Academic Guidance Question for Historians: Footnotes and Interpretation of Source

Nov 2015
7
Netherlands
Hi all,

I have a bit of a technical question about constructing narrative while writing as a historian (I guess it also applies to other humanities).

This never really occurred to me as an issue during undergrad and graduate school while writing my thesis, but I have noticed now as I revise my thesis that at times I write sentences that contain both the factual events etc contained in the source I cite in the footnote at the end of the sentence AND my interpretation of the source I cite.

For example, if I describe the relation between Event A and Event B, I might first describe the general context. Then follows Sentence A that describes event A and cites source A describing event A. Then follows sentence B that says: 'In reaction (to event A), Event B happened. That is followed by a footnote that describes event B.

My question about this example is about the two words "In Reaction." The source I cite at the end of sentence B does only describe event B. I derive the connection between the two events and that event B is a reaction to event A from the general context. Thus "In Reaction" is my interpretation of the causality between the two events.

Now if one is really squeamish I guess one could say that by not separating "In Reaction" from Sentence B I mix interpretation and factual evidence and some readers could be misled that the source I cite at the end of sentence B also includes that event B happened in reaction to event A.

The same kind of situation seems to happen at times in my writing when I have a sentence that is built like this: [Interpretation], which [relative clause with factual evidence] [Footnote with evidence for events/facts in relative clause].

My question is whether this style of writing is acceptable at all? It certainly does not occur often in my writing, but it does at times. No one who has read my writing really has ever said anything about this. Although it is hard to check the writing of other historians with regards to this question, as I do not have the sources to check in most cases, I have noticed that other historians do this kind of "mixing" at times as well (Some even seem to simply cite sources at the end of paragraphs that clearly contain both factual statements and interpretation). I also wonder what having to interrupt sentences to clearly separate interpretation and facts 100% all the time would do to the flow of the narrative.

Still this is a concern now and I would like to know what others think. Is this acceptable and I overthink things, is it sloppy writing or is it completely unacceptable?

Thanks for the help (and for reading this long post).

[This is a Crosspost from https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/8cinf0/crosspost_from_raskacademia_question_for/].
 
Mar 2017
878
Colorado
You're asking, I think, "how much interpretation can I add to events?" I honestly don't know what's allowed in the history domain, except that historians do it all the time. I *HAVE* defended a thesis.

Event A: Augustus commits a heinous crime by stealing Marc Antony's will from the Vestals. He takes it home and forges a new will, damaging to Antony, and presents it to the Senate.
Event B: Like the US Congress, the Senate forgets all about the criminality in obtaining the information, ignores possible tampering, and declares war, not on Antony, but on Egypt.

Those two things happened in that sequence. Now, I'm lost on what you're asking.

If I were to say: "A caused B" without any support, my adviser would yell at me.

If I were to say: "Augustus wanted to avoid the taint of yet another Civil War, so he wanted to present it as a war on another country where he would appear to be a savior of Rome ... as opposed to a brawl with another legitimate contender."
My adviser would say: "interesting notion, although not particularly new. How do you defend it?"
You would have to cite previous instances of behavior which supports this hypothesis: previous Senate speeches, previous letters & comments ... things on paper (papyrus). You can't use second source interpretations: you have to use primaries with a nod to secondaries about "how" to interpret.

I'm making these up:
In a letter to his mother, Augustus says: "Holy crap! If I start another Civil War the plebs will riot!"
In a letter to Antony, Augustus says: "Enjoy your frickin' palace and gold plates, moron ... see how you like it when I talk the Senate into declaring war on Egypt!"

Remember you have to DEFEND a thesis. Your committee ... of three? ... have all read your thesis. You stand up for your little presentation, they'll start interrupting you.
"Where did you get that?"
"How do you support that?"
"How do you address histories that describe the event differently?"
"Klaus Von Hufferstuffer looked at exactly this scenario in 1909 and came to a different conclusion ..." <-- This comes from the one committee member you knew would give you trouble. Who the hell is Hufferstuffer?

