There are several objectives in historical research. Historians are interested in giving a factual description of factual descriptions of human events or the circumstances of human life in the distant past. This naturally means that a historian has to (a) reconstruct a story from examining different historical sources; (b) provide an explanation of a historical event by identifying the social dynamics that led to it ;(c) interpret historical events from the perspective of the people who lived through the historic event ;(d) show the relevance of historical data to people today(Little 2017).
Historical information may be primary or secondary (Smithsonian 1997). Primary sources have first-hand, original accounts, or evidence about a historical person or event. Secondary sources have evidence of a historical event or person that is got from a primary source. Primary sources may be documents, images, oral accounts and material culture obtained through historical archaeology. Each primary source has its advantages and disadvantage as the basis of historical research.
Documents may provide detailed accounts about historical figures or events, however, they are sometimes not objective accounts because of the author's biases. Furthermore, the words used may be difficult to comprehend because they are unfamiliar or their meanings change over time. Another disadvantage is that using documents as a primary source is labor intensive because one document needs collaboration from other documents.
Using images from the historical era being examined has the advantages of providing information about the lifestyle of the period and it may collaborate oral history, however, it may not be an objective to historical representation. Furthermore, it doesn't provide clear information about the person, place or historical period conveyed in the painting or photo. Oral history, on the other hand, is a record of a person's recollections, attitudes or understandings about the past that is collected through interviews and preserved through the use of audio or videotape, film, or written transcription. The main advantage of this source of historical information is that it "personalizes history" through reporting on their life of the person being interviewed. In this way, it may capture information that may otherwise have been left out other types of primary sources. The obvious weaknesses of oral history are that the interviewee may misrepresent historical facts because their memory fails them or because of personal bias.
Historical archaeology describes researching the material culture in given human society that existed between 1500 AD up to and including the present using archaeological methods (Hicks & Beaudry 2014). The term "material culture" means things ordinary people in a given society use in their everyday lives. Historical archaeology emerged as a field of study from a need to understand and interpreting material rather than simply identifying excavated objects (p191-193). This led to the fusion of archaeology and material culture studies which concerns itself with an analysis of the cultural biographies of a given society by examining material objects like pottery, monuments, and buildings.
Secondary historical sources are opinions by historical experts about primary sources of historical information. Secondary sources are indispensable to students of history. This is because they can be a source of views from historical experts and they often combine different types of primary sources to come up with an accurate picture of the subject of historical research. The main disadvantages of relying on secondary sources are that (a) they are not an original account of a historical event or historical figure(s); (b) secondary sources are many and finding relevant ones can be problematic; and (c) there is an inherent danger of revisionist history since secondary sources capture people's personal opinions instead of actual historical facts that primary sources attempt to convey.
Case Study: The Silk Road and the Spread Of Buddhism
According to Gosch & Stearns (2008), Buddhism arrival in ancient China is the most important thing that resulted from establishing trade routes into Inner Asia. They report that Buddhism first entered China at around 50 BCE through monks as well as merchants whose journeys started in India, Central Asia, and Persia. By 150 BC, Buddhist monks were recorded as being present in Luoyang, the Yellow River city that served as the Chinese capital during the 2nd half of the Han dynasty (25-220CE). There they established a monastery for translating Buddhist teachings from Sanskrit into Chinese (p.65).
According to Liu (2011) prior to Islam being introduced to central Asia through military conquest, Buddhism was the dominant religion in present-day north Afghanistan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. This is because these places had important cities on the route of Chinese silk to India (pp.55-57). For example, by the 3rd century BCE, Buddhist sculptures were being curved onto sandstone walls 100 miles outside of present-day Kabul. These Buddhas bear a resemblance to those found in Northwest India which had an artistic tradition shaped by Greek, Iranian and traditional Indian influences.
According to Elverskog (2010), at around 300 BC, Alexander the Great was in control of Asia Minor as well as Persia while India and China had advanced civilizations (p.262). When these three came into contact, the silk road emerged for the purposes of trade. It linked Chinese goods and technology (e.g. silkworms breeding, silk spinning, paper making, printing and gunpowder.e.t.c) to European markets through India and onto Greek controlled Mediterranean ports. The Silk Road also became the way different societies cross-pollinated each other's cultural norms. Buddhism was exported by traders who intermarried and settled in towns along the Silk Road. Settled along the way. This is how it spread into Central Asia and China from India. This is because cities, where traders settled, became a conduit for religious exchanges since culture is a component of culture.
According to Elverskog (2010), after the Western world rediscovered Inner Asia, they encountered a world divided between Buddhists and Muslims. This division did not strike the Western explorers as surprising because there were abandoned Buddhist monuments along the Silk Road in predominately Muslim regions(p 262). Elverskog (2010) reports that European explorers wrongly believed that these monuments were abandoned by Muslims because of a wrong conception of the relationship between the two religions as antagonistic.
In summary, primary sources have their advantages and disadvantages. Secondary historical sources also have their benefits and disadvantages. Relying on historical documents, images or oral traditions comes with the problem of bias. However, it is impossible for us today to go back in time and verify the accuracy of the historical data found in these their ways. The study of material culture is too scientific. The best option is relying on secondary sources of historical data. This is because they understand how to interpret primary sources on this subject and they are trained to analyse these primary sources accordingly. For example, using secondary sources I have been able to unpack how the Silk Road came about and the impact of the trade it facilitated on the people who lived along it.
Little, D (2017) Philosophy of History, The Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/history/.
The Smithsonian (1997) From Smithson to Smithsonian: The Birth of an Institution. Retrieved from http://www.sil.si.edu
Hicks, D & Beaudry, MC (2014) Cambridge Companion to Historical Archaeology. London: Cambridge University press pp191-192
Gosch SS & Stearns PN (2008) Premodern Travel in World history New York: Routledge
LIU, XINRU. "A Silk Road Legacy: The Spread of Buddhism and Islam." Journal of World History, vol. 22, no. 1, 2011, pp. 55-81.
Elverskog, J (2010) Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road.Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
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