Aug 10, 2008
C. Behan McCullagh’s “Bias in Historical Description, Interpretation and Explanation” is an attempt to defend the practice of history from the postmodern critique that cultural narratives lack any privileged or objective reference that might separate them from other forms of opinion, fiction or propaganda. In the process McCullagh attempts to clarify the problems and sources of historical bias as well as advocating a practice for eliminating it whenever possible.
McCullagh begins by differentiating bias—which is the result of conscious or unconscious interests or motivations—from error—which is the result of mistakes or oversight. Bias can happen when the interests or motivations of an individual, class or an entire culture effect an historical description. This can occur through the misinterpretation of evidence (inference), unfair or unbalanced omission of certain facts (description), implying facts known to be false (interpretation) or the lack of relevant or important causal connections (explanation). As history should be a fair and honest account of its subject, bias is intrinsically bad; but it also leads to bad results. Biased accounts can create injustice as well as misunderstandings about the structure and processes of their subject leading to inappropriate strategies for responding to or changing them.
McCullagh outlines three common reasons for claiming that bias is unavoidable in historical narratives: 1) Personal Bias. An historian’s interests influence his choice with regard to subject, evidence and presentation. 2) Bias in Sources. An historian’s account is based upon evidence but there is no objective information for a historian to use therefore his account must also be biased. 3) Cultural Bias. Historians are products of their culture, incorporating its language, beliefs and concerns. They cannot step outside of their culture to create a fair and unbiased description of the past.
There has traditionally been three ways to respond to personal bias in history. The first states outright that history reflects the interests of those that write it. No more can be said. This is the end of history as a discipline. A second response claims that while historians can be critical in their treatment of evidence, their interests will draw them to use particular sources which will jeopardize the fairness of their results. As no representation can ever be complete, the partial nature of historical accounts leads to an inherent bias. A third reaction tries to minimize the historian’s bias by presenting sources from a variety of perspectives and limiting the historian’s interpretation of those sources.
McCullagh is unsatisfied with these reactions. He believes that historians can overcome, their personal biases, not by detachment as advocated by Thomas Haskell, but “to be committed to a certain way of thinking.” This commitment to standards of rational inquiry and assessment applied to historical investigation can overcome the desire to serve individual or class interests. He also argues that multiple perspectives cannot solve the problem of bias because the purpose of the historian is not to collect sources and evidence but to understand and explain those sources.
With regard to the inherent bias in sources McCullagh argues that historians have long been aware that their sources are not objective. Misleading and biased evidence does not necessarily have to be a source of error but is itself another form of data that informs the careful historian’s understanding.
The problem of cultural bias is much more difficult. McCullagh admits that some degree of cultural relativism is unavoidable. Any culture’s understanding of the entire natural and social world is incomplete and each culture will bring certain preoccupations and concerns to their understanding of the past. Cultural bias on the other hand is the failure to take account of available evidence motivated by cultural rather than personal interests. This kind of bias will be widespread within the culture and very hard to overcome.
While he does not fully counter all the details of the postmodern critique of history, McCullagh does build an inspiring case for the commitment to standards of rational inquiry and assessment applied to historical investigation. These standards could improve the value of historical research though eliminating most individual and class bias, and possibly limit some of the more extreme effects of cultural bias.