U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The role of bias in historical writing

Are your students enamored of bias? My students are. Everything that might be complicated about a historical source is traced to “bias”–why is an autobiography a troubling source? Because it’s hard to separate bias from fact. Why is a novel a difficult source? Because it’s hard to separate fact from opinion.

I’m having the students read a challenging tome entitled Reading Primary Sources: The Interpretation of Texts from Nineteenth- and Twentieth-century History.  It is challenging because most of the authors depend upon post-modern theory for their suggestions on how to interpret primary sources. I think the students, if they are unsure what the text is saying, depend upon prior understanding and that screams to look for bias!

This is bugging me for two reasons.
One is that I just read “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” (see my post about it here) and one of the first myths is “historians use a ‘sourcing heuristic’ to evaluate bias and reliability.” The author, Keith Barton, quotes Sean Lang, that “historians do not ask ‘Is this source biased?’ (which suggests the possibility of unbiased sources), but rather ‘What is this source’s bias, and how does it add to our picture of the past?'” In Reading Primary Sources, the editors, Benjamin Ziemann and Miriam Dobson, argue that the concept of bias “should be scrapped because it is impossible to get round the structural patterns and material elements of texts which every source genre imposes in a different way. Rather than trying to unearth the hidden but distorted meaning the author has invested in a text, historians should aim to focus on the specific mediality and the inherent structure which are provided by every genre of text.”

The second reason it bugs me is because it feels like a parroted response rather than a thought-through one.

I think that this love of “bias” arises from students’ discomfort with relativism and the possibility that we cannot know the full and complete “truth” through historical inquiry. I think it also arises because it is easily grasped–look in a source for bias and if you find it, throw it out.

I was very proud of one of my students on Monday, though. He was part of a group presenting on Benjamin Roth’s The Great Depression: A Diary and one of his classmates asked if Roth was such a biased Republican whether the diary was worthwhile as a source. The student answered that it depended on what question was being asked of the source (yay! that was the point for the day!). His groupmates immediately replied that, in addition, it was a worthwhile source because there was a lot of objective facts in the diary that could be separated from Roth’s bias (sigh).

What do you think is the role of bias in historical writing? How do your students think about it? And is it ok to write about one’s current students in a public blog post?

13 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Lauren, I was just pondering this very subject yesterday. The latest issue of _Historically Speaking_ carries a piece by Christopher Shannon that touches on this issue — though it is less about “bias in sources” than “bias in historians.” But I think it’s pertinent to the questions you’ve raised. And, as an added bonus, in this essay the USIH blog gets a nod, as does…wait for it…Daniel Rodgers’s _Age of Fracture_.


    As you’ll see, the essay is a rejoinder to David Stone’s critique of Shannon’s earlier essay, “From History to Traditions” (_Historically Speaking_, vol. 12, no. 1, Jan 2011, pp. 10-13). There was a thread on the original Shannon essay at USIH in late Jan or early Feb.

  2. There is a big difference between assessing reliability and assessing bias. One could make the case that every source has some bias so that becomes a meaningless measure of reliability.

    Some of my students have picked this habit up from their parents and their love of cable news programs; whenever a document or data set does not say what they want it to say they question the source or author. This is a similar approach they have to grades. If they do not get the grade they want they question claim the professor does not like them or question the grading rubric.

    There is a culture of searching for the result you want not for the best result or the most accurate result. We have brought this on ourselves to some degree as academics in that we have been at the forefront of the idea that everything is relative, that there are not correct answers as much as answers in the context of the moment. While that works in scholarship it can be impractical in everyday life. No one wants people to approach rush hour driving as a relativist.

  3. Sources lie, but they’re all we have. – me.

    I have trouble embracing the fully postmodern position that trying to determine what actually happened doesn’t matter, though the postmodern approach can be a powerful tool for intellectual/cultural history. That said, bias is a blunt instrument as an analytical tool; or rather, bias is a conclusion, not a primary category, which we might come to from an analysis of other sources, authorship, intent, etc.

