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Uses of History in Decision-Making
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General Historiography
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General Historiography

Historiography is the study of historical methods. This short and rather subjective list covers some new and some classic works about how the discipline of history in general should and should not be practiced. One strong theme throughout all these works is that history is more than simply “telling what happened” or knowing lots of factual details. Historians undergo specific undergraduate and graduate training to enable them to analyze events and people in ways that will be useful to lay readers, as well as other historians.

Allison, Graham, and Philip Zelikow, Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Addison Wesley Longman, second edition 1999). Originally published in 1971 with only the first author, this book was not intended as a historiographical work per se, but it is very useful nonetheless as an example of thinking about a single historical event or episode in multiple ways. The authors of this classic political science book set up three “models” which function as paradigms or historical lenses: rational actor, organizational behavior, and governmental politics. While the analytical cuts between the different models are sometimes too fine to be fully understandable to the lay reader, this is an excellent introduction on how to use different, yet potentially valuable, ways to make sense of historical events.

Carr, Edward Hallett, What Is History? (New York: Random House, 1990). This short paperback book is a collection of talks that Carr gave in 1961. A significant work in its own right, many other historiographical works refer to and build upon Carr’s ideas. Carr gives us many pithy or notable quotes such as “a fact is like a sack—it won’t stand up till you’ve put something in it” (p. 9) and the idea that one of Darwin’s major contributions was that he “brought history into science” (p. 71). More importantly, he issues a clarion call for historians to strive for the objective parsing of information to provide a useful analysis of such issues as causality.

Fischer, David Hackett, Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought (New York: Harper Collins, 1970). In only approximately 300 pages, Fischer surveys an immense amount of background historical literature to point out a comprehensive variety of analytical errors that many, if not most, historians commit. Fischer points out specific examples of faulty or sloppy reasoning in the work of even the most prominent historians, making it a useful book for beginning students of history. While this book presumably did not make Fischer popular with many of his peers, it should be noted that his contributions as a historian have not been limited simply to criticizing the work of others; since 1976, he has published a number of well-received books on other historical topics.

Gaddis, John Lewis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002). Gaddis addresses the debate over whether history is a social science or a humanity, and he ultimately concludes that it is somewhat different altogether. He flips the question “Is history a science?” on its head by noting that one of his students suggested that we should think about which natural sciences are the most historical (p. 43). He also notes that “historians are in a good position to serve as a bridge between the natural sciences . . . and the social sciences” (p. 89). While readers may disagree with many of his positions, Gaddis builds upon classic works such as Carr’s What Is History? and Marc Bloch’s The Historian’s Craft (New York: Random House, 1953) to hone his arguments carefully. He also addresses contemporary trends in history, such as counterfactualism and postmodernism. Gaddis is a good writer
who expresses his interesting insights clearly.

Graham, Otis L., Jr., “The Uses and Misuses of History: Roles in Policymaking,” The Public Historian, vol. 5, no. 2 (spring 1983). This journal article makes the case that decision makers inevitably use history, often without realizing it. Thus, rather than looking for pat formulas or models, decision makers would benefit from becoming familiar with historians’ typical thought patterns. Chapter 11, “Using and Misusing History” in Graham’s book Losing Time: The Industrial Policy Debate (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992) sounds similar themes.

Neustadt, Richard, and Ernest May, Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision Makers (New York: Free Press, 1986). This book should be among the first works that someone who is new to history should read in order to understand its utility, as the subtitle notes. Neustadt and May are two highly respected Harvard University professors who developed a course to help busy corporate executives and government managers realize how history can help them in very practical ways. Like Graham, they believe that virtually everyone uses history to make decisions, but most people do so subconsciously. While some of the chapters of this book may seem to be bogged down with excessive examples, the overall advice they give about such things as how to parse out similarities and differences and how to think in “streams of time” is outstanding. The information contained in this folder, “Uses of History in Decision-Making,” was derived from this book.

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