When you are in school, you view History as a set of facts about the past, that have been researched by Historians and compiled into a set narrative that creates a story. The University of Birmingham has taught me that this definition of history is not only basic, but essentially obsolete. Instead, History is complicated, messy and above all biased.
In Birmingham, David Gange ran a module in my Second Year called History in Theory and Practice. The first lecture he ever gave was about the History of Facts, in which he very cleverly articulated to us all, the idea that Historians record the facts that they want in order to create a story. Essentially nothing ‘Historical’ is completely accurate because there will forever be voices, people and events missing from the main narrative that we learn. David is an extremely intelligent man and I’m constantly in awe of the knowledge he stores in his brain, but I have to say that lecture almost broke me. I shuffled out of the room in a wild panic at the thought that everything I had ever learnt or read was essentially not true. You’ll be relieved to know I have since calmed down from this small panic attack and I now understood what he was telling us. Biases in History are not something we can avoid, or even control but they are something we should be aware of. We are becoming more aware of how these biases erase certain stories, and there is an attempt to eradicate this. There has been a rise in the study of black histories, women’s histories and LGBTQ histories over the last decade and slowly the established narrative is being added to. These histories all come with their own biases as well, and that is completely fine.
I don’t think there is anything wrong with biased history, I myself know I am biased in the things I read and research. I think in many ways this should be embraced rather than shunned. My biases tell a lot about what I am interested in. I look at texts about females in the past with a highly feminists gaze, I think about how they are being treated; if they are being exploited or trapped or hurt. My dissertation is rooted in how the opinions of men were subversive to mentally ill women, and let me tell you I have found countless evidence. Likewise animal welfare is one of my biggest passions; I once did an entire essay on the history of the whale that had a strong animal activist undertone. When looking at old fishermen diaries, and arctic tribes hunting rituals I was purposely searching for the origins of animal cruelty and of human superiority. I look into what I’m passionate about, and what angers me, and that passion makes my work so much better.
Biases will always affect the writing of history, in my eyes they enhance the writing of history if applied correctly. Being passionate about something can encourage the best research. As long as historians are aware of each other’s biases and view their work as part of a larger narrative, then all should be well.
This blog is full of my biases, I write the history I am interested in and the history that means something to me, never assume that it is the only history that exists.
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