Reading History Forward

Reading History Forward

By Jørgen Møller, Aarhus University, Denmark

Recent decades have seen a productive methodological debate about how political scientists do history. However, on one important point the discussion has been surprisingly thin. This concerns the problem of reading history backward rather than forward. To understand this problem, we need to embed it in broader methodological discussions of how the selection of evidence is shaped (and potentially biased) by all sorts of prior assumptions going into the evidence collection process. Thus, reading history backward makes scholars refrain from posing certain questions, become blind to certain descriptive developments and explanatory factors, and fail to enlist certain historical data. This article pulls together the fragmentary insights about this problem and devises an alternative, prospective approach centered on an open reading of the work of historians. Scholars who wish to free themselves of the shackles of retrospection are thus recommended to start by immersing themselves, with an open mind, in what historians have written about a particular subject. While this is a “low-tech” issue, it is one that has huge ramifications for the way we do historical analysis as political scientists.

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