  4. @Anonymous 8:52, If I read him correctly, Walter Benn Michaels seems to argue that interpretations/theories built on subject position rather than authorial intent, whether that’s deconstructionism, reader response, or what have you, don’t actually work in scholarship. Moreover, I doubt they actually exist in scholarship — which is, I think, Shannon’s point, though he makes it as a historian (and though Michaels, I think, has a bone to pick with some aspects of historical thinking).

    Sorry to drag lit theory into a discussion among historians, but I am looking at the history of lit theory now, so it seems pertinent (to me!).

    But back to history…

    An understanding of the epistemic commitments that underlie a particular source — an exploration of its “bias,” or the way it reveals the bias of the author — seems to me to be an important piece of evidence to consider when making claims about the past.

    You hit the nail on the head here: “One could make the case that every source has some bias so that becomes a meaningless measure of reliability.” Bias is just one more feature to be analyzed.

  5. LD –

    But all of what you say has meaning to us, not to the typical undergraduate and I suspect that is what Lauren is frustrated with. They use bias as a way to end discussion or to turn off their minds to ideas that do not support their opinions. They push bias to the front of the argument so they don’t have to go any deeper.

  6. Jonathan,

    I agree that there is an endpoint to postmodern theory and that as historians we need to figure out “what actually happened.” But for my students, I want them to realize that the answer to that question depends greatly upon the quality of the questions they ask. And if all they ask is “is this source biased,” they tend to throw out too many sources and don’t catch nuance. There are many more ways to ask questions of sources than that–even “what can we learn from the bias” is better.

  7. hmmm. this is interesting. i’m not sure what your student population is like, but where I am teaching, one of my big goals, especially in lower level classes, is to introduce the idea of “bias.” I find this especially necessary when it comes to Presidents, Founders and other dead white men…

  8. When discussing the presence of bias to my students (high school) it is used primarily for the purpose of explaining to them the reality of the always present bias. When your student responded to the question with, “It all depends on the question being asked”, those are the issues being discussed when analyzing primary sources.

    In document based questions, students learn the skill of developing arguments based on a clump of documents, to which they could argue in numerous directions. Overall, I am in agreement that this is a necessary analysis that needs to take place when first studying a source; bias can work towards strengthening a research paper but can also severely hinder credibility, depending on the level of bias.

  9. I tend to shift discussions of “bias” to discussions of “point of view.” Like others in this thread, I don’t think that means we should abandon a commitment to “what actually happened” / “wie es eigentlich gewesen.” But there are plenty of reasons why primary sources (especially individual primary sources) might not be able to tell us “what actually happened” unaided by other information, and “bias” is only one of them.

    And the problem with the word “bias” is that it is (quite intentionally when my students use it) a pejorative. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I think there’s a tendency in our culture these days to look for excuses not to listen to people who disagree with us (in part because we’re so flooded with competing voices in our lives). Thinking in terms of “point of view” encourages students to take voices from the past more seriously. Though it’s important not to rest on a kind of vulgar postmodernism (which some of my students also have) that claims that all points of view are equally valid.

  10. Out bias as a historian is a stack of evidence to “prove” the result. If the result of prejudice arising from the control ol ‘”accident”, so the account is not biased, unfounded. In essence, the historical trend occurs only after a historic reasons.

  11. I agree that using the “biased” card is often a means to avoid actually answering a question or using their minds. However, during my teaching career, (7-12 graders) I used this answer to empower the student to look at the source and use his or her own critical thinking skills to find the answer. As it turned out, the students had little tools in their critical thinking arsenal. I see these types of situations as “teachable moments” where you are able to have a real lesson on what is actually biased, what is relative, and how to tell the difference. Too often as educators we assume that students understand concepts and then are taken aback once we realize that they have advanced so far without really seeing the world around them.

    I think you are correct in teaching your students that bias does not automatically mean that you throw out the entire source. Instead of throwing out the source, you should teach them how to ask questions that look past these issues to find the key nuggets you find important. So much of teaching at the higher levels is erasing the habits that the students have accumulated over the years.

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