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Historiography is writing about rather than of history. Historiography is a meta-level analysis of descriptions of the past. The analysis usually focuses on the narrative, interpretations, worldview, use of evidence, or method of presentation of other historians. The term can also be used of a body of historical writing, for example "medieval historiography.” Historiographies can be described as falling into one of three categories:

  1. approaches that understand history as random; hence, there is no purpose behind history—although the human race can take control of history to ensure a better future.
  2. understandings of history that regards history either as a product of human evolution or of dialectical processes.
  3. an understanding of history that accepts the reality of a divine power in whose hands human destiny and therefore the historical process itself finally resides. This view is usually associated with religious convictions. This approach tends to regard history from a purely secular perspective as inadequate, since historians who fail to recognize the reality of divine intervention cannot render a true account of history. For example, a secular account of history would not explain someone's victory in terms of God aiding them or the victory of an evil person in terms of a satanic attempt to disrupt God's purposes. For their part, secular historians regard such an approach as unscientific, arguing that it rests on subjective judgments not on empirically provable facts.

It can be argued that all approaches read meaning and purpose into, rather than derive meaning and purpose from, historical data. Nonetheless, people of religious faith will claim the right to argue in favor of their analysis of history in the hope that a better world will emerge as people are encouraged to take responsibility under God for the correct ordering of human life, society and the world. The best historiography is one that engages critically with other understandings of history. It is also open to positive aspects of other approaches, although it will identify what from its perspective are their shortcomings and inadequacies.

Defining historiography

Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris (1988) define "historiography" as "the study of the way history has been and is written—the history of historical writing…. When you study 'historiography' you do not study the events of the past directly, but the changing interpretations of those events in the works of individual historians" (223).

Although questions of method have always concerned historians, the modern study of historiography can be said to have its beginnings with Edward Hallett Carr's 1961 work What is History? (ISBN 0333977017) and his challenge to the traditional belief that the study of the methods of historical research]] and writing were unimportant. His work remains in print to this day, and is common to many postgraduate programs of study in both the United States and in Great Britain.

Much critical historiography in the 1960s focused, for example, on the exclusion of the roles of women, minorities, and labor from written histories of the United States. According to these historiographers, because historians in the 1930s and 1940s were themselves products of their times; their models of who was "important" to history reflected the cultural attitudes of that period (e.g., a bias towards well-connected white males). Many historians from that point onward devoted themselves to what they saw as more accurate representations of the past, casting a light on those who had been previously disregarded as non-noteworthy.

The study of historiography demands a critical approach that goes beyond the mere examination of historical fact. Historiographical studies consider the source, often by researching the author, his or her position in society, and the type of history being written at the time. Historiography that is considered controversial or extreme is often pejoratively labeled as historical revisionism.

An example

A primary source is an artifact of a particular point in time. In the 1850s, for example, many slave owners in the United States kept diaries and journals about their day-to-day activity. The historian Kenneth Stampp looked at these documents for information about the life of a slave owner in the 1850s, and also derived information from them on the life of the slaves on the plantation. He used the documents as primary sources. The book he created, The Peculiar Institution: Slavery in the Ante-Bellum South, is a secondary source, a work produced through the analysis of primary sources. If another historian argues that Stampp's history ignores the economic history of slavery, or that Stampp's work overly emphasizes one aspect of slave life, then this historian is using Stampp's book—originally produced as a secondary source—as a primary source, or an artifact of study. This new work that criticizes a secondary source, is a work of historiography.

Basic issues studied in historiography

Some of the basic questions considered in historiography are:

  • Who wrote the source (primary or secondary)?
  • For primary sources, we look at the person in his or her society, for secondary sources, we consider the theoretical orientation of the approach for example, Marxist or Annales School, ("total history"), political history, etc (see below).
  • What are the authenticity, authority, bias/interest, and intelligibility of the source?
  • What was the view of history when the source was written?
  • Was history supposed to provide moral lessons?
  • What or who was the intended audience?
  • What sources were privileged or ignored in the narrative?
  • By what method was the evidence compiled?
  • In what historical context was the work of history itself written?

Some recent controversies

The use of particular styles of historiography has a great impact on the conclusions of historians and much controversial history stems from this problem. In recent American history writing, some controversies based on disputed historiography include:

  • whether dynastic Egypt was a black, African civilization (there has been debate about Cleopatra's racial identity)
  • whether the Olmec civilization was founded by black Africans
  • the periodization of European history
  • rate of exploitation of African-Americans during and after slavery
  • the role of whiteness in U.S. labor struggles;
  • and the attitude of "good Germans" toward the Holocaust.

