Historical Research Risks

Shoddy Social Science

Howell and Prevenier (1981) claim that historical researchers in the social sciences often risk inaccuracies due to a) anachronisms developed, b) over-conceptualization, and c) broad generalization. Before any discussion of the results of taking each risk is launched, it is important to note that each is very detrimental to at least one division of the social sciences. Anachronisms are vital to in-depth case studies regarding unprecedented areas of research; conceptualization is necessary to capture the essence of a problem in a relatable way; generalization is crucial to the application of many logical processes of reasoning, i.e. cause and effect. Each drawback is countered by a reward.

That being said, over-generalization poses a very real, practical barrier. For conspiracy theorists, over-generalizations leave gaps in understanding and lead to a questioning of various records of events. The text gives the example of McFarlane’s misplaced theories of witchcraft accusations (Howell & Prevenier, 1981). In modern times these over-generalizations do no harm, but their potential ill effects are much worse if posterity were to take these accounts as true—or if these conclusions had been adapted to the understanding of our time. In more serious situations, such as in the Holocaust, Philosophy, Sociology, Psychology, and even science were twisted to suit the needs of Adolph Hitler. The social sciences, as a lucrative mix of subjective and objective elements, are particularly vulnerable to misuse in propaganda. Welch (1999) writes that such propaganda has merited comparisons of propaganda to deceit, brainwashing, and even cancer (24). While the other two risks may pose a greater threat to the general validity and reliability of social science research, it does not endanger lives.

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