There's a politician who I really like to hear speak. I won't name him because it will immediately draw lines and make people attack/defend in our current climate. It's his style of defending his views that I like:
"The US Dept of Commerce says 33% of ...."
"The board of economic statistics says ..."
"The crime statistics for 1980-1989 compiled by the national ...."

He never gives a fact without telling you where it came from. This puts him in the position where you can't argue with him. You have to argue with the places that he got the facts from.

Event-A, Event-B: Everybody knows those.

All the space in between, where you're trying to draw causation or some interpretation, you need to be able to support every single statement with a source. It's exactly like a comedian telling a joke: buildup, buildup,buildup ... punchline.


Did I come anywhere near what you're asking? Or were you looking for something else?

An example might make things easier to understand. Make sure it's not a "real" example: schoolwork is prohibited on Historum.
-----
It occurred to me you might be asking something else ... the actual "format" of your thesis. How it looks? Footnotes on each page or at the end?

If it's "should I footnote every citation" the answer is "yes". You're trying to keep committee members from interrupting you. "Hmmm ... he actually read Hufferstuffer."

This is easy. Go to your school library and look at previous theses (probably online) that have been signed off by the committee members. Copy that style.


Personally, I think reviewers look at the total number of citations as a measure of how much work you put into it. One really good reference just isn't as good as a mediocre one plus three more crappy ones.
"Octavian changed his name to Augustus (1,17,33,455)."

It's much better for someone to say "you don't need all those citations ... take out Kumquatphiefer ones, he stiffed me for lunch once" ... rather than the opposite.


Remember, your adviser will help you with this ... but not on concept. He needs to see paper. Write up a couple of pages, then ask him what he thinks. You need to start off right. "More is better." If it's too much, he'll tell you. Save yourself frustration & heartache: do just a couple of pages and run them by him. If he hates it, you haven't lost much.

Damn. I should have STARTED this way. It's more important what your adviser thinks than anyone on this forum. He knows the other committee members.
 
Last edited:
Nov 2015
7
Netherlands
Thanks a lot for the detailed reply.

I should have said that I have already finished my PhD and defended my thesis. My advisor/committee never had a problem with my writing. However, for some reason, while writing my dissertation I never thought about the question asked here. It does not occur often in my writing, but I am still interested in whether this way of writing is okay.

My apologies for my complicated description. Here is an example I have come up with:

"Country A is interested in a particular market, but does not move forward quickly with investing in that market and rather opts to wait for now to see how said market develops. [Footnote 1]. Two other countries suddenly appear as competitors and invest heavily in said market. [Footnote 2]. In reaction, Country A accelerates its investment in said market.[Footnote 3].

Footnote 1 and 2 are primary sources that describe the content of the respective sentence. However, the source provided in Footnote 3 only states that Country A starts to invest heavily in said market at a date after the two new countries become involved. It does not say that Company A does this "in reaction" to the appearance of this new competiton. However, I infer from putting the three sources together in context that this change in behaviour of country A happens "in reaction" to the new competition.

Now I wonder whether such mixing of interpretation and facts from primary sources is okay, especially as this seems to be necessary at times to construct narrative. While it is difficult to check the sources other historians use, I have found that historians at times seem to do such mixing. The reddit forum where I posted this question also seems to suggest this. But I still wanted to know what people here think.
 

Recusant

Ad Honorem
Sep 2009
2,624
Sector N after curfew
Thanks a lot for the detailed reply.

I should have said that I have already finished my PhD and defended my thesis. My advisor/committee never had a problem with my writing. However, for some reason, while writing my dissertation I never thought about the question asked here. It does not occur often in my writing, but I am still interested in whether this way of writing is okay.

My apologies for my complicated description. Here is an example I have come up with:

"Country A is interested in a particular market, but does not move forward quickly with investing in that market and rather opts to wait for now to see how said market develops. [Footnote 1]. Two other countries suddenly appear as competitors and invest heavily in said market. [Footnote 2]. In reaction, Country A accelerates its investment in said market.[Footnote 3].

