The term “historiography” is used in a number of different ways. It can refer to writings that present the past as “history.” It can also refer to the way these writings are produced, focusing on the issues of method that are linked to the construction of history. Unlike historical novels, historiography is based on a systematic access to sources, and therefore often connected with a claim of truth. However, it should be considered that any evidence is revocable because new sources may be found and already known sources can be reassessed according to the present world’s interests (Jenkins 1995; Bentley 1999; Burke 2005).
Historical research that is conducted in the framework of a social science is confronted with two problems. First, studies of this kind will only be perceived as being in their particular discipline if links are established between the historical perspective and a systematic scientific interest in new findings for the discipline. Second, the acceptance of historical research is complicated by the fact that historians and social scientists have different viewpoints on science. This has an impact on the criteria used when assessing the quality of scientific work. Whereas most researchers in the social sciences, just like natural scientists, want to discover objective relationships and general laws, and search for knowledge that can be used practically, historical research is concerned with individual cases that are not repeatable, so that it can merely supply orientation knowledge that encourages reflection, e.g., upon one’s own existence or upon the basic values of a society. Since historiography’s interpretations are always subjective in nature, it cannot meet the social sciences’ ideal of objectivity. This explains why, in communication studies, the situation is anything but optimal for historical research (Curran 1991; O’Malley 2002).
Although communication studies in the German-language area were taken into the university by qualified historians at the beginning of the twentieth century, there is now a strong decrease in the number of historiographically based studies and in the number of professorial chairs dedicated to communication history or media history. Since the study of questions of method in historical research does not currently offer much benefit for an academic career in the discipline of communication, and since the techniques used were usually not addressed in studies dating from the discipline’s founding period, this article must necessarily be based upon the corresponding debate that has been going on in the discipline of history.
In order to make the results of historical research intersubjectively verifiable and thus to be able to legitimize history as a science, the discipline of history has developed a canon laying down rules for the handling of sources (Furay & Salevouris 2000; Burke 2005). Structured along the same lines as in the natural sciences, this body of rules is referred to in literature as the historical method. According to this method, anything produced by a human being is to be regarded as a source. The discipline of history distinguishes between unintentionally and intentionally transmitted sources. This distinction is important for the assessment of a source’s value and for interpretation. Whereas intentionally transmitted sources owe their existence to the intention to provide posterity with information about certain facts or events and therefore have to be read in a particularly critical way (examples are chronicles, memoirs, or historiographical works), unintentionally transmitted sources originated under circumstances that become the focus of examination. Among these are material/object sources (buildings, works of art, articles of everyday use such as phonographic records or radio sets) and in particular all the documents written at some time in the past in order to satisfy the needs of the moment (records, legal instruments).
The distinction between intentionally and unintentionally transmitted sources is not always clear-cut; it also depends on how a question is formulated, as can be demonstrated with the daily press serving as an example. Editorials, for instance, were in the first place addressed to contemporary readers, and could therefore be classified as unintentionally transmitted sources and consequently as being of particular value for historiography. The journalists knew, however, that the papers would be kept, and they also wanted to communicate “historical” knowledge about past events – these are indications of intentionally transmitted sources.
Since neither unintentionally nor intentionally transmitted sources give a direct picture of the past and since the results of historical research are greatly dependent on the type of sources that are used, the historical method provides rules for choosing, criticizing, and interpreting sources. These rules were developed as early as the nineteenth century. That is one of the reasons why they refer in the first place to written documents (official records), but they can by analogy also be applied to other sources. The value of a source is mainly determined with the help of two criteria. First and decisive is the proximity of the event or the state that is to be explored. The word “proximity” refers here to time as well as to space. Normally, accounts from eyewitnesses or from co-acting persons that have been recorded immediately after an occurrence are of greater value than second-hand narrations. The second important criterion is availability. The value of a source always depends also on the kind of other additional sources that can be used. There is no point in producing one’s own sources by means of retrospective biographical interviews, for instance in the field of historical audience research, unless all transmitted sources are untrustworthy or do not allow a complete solution of the research problem under consideration.
