidence does not suggest that the parental generation was the first to assort on educational attainment. Instead, it appears that the trait is quite near equilibrium. This would also explain the discrepancy between our conclusion and that in Torvik et al. 19 , who found no significant deviation from equilibrium using an earlier version of data from the same cohort. We primarily used variance differences across generations whereas Torvik et al. 19 compared the predicted and expected correlations between siblings and partners. Considering that the sibling correlation in Fig.  3B is significantly lower than expected given equilibrium, the change in result likely stem from an increase in statistical power, owing to more genotyped individuals available in the current sample, and further aided by the use of parent-offspring dyads instead of sibling dyads. In this paper, we estimate that the evidence for educational attainment corresponds to approximately three generations of stable, univariate assortative mating starting from a random mating population, but the exact history of assortment will be longer if the strength of assortment has varied over time or if the genotype-phenotype correlation increased for other reasons 49 .

Many genetic research methods assume random mating, but our findings suggest that such assumptions are unwarranted for many traits. Accounting for assortative mating poses its own challenges, as the genetic consequences and corresponding methods needed depend on whether assortative mating started recently or has reached intergenerational equilibrium. Studies on the genetics of educational attainment especially – or the many traits that correlate with educational attainment 50 – may therefore be biased unless this is properly accounted for. Twin and family studies that account for assortative mating typically assume equilibrium 37 . For example, Clark 51 uses equations that assume equilibrium when he claims that familial correlations in social class in the United Kingdom can be explained by genetic similarity alone. Conversely, Kong et al. 46 , who investigated genetic nurture effects of educational attainment in an Icelandic sample, assumed no assortment prior to their parental generation. Our findings imply that, for some traits, neither of these assumptions are valid. Although the patterns and history of assortment may be different across populations, future research should investigate how the conclusions from Kong et al. 46 and related papers depend on these assumptions 52 , 53 .

Newer genetic methods that can account for disequilibrium are being developed 36 , 54 . When these methods are impractical, the potential biases induced by different assumptions must be considered on a case-by-case and method-by-method basis. Different methods will be biased in different ways. For example, assortative mating leads to underestimated heritability in classical twin designs 37 , 55 and overestimated heritability in molecular designs 56 , with the corollary that the missing heritability problem may be larger than previously assumed 57 , 58 . Overall, researchers must carefully consider what impacts the presence and history of assortative mating would have on their results.

Despite our large sample size, our results are limited by low-quality polygenic indices, which results in lower partner correlations and consequently less power to detect assortative mating. This is amplified in tests of equilibrium, where smaller polygenic index correlations between partners result in less statistical power to detect deviations from equilibrium. Our tests for equilibrium are therefore less conclusive for traits with small polygenic index correlations, such as drinking and smoking behavior. Furthermore, assortative mating can bias GWAS estimates and thereby bias polygenic indices 59 . Although this should not affect our conclusions (see Supplementary Note  5.6 ), it does make it difficult to precisely quantify the strength of assortative mating on various traits and hence the magnitude of the genetic consequences.

Another concern is that our results may be confounded by population stratification 60 , where (1) the trait in question happens to be more common within certain strata (e.g., subcultures or geographical areas), (2) some genetic variants are randomly present at higher frequencies in these strata, and (3) individuals are more likely to mate within these strata. The combination of the first two phenomena would result in a spurious correlation between those genetic variants and the trait, and when coupled with the third phenomenon, similar spurious correlations could emerge between partners. While we controlled for 20 principal components in our analysis, which is the standard method for addressing stratification 61 , this approach may not fully account for this phenomenon 62 . However, the evidence we present aligns well with predictions given assortative mating. It is also not obvious how population stratification could explain increased variance in the offspring generation. Consequently, our results should be considered indicative of assortative mating until a more compelling alternative explanation is offered. Future theoretical work should investigate how the consequences of assortative mating and population stratification differ so that they can better be distinguished in future research.

There are several interesting research avenues that could follow from this work. First, there may be some selection bias in the cohort study our results are based on. Future work using population-wide phenotypic data might provide insights into how much this matters. Second, patterns of assortative mating are likely to vary between populations 63 , 64 , meaning that our empirical findings are not universally generalizable. Replicating these results in other populations will therefore be beneficial. Third, the approach we use here is agnostic as to which trait(s) the polygenic indices actually measure, and which phenotype(s) are being assorted upon. Future research may want to investigate what set of phenotypes mediate the polygenic index correlations between partners, as it may not always be attributable to the phenotype that the polygenic index supposedly measures. Furthermore, we have assumed assortment is unidimensional. Considering ample evidence of partner correlations across different traits 44 , 59 , future studies may want to extend this line of research to multidimensional assortment.

