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I've downvoted several questions because I don't think they are about history. It strikes me that I may be in error - I may be making false assumptions about history and historiography. Most things are defined by exclusion, so it may be useful to consider some related questions:

  • What is the difference between history and politics?
  • What is the difference between history and sociology (or anthropology, or any other related disciplines)
  • What are the distinctive methods of history?
  • What is the difference between a professional historian and an amatuer?
  • What is counterfactual history? Is it merely applying legitimate historical methods to flawed and erroneous propositions? (e.g. The Great Game)
  • How do we study history? What are legitimate methods and sources? How does history adapt when there are no sources?

Perhaps the most important question

  • What are some questions that can never be answered by historical sources and methods?

Perhaps if we can come up with a good reference answer we can either use it to expand the FAQ or merely reference it as we try to moderate H:SE towards where we believe it should go.

Looking through the list of similar questions, the only relevant ones I found were Theoretical History, and Computer History, neither of which seems to be a good fit. I invite others to add relevant examples.

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I consider "historiography" a legitimate topic for this site, because it relates to how we arrive at "history."

I have voted to reopen or up voted a number of questions that are more about historiography than about history. Establishing the merits of particular historical sources is worthwhile endeavor in the study of history, IMHO. And not limited in usefulness to the question in which it was asked.

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These questions ought to be reworked as individual historiography questions on main. However:

What is the difference between history and politics?

Disciplinary methodology.

What is the difference between history and sociology (or anthropology, or any other related disciplines)

"Large-n" discursive analysis of documents ("texts") in light of a tradition of reading-and-writing in a genre called scholarly history. Theory is optional, but by preference is concealed beneath the narrative. The unique element of historiography, as compared to other social science or humanities disciplines, it the attempt to read with veracity evidence of the past from very large collections of documents.

What are the distinctive methods of history?

A unique kind of reading and then writing.

What is the difference between a professional historian and an amatuer?

A PhD, or positive reviews in a highly esteemed journal of a key monograph, or the publication of six or more papers in a highly esteemed journal. Amateurs "tend to get on with it" at the cost of writing about irrelevances in poorly thought manners without an adequate source basis. It generally isn't the selected subject matter. I've been looking at local women's organisations and civic organisations as a potential area of interest. But there's a gulf between my desire to historicise cross-class local provincial organisations compared to a list of names and local figures isolated from the context of mid-Twentieth century associationalism.

What is counterfactual history?

Inverting a commonly accepted causal structure to test its causative properties by speculation.

Is it merely applying legitimate historical methods to flawed and erroneous propositions? (e.g. The Great Game)

It is more of a null-hypothesis test. See, for example, Brooks' Sealion ( http://www.philm.demon.co.uk/Miscellaneous/Sealion.htm )

How do we study history?

Ideally, do a BA Honours (Australian style) or BA+MA (Bologna), with a double major in History and a Language. Then do a PhD. Then start reading and writing based on further projects (the PhD ought to teach you how to select appropriate research projects).

What are legitimate methods and sources?

See a fourth year historiography text.

How does history adapt when there are no sources?

It ceases to be.

Perhaps the most important question: What are some questions that can never be answered by historical sources and methods?

Depends on how you feel about a number of major humanities problems. Can empirical work produce truth? Can you read texts with veracity? Importantly for the second sub-question: How? Do you believe that it is possible to recreate hypothesised internal states in subjectivities through correct reading of the records of the subject's personality (psycho-history)? Is it possible to accurately depict either in concrete or abstract the actual social forces of history via a correct reading of the records of the past (Thompson/Althusser debate)? Do collective subjectivities exist, and if so are they the only body capable of a real knowledge of the actual process of capitalism (praxis/theory debate in Marxism)? Is there a teleos?

History, like other empirical engagements with material reality, is the least worst possible way of uncovering conditional and limited knowledge about the world. While it is dependent upon reading texts to produce meaning, there are a number of ways out of the quagmire of post-modernism/post-structuralism other than a constant quagmire of interdetermination.

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    I feel that a ton of material from this answer belongs on main site as separate Q&As instead of being hidden away on Meta. – DVK May 28 '13 at 14:38
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I consider history to be the "What happened?," and something like political science to be the "How did it happen?" There is definitely overlap between history and many of the other humanities, because history in a way encompasses all of those other topics.

History can encompass both quantitative and qualitative data, like many other fields, and like any field there is a level of subjective judgment required of the researcher, but probably more so in the case of history. I think a lot of the subjectivity in history comes from language choice, and issue framing.

The Wikipedia article on The Historical Method is worth a read, as well as this short article on The Historical Approach to Research.

As a final note, I think that generally speaking the further along you are on the timeline away from the historical event in question the better the facts you have at your disposal. Assuming there is a written record.

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{this answer will be of lower quality than I normally accept, since time pressures preclude me from citing sources}

History is an attempt to create a narrative from facts about the past.

Other social sciences (politics, anthropology, sociology, etc.) rely less on narrative and textual sources than history does. (One could argue that politics is only about creating a narrative, but I think that the term "narrative" is used in two very different ways).

To my mind the distinctive feature of practicing history is source criticism. History is about reconciling one or more sources, with an emphasis on analyzing the context, author, audience, agenda and other meta-data. Very strong props to @ihtkwot for the two sources he cites As a consequence, it is very difficult to perform history on questions that have no sources.

Questions with sources are higher quality than questions without.

Yes, this is my opinion, and I'm well aware of the value of my opinon. It is descriptive of my perceptions, not prescriptive or authoritative. But it is difficult to do source criticism when there is no source other than OP's opinion or hearsay. ## Heading ##

There are exceptions to any rule -

  • Someone recently asked How tall was Washington? - sometimes we need to reference facts to understand two conflicting narratives.

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