Setting the Story Straight Part 1: In Defence of Narrative for some A-Level Cause Questions

In each of the last two years, the A-Level Examiners’ Report for my students’ Witch Craze module has recommended that ‘candidates should avoid a narrative/descriptive approach; this undermines the analysis that is required for higher levels’.[i] Despite the examiners’ retroactive recommendations, neither the mark scheme nor the wording of the questions specify that students should argue in the analytic mode.[ii]

In this first part of a two-part post I want to argue that, in my view, there’s one essential problem with this overgeneralising statement if we use academic history as our ‘gold standard’ of historical explanation. The guidance actively discourages students from writing in the mode that many historians write in for certain types of causal questions. As Marius and Page suggested, ‘without narratives, history would die as a discipline’.[iii] A student who has been drilled to believe that narrative/description ≠ causal explanation might be confused to find the majority of causal explanations in the historiography of the Salem witch trials are argued, at least partially, in that very mode. The student’s likely confusion might increase further when we consider that the academic texts that teachers usually recommended to students at A-Level tend to be those we consider to be ‘engaging’ and ‘accessible’ for the general reader – in other words, narratives.[iv]

The exam board’s suggestion applied, in part, to essays covering ‘in-depth’ case studies which could involve causal questions covering a time period of less than a year. For example, one of the 2017 questions in this section was;

How far does the role of Governor Phips explain the end of the Salem witch hunt (1692–93)? [v] 

For now, it is important to note that this question demands the student spends part of their essay explaining how one individual (Governor William Phips) contributed to the ending of the Salem witch trials over a relatively short time span of approximately nine months from September 1692 to the trials’ end in May 1693.

A student answering this question in the analytic mode might, depending on what their argument regarding the most important cause was, structure their response rhetorically as follows;

Screenshot 2018-10-25 19.01.24Note that this approach turns an individual’s actions that point toward an explanation of the end of the trials (e.g. Phips closed the Court of Oyer and Terminer in October 1692) into a broad configurational abstraction that doesn’t actually explain very much (‘Phips’ role’). One way around this would be to create better abstractions that are explanatory (e.g. ‘Phips’ crucial role in ending the legal process’). Another way, probably in conjunction with a better abstraction, could be to focus on Phips’ actions in detail.

Note too that this approach necessarily hinders explanation of why Phips was motivated to act the way he did by downplaying the importance of chronology. For example, some historians suggest one reason why Phips closed the Court of Oyer and Terminer was because in the summer of 1692 the afflicted girls began ‘overreaching’ and calling out higher-status individuals including Phips’ own wife.[vi] Although it is perfectly reasonable to argue that the girls’ actions were less important than Phips’ in bringing the trials to an end, we can only truly explain what motivated Phips by detailing what happened before he took his actions. This ‘analytic’ structure, at the very least, obscures that opportunity to explain by ignoring the sequence of his decision-making.

Despite the exam board’s categorical claim that the narrative/descriptive mode ‘undermines’ explanation, for this particular type of question there is far from a consensus among theorists of history that the analytic mode would be the best to adopt. In fact, Roberts argued that this type of discussion represents ‘the most important and central debate in the philosophy of history since the 1960s: the extent to which the discipline of history is essentially a narrative mode of knowing, understanding, explaining and reconstructing the past’.[vii]

The exam board’s stance does mirror intense criticism of the narrative mode in the mid-twentieth century which constituted, according to Ricouer, the ‘eclipse of narrative’.[viii] Methodologically, narrative was attacked by the likes of Annalistes, Freudian psycho-historians, and clioemtricians for the mode’s inability to explain in a specifically ‘scientific’ sense. [ix] Ontologically, these analytic historians tended to privilege slower-moving, longer-term structural conditions in their explanations such as economies, mentalités, and geography which, it was argued, were unsatisfactorily accommodated by narrative.[x] It was during this period that the ‘prevalent suspicion that narrative as such is epistemologically defective’ emerged. [xi] We can see, I think, vestiges of this viewpoint in the exam board’s guidance.

Narrative’s ‘eclipse’ was mirrored in the historiography of Salem in the 1970s and 1980s when the psychological, social, and economic dimensions of the witchcraft crisis were emphasised and historians employed a number of social scientific techniques from sociology, anthropology, and psychology.[xii]

Towards the end of the twentieth century, however, a counter-attack by narrative historians was launched which Stone dubbed ‘the revival of narrative’.[xiii] In its strongest form, some narratavists went so far as to argue that narrative was the only mode that facilitated a specifically historical explanation.[xiv] The defence of narrative has been variegated and extensive but generally narratavists have tended to be sceptical of the imposition of a positivist-scientific model of explanation onto the discipline of history.[xv]

So why might the narrative/descriptive mode be particularly appropriate for explaining the actions of individuals over short time-spans? This view has its roots particularly in Oakeshott’s ‘continuous series model’ of explanation with its dictum that ‘history accounts for change by means of a full account of change’.[xvi] In this strong view, far from ‘undermining’ historical explanation, the narrative/descriptive mode is essential in explaining human actions in the past.  From this perspective, historians usually can’t rely on deduction from universal, impersonal, atemporal laws to explain temporally-bound, unique, human actions.

