Historical Method: Characteristics, Stages, Examples

The historical method or historical research is a research process used to gather evidence of events that occurred in the past and its subsequent formulation of ideas or theories about history.

It comprises several rules or methodological techniques to analyze relevant data on a historical topic, allowing the researcher to synthesize the information to build a coherent account of the events that occurred in the episode being studied.

historical method steps

The study of history is much more complex than simply memorizing names, dates, and places. It requires, to some extent, a semi-scientific approach throughout to ensure the highest possible reliability of the historical account.

You need the formulation of a hypothesis based on the evidence of the event to be studied, and it should serve as a verification point to draw the final conclusions as objective as possible. The critical thinking of the researcher plays a fundamental role in this regard.

Ancient historians such as Herodotus established an initial foundation for the methods used by modern historical researchers, but the community began to develop a systematic methodology based on accepted conventions and techniques dating from the late 18th century onwards.

Stages of the historical method


This method deals with the identification of relevant material to be used as a source of information. Historical evidence can exist in a variety of forms; the two most important and validated are primary and secondary sources.

Primary sources can be original legal documents, artifacts, records, or any other type of information that was created at the time of the study. In other words, it is first-hand information.

If a war is being studied, primary sources would include letters written by soldiers to their families, personal diaries, military documents, eyewitness texts, photographs, uniforms, equipment, corpses, among others; and if there is, audio or video recorded live.

Secondary sources involve analysis of primary sources generally prepared by qualified individuals such as historians, sociologists, or scientists. Books, magazines, or research papers are common examples of secondary sources.

In many cases, oral tradition is taken into account as a source (primary or secondary depending on the type of study). They are the stories transmitted verbally from one generation to another and are considered an important source for studying ethnic groups that have not developed some kind of written documentation.


It consists of the evaluative process of the sources that will be used to answer the study question. It involves determining its authenticity, integrity, credibility, and context; from political speeches to birth certificates.

At this stage all the questions are asked and all the necessary techniques are applied to discard unnecessary or unreliable evidence:

Who wrote, said or produced it? When and where? Why? How was the evidence originally made? What does it express on the subject? Does it reflect any particular perspective? Is it reliable? , Do you have credentials or references ?, among others.

Sources such as documents must go through an exhaustive process of contextualization: the social circumstances of their elaboration, political reasons, target audience, antecedents, inclinations, etc.

Other types of sources such as artifacts, objects and forensic evidence, are usually evaluated under the view of other disciplines such as anthropology, archeology, art, economics, sociology, medicine or hard sciences.

Synthesis and exposition

It is the formal approach made by the researcher according to the data resulting from step 1 and step 2. That is, after analyzing all the information, the conclusions of the study that respond to the initial question are drawn.

The compilation of sources and their subsequent evaluation can be verified, if desired, under systematic semi-scientific methods (with certain adaptations). But the conclusions and narratives of the story derived from the study will always be subject to the subjectivity of the researcher.

It should be noted that it is this element in which the scientific community tends to reject history, classifying it as insubstantial. In this particular, historians do not seek to work toward an absolute proposition about what definitely happened in the past.

His approach rather tries to present his conclusions under the arguments that best explain the historical fact; that is, supported by the greatest amount of evidence and the least number of assumptions.

What should a historical investigation respond to?

teacher teaching students what is history for

Any study of some historical event generally begins with a question. Questions about “How?” or why?” events happened in the past, or some other type of question of the analytical or reflective type, are the most appropriate to direct the process to understand the story.

Descriptive questions such as “Who?”, “What?”, “Where?” and when?” they serve to establish the historical context, but they do not offer deep historical conclusions. The key is in the researcher’s ability to use both types of questions to conduct a better historical study.

Consider the following example: Women were the main targets of the witch hunt in Europe. Descriptive questions on the topic could be “Where did the witch hunt take place?”, “When did it start and end?” or “How many people were accused of witchcraft (men and women)?”

The analytical questions for the study could be “Why was the phenomenon of witchcraft oriented towards the female population? Or “How does this phenomenon illustrate gender identity for early modern Europe?”

In conclusion, it is necessary to know those involved, the places, dates and events to build the social context, and thus be able to understand the circumstances and reasons that triggered such a historical event.

Historians are said to create the past in the form of coherent narratives through the process of answering the questions that are asked.

Steps to follow to conduct a historical investigation

The various fields of study of history represented through legendary characters

Based on the studies of Busha, Charles and Stephen P. Carter (1980)

1- The recognition of a historical problem or the identification of a need for a particular historical knowledge.

