Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Bias in Historical Research

by Stephenie Woolterton

As historical fiction authors and historians, we study and create characters, plots, and worlds that transport our readers to the past. Although we cannot actually visit these bygone times (when will they invent that time machine?), we are able to build worlds so powerful that we hope our readers feel as though they are transported to them through their imaginations. Even if we’re writing about people who once lived, we will never be able to actually meet and speak with them. What we can do, however, is use the intensive historical detective skills we’ve gathered to construct stories of distant times and places - periods accessible only through research. An unavoidable part we encounter in this research process is bias.

What exactly is bias?

Simply put, bias is perspective. Perspective is largely the consequence of the author’s background and the current political, social, and economic circumstances of the time in which the author is writing. Bias in historical research refers to the adoption of a particular perspective from which some things become salient and others merge into the background. It is a conscious or unconscious tendency on the part of the writer or researcher to interpret what they research.

For instance, history was once predominately written by powerful white males who assumed that only wealthy white males made history. They determined what history was deemed worth recording, and the role of others (e.g. servants, wives, mothers, etc.) was felt to be insignificant. These days, historians often allow for bias in the evidence they gather, and even explain it when reconstructing what happened in the past. The problems encountered involve matters of the ‘truth’ of historical events, the question of a balance between historical details and fictional elements, and the demand for authenticity and accuracy in the material we write about. In this case, for both the novelist and the historian, meaning lies not in the chain of events themselves, but in the writer's interpretation of what occurred. Pressures to conform to existing norms can be strong. What is taken to be historically ‘true’ by powerful, highly acknowledged historians is not easy to dispute. There can be great difficulty with challenging existing historical authorities or established interpretations of how an event happened or the taken for granted, ingrained ‘facts’ about an historical figure. This can even influence what is published versus what is rejected.

Yet historians and authors do not live their everyday lives in a vacuum: gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religious beliefs, social background, and nationality all mean something. They influence the historian in terms of which topics to focus on, what questions to ask, which sources to consult, and the interpretations they glean. To practice research and to create historical stories of our own is to question and consider interpretations that are different from our own. A way to discern bias in research involves being reflective over your work, and to consider various viewpoints.

Is it possible to overcome bias?

Although complete detachment may not be possible, historians can put commitment to rational standards of historical inquiry ahead of a desire for a certain outcome, thereby significantly reducing the outright bias in their work. Even if historians are fair-minded, the information available to them is often biased. The best way to reconcile bias is to acknowledge it when using quotes or paraphrasing material, and to point out where similar sources agree or disagree. Never forget to interrogate and question your sources. Who wrote it? What was their motivation or intention? What was the context or background behind this document? Did someone have an axe to grind when they wrote it?

Historians have long been aware that the information available to them, be it in historical texts or visual sources, have often been selected for certain purposes: these artifacts reflect the concepts and interests of their creators. The historian’s job is to look at explanations that account for the motivations behind them so they can then look for coherence among various explanations of the same historical period (i.e. The French Revolution). Critical historians should always interpret their evidence cautiously.

Unfortunately, there are occasions where historians cannot get to the ‘facts’ behind biased or missing evidence. The available information may have been so culled as to yield an inaccurate impression of events. For instance, in my own research into the private life of the late eighteenth century British politician William Pitt the Younger, I have found ample evidence to suggest that large swathes of Pitt’s private papers were deliberately destroyed by his executor, Bishop Tomline. What was Tomline’s purpose for systematically destroying Pitt’s papers? His wife was in direct collusion, and together they acted to conceal something about Pitt’s domestic life that they did not approve of and felt did not fit with the posthumous image of the pure, unsullied Minister. Instead, the untarnished image of Pitt was portrayed: the stately politician without any taint or scandal. Here Tomline’s motivation was to set himself up as Pitt’s official biographer by sifting out what did not fit with the interpretation – the image – of Pitt that he intended to portray. After over two centuries, my intention through my biography of Pitt is partly to expose Tomline’s bias of Pitt’s character.

Historical writing as a cooperative endeavor: Historians working together 

A balanced and well-argued account with supporting evidence to assert your claims is central in historical research. It’s important to get your friends and colleagues to look over your work and to discuss your findings. History should be viewed as a cooperative, collective endeavor, with historians working together to arrive at and challenge accounts of the past. The freedom to question your own views, and those of others, in an open-minded way is a great method for reaching fair descriptions of the past.

Image Source: My photo of a framed letter from William Pitt to his friend William Wilberforce (August 8, 1792) announcing his acceptance as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports.

About the Author:

Stephenie Woolterton is currently writing a biography of William Pitt the Younger’s private life, primarily surrounding his female attachments. Her website is www.theprivatelifeofpitt.com and she’s on Twitter @anoondayeclipse.

5 comments:

  1. Nice post - well done. I found I had to 'train' myself at the outset to compare and contrast certain details I was researching and NEVER accept the first piece I came across. The next step was to get into the mindset of the times. And the hardest thing was to write in a style that reflected those bygone days. And ALWAYS be aware of what words were (or weren't) used so as to keep the dialogue convincing. I agree that the 'victors' write the history and it is up to us writers to disseminate and interpret it BUT without losing the elements of a good story, well told. I wish you every success.

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  2. An excellent post, Stephenie. Bias is a topic I have lived with for a long time. In the period I focus on, the fifteenth century, evidence is sometimes so sparse that one struggles to get even the events straight. Then, when you throw in bias as well... Still it's good for the historical novelist like me!

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  3. An excellent post, Stephenie. Bias is a topic I have lived with for a long time. In the period I focus on, the fifteenth century, evidence is sometimes so sparse that one struggles to get even the events straight. Then, when you throw in bias as well... Still it's good for the historical novelist like me!

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  4. I remember the first time I had a teacher talk about bias to my class was when I was in Year 11 at school. That was something that had never occurred to me. Then, at uni, we got it from the lecturers: "What's in it for him? Do we, for example, believe everything said about Nero by his tutor?" And, of course, Tudor historians on Richard III...

    I try to use at least two sources, preferably more, for everything I am going to write about.

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  5. Fantastic piece! Sadly, one encounters bias ad nauseum within historical novels. Far too may authors repeat by writ what has gone before, the subject matter never looked at as a detective might by questioning the reason for the stating of X,Y, and Z. Jealousy, rivalry, political/courtly ambitions have all played a part in the writings of others who had a vested interest in exposing or hiding aspects of peoples lives merely to enhance their own, even to the extent of utter destruction of a person's reputation. I could name a few examples but 'twould require an article to put forth the differing accounts and the holes in the case files. ;)

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