Thursday, May 24, 2012


Quotable: Historians & Deconstruction

... historians don't just reconstruct the past from documents. They also deconstruct narratives of the past. Deconstruction is a term that often sounds like some sort of trendy, high-theory concept of little practical use. In fact, however, deconstruction is a way of getting at truths beyond the obvious, and is therefore highly useful in expanding the range of information we can extract out of documents, images, and other sources from the past.

Most sources contain intentional messages. That is to say, they were produced by some person or persons for the purpose of conveying information to an audience. Oral, written, and visual sources can all contain intentional messages. ... Often, the meaning is open to debate ... Nevertheless it is clear that there are intentional messages ... We call the practice of seeking to understand the information or messages that the authors of the text wanted to convey to their audience reading with the grain. ...

However, texts also contain messages that their authors did not intend to convey to their audience. Often these messages are a set of assumptions. ... By definition, these assumptions are not explicitly stated in the text because they are assumed by the author to be universal truths that anyone (or at least the audience) would immediately recognize.

It is necessary, therefore, to read against the grain--or to deconstruct our sources--in order to gain access to the assumptions. The practice of deconstruction generally involves a series of steps. The first of these is to establish the origins, author, and other evidentiary issues about the text and to read it with the grain. It is especially important to know as much as possible about the author--his or her status in society, life experiences, political and cultural outlook, and so forth.This is because the assumptions we are looking for are usually generated communally and shared among a group. ...

The next step in deconstruction requires the researcher to search for assumptions and figurative language--metaphors, similes, stereotypes, and the like. Often, it is useful to look at a range of documents as a way of identifying language that is commonly used by many people in the same society or social group. At the same time, it is important to read the document closely to see where explanations end and assumptions begin--in other words, to search out the points that the author assumes need no explanation.

     Source: Trevor R. Getz and Liz Clarke. Abina and the Important Men: A Graphic History (New York: Oxford UP,
     2012) pp. 126-127.

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