Historisk Tidskrift. Utgiven av Svenska historiska föreningen
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Historisk tidskrift 125:2 • 2005

Innehåll (Contents) 2005:2

Uppsatser (Articles)

Synlighet, vikt, trovärdighet – och självkritik. Några synpunkter på källkritikens roll i dagens historieforskning

Maria Ågren

Fulltext (pdf)

Summary: Visibility, Importance, Reliability, and Self-Criticism. Observations on the Role of Source Criticism in Contemporary Historical Research

The point of departure of this article is the allegedly declining interest in the classical source-critical agenda, as it was formulated by the so-called Weibull school in Sweden. The author discusses ways in which source-critical insights can be rephrased, so that their importance once again becomes obvious.

Like others before her, she argues that many source-critical insights have the character of common sense, or tacit, knowledge. However, the present author sees this as a problem, because it downplays the fact that source critical requirements are central to scientific history writing, just as testing the validity of results is crucial to all empirical sciences. Moreover, by reducing source criticism to mere common sense it becomes difficult to talk about its necessity, and to hand down source critical skills to new generations. Therefore, she proposes that new concepts be introduced, in order to turn central source-critical insights from tacit to manifest knowledge.

In particular, the author argues for the need to include ‘visibility’ among the source critical touchstones, as being the first and possibly most important criterion against which sources should be judged. We should always ask ourselves: Which parts of past society are revealed by this particular source, and which parts remain invisible? What kinds of conclusions does this source allow us to draw? The author points out that, in principle, the visibility criterion has long been known and used among historians; it is often formulated as a warning against conclusions e silentio. However, she contends that the criterion needs to be phrased in a more general way, in order to make its importance apparent. For instance, the ambition to write ”histoire totale” (Annales) or the pursuit of ‘invisible history’ (from the 1970s and onwards) require close attention to issues of visibility.

The author also argues that even if the touchstone ”representativeness” seems to have fallen out of grace, it nevertheless remains true that historians have a special responsibility for assessing the relative importance of various social phenomena in the past. If professional historians shirk this responsibility, non-professional historians will try to assess importance on their own, writing syntheses that will put their imprint on textbooks used in schools, etc. Therefore, if historians wish to retain influence over how ”the grand narratives” are constructed and disseminated, they still need to pay close attention to representativeness, or relative importance.

Finally, the author argues for the need to coin a word for the self-critical scrutiny to which all historians have to expose themselves. Here, she proposes the word self-criticism.