We used data from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) 26 . MoBa is a population-based pregnancy cohort study conducted by the Norwegian Institute of Public Health. Participants were recruited from all over Norway from 1999 to 2008. The women consented to participation in 41% of the pregnancies. Blood samples were obtained from both parents during pregnancy and from mothers and children (umbilical cord) at birth 65 . The cohort includes approximately 114,500 children, 95,200 mothers and 75,200 fathers. The current study is based on version 12 of the quality-assured data files released for research in January 2019. The establishment of MoBa and initial data collection was based on a license from the Norwegian Data Protection Agency and approval from The Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics. The MoBa cohort is currently regulated by the Norwegian Health Registry Act. The current study was approved by The Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics (2017/2205).

The sample included all individuals who had been genotyped and passed quality control 27 . This included 77,506 mothers (birth year: M = 1974.36, SD = 5.1), 53,274 fathers (birth year: M = 1972.27, SD = 5.6), and 71,525 children (49% female, birth year: M = 2005.31, SD = 1.94). For the correlations, the sample included 47,135 unique mother-father dyads (i.e., partners). As described in Corfield et al. 27 relatedness relationships in MoBa were inferred from genetic data by applying KING programs 66 to a subset of single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) with call rate < 98% and minor allele frequency (MAF) < 5%. KING accurately infers monozygotic twin or duplicate pairs (kinship coefficient > 0.3540), first-degree (parent-offspring, full siblings, dizygotic twin pairs; kinship coefficient range 0.1770–0.3540), second-degree (half siblings, grandparent-offspring, avuncular relationships; kinship coefficient range 0.0884–0.1770), and third-degree (first cousins; kinship coefficient range 0.0442–0.0884) relationships. This method identified 117,041 parent-offspring dyads, 22,575 full sibling dyads, 35,923 second-degree dyads (e.g., uncle-nephew), 28,330 third-degree dyads (e.g., first cousins), 9392 fourth-degree dyads, and 235,209 dyads of unrelated family members (e.g., in-laws, nephews–uncles’ spouses, partners, etc.,) where both members of the dyads had been genotyped and passed quality control.

To test equilibrium, we used all available mother-father-child trios from MoBa. We relied on trios to test equilibrium for the following reasons: 1) It allowed estimating the partner correlation and parent-offspring correlations in the same model; 2) it allowed us to include both the mother-offspring and father-offspring dyads simultaneously thus increasing statistical power; 3) it allowed us to estimate variances separately for the two generations; 4) there was no need to distinguish between correlations between relatives in the parent generation and in the offspring generation, as this is inherent in the design; 5) focusing on the nuclear family removes the need to make assumptions about the genetic signal or gene-environment correlations; and finally, 6) the sample in MoBa is inherently selected on parent-offspring dyads whereas the availability of other relatives is coincidental. Using other relatives, such as siblings, could therefore lead to stronger ascertainment bias. After randomly selecting one offspring from each nuclear family, we were able to construct a sample of 76,869 genotyped mothers, 51,549 genotyped fathers, and 66,751 genotyped offspring, resulting in a total of 87,896 incomplete and complete trios. Of these, 35,025 were complete trios, whereas 9889 included only partners, 23,177 included only mother-offspring dyads, and 4157 included only father-offspring dyads.

We used beta weights from large, publicly available up-to-date genome-wide association studies listed the Supplementary Note  8 . None of the used genome-wide association studies used data from MoBa. Polygenic indices were calculated using LDPred v.1 67 , a Bayesian approach that uses a prior on the expected polygenicity of a trait (assumed fraction of non-zero effect markers) and adjusts for linkage disequilibrium (LD) based on a reference panel to compute SNPs weights. Genotypes were coordinated with the summary statistics, with the number of overlapping SNPs reported in Supplementary Note  8 . LD adjustment was performed using the European subsample of the 1000 Genomes genotype data as LD reference panel 68 . The weights were estimated based on the heritability explained by the markers in the GWAS summary statistics and the assumed fraction of markers with non-zero effects. For each GWAS trait we created LDpred PGI with the –score command in plink2 69 . Prior to calculating correlations between partners and relatives, we residualised the polygenic indices by regressing out the first 20 principal components of genetic ancestry, as well as chip, imputation, and batch number.