2- The collection of as much relevant information as possible about the problem or topic.

3- If necessary, the formulation of a hypothesis that tentatively explains the relationship between the historical factors.

4- The rigorous organization of all the evidence and the verification of the authenticity and veracity of the sources.

5- The selection and analysis of the most pertinent evidence and the elaboration of the conclusions.

6- The recording of the conclusions in a meaningful narrative.

Examples of investigations based on the historical method

Fed by Fear: the FBI’s crusade against Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers

It is a work written by Sam Bouman of St. Ignatius High School, which recounts the facts of one of the most important investigative cases in the history of the United States.

Sam Bouman exposes the events that led to the death, in 1969, of Fred Hampton, president of the Black Panther Party of Illinois branch in Chicago, after the operation of the counterintelligence program COINTELPRO, of the Federal Department of Investigation (FBI).

The study investigates the life of Fred Hampton, how he becomes chairman of the Black Panther Party branch, and how he ends up being a risk factor for the FBI.

His investigation exposes how COINTELPRO’s activities included wiretapping of telephone calls, raids, anonymous letters, infiltration of the Black Panther Party and even murder, among other events.

At that time, the police declared that the deaths were the result of a confrontation with members of the Black Panther Party.

However, after the evidence presented, an arduous investigation and trials were able to show that it was an execution.

The information and communication technology sector in Spain in the European context: evolution and trends

The authors are Sandra Sieber and Josep Valor, specialists in information systems.

An investigation is carried out on how the sector of new information and communication technologies is in Spain.

This study is part of the Business and Information Technologies project , which executes global indicators that describe the changes of companies in the sector and carries out a study of the changes that have been experienced in recent years.

In addition, this study evaluates the changes and foresees the evolution of information and communication technologies in the future.

Historical research in social work: theory and practice

The author of this research is Marie Špiláčková, who provides an insight into the resources that should be used to carry out historical research applied in social work.

The author shares in her research examples from other investigations that address different studies of history and social work.

It exposes relevant aspects of how it developed over time and where it is today. It also presents the results of the history of social assistance and social work in the Czech Republic.

The wars for the nation in Colombia during the 19th century

The author of this study is María Teresa Uribe de Hincapié. Applying the research methods, this teacher carries out an exhaustive study of the history of wars and violence in Colombia.

Uribe is a tenured professor at the University of Antioquia. For the author, it is necessary to explore the events that occurred in Colombia in the nineteenth century to understand the conflicts that arise in the present.

Could genetic engineering save the Galapagos?

The author, Stephen S. Hall, conducts research to find out if it is possible to save endangered species in the Galapagos Islands, through genetic manipulation.

The research suggests that in the Galapagos Islands invasive species (plants, insects, birds and mammals) have displaced the autochthonous ones, which currently generates that many species are in danger of extinction.

In this sense, an investigation is originated that proposes to carry out an experiment with mice that uses genetic manipulation through the alteration of sexual inheritance, to kill foreign species.

However, questions arise about the risks that the experiment generates and whether it will be really effective. The investigation seeks to determine if it is feasible and a review of the studies carried out by Charles Darwin is carried out.

Historical aspects of accounting thinking: from the beginnings to the utility paradigm

This study was carried out by the researchers María Teresa Méndez Picazo and Domingo Ribeiro Soriano.

The study shows the historical evolution of accounting and how it has changed according to the current needs of users.

The authors address the stages in the evolution of accounting thinking: they develop aspects of its origins and how it has been linked to trade since ancient times.

History and evolution of communication

Fabiola Delgado Umaña carries out this work, which investigates how communication has evolved in human beings from the first discoveries to the present.

It evaluates the behavior in different cultures, the types, basic elements and factors that intervene in communication processes.

History of foreign language teaching methodology

Miguel A. Martín Sánchez is based on the historical evolution of foreign language teaching methods, specifically modern ones and in the teaching of Spanish, which have been used from the Modern Age to the present day.

Political ideologies in Latin America in the 20th century

Luis Armando González explores the nationalism, anti-imperialism, revolutionary nationalism and socialism-communism present in Latin America in the political debate during the 20th century, and which have gone bankrupt as projects of social transformation.

González focuses on the socialist-communist ideology, and begins his journey through the Latin American reality from the twenties and thirties.

The author details important aspects of the socialist-communist ideology, which is considered the most important and the one that awakens an unlimited passion in its followers.


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