Consider how an experimental scientist and a historian might seek to ‘explain’ the same event. A person falls from a window. The physicist will probably explain this event with a universal, impersonal, abstract law – ‘gravity’. The explanation is atemporal in the sense that it doesn’t matter if the person fell in 1618 in Prague or yesterday in London. In this sense, it’s a generalising whenever explanation rather than an individualising when explanation.

A historian, however, will probably take ‘gravity’ for granted and instead want to explain this specific person’s action at this specific point in time. Did they jump? If so, why? It’s crucial we ascertain what happened before to explain what happened after. At this point, some descriptive statements alone such as ‘Two days ago they told their best friend they were having suicidal thoughts due to money problems. Last night someone saw them climb onto the ledge of the 10th floor. They fell.’ might be enough to satisfy most people’s (including most readers of history’s) need for an explanation. In this particular case focusing on short-term individual actions, chronological description still explains. We could pepper the description with ‘causal connectives’ such as ‘so’, ‘therefore’, and ‘because’ but some theorists of history at least consider that to be redundant and inelegant. [xvii]

Let’s return to our example of Phips ending the Salem witch trials.  According to Oakeshott, instead of covering laws to bridge the gap between cause and consequence we have to rely on description of other intervening events. While doing so, the causes become clearer because the events are selected by virtue of their relevance to the question and their interrelationship with one another. So, for example, we might quickly plan a narrative response by filling in more detail about Phips’ key actions in ending the witch hunt.

Screenshot 2018-10-25 19.01.32

This plan, however, still doesn’t explain that much. Why, after all, did Phips dissolve the Court of Oyer and Terminer that he himself had created in May 1692? And why did he suddenly turn against the use of spectral evidence? More chronological description here helps point toward an explanation.

Screenshot 2018-10-25 19.21.37

But why might Phips have been motivated to act based on Increase Mather’s advice?

Screenshot 2018-10-25 19.28.13

In this strong view, the describing ‘how’ is inseparable from the explaining ‘why’ if a historical description is so complete that it permits no lacuna. Clearly, this ‘continuity’ in description is more achievable in shorter rather than longer timescales. This mode, according to Oakeshott, ultimately renders overt ‘explanation’ in the analytic mode superfluous.[xviii]

According to its advocates then narrative is key to explaining individual actions and events.[xix] For example, the mode enables the historian to empathise with the agents they are studying which in turn helps explain their actions. [xx] This empathy is achievable, according to narrative’s advocates, because this mode better approximates the sense of time we experience in our own lives so we can better appreciate the circumstances in which the agents made their choices. [xxi] This claim often reflects a broader belief that structural analyses borrowed from the social sciences encourage static rather than dynamic explanations that downplay ‘time’s arrow’ which is so vital to history.[xxii]

Accordingly, the historiography of Salem witnessed a spate of explicitly narrative histories around the crisis’ tricentennial anniversary in the 1990s such as those by Gragg, Rosenthal, Hill, and Hoffer.[xxiii] For example, Le Beau noted his work;

employs a narrative format that was once popular among historians but that has fallen out of favour. Such an approach is intended to make the subject more accessible to the reader, to recapture some of the drama that has held people spellbound for so long, and to suggest yet another way of looking at the event. As Larry Gragg has reminded us, to fully appreciate what happened in 1692, we must ‘explore the particular decisions made by individuals involved and their consequences’. When all other avenues of interpretation have been exhausted, we are left with the fact that individuals and individual decisions matter.[xxiv]

One wonders how well Le Beau would have done in the 2017 A-Level exams with such an approach.

Settling the debate as to what the best mode of historical explanation is far beyond my powers. I suspect, however, that the lack of a universally agreed explanatory model in history means that it is ultimately irresolvable. My only goal at this juncture is to try and point out that, despite the exam board’s prescriptions, exclusivity-claims regarding the ‘best’ mode for historical explanations are, at the very least, debatable if we take academic history as our benchmark for what constitutes ‘good’ historical explanation. It is therefore not clear why the mode should be discouraged as such if, a) when done well, it can be highly explanatory and b) there is no mention that the narrative mode will be penalised in the mark scheme.

In my next post, I will outline some possible ramifications for how we might teach and assess extended writing in history if one is willing to accept this initial premise.