Such debate is also referred to as culture or as identity politics. A feminist account of Islamic history, for example, sees much of Islam as a deviation from its original ideal; for example, see Leila Ahmed's Women and Gender in Islam (1993). The original spirit and intent of Islam was egalitarian but men were not prepared to allow women equal rights so manipulated the tradition in their own favor. Accounts that rewrite history, such as those that deny that the Holocaust took place, are also called revisionist. The re-writing of history from any ideological perspective is also revisionist or deconstructionist, for example, deconstructing colonial assumptions from Indian or African history (see Saunders 1989).

In 1989, after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, Francis Fukuyama wrote an article in the National Interest called "The End of History." He meant that a consensus had emerged in the world community that liberal democracy was the legitimate and final form of government. In his view, the ideal of democracy could not be improved on. Thus, humanity's ideological evolution had reached its end point and in that sense, history also ended. He was misunderstood to mean that history as a continuation of events had ended, and, as events continued to occur, he was said to be wrong.

Insider-Outsider problem

Critics of the way Western scholars have constructed histories or anthropological accounts of non-Western societies highlights the relationship between such scholarship and colonial attitudes of superiority. Such criticism includes novels written by outsiders about other people's cultures and societies. Much of this was explored in the work of Edward Said (1978, 1994). Within anthropology, for example, there has been talk of an epistemological hypochondria' concerning, as Clifford Geertz put it, “…how one can know that anything one says about other life forms is as a matter of fact so” (1988, 71).

The Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe, referring to Joseph Conrad's classic novel Heart of Darkness (1899), described it as reducing “Africa to the role of props for the breakup of one petty European mind” which raises “the question is whether a novel which celebrates this dehumanization, which depersonalizes a portion of the human race, can be called a great work of art” (1988: 257; 1977: 782f; "An Image of Africa." from The Massachusetts Review 18(4) (Winter 1977): 782-794). In reaction to this problem, one response is to say that people should only write about themselves; that is, they should write "their own histories.” This has been called nativism. The problem with this is that it is extremely pessimistic about people's ability to understand other societies, or to develop genuine cross-cultural understanding. Another response is to say that any history or account of another society written by an outsider should be subject to insiders' approval. Another response is to say that accounts are best written collaboratively, by insiders and outsiders together. This recognizes that insiders have unique insight into their own cultures but that outsiders sometimes shed light on aspects of a culture or tradition that insiders take for granted.

Loewen (1996) questions what he calls the "heroization" process by which history and the contemporary media elevate some people above others. For example, “…whose rise to prominence provides more drama—Blackwell’s or George Bush's (the latter born with a silver-senate seat in his mouth?” (19); or "who deserves more space, Frank Lloyd Wright, inventor of “the carport” or Chester A. Arthur, who “signed the first civil service act.”

Heroization can distort the lives of people so that we “cannot think straight about them” (20). The fact, for example, that Helen Keller was a radical socialist, which “stemmed from her experience as a disabled person” (21) is left out of accounts of her famous struggle to overcome her handicap. Commenting on the statue of George Washington in the Smithsonian, Loewen remarks on how history textbooks portray every American hero as “ten feet tall, blemish-free with the body of a Greek God” (32). He suggests that other historical figures than those usually considered to be heroes may be better role models for moral and ethical conduct. “If text book authors,” he says, “feel compelled to give moral instruction, the way origin myths have always done, they could accomplish this aim by allowing students to learn both the good and the bad.” Loewen is referring here to the Pilgrim fathers and mothers, the American tale of origins, which involved conflict, “grave-robbing, Indian enslavement, the plague and so on” (96) as well as cooperation in the form of the first Thanksgiving shared with the American Indians (97).

Fiction as History

Although the accuracy of historical fiction, especially when the subject is someone else's history (not the author's), is open to challenge; nonetheless historical fiction can help to overcome some of the problems involved in attempting to re-construct not so much the events of history but the personal motives and worldviews of its actors. It has been suggested in this regard that novelists do what anthropologists and historians think they do—that is, render an account of what people did and thought. Use of imagination can help explore people's self-understanding and motivation, which contributes to historical knowledge. Clifford Geertz (1973) commented that ethnographical accounts—and this also applies to history—are “fictions in the sense that they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned’ - the original meaning of ‘fictio’ - not that they are false” (15).