Footnote 1 and 2 are primary sources that describe the content of the respective sentence. However, the source provided in Footnote 3 only states that Country A starts to invest heavily in said market at a date after the two new countries become involved. It does not say that Company A does this "in reaction" to the appearance of this new competiton. However, I infer from putting the three sources together in context that this change in behaviour of country A happens "in reaction" to the new competition.

Now I wonder whether such mixing of interpretation and facts from primary sources is okay, especially as this seems to be necessary at times to construct narrative. While it is difficult to check the sources other historians use, I have found that historians at times seem to do such mixing. The reddit forum where I posted this question also seems to suggest this. But I still wanted to know what people here think.
If you wished to be perfectly transparent, a minor modification would solve this issue:

"Country A is interested in a particular market, but does not move forward quickly with investing in that market and rather opts to wait for now to see how said market develops. [Footnote 1]. Two other countries suddenly appear as competitors and invest heavily in said market. [Footnote 2]. Country A accelerates its investment in said market,[Footnote 3] apparently in reaction to the moves made by the two other countries."
 
Mar 2017
878
Colorado
If you wished to be perfectly transparent, a minor modification would solve this issue:

"apparently in reaction"
That's a nice hedge.

Sorry I wasted everyone's time when I misunderstood the question.
 
Nov 2015
7
Netherlands
If you wished to be perfectly transparent, a minor modification would solve this issue:

"Country A is interested in a particular market, but does not move forward quickly with investing in that market and rather opts to wait for now to see how said market develops. [Footnote 1]. Two other countries suddenly appear as competitors and invest heavily in said market. [Footnote 2]. Country A accelerates its investment in said market,[Footnote 3] apparently in reaction to the moves made by the two other countries."
Thanks that is very helpful. Yes, I guess this would make it absolutely clear and transparent. But can I ask whether you think this is absolutely necessary? Firstly, I do not see footnotes in the middle of the sentence often in historical writing. In terms of the narrative, it seems somewhat cumbersume (just like strictly separating sentences that are based on sources and sentences that are my interpretation).

Secondly, it appears that other historians do not seem to be so meticulous in their writing. As I said, some even only put a footnote at the end of a paragraph (or even paragraphs), so that there is bound to be some interpretation mixed with actual facts from the sources.

I guess I just want to know whether I do anything incorrect when I construct narrative like this.

That's a nice hedge.

Sorry I wasted everyone's time when I misunderstood the question.
No worries, thanks for taking the time to reply!
 

deaf tuner

Ad Honoris
Oct 2013
15,036
Europix
... I guess I just want to know whether I do anything incorrect when I construct narrative like this. ...
As a lambda reader, I don't mind interpretations, what I dislike is when the demarcation between factual and interpretation is blurred.

As long as the formulation of the phrase/paragraph/chapter makes it clear where's one and where's the other, it's ok for me.

Just a very personal opinion.

... Sorry I wasted everyone's time when I misunderstood the question.
Nah, it was instructive, thus not a waste of time reading it ;)
 

Asherman

Forum Staff
May 2013
3,417
Albuquerque, NM
Red ... take a deep breath, and relax. Your question about how best to separate our thoughts from the documented facts is something we all deal with ... sometimes. For most folks the rigor expected within the Academic Historian community is trifling and nit-picking. You should read what passes as acceptable within the Town. We write to communicate what we have experienced and what we have learned from those experiences. Both are interesting, as most human endeavors are. You see ... terrible grammar, but I hope that my intent is relatively clear. More importantly ...

The site has many more members who are passionate amateurs than it has members with your apparent credentials. What was your specialty, and what do you now teach? I hope you are "fast-tracked" to tenure, and will finally be able to focus on your own interests. I look forward to reading what you've learned in getting that Doctorate.