Evidence and interpretation in historical deconstruction

Essay 2016 5 Pages

History - Miscellaneous



Evidence, considered by Alun Munslow, is the ‘raw material in history industry’s manufacturing process.’[1] The evidence (primary source), is turned into ‘facts’ through the narrative interpretation of historian.[2] Historical deconstruction, by Alun Munslow, is ‘reassessing history at its most basic level.’[3] Historical interpretation is the written explanation of the perceived relationship.[4] The interpreter of source in my context is the ‘Historian’.

The evidence used in writing history, whether it owes its value to the interpreter of source or not, has become a debate among several schools of thought. Since the later parts of the 19th century and stretching into the early part of the 20th century, numerous debates have emerged with regard to the perfect approach with which the past must be visited I shall start briefly with different schools of thought about the relationship between evidence and the interpreter (Historian).

The conservative Reconstructionist argues that truthful meaning can be inferred directly from the primary source without the imposition or whatsoever by the historian.[5] The ‘commonsense’ historian who sees history as purely evidenced based does not entertain the historian re-thinking about his object of study. For example, Elton firmly rejects the idea that history may involve a re-enactment in historian’s mind.[6] History according to stone, Elton and Marwick, deals with the historical concrete, not the speculative construction of social scientist and even less those of deconstructionist philosophers of history and language[7].Elton, like others, is against the Idea that the historian has no power over his evidence, and the historian interfering with the evidence will distort the true nature of the evidence. Hobsbawm also asserts that historians should defend the foundation of their discipline; the supremacy of evidence[8]. He (Hobsbawm) concluded by saying that, when an innocent person is tried for murder and wishes to prove his innocence, what is required is technique not of the ‘postmodern’ theorist, but of the old- fashioned historian.[9]

Constructionist historians are also of the view that when evidence is placed within a pre-existing explanatory frame work that allows the calculation of general rules of human action (social theory), the past can be explained as it happened[10]. They also believe that by imposing explanatory frame work does not diminish human agency, intentionality or choice in the past but rather enriches our understanding of it.[11]

The deconstructive consciousness, as termed by Alun Munslow is that;

the genuine nature of history can be understood only when it is viewed not solely and simply as an objectivized empiricist enterprises ,but as the creations of and eventual imposition by historian of a particular narrative form on the past; a process that directly affects the whole project, not merely the writing up stage.[12]

The deconstructionist argues that history as the narrative interpretation is unavoidably free from ideologies when language describes experience. The French intellectual historian, Michel Foucault, argues that language is homologous to the power relationship creating the social structure. There are two related questions raised by the deconstructionist history about historical evidence and these are, how can we discover the intentionality in the mind behind the source, and how much reliance can we place on the deconstructionist’s contextualization of events as a form of explanation?[13] The British social historian, Patrick Joyce, claimed that there was crisis in the history profession that centered on a threefold consideration, that language constitutes meaning in the social world, again, that the historical object is created by the historian, and finally, our access to the past is only through a text[14]. This calls for the conclusion of the Leading French historian, Roger Chartier, that all text are best viewed as a result of constructed production and reading by the historian.[15]

A stool history of Asankare can help in this discussion. The stool in Asante Akyem Asankare is believed traditionally to be related to the Asante stool through it genealogy. The year to which it was established is unknown. It is believed that, the founder of Asankare Township is the founder of ‘Adweso’ now (Ejisu). One day he was in his court where he saw two men passing, not certain about where they were coming from, he called them in Twi, an akan language in Ghana, ‘me wofaase nom mo mra’, meaning come here my nephews. When they answered to his calling, he decided to use them for rituals. These men were too spiritually powerful for him hence he fled from his court. He was chased by these men until he jumped into a river and disappeared. These two young men return and took over his properties and established their kingdom which is believed to be now Asante kingdom. From there he came to Asankare and established his new kingdom. Today Ejisu (Adweso) in Ashanti was as a result of his palm plantation which he cultivated there. Ejisu (Adweso) means where many palm- nut could be found in their large quantity.

Whenever a new king is installed in Asankare, he is sent to the Manhyia palace to fulfill traditional demands. He is being acknowledged by Asantehene as uncle because the founder of Asankare called his ancestors ‘’me wofaase nom’’.[16]

Carlo Ginzburg quoted Arnaldo Momigliano in his work that the historian works on evidence and that he must not allow himself to be persuaded that his criteria of truth are relative, and that what is true for him today will no longer be true for him tomorrow[17]. The historian in his work, will select from the numerous evidences around him. For instance, from the history above, it could be seen that the important events have been selected based on unique interest. This is because since the story is linked with Asante kingdom, Manyia archives could also have different evidence as well. The historian will therefore compare the two sources that are the oral source and the archival data to ascertain its authenticity. This is why according to Arthur Marwick, ‘the technical skills of the historian lie in sorting these matters out, in understanding how and why a particular source came into existence, how relevant it is to the topic under investigation, and, obviously, the particular codes or language in accordance with which the particular source came into being as a concrete artifact’[18]. Hayden white writes that it is the function of the historian to impose a meaning through the organization of the data as narrative.