[i]Pearson (2017) Examiners; Report June 2017 GCE History 9H10 33 p.35; https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A-Level/History/2015/Exam-materials/9HI0_33_pef_20170816.pdf; Pearson (2018) Examiners; Report June 2018 GCE History 9H10 33 p.41; https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/secure/silver/all-uk-and-international/a-level/history/2015/exam-materials/9HI0_33_pef_20180815.pdf

[ii] Pearson (2017) Mark Scheme Summer 2017 Edexcel in History (9H10/33) Advanced Unit 1: Themes in Breadth with Aspects in Depth Option 33: The Witchcraze in Britain, Europe and North America c.1580-c.1750 https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A-Level/History/2015/Exam-materials/9HI0_33_rms_20170816.pdf

[iii] Marius, R. & Page, M. E. (2007). A Short Guide to Writing About History Pearson Longman: London p.61

[iv] A number of historians have noted that narrative histories tend to appeal more to the general reader, as evidenced by the fact that narrative histories tend to sell far better than their analytic counterparts. Black. J. & MacRaild (1997). Studying History London: MacMillan; Stanford, M. (1998). An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. Oxford: Blackwell. Historians have also noted that narrative tends to be more accessible because it usually focuses more on the structure of individuals’ actions over shorter time scales so it is more congruent with how the reader experiences their own lives. Roberts, G. (1996). ‘Narrative History as a Way of Life’ Contemporary History 31(1) 221-228; Stanford, (1998) op. cit.; Tamura, E. H. (2011). ‘Narrative History and Theory’. History of Education Quarterly, 51(2) 150-157

[v] Pearson (2017). Advanced Paper 3: Themes in breadth with aspects in depth Option 33: The Witchcraze in Britain, Europe and North America c1580–c1750 https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A-Level/History/2015/Exam-materials/9HI0_33_que_20170623.pdf

[vi] Hill, F. (1996). A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials (1996).

[vii] Roberts, G. (2001) (Ed.). The History and Narrative Reader London: Routledge. p.1

[viii] Ricouer, P. (1984). Time and Narrative Vol. 1 Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press. p.95ff

[ix]Barzun, J. & Graff, H. F. (1985). The Modern Researcher 4th Edition. London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich; Stone, L. (1987). The Past and the Present Revisited. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

[x] Carr, D. (2008). ‘Narrative Explanation and its Malcontents’ History and Theory 47 pp.19-30; Black & MacRaild op. cit. 

[xi] Megill, A. (2007). Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The University of Chicago Press: London. pp.87-88

[xii] Gragg, L. (1992). The Salem Witch Crisis London: Prager.

[xiii] Stone, L. (1979). ‘The Revival of Narrative: Reflections on a New Old History; Past & Present 85 3-24.

[xiv] Gallie, W. B. (1964). Philosophy and the Historical Understanding. London: Chatto and Windus

[xv] Roth, P. A. (1988). ‘Narrative Explanations: The Case of History’ History and Theory 27(1) pp.1-13

[xvi] Oakeshott, M. (1933). Experience and its Modes Cambridge: Cambridge University Press p.143

[xvii] For example, Davidson suggests that in such circumstances ‘an apparently simple string of details may convey knowledge more elegantly, more directly, and with more impact than a general statement of any sort’. Davidson, J. W. (1984). ‘The New Narrative History: How New? How Narrative?’ Reviews in American History 12(3) pp.327-328

[xviii] Oakeshott, op. cit. p.143

[xix] For example Vincent (2005) argued ‘structure is not enough; by omitting narrative, one omits truth, by omitting or understanding the part played by chance, uncertainties, events, contingencies. Structure may set limits to what can happen…but it can never by itself explain why one course of events took place rather than another’ (p.89).

[xx] Stone (1987) op. cit.

[xxi] Tosh, J. (2006). The Pursuit of History: Aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history London: Pearson

[xxii] Munz, P. (2006). The Historical Narrative. In Bentley, M. (Ed.) Companion to Historiography (pp.851-872). London: Routledge; Stanford, M. (1994). A Companion to the Study of History. Oxford: Blackwell.

[xxiii] For example, Demos recognised this re-emergence by noting that the tricentennial anniversary of the crisis coincided with a surge of ‘narrative retellings of the trial sequence’ Demos, J. (2008). The Enemy Within: 2,000 Years of Witch-Hunting in the Western World. Viking: London. (pp.207-208).  Examples of the narrative histories include Gragg op. cit; Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.; Hill op. cit.; Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witch Trials. London: John Hopkins University Press; and  Hoffer, P. C. (1997). The Salem Witchcraft Trials: A Legal History. Lawrence, Kansas: University of Kansas Press.

[xxiv] Le Beau, B. F. (1998) The Story of the Salem Witch Trials Prentice Hall: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey. pp.ix-x

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