Criticism of sources is the most important tool for historiography. The trustworthiness of sources has always to be questioned, and one has to ask about the relationship existing between the wording and the facts that are being described. In order to do so, one has to know the history of the origins of a given source – its purpose as well as the organization that has produced the writing – and the intentions of the author. In addition to source transparency, the central quality criteria applied in historiography are consequently: the diversity of sources, and the comparison of sources. In order to be able to open up and assess sources, the discipline of history has developed a number of complementary sciences such as genealogy (disclosure of descent) and paleography (decipherment of writings). In order to filter necessary information from sources, today one can also use the quantitative and qualitative techniques that were developed by the social sciences and, for some of them, also by the other humanities. That is why the historical method is usually a technique that combines several methods.
Historiography In The Field Of Communication
Within the discipline of communication’s framework, historiography deals with the historical dimension of public communication processes. In doing so, it can also examine isolated parts of these processes, the range extending from the origins of accounts to the media and media contents as well as to the audiences and to media effects (Stevens & Dicken Garcia 1980; Briggs & Burke 2002; O’Malley 2002). Examples of practical use are: the history of the journalistic profession, biographies of newspapers and magazines, the history of radio programs and radio institutions, as well as historical audience and media effects research. Through focusing on long-term contexts and by analyzing examples for particular cases, historical research can enhance the ability to perform reflection within the discipline and put the results of selective and short-term studies into a broader context.
Thornton (1998), for example, analyzed 45,000 “letters to the editor” in popular magazines and was thereby able to show how the public discussion about journalistic quality in the USA has changed. While at the beginning of the twentieth century the debate focused on public duty, 80 years later the credibility of the media was at the center of interest. Thornton knew for sure that his source did not provide an unfiltered view on the “voice of readers”; first, because only a distinct group of people writes letters of that kind, and second, because the editorial office decides which of them are to be published. Thornton’s arguments to support the use of this source were that the letters determined the agenda of the public discussion; furthermore, they represent what the readers were able to see; and beyond this, such letters “often [are] the only existing record of some public opinion” (Thornton 1998, 39), especially for more distant periods. The historical audience research is confronted with similar problems. Using the case study of the introduction of television in Germany in the 1950s and 1960s, Meyen and Hillman (2003) discussed the correlation between the use of media and the development of society. What factors determine the changes in communication relationships and how do these changes affect society? The authors based their analysis on all available survey data from East and West Germany as well as the most important media services and a systematic cross-section of the media itself. They showed that the expectations of people in relation to the media are predominantly influenced neither by politics and media systems nor by concrete media contents. Primarily, their communication needs are dependent on working conditions and daily routines.
This second example shows that communication historiography has reacted to developments in the discipline of history. After a slight delay, communication historiography has reacted to developments in the discipline of history; it has opened itself up to the subject matters of social history and of everyday life history, and has also entered upon a discussion about method innovations (oral history, quantification).
However, unlike social scientists, most of the authors of historiographical papers still fail to disclose the way they proceed, and they do not submit their approach to discussion. In compensation they add a (usually implicit) reference to the historical method and an appropriate list of works consulted (this list being as extensive as possible). However, because of the success of the natural science model, the discipline of history, too, is now more conscious of the fact that no object exists without being the subject matter of research and that it is necessary to discuss the theoretical prerequisites and methodical steps that serve as a basis for historical interpretation. Moreover, historiography is unthinkable without historians. The questions that are put to history as well as the selection and interpretation of sources are never only determined by present-day interests, but also by the intentions of the authors and by their social position (Mruck & Breuer 2003). As historiography does not simply reflect upon a given past, the subjectivity of the authors should be discussed: their socialization, their conception of people and society, their relationship with the subject matter of the investigation, and the interests they possibly have. The historical method offers the best preconditions for undertaking this analysis. The criteria for dealing with sources that have been developed can be applied to theoretical elements, to methodical approaches, and to the subjectivity of authors.
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