Interpretation is also employed by the historian when he is working on his evidence. According to Alun Munslow, the evidence is turned into facts through the narrative interpretation of historians.[19] E.H. Carr also in his book ‘what is history ‘believes that the facts, speak only when the historian calls on them: it is he who decides to which facts to give the door, and in what order or context[20]. From the above story it can be inferred that the Asankare stool is quite related to Asante stool. This explains the reason why the Asantehene refers to the chief of Asankare as ‘wofa’ because the founder of Asankare called his ancestors ‘me wofaase nom’.

The historian employs Chronology to give meaning to his evidence. The first bedrock principle of (historian) is that chronology matters[21]. According to Vansina, if there is no chronology there is no history because it is no longer possible to distinguish what preceded from what follows[22] . As written by Alun Munslow in his ‘Deconstructing history’, whatever we decide, it follows that history cannot exist for the reader until the historian writes in its obligatory form: narrative. From the above story for instance it can be seen that the events in the story has been arranged and connected in sequential order such that one could easily notice the ‘from here and this followed.’

In conclusion, evidence is essential to the interpreter (Historian) in his work, however the historian also add value to his work by reassessing the traces of the past by organizing his facts in sequential order, and therefore infer meanings from his work through the use of text or language.


Carr, Edward Hallet. What is history? Penguin Books, 1987.

Ginzburg, Carlo. CheckingTthe Evidence: The Judge and The Historian, in Questions of Evidence: Proof practice and persuasion across the discipline, eds. James Chandler, harry harootunian and Arnold Davidson. Chicago: university of Chicago press, 1994.

Jr, William H Sewell. Logics of History:Social Theory and Social Transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Koselleck, Reinhart. The practice of conceptual history:Timing History,Spacing Concepts. Stanford/California: Standford University press, 2002.

Marwick, arthur. New Nature of History. Hampshire: PALGRAVE, 2001.

—. New Nature of History. Hampshire: PALGRAVE, 2001.

McCaskie, Tom C. "the Golden Stool at the end of the Ninteenth Century:Setting the Record straight." Ghana Studies (Ghana Studies 3), 2000: 61-96.

McIntosh, susan keech. Archaeology and the reconstruction of African past. Rochester: Rochester university press, 2006.

Munslow, Alun. Deconstructing History. London: Routledge, 1997.

Vansina, Jan. Oral Tradition and Its Methodology, in General History of Africa, vol 1 ed. Joseph Ki-Zerbo . London/Paris:: Heinemann /UNESCO, 1981.

W.Scott, Joan. Evidence of experiance,in Question of Evidence :proof ,practice,and persecution across the Discipline,eds.James Chandler,Harry Harootunian and Arnold Davidson. Chicago: Universityof Chicago press, 1994.

[1] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History(London/New York: Routledge,1997),6.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid.1

[4] Ibid.2

[5] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History(London/New York: Routledge,1997),6

[6] Ibid .20

[7] Ibid.6

[8] Eric H.,’On History’, in The Nature of History Reader, eds. Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (London/New York:Routledge,2004),68

[9] Eric Hobsbawm, ’On History’, in The Nature of History Reader, eds. Keith Jenkins and Alun Munslow (London/New York: Rutledge, 2004), 69.

[10] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History( London/New York: Routledge),1997),22

[11] Ibid.23

[12] Ibid.2

[13] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History(London/New York: Routledge,1997),62

[14] Ibid.24

[15] Ibid.25

[16] Nana Yaa Afrakoma, Ex-Queen mother, Asankare.(My grandmother)

[17] Carlo Ginzburg, Checking the Evidence: the Judge and the Historian, in Questions of Evidence: Proof, Practice and Persuasion Across the Discipline, eds. James Chandler, Harry Harootunian and Arnold Davidson(Chicago; university of Chicago press 1994) ,302

[18] Arthur Marwick, ‘New Nature of History;Knowledge,Evidence,Language’(Hampshire: PALGRAVE,2001)

[19] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History(London/New York: Routledge,1997),6

[20] Edward H. Carr, What is history?(London: Penguin Books, 1987).

[21] Susan M. keech. Archaeology and the reconstruction of African past(Rochester: Rochester university press, 2006).

[22] Jan Vansina, oral tradition and its methodology, in General History of Africa, vol 1 ed. Joseph Ki-Zerbo (London/Paris:Heinemann /UNESCO,1981),157.


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Title: Evidence and interpretation in historical deconstruction