Story, History, Story


4932044252_5fc01f798a_bAnn:   Some time ago, I got interested in why European languages so often use the same word for “story” and “history.”  Every English speaker knows that having one word for two such different things — fiction and truth, respectively — is anathema.  But my thinking didn’t go much farther than that, it rarely does.  So  I found a couple of actual, practicing PhD historians, Audra Wolfe and Alex Wellerstein (bio’s below), and asked them: what’s story, what’s history, are they the same, and if not what’s the relation between them?   

Audra: Of course histories are stories. History is the study of change over time, which means that it’s an inherently narrative enterprise, with a beginning, a middle, and an end. To be sure, it’s possible to write a history of a given moment in time, a more static account that tries to capture a particular Zeitgeist. But even then, the author has made certain decisions about how that moment of time is defined. Something happened beforehand, to start the era under question, and something happened at the end, to close it.

Ann:  Boy, does that sound exactly how I see my own stories: I’m taking the real world and assigning beginnings, middles, and ends.  It’s also why I get so worried about using the techniques of fiction in nonfiction.

Audra:  But “story” doesn’t necessarily mean fiction! At least colloquially, we describe all sorts of things as “stories”: New Yorker articles, documentaries, and even prizewinning nonfiction books. Eric Schlosser’s Command and Control, for instance, about the oh-so-thin veneer of nuclear safety, is nothing if not a great story. It’s also true.

4931453895_3bdd5a275a_bAlex: I think the term historians usually prefer these days is not “stories” but “narratives,” which is a fancier way to get the same concept across. What is interesting, here, is that narrative structures are very culturally defined, which becomes very obvious if one tries to read direct translations of works from other cultures (the amount of work that has gone into re-purposing the work of the Brothers Grimm, for example, so it flows with more contemporary American expectations about narratives, is pretty obvious if one reads the originals).

Ann:   You know what happens to the wicked queen in the original Snow White? It’s gruesome. What kind of culture thinks this makes a good story?  Ok, I’m digressing but it’s clear that “narrative” is different for different people.

Alex: My favorite Grimm non sequitur is the lesser-known “The Twelve Brothers,” which is just one of those stories that requires so much context to make any sense of at all, and ends in an incredibly strange inversion of the Disney style (happily ever after for all involved — except for the step-mother, who gets sentenced to death in a barrel of boiling oil and poisonous snakes).

Narrative requires artistic intervention, it requires choices, it requires a sense of what a good beginning, middle, and end might look like. The historian/philosopher Hayden White has done a lot of interesting work categorizing the kinds of narratives that historians use, and how they affect the kinds of stories being told. It is not, in White’s view, a question of whether there is a correspondence between the historical past (i.e. “the facts”) and the narrative, it is a question of whether the narrative is compelling or not.

Ann:  By God, that sounds like heresy. You judge a history by how compelling the narrative is?

Alex:  By “compelling,” here, we don’t mean “does it read well” (though that is always nice), we mean, “does it give a structure to the past that seems true?” Which is not the same thing, exactly, as corresponding with the facts — in part because what counts as a “fact” is constrained by the narrative as well. We might have a document in the archive that says something, but a narrative which contextualizes that document is also needed, to make sense of its content. This starts to sound slippery and postmodern, but it is really quite basic and concrete: how do I know a given document is telling the truth? Well, I use other documents, and other instincts and judgments, to make sense of how this document fits into the greater whole, what it actually means. The distinction between the facts and the narrative is a false one — they are inseparable. The stories and the stuff of the stories cannot be separated meaningfully.

