Method of Data Collection in Historical Research
Understanding the importance of historical research in the academic environment, it is necessary to understand how it occurs and what are the steps to be followed during its elaboration, both regarding theory, methodology, and analysis of sources. Before being sources in historical research, the documentation used by the historian is part of a large collection present in the Historical Archives, which, as well as places of knowledge construction and preservation of the memory of a group or community, are fundamental to analyze and understand the past in spaces understood as documentary heritage.
Methods of Data Collection
Historical research relies on a wide variety of sources, both primary and secondary including unpublished material. The data collection method in this field of knowledge is divided into two categories as mentioned above with many subdivisions underneath each category.
- Eyewitness accounts of events
- Can be oral or written testimony
- Found in public records and legal documents, minutes of meetings, corporate records, recordings, letters, diaries, journals, drawings.
- Located in university archives, libraries or privately run collections such as local historical societies.
- Can be oral or written
- Second-hand accounts of events
- Found in textbooks, encyclopaedias, journal articles, newspapers, biographies, and other media such as films or tape recordings.
1. Oral Tradition
An indispensable method of data collection in historical research is the oral tradition. Oral traditions are testimonies of past events transmitted from one generation to the other through word of mouth. This mechanism has not only provided a lot of materials on the cultural past of many societies, but it is also the commonest source of studying the past activities of non-literate societies generally. Even in societies where writing has been introduced very early, they had at one time in their history relied on Oral Tradition.
Oral Tradition may take the form of myths and legends, songs, folklore, proverbs and poems, epigrammatic sayings, popular history, or stories. These are usually passed on by special people such as lineage heads, ballad singers and court chroniclers, drummers, priests, chiefs and other categories of knowledgeable men and women. Being a primary method of data collection in history, it sometimes carries first-hand information. The participants in an event may take part in its transmission and such eyewitnesses or actors are usually able to supply comprehensive and first-hand information.
Forms of Oral Tradition
These forms include Legends, myths, folklore, proverbs, fables, cognomen, epigrammatic sayings, stories, and poems. These are usually passed on by special people such as lineage heads, ballad singers and court chroniclers, drummers, priests, chiefs and other categories of knowledgeable men and women. This is particularly common in Africa and Asia. Many African states and societies in the past had formal institutions or even appointed official historians who re-enacted their history and culture at important ceremonies such as festivals, burials, the installation of kings, and so on.
These stories about the exploits of traditional heroes embody the main historic records of a people. They may take the form of cosmogonic myths concerning the origin of the people, or historical accounts of migration and conquest of one group by another. In either case, they serve the function of providing a basis for communal identity and solidarity.
These are stories that have elements of the sacred and divine in them. They serve the purpose of giving meaning to existence and ensuring that the community does not lose hold of its rationale for existence. As quasi-sacred stories, and because of the purpose they serve, their tellers must be true to the original story. This is not to deny variations from place to place and from time to time. This can be accounted for, in terms of individual creativity regarding details, and in terms of the loss of memory that cannot be avoided in the circumstance.
These are stories that have no explanatory or historical purposes to serve. They are told as forms of entertainment, with emphasis on the creative and imaginative talents of the artist. Because they are forms of entertainment, they occur in more relaxed atmospheres, and there is no age limit for narrators. A fable could be a dilemma tale of a trickster tale and it may have human or animal characters. It might also perform some moral functions, though this need not be its primary focus.
Proverbs are also sources for historical information. The proverbs are self-evident truths that give the gist of what one wants to say in a brief and unmistakable form. A proverb can drive home a point or describe a situation in a few striking words. Some proverbs even recall events in the life of the community which created them and in which they are used. Such events are wars, battles, famines, or pestilence, as well as particular social experiences which are characteristic of the community.
Epic is a category of tradition all on its own. We call epic a narrative couched in poetic language, subject to special linguistic rules of form. In most cases, epics contain hundreds or thousands of verses and present a complex tale full of wonders and heroism, centred on the main character.
One other historical method of data collection in archaeology. This involves the study of the relics created and used by man in the past. Charles Thurstan Shaw defines archaeology as “a body of techniques or methods used by its practitioners to derive the maximum amount of information from material, cultural and physical remains of our ancestors which have survived for us to identify, recover and study.” Put differently, archaeology is the science through which we obtain information about the ancient people through the artefacts they left behind. In other words, it studies man’s past through the material remains of his culture. These may consist of the remains of men’s fortresses, their tools and weapons, their adornments, and their graves. The main method by which archaeology gathers its information is scientific excavation. The remains so excavated are called artefacts. The visibility of the objects used in cultural studies by the archaeologist makes them the most concrete of all the sources. One peculiar feature of archaeology is that it augments information about man’s activities in the past and, therefore, can be said to be concerned with the ways of life of an extinct population – extinct in the sense that those about whom it supplies information are no longer living. Through archaeology, more information beyond the reach of oral tradition is collected.
3. The Written Sources
These are the most obvious and the easiest sources from which historians tap their information. Written accounts refer to the documentation of events in writing in a near-permanent form. Such documents like newspaper reports, official government documents, books, diaries, account books, letters, periodicals, minutes of meetings, etc.
This is the scientific study of languages and their relationships. Through such studies, the historian compares features of different languages or groups of languages (called daughter languages) that have developed over time from a common parentage or ancestral language (referred to as proto-language). By examining contemporary related languages, the linguist can reconstruct a lot about the parent language. By comparing the languages of the peoples of different societies, the linguist can give information about the origins of people, the affinity among them and the nature of the relationship between one group and the other.