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Copyright 2006, 2011 by Dr. Jim Jones
of West Chester University

Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.

This topic is more abstract than others that we cover this semester. Instead of explaining how to do something, it describes a way to think about history. Keep in mind that this is NOT the only correct way to think about history, but this method is useful because it divides a historical topic into pieces that a computer can manage.

As discussed previously, history is a complex thing that expands faster than we can keep track of it. That means we will never be able to look at more than a part of history, and the way we decide what part to look at will affect what we see. In plain English, a historian's perspective always introduces bias. All we can do is be aware of our perspective and be honest about it when we write history. That will enable other historians to evaluate our work fairly.

A historical model helps us to do that. It places our assumptions out in the open for others to examine and criticize, but it in the process it also forces us to consider alternatives before reaching conclusions.

In general, a model is a copy of a real thing on a smaller scale . As children we played with model versions of real things -- babies, ships, stoves, airplanes -- whose realism often determined how much we liked them. They never offered as much detail as the full-sized original, but in exchange for giving up some detail, they were easier to manage than their full-size counterparts. Later on in life, we encountered other kinds of models, like a road map, which models a "bird's-eye view" of an area, or a telephone book which models a communications network.

Models always leave out details. For instance, while a road map can show th distance and direction between a large number of places, and even details lik rivers and elevation, it cannot not convey all of the information that would be available to a real-life "bird" which could see the condition of a road's surface, the kinds of vegetation located along the shoulder, or the color of the soil in the surrounding area. A telephone book shows how individuals are connected to a global system via country codes, area codes and exchanges, but it does not show how the system is organized within each exchange. The choice of which details are available in a model is up to the person who creates the model. In a historical model, the choice of details is a reflection of the historian's perspective.

A historical model is a replica of history. It is bounded in space and time, and by a set of characteristics that determine which details inside that space and time period are significant. For instance, a model based on the West Chester Directory, 1932-1933 would seem to have its time and space limits already defined. But the choice of research question, which determines the details that are significant, can alter the boundaries of space and time. If someone wanted to know what determined life expectancy for people who lived in West Chester in 1932, relevant details such as how close they lived to a factory or the railroad can be found in the directory. Other relevant details, like birth date, death date, occupation, and whether they liked to drink or smoke, would have to be collected from other sources, and will certainly include details that occurred before and after 1932, and outside of West Chester.

For a different question, such as why some families had more children than others, life expectancy would still be significant, but so would things like income level, mother's work status, and religion. To understand the factors that formed attitudes about the size of families, it might be necessary to include facts from the countries where immigrants to West Chester originated. Research on economic effects will almost always require a longer timespan, in order to provide enough data with which to measure change.

Thinking back to the definition of a historical fact, we could also place limits on the actors or actions that we consider. Your research could focus on a particular individual, a family, extended family, employees at a company, or members of a profession, school class, church or other organization. The possible limits on action are many -- just make sure you don't make them too narrow, because you'll probably have trouble finding enough information for questions like "What did people buy at Christmas at Mosteller's Department Store?" or "How did the use of slide rules affect the pace at which computers were introduced to West Chester?"


The lessons on taking notes on newspapers and other secondary works both called for you to add keywords to your notes in ways that explain why they are relevant to your project. The "significant characteristics" that you chose for your model will serve as the basis for the keywords you use on your notes. For example, one of the topics that your professor has studied is how the Depression affected West Chester's railroad workers. Secondary reading provides information on changes in the national economy, and efforts by the federal government to restart the economy by subsidizing railroads. To understand how those large efforts affected individuals in West Chester, it would be worth looking at characteristics like their job title (keyword "job"), number of years of seniority ("seniority"), whether they were related to any of the work supervisors ("connections") and whether there were other breawinners in their family ("otherjob").

A complete historical model looks like this. The key elements are:

Here is an example of a historical model for a question on how the growth of shopping malls with large grocery stores affected the people of West Chester.

Notice that each of the keywords begins and ends with a period. That is to make sure it is not something that appears elsewhere in the note files. These keywords are used to organize notes before writing a paper. The final paper will describe why, within the confines of your historical model, some pattern existed. To find a pattern, compare two of the characteristics. For instance, there may be a relationship between a person's ties to a neighborhood (.grocloc.) and willingness to shop at a large super market located in West Goshen (.grobiz. or .traffic. plus .auto.).

Sometimes, you may want to work with a field for which you have no specific data, such as "distance of residence from grocery store." You will need to calculate the value for that field using other data, like a person's street address and the address of groceries stores that advertised in the enwspaper. Be creative with your data, but do not sacrifice accuracy by trying to squeeze too much out of your data, such as trying to determine an individual's religion based on his or her last name.

When it comes to writing your paper, your introduction should describe your model and the body should present your data in a way that shows how you discovered your pattern. Your conclusion should summarize your argument.

Go to the HIS480 Syllabus or Assignments.