The polygenic index correlations (and 95% confidence intervals) were attained by correlating the residualised polygenic indices between partners and relatives using cor.test in R 70 4.0.3. We tested whether the observed correlations were consistent with equilibrium by fitting structural equation models to data on mother-father-child trios, and testing whether a model constrained to equilibrium via equal variance across generations resulted in significantly worse fit. These models were estimated using OpenMx 71 2.20.6. We describe this procedure in more detail in the Supplementary Note  6 .

Reporting summary

Further information on research design is available in the  Nature Portfolio Reporting Summary linked to this article.

Data availability

Data from the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) used in this study are managed by the national health register holders in Norway (Norwegian Institute of Public Health) and can be made available to researchers, provided approval from the Regional Committees for Medical and Health Research Ethics (REC), compliance with the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and approval from the data owners. The consent given by the participants does not open for storage of data on an individual level in repositories or journals. Researchers who want access to data sets for replication should apply through helsedata.no. Access to data sets requires approval from The Regional Committee for Medical and Health Research Ethics in Norway and an agreement with MoBa.

Code availability

Scripts used for simulations are provided in Supplementary Software 1 and at https://osf.io/dgw4r/ . The summary statistics and reproducible code for the figures in this manuscript are also available at https://osf.io/dgw4r/ .

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This work is part of the REMENTA and PARMENT projects and was supported by the Research Council of Norway (#300668 and #334093, respectively, to F.A.T.). The data acquisition, project management, and researcher positions were supported by the Research Council of Norway (#262177 and #336078 to E.Y., in addition to #288083). E.Y. is funded by the European Union (Grant agreement #101045526 and #818425). Views and opinions expressed are however those of the authors only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or the European Research Council Executive Agency. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them. E.C.C. is supported by the Research Council of Norway (#274611) and the South-Eastern Norway Regional Health Authority (#2021045). The Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study is supported by the Norwegian Ministry of Health and Care Services and the Ministry of Education and Research. We are grateful to all the participating families in Norway who take part in this on-going cohort study. We thank the Norwegian Institute of Public Health (NIPH) for generating high-quality genomic data. This research is part of the HARVEST collaboration, supported by the Research Council of Norway (#229624). We also thank the NORMENT Centre for providing genotype data, funded by the Research Council of Norway (#223273), South East Norway Health Authorities and Stiftelsen Kristian Gerhard Jebsen. We further thank the Center for Diabetes Research, the University of Bergen for providing genotype funded by the ERC AdG project SELECTionPREDISPOSED, Stiftelsen Kristian Gerhard Jebsen, Trond Mohn Foundation, the Research Council of Norway, the Novo Nordisk Foundation, the University of Bergen, and the Western Norway Health Authorities. This work was performed on the TSD (Tjeneste for Sensitive Data) facilities, owned by the University of Oslo, operated and developed by the TSD service group at the University of Oslo, IT-Department (USIT). This work was partly supported by the Research Council of Norway through its Centres of Excellence funding scheme, (#262700).

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H.F.S. conceived of the idea, designed the theoretical models, and derived the relevant equations. E.C.C., R.C. and A.C.S. contributed to sample preparation and quality control of genomic data and polygenic indices with support from E.Y. H.F.S. carried out the analyses with support from N.H.E. and R.C. H.F.S. planned and carried out the simulations with help from E.M.E. and F.A.T. T.H.K contributed to the interpretation of the results. H.F.S. wrote the manuscript (incl. the supplementary information) with input from all authors. E.C.C. wrote parts of the methods. E.Y. and E.C.C. contributed to data generation and acquisition. E.M.E. and F.A.T. supervised the project. All authors provided critical feedback, discussed the results, and helped shape the manuscript.

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Sunde, H.F., Eftedal, N.H., Cheesman, R. et al. Genetic similarity between relatives provides evidence on the presence and history of assortative mating. Nat Commun 15 , 2641 (2024). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-024-46939-9

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In paleontology, correct names are keys to accurate study

Researcher resolves historical inconsistencies in name of popular fossil.

When the skeletal remains of a giant ground sloth were first unearthed in 1796, the discovery marked one of the earliest paleontological finds in American history.

