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Exploring History Like a “Cold Case” Detective

Great historians work, in many ways, like skilled detectives.

You are making sense of events from the past, using a wide assortment of specific clues, background information, intuition, balanced judgment, perceptions--and caring. You’ll complete a lot of unglamorous, detailed work before you have the opportunity to make a successful “arrest” or write a fascinating story.

Still, the “chase” for those details will take you into territory and fascinating events and images. And, whatever you gather and learn will be very important for the next historian, the next detective.

To be a skilled detective and a good historian:

  1. You need patience.
  2. You need to be willing to hunt, record data, hunt some more, measure, photograph, analyze.
  3. Write everything down. Keep detailed notes. You can never use information that you had fleetingly and then lost.
  4. Talk with anyone who might know anything about the event or crime.
  5. Look at lists and bills and background information.
  6. You dare not muddle up clues.
  7. You can’t leap to conclusions. You can’t “convict” in your mind.
  8. You can’t assume that the way things work today is the way they worked ten months or ten years or 80 years ago.

And, where you come out at the end of all your investigations may not be where you thought you’d finish. You may have reached an unanticipated conclusion. You may have no resolution of issues.

That’s not failure. That’s still great and honest investigation. In fact, leaving mysteries for the next generation of detectives or historians makes its own compelling story.

Where ever you end up, you will have helped the next detective, the next historian—who may just stumble across a piece of information or evidence that you could never have found. Your files and your findings will preserve information and, in some cases, documents or materials that may be lost before the next historian or detective works on the case.

Why being a historian is even more interesting than being a detective:

Detectives solve specific crimes.

Historians, on the other hand, help others understand not just who did it, but why.

The “why” that historians pursue leads to understandings that have the potential to help people and communities and countries do things differently the next time. You are contributing to the ongoing process of understanding of a person, a place, an era, or a set of circumstances. You’ll never know how the next person can build not just on the information you’ve gathered, but on your analysis.

Some Strategies To Try

Start with the questions.

You won’t do this process just once.  You’ll do this in a series of waves because each time you learn something new, you’ll see additional pieces of information to reach for, to fine.

Keep working on context.

Context equals circumstances, the scene, the historical setting, the times--everything else in business, society, economics, weather, population, education--that surrounds the story or event or crime you’re pursuing.

Context alone won’t answer the question of “who did it.”

But understanding context will help you ask the right questions--and even more important--keep you from making inaccurate assumptions.

There are lots of great questions to ask about context:

How did people travel at the time of the crime? How long did it take them to go 20 miles? What roles did women and minorities play in society then? How much education did people have? How were most people employed--or were they? Who’s politically powerful?  Why? What did people eat?  What were homes like? How did people write letters (typewriter, pen, computer)? What were representative wages--the wages of the time? What did goods cost? What did people want in their lives?

Organizing your time.

No historian or detective has endless time. So, you have to choose the most likely sources of good information---and put less emphasis or time on less likely possibilities.

You prioritize by solvability factors,--[Gregg] McCrary says [former member of the FBI Behavioral Analysis Unit]--such as having a suspect or availability witnesses, or a relationships that was intact at the time that has since broke up. In some cases, new technologies can move a case up the solvability scale. Or you may try something that wasn’t utilized in the original investigation, such a profiling or linkage analysis.

Lay it all out--organizing and analyzing what you know.

Think about those TV series bulletin boards and squads rooms. Photos, maps, and information on sticky notes get put up where folks can analyze all that information visually.  And everyone pitches in what he or she knows. That’s where you see patterns and analyze and hypothesize.

Posted by on 02/09 at 03:43 PM






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