Sign up ×
History Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for historians and history buffs. It's 100% free, no registration required.

I wouldn't be naming the specific examples as that might (will) needlessly divert the attention away from the question itself.

Let us say I am trying to research about historical events in a region. That events have multiple narratives given by parties that are stake holders. Some vehemently deny accusations while others make repeated accusations. I know it is really about tracking the evidences as one might find in documented/published material, but this is where the problem lies.

Most of the documented instances come from one of the parties involved, which makes it hard to consider. Furthermore, the narrative of a party is consistent with the published material, which must not be surprising.

There are very few so called "neutral" parties that have published anything substantial.

How should I proceed now?

I am a student of neither history nor journalism, so it would be helpful if additional information is provided regards methodology.

share|improve this question
"There are three versions of every story: His, hers, and the truth". The truth is generally a composite which lies somewhere in the middle ground between the stories given by the stakeholders. – user2590 Aug 22 '13 at 8:25

5 Answers 5

Try to go back to primary source and archaeological evidences. Are there mass graves? What about population movement? What do statistics have to say about the population, economy, and whatnot?

You can look at the documents and narratives's authors and find out inconsistencies within them or evidence of forgeries/lies -- note that lack of such is not necessarily proof of facts. This may require investigative work on the ground.

The hard thing is not to cherry pick yourself: Please be aware of your own agenda and bias.

share|improve this answer
+1 for that last sentence. As an Israeli sympathetic to my neighbours yet valuing the life of my children, I can tell you how subversive and difficult that can be to maintain. – dotancohen Jan 31 '12 at 15:49

Another 3 advices to add to Sardathrion's:

  1. Try not to let emotions affect you into mistaking incidents for trends (one such example from History SE was when someone described US involvement in Vietnam as being a pattern of massacres. While Mai Lai is indeed horrific, it's (given the scale) a minor blip that serves to prove the opposite trend (out of 1million+ served, 50 soldiers participated) in dispassionate analysis.

  2. Be careful about logical fallacies.

    Among the most common encountered in discourse about history is confusing causation and correlation.

  3. Be VERY VERY careful about semantic and other word games that biased parties are wont to use. To give 2 types:

    • Using words outside the accepted definitions to tinge the events.

      To use a very controversial example from recent history, look at accusations of G.W.Bush "lying" about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you carefully analyze the claim, "lying" means stating something that one knows NOT to be true, yet there are no documents/witness accounts to prove that Bush White House knew that there were no WMDs prior to Iraq War. They may have lied about their degree of confidence, but they didn't have anywhere near conclusive proof of lack of WMDs.

      A common case of this is to intentionally switch around "murder" and "kill" verbs (the former 100% implies premeditated intent to kill).

    • Another, much more problematic game-wording, is playing with linguistics to prove historical facts/connections from isolated word root similarities etc...

      One less known example is modern Russian revisionist history which contains some fairly outlandish claims about pre-900s Russian tribes based on fancy playing with word roots to prove that certain historical references were about russians/slavs where they are historically accepted as being totally unrelated (It's been a while so I don't have any links to specifics, sorry).

      Another example is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where people claim somehow that modern Palestinians have a historical claim to the area stronger than the Israelis because their name derives from Philistines. However, archaeological (and some other, such as linguistic) evidence points to Philistines being of Greek-originated Mycenaean culture, and therefore not of Semitic origins like Arabs who comprise most of Palestinians. The name coincidence was due to geographical naming convention for the area.

share|improve this answer
+1 for some really good clarifications. – Sardathrion Jan 13 '12 at 9:23
FWIW, there were reports from US soldiers that My Lai-type incidents were quite common, and we certainly couldn't trust the military to be completely honest. At the time, there was no way for the general public to know what the truth was, and of course which story somebody believed usually depended on their politics. The secondary sources are therefore pretty much useless in telling what happened. – David Thornley Jan 22 '12 at 18:02
@DavidThornley - Was there anyone whose story was reliably corroborated? Given the US media and political climate of the time, I would think that people would blow up any remote shred of what could even tenuously be the truth, if something like this happened? Given the ineptitude of US Govt, I just don't see them managing to keep something like this under wraps for decades – DVK Jan 23 '12 at 1:28
@DVK: Was there any real way of corroborating such stories at the time? Some soldiers said that happened, most didn't, and the government denied widespread atrocities but wasn't trusted (with at least some reason). Nobody knew, and as you say people went wild with pretty sketchy evidence. (FWIW, if such atrocities had been widespread, I'm sure we'd have confirmation by now. Not that that stopped me from believing it likely back then.) – David Thornley Jan 23 '12 at 13:36

You should consider looking at alternative sources that are not biased as part of your research. For example, the United Nations issues reports that provide a generally unbiased view of situations going on in different countries throughout the world. Usually their reports will provide a fairly accurate view of both sides of the events, and then it is up to the reader to decide whether one side has a distinct moral advantage over the other. There are other organizations as well, such as Amnesty International, that do the same thing from a different perspective and for a different reason.