Another way to think about this is, if someone tells you a story about their day, how do you know it is true? If the story was, “I went to the store and then I went home,” you probably would find that compelling, unless you had some sort of other narrative evidence that it would contradict (e.g., you had already confirmed they did not go home). If the story was, “I went to the Moon today,” you’d probably not believe it — the narrative would not make any sense, because one does not go to the Moon very easily. Could they, in fact, convince you that they did go to the Moon? Possibly: they would have to elaborate the narrative considerably, to make it seem more plausible that they did rather than they didn’t. (A “hard” and unlikely version of this would involve them explaining that they had in fact been involved in a covert space program, and showing you lots of compelling evidence. An “easy” version of this would be showing that “The Moon” is a new coffee shop in town.) The proper arraying up of evidence, with narrative devices, in stories about the past — this is how we make meaning. Some narratives are more compelling, more plausible, than others. The less likely narratives require much more in terms of supplementary evidence to make them seem more plausible.

Ann: So you’re both saying that history and story, or narrative, don’t have a clear, bright line between them, and I sort of thought they did.  And that what I think of as historical facts mean nothing outside of their narratives.  And that the best narratives are those with corroborative evidence.  That’s a little fuzzier than I thought history was but it makes solid sense.  

4931455757_0620d90b48_zAudra: Wait, Ann, it gets worse. Historians not only have to decide how they’re going to tell a story, they have to decide what kinds of evidence they want to make use of in the first place.  In some fields of historyfor instance, classics, or certain areas of medieval studies it’s possible for all of the scholars working on a given problem to examine the same documents. But Alex and I both work on science and its relationship to the government in the mid- and late twentieth century, a period flooded with documents. We never suffer from a dearth of information. Cold War administrators documented everything and filed it in triplicate. It’s usually not physically possible for a historian of the twentieth century to view “all” of the open (that is, unclassified) archival documents that she might need to write a truly documentary history of a given topic, and that sets aside the problem of what she doesn’t even know is missing (classified information). So, you pick and choose, and, at a certain point, when the documents no longer yield novel information, you stop.

A historian has made certain choices even before she enters the archive, in deciding whose papers are worth examining, what correspondence to read, what terms to search in the finding aid. Even deciding to conduct archival research is a kind of choice that privileges the role of institutional and administrative actors over, say, popular culture or mass opinion or demographics or spatial information. And because historians base their accounts on evidence, these choices shape the stories they tell in fundamental ways.

Ann:  So I have to add to this fuzzy-history a further fuzziness that comes from what corroborative evidence is available and of that, what historians decide to use.  Which of course depends on what narratives they choose.  But how do historians choose a narrative?  How do they know when the decisions they make about the beginning, middle, and end are — what?  true? accurate representations of what really happened? plausible?

Alex: There are probably an unlimited number of ways that a clever writer could tell the same story, given the same essential elements. History is no different, except some of the elements are more “fixed” than a fiction writer’s stories. (Even in fiction, many things are fixed, assuming the fiction is set in roughly the same universe that the rest of us live in; bad fiction becomes implausible.)

Even the basic structure of the story/narrative is an artistic choice. Is the story I’m telling going to be a romantic or heroic one, where the protagonist wins out against the world? Or will it be something more tragic, where the world wins out against the protagonists? Or something in between, as in satires or comedies? These are all different modes for plotting a story out, and when you lay them out like this, one immediately has ideas about how they might apply to one type of historical story versus another. Nuclear history is often told in one of three different narrative veins — the “official story” is usually romantic (where the scientists, or the government, is a hero), the activist story is usually tragic (good people being poisoned, or persecuted), and the Stanley Kubrick version is essentially satiric (the whole world is crazy). Like all writers, historians who are in control of their craft ought to make these kinds of choices purposefully.

Ann:  And if you’re interested in Alex’s stories, and you should be because they are, as Hayden White would say — and I can NOT believe I’m about to quote Hayden White — “compelling.”  Here’s Romance; here’s Tragedy; here’s Satire.

Alex:  As for how we tell these stories — there is no way out of narrative tropes. You don’t get to say, “I’m above all of this.” What you can do is be self-aware, and be in control of the narrative, and do it purposefully. You do try to tell narratives that seem to best represent the past as it can be understood. You hold yourself to high intellectual standards. That doesn’t mean your use of stories, evidence, and judgment will align perfectly with the truth. But history is not a science in any form and should not be mistaken for one. It is a form of writing about the past that relies upon empirical evidence, among other forms of reasoning, as a guide. Some historical narratives are more compelling than others. And there is nothing more constant in history than the fact that later historians will find earlier histories inadequate.


