Understanding Historical Perspective

Historical Perspective

All historians bring to their works their own historical perspective. That perspective might be determined by his or her political bent or by the use of social theories in the analysis.

Every historian’s ideas are somewhere on the political spectrum. Historians may be described as conservative, liberal, or anywhere in between.  Rarely do scholars acknowledge their political perspective in their works; however, that does not mean that a perspective does not exist.  For instance, these historians differ significantly in their political views of Columbus and his world:

“The Spain that Christopher Columbus and his crews left behind just before dawn on August 3, 1492, as they sailed forth from Palos and out into the Atlantic, was for most of its people a land of violence, squalor, treachery, and intolerance.  In this respect Spain was no different from the rest of Europe.” David E. Stannard, American Holocaust: Columbus and the Conquest of the New World (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 57.

“Columbus personified the modern spirit.  A modest capitalist, he invested some of his own money in the venture.  When his tiny vessels dipped below the horizon in 1492, they carried with them a transcendent faith in the individual–and a passion for wealth, power, and glory.” Thomas Greer, A Brief History of Western Man, 2nd ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972), 210.

Some historians’ works are informed by social theories.  These theories most frequently include Marxism and feminism.   The use of the specific vocabulary of a theory, such as “patriarchy” and “exploitation,” often indicate an author’s use of that social theory in his or her analysis.

For instance, feminist works often discuss patriarchy and the subordination of women:

“Historically, the generative capacity of women has been the material basis for their subordination and oppression. Men, ruling classes, and states have sought to manipulate this capacity to suit their economic and political needs at various periods. This study presents one example, that of a planter class attempting to control the reproductive capacity of slave women in order to further its economic interests.” Rhoda E. Reddock, “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective,” Latin American Perspectives 44 (Winter 1985): 76-77.

“The purpose of this article is to suggest that the burdens shouldered by slave women actually represented in extreme form the dual nature of all women’s labor within a patriarchal, capitalist society: the production of goods and services and the reproduction and care of members of a future work force.” Jacqueline Jones, “‘My Mother Was Much of a Woman’: Black Women, Work and the Family under Slavery,” Feminist Studies 8 (1982): 236.

Marxist works frequently describe relationships in terms of class structure and capital:

“In the Old South extensive and complicated commercial relations with the world market permitted the growth of a small commercial bourgeoisie.  The resulting fortunes flowed into slaveholding, which offered prestige and was economically and politically secure in a planter-dominated society. ” Eugene Genovese, “The Slave South: An Interpretation,” Science and Society 25 (1961): 323.

“Similarly in Cuba slave mothers returned to work about six weeks after childbirth, at which time the child was turned over to the plantation nursery . . . . This illustration lays bare the realities of marriage and the nuclear family.  In this period in Caribbean history, this form of social organization did not meet the needs of capital.”  Rhoda E. Reddock, “Women and Slavery in the Caribbean: A Feminist Perspective,” Latin American Perspectives 44 (Winter 1985): 68-69.

See here for more tips on analyzing historiographically.