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Many of my questions are criticized as being requests for 'lists' with no 'one best answer'.

Does this mean that the site is dedicated only to the discussion of certain singular and peculiar historical factoids? If I ask for "other examples of an elected absolute monarch", certainly the answer has important historical significance: Is not a breakdown of the different ways humans choose to govern themselves, or allow themselves to be governed by others, a very important aspect of History? Does History mean only singular isolated facts?

I am not asking for a list to hang on my wall or a simple enumeration. I want to know how History looks in broad terms, over long periods of time and diverse civilizations. Certainly there is no "one best answer". Indeed, outside of simple mathematics, there is rarely, if ever "one best answer" to any question - certainly not in something as all-encompassing and multi-faceted as the study of History.

Here is an interesting question:

How widespread were major dynasties which did not follow agnatic succession or male primogeniture?

Asking for "other examples" is IMO no different than asking "How widespread". What constitutes a "request for a list" should be cleared up.

Update: Other examples of list based questions

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The goal of all Stack Exchange sites is to provide answers to questions. However, when those questions start asking for "other sources" or "other examples", they start to cross over into a range of questions that we try to discourage on the site. The example you gave of a question asking "how widespread" is another example that starts to cross the line. While I would agree that for many questions, there may not be "one best answer". our ultimate goal is to try to find just that ONE best answer.

The question you cited as an example is fairly new and probably has not been viewed by any of the moderators, myself included. It's very difficult for us to read and evaluate every single question, but we usually manage to get around to them all eventually. For something like this, I would usually ask the original poster to modify the question to make it more appropriate with our guidelines.

Ultimately, there is a specific standard that has been established for all SE sites, and we ask that everyone adhere to that standard. It is certainly your privilege to disagree with the guidelines, but if it truly bothers you, it is also your privilege to move along.

Does this mean that the site is dedicated only to the discussion of certain singular and peculiar historical factoids?

Please keep in mind that SE is NOT a forum where people are welcome to come and share in discussions. It is a Q&A site, and that is all we expect to see. When people start abusing the comments to carry on a discussion or debate, we will close that question to further comments or simply delete all the comments.

Now, if you will excuse me, I have to go and attend to 16 flags that have been posted, most of them by you. In a really bad week we normally have about four total, so seeing 16 just over the last couple of days is disturbing. Please do not use the comments or flags as your own form of discussion or debate for any answers or questions. There is a chat session available for History.SE, and it is much more appropriate for that type of activity.

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It appears you're asking for lists of trivia without context. History is the structured causal discussion of sources in narrativised or theorised accounts of the past.

You need to up the theoretical and contextual element.

The theoretical content of "other examples of elected absolute monarchs" is highly suspect. While I'm a modernist, off the top of my head I have to ask if Napoleon III's totalisation of French society within a dictatorship with an ineffective and bound parliament counts? Whether, contra "totalitarian" theses, Hitler's Führer princip is sufficiently monarchical for you.

"During the Enlightenment, in terms of the conflict between the estates or nobility and the post-Feudal crown, did any societies elect absolute monarchs and why?" Comes closer in terms of context and theory.

  • I rather disagree. Not every question needs to be put into a straightjacket of "theory". – Felix Goldberg Aug 16 '13 at 13:29
  • List might be interesting and provide many useful information, for example which English kings could not speak English. If I ask which Roman roads were mostly travelled, it is a list, but if I ask for a map, which has the same data, it is fascinating, because we see that people were going east-west rather than north-south. – Voitcus Aug 19 '13 at 19:16
  • "Which Roman roads were most travelled" is trivia. "What was the structure and logistics of Roman continental trade" is history. – Samuel Russell Aug 19 '13 at 23:18
  • @FelixGoldberg the valid alternative to theory is context. I believe that such contextual studies actual conceal a theorisation within them, which is why I prefer theory to be direct open and made available for critique. This is a point of reasonable disagreement (consider the EP Thompson / Althusser debate, for example). – Samuel Russell Nov 25 '13 at 23:32
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    @SamuelRussell With respect, I still disagree. History, I think, ought to be interesting and even engrossing. The original question is interesting, your reformulation is, for lack of a better word, too pedantic. Sure, context is important and I myself am a stickler for context usually. So, by all means, provide the context - in the answer! But the let question stand as it is, unless it contains some gross distortion or whatever. Besides, the theoretical categories which are obvious to you may not seem so obvious or even not so true or relevant to someone else. – Felix Goldberg Nov 26 '13 at 7:44
  • I'm happy to be accused of being pedantic, particularly when I am being pedantic. I strongly try to avoid editing questions unless a question is closeable and the asker isn't taking advantage of commentary. And when I do, I edit pedantically because outside of my pedantry my ideas have strong colour that I wouldn't want to taint someone else's question with. – Samuel Russell Nov 26 '13 at 21:30
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Asking for "other examples" is IMO no different than asking "How widespread". What constitutes a "request for a list" should be cleared up.

