AHA Historians' Standards of Professional Conduct

I've been concerned about the work of historians who address the history of the Restoration. This includes both faithful and critical historians. I continue to see historians who quote/cite references that support their own interpretations without quoting/citing references that contradict their own interpretations.

I also see both sides expressing hostility toward new ideas and interpretations.

On this blog I've given a few examples, and we'll discuss more in the future.

About the only exception to this that I'm aware of is Richard Bushman, who is candid, open, and continually inquisitive about history.

I'm including these excerpts from the Standards of Professional Conduct from the American Historical Association as a useful reminder, all in the hope that in the pursuit of clarity, charity and understanding, we will all improve our work. [I added some bold type, but some is bold in the original.]



This Statement on Standards of Professional Conduct addresses dilemmas and concerns about the practice of history that historians have regularly brought to the American Historical Association seeking guidance and counsel....

1. The Profession of History

History is the never-ending process whereby people seek to understand the past and its many meanings. The institutional and intellectual forms of history’s dialogue with the past have changed enormously over time, but the dialogue itself has been part of the human experience for millennia. We all interpret and narrate the past, which is to say that we all participate in making history. It is among our most fundamental tools for understanding ourselves and the world around us.

Professional historians benefit enormously from this shared human fascination for the past. Few fields are more accessible or engaging to members of the public. Individuals from all backgrounds have a stake in how the past is interpreted, for it cuts to the very heart of their identities and world views. This is why history can evoke such passion and controversy in the public realm. All manner of people can and do produce good history. Professional historians are wise to remember that they will never have a monopoly on their own discipline, and that this is much more a strength than a weakness. The openness of the discipline is among its most attractive features, perennially renewing it and making it relevant to new constituencies.

What, then, distinguishes a professional historian from everyone else? Membership in this profession is defined by self-conscious identification with a community of historians who are collectively engaged in investigating and interpreting the past as a matter of disciplined learned practice.


2. Shared Values of Historians

Historians strive constantly to improve our collective and diverse understanding of the past through a complex process of critical dialoguewith each other, with the wider public, and with the historical record—in which we explore former lives and diverse worlds in search of answers to the most compelling questions of our own time and place. Incorporating multiple schools of history and hitherto underrepresented points of view is critical to ensuring the integrity of our scholarship and historical practice.

Historians cannot successfully do this work without mutual trust and respect. By practicing their craft with integrity, historians acquire a reputation for trustworthiness that is arguably their single most precious professional asset. The trust and respect both of one’s peers and of the public at large are among the greatest and most hard-won achievements that any historian can attain. It is foolish indeed to put them at risk.

Although historians disagree with each other about many things, they do know what they trust and respect in each other’s work. All historians believe in honoring the integrity of the historical record. They do not fabricate evidence. 

... This distinction between primary and secondary sources is among the most fundamental that historians make. Drawing the boundary between them is a good deal more complicated than it might seem, since determining whether a document is primary or secondary largely depends on the questions one asks of it. At the most basic level, though, the professional practice of history means respecting the integrity of primary and secondary sources while subjecting them to critical scrutiny and contributing in a fair-minded way to ongoing scholarly and public debates over what those sources tell us about the past and also what they fail to illuminate.


Among the core principles of the historical profession that can seem counterintuitive to non-historians is the conviction, very widely if not universally shared among historians since the 19th century, that practicing history with integrity does not mean having no point of view. Every work of history articulates a particular, limited perspective on the past. Historians hold this view not because they believe that all interpretations are equally valid, or that nothing can ever be known about the past, or that facts do not matter. Quite the contrary. History would be pointless if such claims were true, since its most basic premise is that within certain limits we can indeed know and make sense of past worlds and former times that now exist only as remembered traces in the present. But the very nature of our discipline means that historians also understand that all knowledge is situated in time and place, that all interpretations express a point of view, and that no mortal mind can ever aspire to omniscience. Because the record of the past is so fragmentary, absolute historical knowledge is denied us.

Furthermore, the different peoples whose past lives we seek to understand held views of their lives that were often very different from each other—and from our own. Doing justice to those views means to some extent trying (never wholly successfully) to see their worlds through their eyes. This is especially true when people in the past disagreed or came into conflict with each other, since any adequate understanding of their world must somehow encompass their disagreements and competing points of view within a broader context. Multiple, conflicting perspectives are among the truths of history. Everyone who comes to the study of history brings with them a host of identities, experiences, and interests that cannot help but affect the questions they ask of the past and the sources they consult to answer those questions. No single objective or universal account could ever put an end to this endless creative dialogue within and between the past and the present.

For this reason, historians often disagree and argue with each other. That historians can sometimes differ quite vehemently not just about interpretations but even about the basic facts of what happened in the past is sometimes troubling to non-historians, especially if they imagine that history consists of a universally agreed-upon accounting of stable facts and known certainties. But universal agreement is not a condition to which historians typically aspire. Instead, we understand that interpretive disagreements are vital to the creative ferment of our profession, and can in fact contribute to some of our most original and valuable insights.

Disagreements and uncertainties enrich our discipline and are the source of its liveliness and its scholarly improvement. In contesting each other’s interpretations, professional historians recognize that the resulting disagreements can deepen and enrich historical understanding by generating new questions, new arguments, and new lines of investigation. This crucial insight underpins some of the most important shared values that define the professional conduct of historians. They believe in vigorous debate, but they also believe in civility. They rely on their own perspectives as they probe the past for meaning, but they also subject those perspectives to critical scrutiny by testing them against the views of others.

Historians celebrate intellectual communities governed by mutual respect and constructive criticism. The preeminent value of such communities is reasoned discourse—the continuous colloquy among historians holding diverse points of view who learn from each other as they pursue topics of mutual interest. A commitment to such discourse—balancing fair and honest criticism with openness to different ideas—makes possible the fruitful exchange of views, opinions, and knowledge wherever those exchanges take place, from scholarly books and articles to social media and face-to-face encounters. At the same time, it's important to bear in mind that unmediated platforms, are perhaps more likely to generate conflict, often through misunderstanding. The AHA encourages communication that maintains the principles of mutual respect and constructive criticism.

A great many dilemmas associated with the professional practice of history can be resolved by returning to the core values that the preceding paragraphs have sought to sketch. Historians should practice their craft with integrity. They should honor the historical record. They should document their sources. They should acknowledge their debts to the work of other scholars. They should respect and welcome divergent points of view even as they argue and subject those views to critical scrutiny. They should remember that our collective enterprise depends on mutual trust. And they should never betray that trust.


Professional integrity in the practice of history requires awareness of one’s own biases and a readiness to follow sound method and analysis wherever they may lead. Historians should document their findings and be prepared to make available their sources, evidence, and data, including any documentation they develop through interviews. Historians should not misrepresent their sources. They should report their findings as accurately as possible and not omit evidence that runs counter to their own interpretation. They should not commit plagiarism. They should oppose false or erroneous use of evidence, along with any efforts to ignore or conceal such false or erroneous use.

Historians should acknowledge the receipt of any financial support, sponsorship, or unique privileges (including special access to research material) related to their research, especially when such privileges could bias their research findings. They should always acknowledge assistance received from colleagues, students, research assistants, and others, and give due credit to collaborators.

Historians should work to preserve the historical record, and support institutions that perform this crucial service. Historians favor free, open, equal, and nondiscriminatory access to archival, library, and museum collections wherever possible. They should be careful to avoid any actions that might prejudice access for future historians. Although they recognize the legitimacy of restricting access to some sources for national security, proprietary, and privacy reasons, they have a professional interest in opposing unnecessary restrictions whenever appropriate.


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