The animal, named Megalonyx by Thomas Jefferson in 1799, was the first genus of fossil named from the United States. Thought to have roamed North America during one of the last ice ages, the extinct giant ground sloth was an herbivorous mammal resembling a large bear -- at full size, it likely reached nearly 10 feet tall (3 meters) and weighed about as much as a small elephant.

The report made by Jefferson, an avid fossil collector who was known to keep bones at the White House, was among the earliest papers in the scientific field that would eventually become paleontology, and may have played a role in the development of certain zoological naming conventions.

Though Jefferson named only the genus Megalonyx, public misinterpretation of the spelling of the scientific name began with the second published paper on this giant ground sloth. Later on, confusion about the true author and timing of the report caused paleontologists to debate over what the specimen's true name should be.

In an effort to settle the dispute, Loren Babcock, a professor of earth sciences at The Ohio State University, reviewed the nomenclatural history of the animal and argues that misinterpretation or spelling errors of the original harm the scientific process and disregard the importance of early paleontological work.

In an article published recently in the journal ZooKeys , Babcock asserts that since Jefferson fulfilled all the necessary requirements for establishing the formal zoological name of the giant ground sloth, he should be recognized as the true author of the genus. And because Jefferson's original moniker was spelled as Megalonyx, any other subsequent spellings of the name, like some that utilize the -onix suffix, are incorrect. Additionally, the report notes that the original spelling of the animal's species-group name, Megalonyx jeffersonii, is only correct when written with an - ii ending.

"At the time, there were no standards for publication of new names in zoology," said Babcock. "There was a binomial system of nomenclature, a genus and species name that would be attached to things, but there were no rules other than that."

Today, when a new species is discovered, scientists give it a name with two parts: The first name describes the animal's genus, or group, and the second is its species name. Until the mid-1800s, it was common practice to label animals with only a genus name, which is how Jefferson's original paper described Megalonyx. Although his observations were published more than a quarter century before paleontology was considered a formal science, it does meet modern naming requirements -- meaning his authorship of it is valid, said Babcock.

"We have rules in science just like we do in other aspects of our culture," said Babcock. "They ensure that the correct procedures are followed and we can give credit where it is due."

Resolving some of these long-standing issues is important, Babcock said, and it's worth setting the record straight. "I want to set the original usage in stone because Jefferson had done it correctly from the start," said Babcock. "It's pretty black and white. There's not much room for ambiguity when you go back and read the original manuscripts."

In the long run, having strict naming conventions also helps scientists accurately document the history of life on Earth, because what paleontologists choose to call a specimen can have profound implications for how it's studied and how those findings are communicated.

Megalonyx jeffersonii , for instance, was initially mistaken as a carnivore when its "giant claw" was compared to that of a large African lion. Jefferson soon corrected this, but his initial observations of the giant ground sloth's remains contributed to the way that Megalonyx would later be reconstructed and influenced some of the earliest developments of the discipline, and earned him the title of father of American paleontology, said Babcock.

Decades later, the first relatively complete skeleton of Megalonyx jeffersonii was found in 1890 in Holmes County, Ohio. "This skeleton has had a major impact on the history of science," Babcock said. "It's really influenced so much of the perception of paleontology and paleontological art over time."

Asone of the earliest free-standing prehistoric specimens to be mounted and displayed in an American museum, it's been used as a unique learning tool for past and future paleontologists alike. It was also a model that was later applied for dinosaur skeleton reconstructions, said Babcock. This popularity has led many other versions of Megalonyx jeffersonii to appear across digital media and pop culture throughout the past century, most notably in the "Ice Age" films as Sid the ground sloth.

Today, the reconstructed skeleton of Megalonyx jeffersonii resides in Ohio State's Orton Geological Museum, where it has been on display since April 13, 1896. And for decades, it's been known by many as simply "Jeff" for short.

Although few truly know all the details of its backstory, Babcock, who is the current director of the Orton Museum, remains confident that the legacy of Thomas Jefferson's Megalonyx jeffersonii will stand tall for centuries to come.

"Understanding the history of paleontology casts light not just on the evolution of organisms, but on the evolution of science and how we interpret that evolutionary history," he said. "So names are something that I think historians will always pay attention to."

