Reconstructing histories

The purpose of this page is to provide some provisional ideas on the use of ParEvo to reconstruct alternative histories, as distinct from exploring alternative futures. Design choices will be different because the opportunities and constraints will be different.

The reconstruction design space

This interpretation was prompted by a recent viewing of a video by Andy Sterling, available here. Three dimensions are proposed:

  1. Scale of historical events being reconstructed. E.g.
    1. The whole programme from beginning to end, versus
    2. Specific sequence of events within the programme
  2. Diversity of stakeholders involved in the reconstruction. E.g.
    1. Only those involved in programme implementation, versus
    2. A wider group of stakeholders also involved
  3. Realism of the events being reconstructed. E.g.
    1. Description of events known to have occurred, though perhaps seen from different perspectives, versus
    2. Description of alternative events that could have happened, given what is currently known

Three possible reconstruction purposes

These are a subset of the possibilities suggested above.

1. Identify alternative stakeholder perspectives

The first possible purpose would be to develop a broad-brush description of what happened to a program, from the beginning to the end.  Here the intention would be to identify the key moments, and their consequences, as seen from the perspectives of different stakeholders. Choices could then be made by an evaluation team as to where, within this broad picture,  they should invest the limited resources

Location in the design space = Scale 1 + Diversity 2 + Realism 1

2. Detail specific causal pathways

The second possible purpose would be to develop a detailed articulation of the sequence of events connecting a particular activity and its consequences.  Here the intention would be to identify different views of the possible causal mechanisms that were at work. Then methods like process tracing could be used to identify the relative plausibility of each explanation.

Location in the design space = Scale 2 + Diversity 1 or 2 + Realism 1

3. Explore counterfactuals

A third possibility is that a ParEvo exercise could be used to construct a kind of “counterfactual history”.  Two types could be considered, of the kind described by the Wikipedia entry on counterfactual history :

  • “Counterfactual history [which] distinguishes itself through its interest in the very incident that is being negated by the counterfactual, thus seeking to evaluate the event’s relative historical importance. Such historians reason arguments for each change, outlining changes in broad terms only, as befits a mere byproduct of the exercise.
  • An alternate history writer, on the other hand, is interested precisely in the hypothetical scenarios that flow from the negated incident or event. A fiction writer is thus free to invent very specific events and characters in the imagined history”

The first approach would limit participants to identifying alternative events to a given event in a storyline.  Whereas the second would allow them to develop those alternative events into a whole new fictional storyline.

With either of these options, the facilitator would need to decide which events in a realistic reconstruction of history should be the “seed” for the development of counterfactual events that could then have happened.

An important point has been made in this blog posting by James Hardy (2016). Any counterfactual has an ‘antecedent ‘ and a ‘consequent ‘. The antecedent is the event that is different from what really happened, the consequent is the consequence(s) of that difference. He argues that often too much atention is give to evaluating the likelihood of the consequent events, whereas any evaluation of a counterfactual should start by evaluating the possiblity and likelihood of the antecedent.

Location in the design space = Scale 1 or 2.  + Diversity 1 or 2 + Realism 2

Postscript: The same Wikipedia entry goes on to say: “Most historians regard counterfactual history as perhaps entertaining, but not meeting the standards of mainstream historical research due to its speculative nature. Advocates of counterfactual history often respond that all statements about causality in history contain implicit counterfactual claims—for example, the claim that a certain military decision helped a country win a war presumes that if that decision had not been made, the war would have been less likely to be won, or would have been longer“.

The number and duration of iterations

In order to get an even coverage of the passage of time between the beginning of the programme and its end, it would probably be best to make each iteration equivalent to a particular span of time.  For example, six months.  Then for the total number of iterations x the duration of each iteration = the total span of time that the exercise needs to cover.

The Facilitators guidance to participants

If histories are being reconstructed in order to inform an evaluation process it is likely that there will need to be more constraints on the contributions being made than in an exercise aimed at a more open-ended and imaginative exploration of possible futures.

Ideally, the events described would need to be more than just possible. Preferably participants would believe that the events did happen, or were likely to have happened, as described.

The following  guidance could also be considered:

  • Omissions: Facilitators could draw attention to the kinds of events and issues that do not seem to have been attended to the current point
  • Quality: Facilitators could highlight quality issues relating to the contents of contributions that have been made at any point.  For example, the extent to which events were clearly and unambiguously described, enough to make them potentially verifiable

At least three different mechanisms would be available for channelling this guidance:

  • In the Facilitators guidance found at the top of the exercise, at This is typically updated at the beginning of each iteration.
  • In the email sent to participants by the Facilitator at the beginning of each iteration
  • In the Comments made on individual contributions, during the Comment phase of each iteration, if that has been enabled and then used by the Facilitator

Participants choice of which storyline to extend

If histories are being reconstructed as part of the program evaluation process then some guidance may be needed to participants on how they could choose which storyline to extend.

One simple suggestion could be that they describe developments that happened next, which they think were significant because of the consequences.  At least some of those consequences might be described in the paragraph itself, while others in subsequent contributions to that storyline.

This suggested requirement connect back to Bateson’s useful definition  that “information is a difference that make a difference

Evaluation criteria

These will definitely need some variation.

  • Probability no longer seems relevant, except when counterfactual events are being explored.
  • Desirability is still relevant
  • Verifiability and evidence availability will be more important. Though the latter could be seen as a subset of the former.

References of possible interest

‘What if’ is a waste of time. Counterfactual history is misguided and outdated, as the first world war debate shows. Richard Evans. 2014 The Guardian


Counter-Factual History: Valid Exploration or Inappropriate Time Waster?
James Hardy | Creative Arts, Society | September 14, 2016


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