Operations in Historiography (Preliminary, Analytical & Synthetic)

Historical research methodology, developed by Niebuhr (1892-1971 AD) and Ranke (1795-1866 AD) and followed ever since, may be divided into four main parts.

They are Preliminary Operations, Analytical Operations, Synthetic Operations, and Concluding Operations.

1) Preliminary Operations

Preliminary operation is a course of brief overview about the research design that is intended to cover the basics implementing and designing an objective cum scientific research.

1.1) The Selection of a Subject

The scholar must find the "topic" interesting and he must feel that something worthwhile and original could be said about it and see that not much has been said about it already.

Then he must decide the specific aspect of history he is particularly interested in.

The scholar should have a rough idea of the nature and scope of the topic.

The size of the topic is crucially important, a subject like the "Indian National Movement" or "Christianity in India" is far too vast and vague to handle.

1.2) Bibliography

Once the topic is selected, it is important for the scholar to know the range and types of sources available and to learn what has been written in and around the topic.

Bibliographies will list both "secondary" and "primary" sources.

A high quality of bibliography will not only help the scholar to understand what kinds of sources are available, but also what kinds of sources are not available (either because they were never preserved, or because they were never created in the first place).

Bibliography work is a continuous work requires "periodical addition".


Historical sources, understood as those giving information on past events and activities or parts thereof, are of a rich variety.

They may be broadly distinguished as "primary" and "secondary".

Primary Sources: A primary source is the evidence of an eye witness or mechanical device which was present at the time of the occurrence of an event.

Secondary Sources: A secondary source is one in which the eyewitness or the participant i.e. the person describing the event was not actually present but who obtained his/her descriptions or narrations from another person or source.

1.3) The preparation of an outline

When the subject has been selected, a rough bibliography prepared, and the primary and secondary sources have been listed and categorized, the scholar should go on to prepare an "outline" of his projected work.

It is to be a framework, a synopsis, a blue-print intended to give a rough idea of the work ahead.

The outline covering the whole subject logically arranged, however, ad-hoc and tentative, open to revision from time to time until the thesis, is completed.

As the scholar proceeds with the study of the sources, he jots down many ideas that occur to him with the type of research in mind: whether exposition, argument, narration or description.

The scholar intending to argue and establish that the great "Indian Revolt of 1857" was essentially a popular movement, or that the "Moplah rebellion of 1921" was not a communal but a peasant outbreak, his research and his notes would be so oriented.

2) Analytical Operations

In historical research, the term "analytical operation" refers to "the analysis and interpretation of various sources".

While approaching a source, a number of questions have to be asked to validate the credibility of the source.

Generally, the following aspects must be considered to analyse a source:

2.1) Origin of the source

This is the first thing to be analysed, the "origin of the source" can be traced by validating its author, and the period of its creation.

This is particularly important if the researcher is dealing with an original source (whether is original or a copy).

This also helps to determine the type of source - primary and secondary.

2.2) Motive behind the source

Every historical source, in one way or another is created with a motive or purpose.

Thus the researcher has to analyse the real purpose behind the creation of the source, this will help to find out the element of "bias" in the source.

2.3) Content of the source

It is very important to analyse what "content" is presented in the source.

It naturally leads to the types of materials used to present the theme.

In the case of a secondary source, the credibility of the content can be assessed through the "citations" and use of primary sources.

2.4) Context of the source

The researcher should place the document in its historical context and enquire the background of the creation of the source.

Where, why, and under what circumstances did the author write the document? How might the circumstances have influenced the content, style, or tone of the document?

2.5) Audience focused

Finding out the source's intended audience is an integral part of source analysis.

Here, the researcher has to find out whether the source is meant for any target group.

If it is a historian, it is likely that the audience is the general public or an academic circle.

If the source is a "diary entry" it is highly likely that the intended audience was either solely to the author or their family.

Considering the audience is very important, as it will also reveal elements of bias that may be present in the source.

2.6) Reliability of the source

For a source to be considered reliable, it must contain accurate historical information.

This means that a source can be written in a completely subjective manner and still be considered reliable, as all facts are accurate.

2.7) Usefulness of the source

In order to concisely answer whether a source is "useful", the researcher should consider the three points:

I) Is the source relevant to what is being asked?
II) Has the source revealed an insight into the question?
III) Is the source reliable in providing the information required to answer the question?

3) Synthetic Operations

In historical research, the term "synthetic operation" refers to "joining, grouping, arranging, explaining and interpreting the data so as to make the narrative meaningful and interesting".

It is a process whereby several ideas are grouped and arranged in a rational and meaningful manner.


Historical facts may be grouped on the basis of chronology, topic, geography, personality, institution, problem and concept, and so on.

Each method has its own merits and demerits.

However, the best system of the grouping of facts is the combination of both the chronological and thematic systems.

1) Chronological Arrangement

Chronology is the very basis of the historical structure, it is the backbone of history.

The chronological arrangement of sources is one of the popular methods of historical narration.

Historians always use broad chronological divisions as ancient, medieval, and modern.

The chronological arrangement put forward a defined sequential organisation of facts.

However, this arrangement often reduces history to a mere list of events.

2) Thematic Arrangement

Historical facts can also be arranged on the basis of the subject or theme.

When facts are arranged on the basis of topics or themes, it becomes thematic.

This arrangement helps the historian to present his facts beyond the chronological boundaries.

Further, this provides more readability to the historical narrations.

The topical arrangement needs the mixing up of several facts together to present the topic.

However, this arrangement often neglects the significant change that had taken place over a period of time.

3) Other Arrangements

Geographical or regional arrangements of facts may be used in the studies on different localities.

Personality based arrangement is useful to present biographical studies.

Similarly, institution-based arrangements can be used to present social and economic problems.

Historical facts can also be grouped on the basis of the development of certain concepts.


Constructive reasoning plays a significant role in the synthetic operation.

In the absence of adequate facts, the reasoning is essential to fill any gaps.

The reasoning may be "positive" or "negative" and is the process through which a historian attempts to draw valid conclusions.

Positive reasoning

Positive reasoning allows historians to draw certain inferences from the facts established.

In this process, historians establish a fact with the support of a document and infer some other facts which the document has not to mention.

From the study of a given set of facts, it is possible to infer the existence of the other connected facts.

Thorough knowledge of particular facts is necessary for positive thinking.

Negative reasoning

In this process, a historian infers a point in the absence of any definite indication of that point in the records.

Negative reasoning is thus an assumption of the existence of a fact, which cannot be found in the records.

It can be assumed that some facts may not be recorded or may be lost over a period of time.

Similarly, certain facts are not recorded by the contemporary writer because of fear of authority.