  • New Species
  • Wild Animals
  • Paleontology
  • Early Climate
  • Ancient DNA
  • Archaeopteryx
  • Recent single-origin hypothesis
  • Skeletal muscle
  • Homo ergaster
  • Giant Panda

Story Source:

Materials provided by Ohio State University . Original written by Tatyana Woodall. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

Journal Reference :

  • Loren E. Babcock. Nomenclatural history of Megalonyx Jefferson, 1799 (Mammalia, Xenarthra, Pilosa, Megalonychidae) . ZooKeys , 2024; 1195: 297 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.1195.117999

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Use of Abortion Pills Has Risen Significantly Post Roe, Research Shows

Pam Belluck

By Pam Belluck

Pam Belluck has been reporting about reproductive health for over a decade.

  • Share full article

On the eve of oral arguments in a Supreme Court case that could affect future access to abortion pills, new research shows the fast-growing use of medication abortion nationally and the many ways women have obtained access to the method since Roe v. Wade was overturned in June 2022.

The Details

A person pours pills out of a bottle into a gloved hand.

A study, published on Monday in the medical journal JAMA , found that the number of abortions using pills obtained outside the formal health system soared in the six months after the national right to abortion was overturned. Another report, published last week by the Guttmacher Institute , a research organization that supports abortion rights, found that medication abortions now account for nearly two-thirds of all abortions provided by the country’s formal health system, which includes clinics and telemedicine abortion services.

The JAMA study evaluated data from overseas telemedicine organizations, online vendors and networks of community volunteers that generally obtain pills from outside the United States. Before Roe was overturned, these avenues provided abortion pills to about 1,400 women per month, but in the six months afterward, the average jumped to 5,900 per month, the study reported.

Overall, the study found that while abortions in the formal health care system declined by about 32,000 from July through December 2022, much of that decline was offset by about 26,000 medication abortions from pills provided by sources outside the formal health system.

“We see what we see elsewhere in the world in the U.S. — that when anti-abortion laws go into effect, oftentimes outside of the formal health care setting is where people look, and the locus of care gets shifted,” said Dr. Abigail Aiken, who is an associate professor at the University of Texas at Austin and the lead author of the JAMA study.

The co-authors were a statistics professor at the university; the founder of Aid Access, a Europe-based organization that helped pioneer telemedicine abortion in the United States; and a leader of Plan C, an organization that provides consumers with information about medication abortion. Before publication, the study went through the rigorous peer review process required by a major medical journal.

The telemedicine organizations in the study evaluated prospective patients using written medical questionnaires, issued prescriptions from doctors who were typically in Europe and had pills shipped from pharmacies in India, generally charging about $100. Community networks typically asked for some information about the pregnancy and either delivered or mailed pills with detailed instructions, often for free.

Online vendors, which supplied a small percentage of the pills in the study and charged between $39 and $470, generally did not ask for women’s medical history and shipped the pills with the least detailed instructions. Vendors in the study were vetted by Plan C and found to be providing genuine abortion pills, Dr. Aiken said.

The Guttmacher report, focusing on the formal health care system, included data from clinics and telemedicine abortion services within the United States that provided abortion to patients who lived in or traveled to states with legal abortion between January and December 2023.

It found that pills accounted for 63 percent of those abortions, up from 53 percent in 2020. The total number of abortions in the report was over a million for the first time in more than a decade.

Why This Matters

Overall, the new reports suggest how rapidly the provision of abortion has adjusted amid post-Roe abortion bans in 14 states and tight restrictions in others.

The numbers may be an undercount and do not reflect the most recent shift: shield laws in six states allowing abortion providers to prescribe and mail pills to tens of thousands of women in states with bans without requiring them to travel. Since last summer, for example, Aid Access has stopped shipping medication from overseas and operating outside the formal health system; it is instead mailing pills to states with bans from within the United States with the protection of shield laws.

What’s Next

In the case that will be argued before the Supreme Court on Tuesday, the plaintiffs, who oppose abortion, are suing the Food and Drug Administration, seeking to block or drastically limit the availability of mifepristone, the first pill in the two-drug medication abortion regimen.

The JAMA study suggests that such a ruling could prompt more women to use avenues outside the formal American health care system, such as pills from other countries.

“There’s so many unknowns about what will happen with the decision,” Dr. Aiken said.

She added: “It’s possible that a decision by the Supreme Court in favor of the plaintiffs could have a knock-on effect where more people are looking to access outside the formal health care setting, either because they’re worried that access is going away or they’re having more trouble accessing the medications.”

Pam Belluck is a health and science reporter, covering a range of subjects, including reproductive health, long Covid, brain science, neurological disorders, mental health and genetics. More about Pam Belluck


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