How does a historian or an amateur determine what legitimate methods can be used and what legitimate sources are? Obviously there are many methods to read texts and speculate about political, social, cultural and individual past experiences; but how are legitimate and illegitimate methods marked? Some sources are obviously very good and very useful, others very bad but very useful, yet others are very good or very bad but not at all useful. How is this differentiation made in historiography?

  • This should be migrated on meta.
    – user2237
    May 29, 2013 at 17:34
  • 4
    @Carlo_R. I disagree. I think meta should be for discussions about the site itself.
    – Apoorv
    Jun 1, 2013 at 1:34
  • I think you should read The Craft of Research by Booth et. al. They really detail what historical sources are considered legitimate and what sources are citable etc.
    – franklin
    Jul 27, 2013 at 2:37
  • I found John Lewis Gaddis' The Landscape of History to be surprisingly readable for a layman, on this topic. Jan 22, 2014 at 5:11

1 Answer 1


When assessing sources, one of the warning signs to watch for is a tight loop of self-references amongst a small group of authors, often even a single author, with no citations into the group from outside it. External citations from within the group will be made to mimic the sheen of respectability. This often signals an extreme viewpoint well outside the mainstream, because it is very rare for a single researcher or small group to be well advanced of the mainstream.

Of course, not all such small tight groups are kooks. Continental Drift was ridiculed for two generations before becoming a consensus and accumulating hard geologic evidence. The terms Black Hole and Big Bang were first coined as terms of ridicule because the constructs seemed so unlikely, but are now mainstream physics. However one must be particularly wary in using such sources.

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