If the events you are researching extend back beyond the emergence of these types of organizations, then look for sources of information that originated outside your region of interest. For example, information from Jewish trade merchants may provide a generally unbiased view of both sides of the Crusades.

Having said all this, you should not completely discount or ignore the differing opinions within the region you are researching. Each side will certainly paint a picture that favors their viewpoints, but those are valid for providing perspective. Often it is up to the researcher to develop an opinion as to which side is right, but it is better if you can say that you have truly explored both perspectives. Also, sometimes you just have to provide both perspectives and let your intended audience come to their own conclusions.

share|improve this answer
In my not so humble opinion, there are no un-biased sources. But if the bias is clearly stated it allows for the document to be worthwhile. Deception of bias masking as unbiased is a very large problem -- especially if the author does not realise their own bias! – Sardathrion Jan 13 '12 at 9:25
You have a point. Anyone writing their observations is going to allow their own opinions to influence what they write. However, some organizations, such as the UN, will at least attempt to reduce the bias. I read a very interesting UN report on the Bosnian war that was very critical of both sides. However, reading a summary from either side independently shows a completely biased view. – Steven Drennon Jan 13 '12 at 12:33
And beware of the supposedly fair view. Any account of WWII that puts the Axis on the same moral level as the Western Allies (I'm deliberately not including the Soviet Union and China here) may seem fair and unbiased but is twisting the facts far more than the simplistic views they taught me as a child. – David Thornley Jan 14 '12 at 15:40
The UN is far from unbiased. I can identify tens of biased UN reports, and public statements by UN staff which are blatant lies. – dotancohen Jan 31 '12 at 15:56
@DavidThornley - well, Ghandi didn't see any difference between the two, bless his imartial soul. After all, both sides carried evil guns (yes, I'm paraphrasing his actual quote). – DVK Feb 24 '13 at 3:15

Your question seems more oriented towards recent history than ancient history, so suggesting something for recent history: Follow the money. In most if not all armed conflicts, there are some entities making a killing in monetary terms or terms of political power or possession over material wealth (example: mines), who have a solid incentive to make that conflict carry on or spiral out of control and who might even commit actions to ensure that conflict resolution doesn't happen. And, in some cases, who might even mastermind the conflict-sparking incident to begin with. Qui bono : Who ultimately benefited from the events that took place?

One prime example : terrorist attacks that help the ruling regime divert attention away from their own shortcomings and which galvanize loyalty for the leader of that regime, which push the people into approving undemocratic legislations, decisions which otherwise would never have been accepted. Following which, the side that the terrorists were claiming to have attacked on behalf of, gets clobbered mercilessly and ends up in a much worse state, and the resources that were under their domain are now property of the other. With these kinds of events repeating regularly and with a fairly logical and predictable sorry outcome for the side whom the terrorists represent, it's worth asking if those terrorists were genuinely representing them at all, or were they acting at the behest of the leadership or behind-the-curtain controllers of the aggravated side to justify the next actions that would otherwise never have been approved.

So, here it can become vital to trace the sources of funding involved in the incidents, who is supplying the non-state actors with arms, logistics, who allowed them to get within striking range, which safeguards that would have prevented the attacks failed and were they deliberately failed, did the people in charge at the time get punished for their failure to thwart the attack, etc.

share|improve this answer
"Follow the money" is a golden rule of journalism that predates many things you might get sentimental about. Finding out who ultimately benefits from any conflict, and then exploring whether they had any hand in making that conflict happen or even in letting it get out of hand after it happened, isn't paranoid nonsense. It's called "investigation". And I would prefer to repeat the question asker's first line: "I wouldn't be naming the specific examples as that might (will) needlessly divert the attention away from the question itself." Requesting the commenters to follow that principle too. – nikhilvj Sep 25 at 4:44
@jwenting I wasn't even trying to cover all of history. Kindly read the question posted.. it's very specific. And even in that, I was suggesting only one of many techniques. I don't think there can be ONE answer to this Q. Maybe the hypothetical example I shared has pissed people off. I wonder why.. :P I would humbly request to strip your mind of actual events and go about this scientifically. Imagine that we're talking about totally other countries and places that you have no relations with. And the disagreements would look far more credible if they avoided empty blanket accusations. – nikhilvj Sep 25 at 4:57
Case in point: very recently, a certain president has pointed out that with all the world's attention on a certain terrorist organization, there hasn't been any serious discussion about the funding and revenues from selling crude oil from captured oilfields that powers that organization to recruit more mercenaries commit its atrocities. video This is despite wide-ranging financial safeguards post-9/11 to avoid precisely this kind of free funding of terrorist orgs. So the "follow the money" principle opens up totally new perspectives here. – nikhilvj Oct 24 at 12:47

I suggest that you do no real research and just make stuff up. When a historian refutes your claim, refute the historian by showing how his past work on this issue has been one sided. When a non-biased historian refutes you, demand he propose an alternative interpretation. When he has done this, you have thus tricked him into doing the research you set out to accomplish while you personal didn't have to do any real work.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.