Alex Wellerstein is an historian of science at the Stevens Institute of Technology who writes about nuclear weapons and nuclear secrecy, and whose blog Restricted Data is a charming and thorough education in how to tell stories.  

Audra Wolfe is a Philadelphia-based writer, editor, and historian, and is the author of  Competing with the Soviets: Science, Technology, and the State in Cold War America. She’s currently writing a history of science diplomacy. Incidentally, she wrote a lovely riposte to — “take-down of” would be a less-polite word — Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos.


The font colors above were, I think, Alex’s idea — we set up this conversation originally in a Google Doc and he assigned us red, green, and blue.  Just so you know.


Photos are from a remarkable book that’s a compilation of Wikipedia edits, via Flickr.  This is what the author, James Bridle, says, and it’s not at all irrelevant:  This particular book—or rather, set of books—is every edit made to a single Wikipedia article, The Iraq War, during the five years between the article’s inception in December 2004 and November 2009, a total of 12,000 changes and almost 7,000 pages.

It amounts to twelve volumes: the size of a single old-style encyclopaedia. It contains arguments over numbers, differences of opinion on relevance and political standpoints, and frequent moments when someone erases the whole thing and just writes “Saddam Hussein was a dickhead”.

This is historiography. This is what culture actually looks like: a process of argument, of dissenting and accreting opinion, of gradual and not always correct codification.

And for the first time in history, we’re building a system that, perhaps only for a brief time but certainly for the moment, is capable of recording every single one of those infinitely valuable pieces of information. Everything should have a history button.


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17 thoughts on “Story, History, Story

  1. Whoa !!

    “But history is not a science in any form and should not be mistaken for one.”

    As far as I recall I have never seen this stated so bluntly, and I find myself wodering; is there a scientific study of the past ? What is this field of study called ?

  2. I know, Peter. I was impressed by that sentence too. I haven’t a clue what the answer is and will refer the question to the experts.

  3. There are scientific studies of the past — paleontology, archeology, anthropology, even historical forms of sociology, for example. They produce very different sorts of end-products than that of the discipline of history: fewer rich, all-encompassing narratives; a lot more numbers. The historian, of course, being a methodological scavenger, can and does use the results of these disciplines as a means of enriching their own tale.

    But the study of history is a synthetic discipline, one that dips a toe into the social sciences, and occasionally glances at the hard sciences, but spends most of its days in the realm of narrative and humanism. I think the final products of it show the value of such an approach (they are, in a word, “rich”), but I don’t think it can be defended on the basis of being scientific in any serious way. There is a commitment to empiricism (we try to base our interpretations on some form of physical evidence, usually) and intellectual honesty (we try not to be biased or lie), but I don’t think makes a field a science.

  4. And I feel I ought to say — there are some historians who have tried in the past, and the present, to make it more “scientific,” by which they mean “quantitative.” See e.g. the Annales School (which leaned towards economic history), or what is currently going by the name “computational history.” I do not disparage this, but they would be the first to admit that they are not doing quite the same thing that most scholars who call themselves “historians” are doing. The discipline of history is currently very much in the qualitative mode of things and I would be surprised if it became significantly more quantitative in the future, but who knows. The main methodological issue with quantitative history is, of course, the dataset — finding reliable structured data that can be used to extrapolate anything more than a small sliver of a historical question is difficult (and I say this as a database programmer, not a Luddite).

  5. Ann, don’t you remember that we decided a long time ago that we did not have the same parents, nor even a similar childhood.

