The Structure of Description: Elements of and Criteria for Evaluating Historical Analysis
41 Pages Posted: 1 Sep 2014
Date Written: 2014
The central goal of description is to explore - that is to establish when, what, how and where something happened - and thereby prepare the groundwork explaining of why it happened. While social science methodology readily acknowledges this division of labor, it treats description as something without much structure that therefore cannot be as systematically evaluated as an explanation. This paper challenges this assumption by showing that description has a distinct structure that consists of five distinct elements: finding and recording of facts, selecting evidence, scaling, and reordering time and space. And given this structure, the quality of description can be evaluated just as systematically as the quality of explanations. The paper illustrates the elements of description and the criteria for its evaluation by drawing on the Goldhagen and Browning controversy from the late 1990s on what motivated ordinary Germans to participate in the Holocaust. This controversy is helpful because both scholars explored the very same documents but ended with very different analyses. The subsequent broader scholarly debate contained many interesting insights into the structure as well as quality of description that has broader implications for social science. In explicating these implications more fully, it is hoped that description will receive more systematic attention and will improve the development of testable hypotheses.
Keywords: Description, Evidence, Holocaust, Goldhagen, Browning
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