The Uses of the Historical Method in Conflicted Societies:
: Understanding Historical Clarification Commissions

  • Cira Palli-Aspero

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


The doctoral research explores the role of the historical method as a fact-finding and clarification mechanism through the work of Historical Clarification Commissions (HCC) as state bodies of inquiry, in conflicted and divided societies. It aims to understand “why” historical methods of analysis are chosen; and “how” HCC operate: the organisational strategies, methods, and challenges that the commissions might encounter. Conflicted societies are often left rooted in a complex ground of competing narratives about what happened and who is to be held responsible for the crimes committed, transforming the past in a much-contested space. It is argued that the work of historians and the application of historical methods to address the legacy of the past can contribute to the process of transformation from a context of conflict and division to a more tolerant and peaceful one, through constructing historical narratives that integrate different interpretations and perspectives of the past.
The research builds from three pillars. First, is the conceptualisation of historical dialogue as a theoretical and methodological frame for HCC. Historical dialogue seeks to provide a specific methodology to address the immediate and structural causes of conflict through a “conversation” that integrates different perspectives and interpretations of the past. Second, the creation of a database (specifically for this study) that includes thirty-eight worldwide examples in which the historical method has been used as a fact-finding and clarification mechanism. Its analysis does not reflect on the content of the reports, nor the truthfulness of their findings, but rather on their organisational and methodological strategies. Third, is an in-depth analysis of the Historical Memory Group (GMH) in Colombia as an illustrative case study, seen as representative of how historical analysis may develop within a (post)conflict setting.
The study mainly contributes to the understanding of the strengths and limitations of using the historical method of analysis in conflicted and divided contexts, and the work of historical dialogue through state-sponsored commissioned history. The research provides a robust analysis of the organisational strategies, methods, and challenges of the work of HCC as state-sponsored bodies of inquiry.
Date of AwardFeb 2020
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorAdrian Grant (Supervisor), Maire Braniff (Supervisor) & Brandon Hamber (Supervisor)

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