  6. I’m sure that’s worth exploring and I’m not the one to do it. Grimm’s original stories give me the raving creeps.

  7. If the simple reporting of an event immediately after it happened commonly produces a myriad of accounts, I’m not sure how anyone could assert that writing history is anything more than a vague stab at a consolidated, guided narrative.
    History as a “science” is based on the optimism that the “Wisdom of Crowds” theory is correct (where a specific weight-guess of a State Fair pig might be wildly off, the collected guesses of thousands of people curiously vary in a bell-curve of results, such that the average can be surprisingly accurate), hoping that the chronological ‘distance’ from the subject allows at least some objectivity* and the educated review of multiple sources allows some sort of accuracy in the ‘average’ revealed course of events.
    *actual historians might have laughed aloud here, knowing that among the field, personal bias is undimmed by time; you only have to listen to any number of persistent, bitter, personal arguments over what normal people would call historical trivia.

  8. I was brought up in a family of historians, and the consensus seemed to be that a) history is one of the primary disciplines of knowledge, in its role of providing evidence for everything else (e.g. ‘natural history’); b) history is the observation and recording (whether oral/aural, written or graphic) of events, formed into a narrative that is structured mainly in time but also in space; c) history isn’t a science because while it can offer information for a prediction, by itself it has no predictive or extrapolative function. You study economic history to support an economic ‘science’, social history for evidence to support sociology, natural history for evidence to support natural sciences, and so on. A history and a philosophy will give you a science of some sort. The third of the primary disciplines is art.

  9. Hi there. I’m not really happy with the kind of “narrativist reductionism” presented here which reduces the historiographic endeavor to its textual form of presentation.

    The positions of postmodernism-narrativism on the one hand and (quantitative) positivism on the other hand are not the only exclusive ways to practice history. There is also, for example, the broad and diverse field of comparative history, including historical sociology and branches of social history (like the German Gesellschaftsgeschichte) which do not produce narratives but rather present the results of their research/analysis in the form of a “historical argumentation”. Comparative history (like other branches of history as well) is concerned with establishing hypotheses about causal relations and in this way is pursuing scientific goals (answering “why”-questions is actually THE goal of science since Aristotle). Its methods are systematic comparison, explicit concept formation and limited generalization about causalities. The result is neither just “writing a story” nor mimicking the quantitative sciences.

    The philosophical (!) problems of bias, objectivity and narrative form do not render the field of historiography unscientific, since they are inherent to all sciences. What matters are methodological standards like clarity of style, explicitness of definitions, transparency of method, empirical evidence-based demonstration, logic of argumentation etc.

    When someone says something like “history is not a science in any form and should not be mistaken for one” they are – in a kind of reversed scientism – setting the bar for “science” so high that (almost) no discipline will be able to reach it, including many (all?) of the natural sciences. Karl Popper once wrote about this issue:

    „all those historians and philosophers of history who insist on the gulf between history and the natural sciences have a radically mistaken idea of the natural sciences. They are not to be blamed for this: it is an idea fostered by the natural scientists themselves (and by positivist philosophers of science), and therefore, understandably enough, almost universally accepted. […] these “scientistic” tendencies are in fact attempts to emulate what most people mistakenly believe to be the methods of the natural sciences, rather than the actual methods of the natural sciences. […] In both we start from myths – from traditional prejudices, beset with error – and from these we proceed by criticism: by the critical elimination of errors. In both the role of evidence is, in the main, to correct our mistakes, our prejudices, our tentative theories – that is, to play a part in the critical discussion, in the elimination of error. By correcting our mistakes, we raise new problems. And in order to solve these problems, we invent conjectures, that is, tentative theories, which we submit to critical discussion, directed towards the elimination of error.“ (The Myth of the Framework)

  10. Thank you for all your opinions. I am still processing them, but I get the impression that history is people writing stories about other peoples’ stories, but I had better confess that as a scientist, I feel that “scientific” is something that the pursuit of knowledge should aspire to.

  11. Try reading neuroscience, in particular Sam Kean. A good read and a totally different point of view on this discussion.

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