Not really.

  • The latter ("how widespread") has THREE and ONLY three possible good answers: Widespread, Rare, and "in between". A list can and should be used to back up the answer as far as proof, but that's the whole point: the goal isn't to obtain the list, the goal is to obtain one of those 3 answers.

    Please note that the question actually started out as a list question, and was consciously edited to turn it into a non-list question.

  • The former ("other examples") has O(N) possible good answers - one per each possible example; none of those answers are any more valid than another, which doesn't work well with SE structure.

  • There's a third category of similar questions - "Are there any examples"?

    How they are treated depends on individual SE sites... we had some pretty heavy discussion over these on SciFi.SE.

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The problem with requests for lists is that there's no real (or at least realistic) way for one person to post a comprehensive answer that it would make sense to accept. Instead, by the very nature of the question, the "answer" is going to be spread out over all the answers posted. While a site that works that way might not be a bad thing, this just doesn't mesh well with the SE format.

We need to have questions which it is possible for there to be a single "correct" answer to. All our tools are geared to that.

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    And yet, not even Stackoverflow, the ur-Stackexchange, works quite like that. It was created for a bunch of (coding) monkeys to ask about the best way to skin a cat (possum, mouse, rat, bat, raccoon...) and to give the community of monkeys a chance to vote on their favorite answer (plus for the asking monkey to "accept" one of them)... but implicit in the set-up, which allowed more than one answer to stand, was the realization that there is always more than one way to skin a cat, etc. – Eugene Seidel Aug 9 '13 at 17:42
  • We could combine all answers into one or make a question wiki, so anyone could edit. – Voitcus Aug 19 '13 at 19:18
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In my opinion, this question is still "open" - I don't think we have a solution to the underlying problem. I believe that it will be easiest to resolve this if we list examples.

Are these good questions? Can they be revised to avoid "lists"? Is their value diminished by the revision?

A list of list questions

Please add to this list.

A list of potentially interesting list questions

This is a relatively low threshold; let's avoid arguing over whether a given question is or is not interesting. So long as there are questions that an observable fraction of the communities believes are intersting list questions, then I believe we need to consider how to adjust the H:SE guidance and culture to cultivate interesting list questions and discourage unintersting list questions.

A list of questions that may or may not be list questions, but which may be productive to consider in any discusson of list questions.

Hat tip to @EugeneSeidel

  • "Was it common to name places after fictional places" not necessarily a list question... if data can be found showing how naming of places waxed and waned over time, that would be a good and valid answer. "What technological economic factors triggered the industrial revolution"... If the factors were inter-related and dependent, not a list question. "Historically important Congressional leaders"... List Q, un-interesting. "Jewish Rabbi Conversions"... List Q, but potentially interesting. – Eugene Seidel Oct 17 '13 at 3:23
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    Well if I asked a Question, "Is there a histogram showing, decade by decade, how many streets, squares, etc. in the UK were named after fictional places" that would be O.K., right? Problem is, it narrows the original question down so much, you almost need to know the answer already before asking. Not easy. – Eugene Seidel Oct 19 '13 at 4:58
  • Truth! The reason I keep hamering away at the list question problem is that it isn't easy to solve. List questions are tempting, and tough to salvage. – Mark C. Wallace Oct 19 '13 at 11:20

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