McCullagh, C. Behan. “Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation, and Explanation.” History & Theory 39.1 (2000): 39. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 3 Aug. 2011.
History is made by those who write it, so it is unsurprising that bias is present in historical descriptions, interpretations, and explanations. However, few people realize the extent and severity of the bias commonly showed in historical texts, and avoiding cultural bias is often difficult to identify- much less correct.
Because historians must draw conclusions from incomplete or conflicting evidence, drawing inferences is essential to their processes. However, McCullagh warns that historians often misinterpret, unfairly compile or omit facts, misrepresent, or simplify the cause-and-effect process. A brief summary description can fairly represent the gist of the historical essence of a person or event. Accounts which are written from a specific perspective (feminist, nationalist, religious, scientific, artistic) are more likely to uncover more relevant evidence in that area but also to overestimate the importance of such evidence. In these areas, no objective standard of what is correct. More than “not…misleading”, McCullagh claims that today’s readers require clearer historical description, because they do not possess the former centuries’ cultural familiarity with history .
When more than one credible account exists, historians may need to analyze the body of evidence and either integrate them or support the account which is supported most by the evidence or which is most probable. According to McCullagh, this larger interpretation of meaning from integrated accounts must clearly define the larger concept in a way which encompasses many of the telling facts. Causal explanations must- however briefly- follow history from the root cause to conclusion with the level of detail being indicative of the complexity or significance of the course of events. While several factors were significant contributors to North-South tension, McCullagh asks which sparked the conflict and what underlying principles drove men to fight and die on both sides. Rather than dividing broad movements into either/or categories, interpretations combine credible facts in a wider view.
McCullagh deplores bias, writing that biased histories result in mislead and often result in injustice and in perceptual inaccuracies which inspire faulty strategies. Oppressed groups are often underrepresented in histories; however, McCullagh cautions historians and readers that their suffering does not make their cause just or their accounts complete. Historians are influenced by their experiences and interests. Nonetheless, the recording of bias is not unavoidable, and this bias does not denote the end of critical history, can be personal, accurate, and fair, and can draw from the words of others to express their perspective and the biases which existed during an age- regardless of their factuality. McCullagh does recommend that historians detach themselves from the subject at hand, decreasing the personal bias which influences the selection and representation of facts.
No history is objective—facts are, but history is not. Historians are people with a diverse body of interests, and their personal bias is unavoidable. McCullagh claims that personal bias is not as harmful as cultural bias, but the result is still a taste of the same bitter effects. As such, the minimalization of all bias should be the historians’ objective. McCullagh’s arguments are sound but repetitive, circling around the same elements for each of the elements of historical description, interpretation, and explanation.