Foundation of important historical Journals (Selection)

  • 1859 Historische Zeitschrift (Germany)
  • 1876 Revue Historique (France)
  • 1895 American Historical Review (USA)
  • 1929 Annales. Économies. Sociétés. Civilisations
  • 1952 Past & present: A Journal of Historical Studies (Great Britain)
  • 1953 Vierteljahrshefte für Zeitgeschichte (Germany)
  • 1956 Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria (Nigeria)
  • 1960 Journal of African History (USA)
  • 1960 Technology and Culture (USA)
  • 1975 Geschichte und Gesellschaft. Zeitschrift für historische Sozialwissenschaft (Germany)
  • 1982 Subaltern Studies (Oxford University Press)
  • 1986 1999. Zeitschrift für Sozialgeschichte des 20.und 21. Jahrhunderts, new title since 2003: Sozial.Geschichte. Zeitschrift für historische Analyse des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts. (Germany)
  • 1990 L’Homme. Zeitschrift für feministische Geschichtswissenschaft (Austria) +
  • 1993 Historische Anthropologie

Styles of Historiography

  • Annales School: named after the French journal, Annales d'histoire économique et sociale founded in 1929. The focus was less on the great politicians and military leaders or diplomatic developments, but more on what constituted the psychology of a period, or on its underlying 'mentalities.' A prominent member was Fernand Braudel (1902 - 1985).
  • Big History: began in the 1980s and attempts to identify large or big themes or patterns that stretch across traditional periods of history. This approach draws on a range of disciplines, see David Christian (2004), Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. University of California Press, ISBN 0520235002
  • Deconstruction: derived from the approach of Jacques Derrida, deconstruction posits that texts seek to impose 'ideas' on their readers, thus attempting to control how people see the world. Deconstruction seeks to identify within its sources internal contradictions, suppressed information, questionable assumptions about the world and society, and other examples of what they regard as the text's illegitimate attempt to compel attention, compliance, or belief.
  • Diplomatic history: associated with the German historian, Leopold von Ranke (1795 – 1886). Ranke did not believe that general theories could cut across time and space (geography) and wanted to construct history from the documents and sources available from each particular time and place. He was especially interested in international relations (Aussenpolitik, hence diplomat history) and made much use of narrative and diaries, aiming thus to write as it actually was" (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist).
  • historiophoty: a term developed by Hayden White to describe the representation of history has been represented in film and visual images. See Hayden White, "Historiography and Historiophoty." The American Historical Review 93 (5) (Dec., 1988): 1193-1199. Available online through JSTOR.
  • History from below: most history has been written from the above—that is, by members of a social or academic elite. History from below gives priority to voices that are often silent—those of women, the poor, dissidents, or non-Europeans. This is a development of the Annales approach.
  • Marxist historiography: from Karl Marx (1818 - 1883) sees history in terms of a dialectic that will eventually result in the creation of a classless society. Like history from below, Marxists are interested in the conditions of the poor and working classes, and in how the owners of capital control the masses. The aim is to enable the oppressed to become conscious of their oppression, and to rise up against their oppressors.
  • Metahistory: see Hayden White, Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Europe. (1974 ISBN 0801817617). Metahistory questions the objectivity of historical writings, arguing that writers including journalists bring theories (or archetypes) to bear on their sources that shape what they write.
  • Microhistory: developed in the 1970s. The focus is history of a small, clearly defined area such as a village, a work of art or a person of local significance.
  • Numismatics: is the scientific study of money (coins, banknotes).
  • Oral history: In the U.S., the Library of Congress started an oral history project in the 1930s. Oral history has been widely used to construct histories of non-literate peoples and societies. It is often used to access the views of ordinary people who witnessed an event. It can also be a form of history from below.
  • Paleography: study of ancient manuscripts or texts engraved on monuments.
  • Political history: this is what most people think of as history - an account of the rule and achievements of Kings, Presidents, accounts of battles, often with a focus on nation-states.
  • Postmodernism: can be characterized as a general distrust of any 'grand-narratives.' It rejects supposedly universal stories and paradigms such as religion, conventional philosophy, capitalism and gender that have defined culture and behavior in the past, and instead looks to a variety of more local and subcultural ideologies, myths and stories. Postmodernism asks questions such as 'who wrote a text, for whom did they write, whose voices are silent?' of its sources, and like history from below identifies alternative voices, or discourses, from the official and elite ones. A leading exponent of postmodernism was the French scholar, Michel Foucault (1926 - 1984) (see The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language, London: Pantheon, 1992 ISBN 0394711068)
  • Prosopography: aims to collect all known information about an individual in the form of a database.
  • Psychohistory: focuses on the psychological motivations behind the actions that impact on history.
  • Revisionism: refers to the projecting back of theories or ideas into history or attempts to re-write history, such as denying that the Holocaust took place, or reading Marxist dialectic into historical happenings.
  • Social history: focuses on developing social trends rather than political developments.
  • Universal history: Simply stated, universal history is the presentation of the history of mankind as a whole, as a coherent unit. The first five books of the Bible is a primary example of such a history. To the extent that the Pentateuch presents itself as an account of mankind as a whole, from creation to the death of Moses, it is universal history. In the nineteenth century, universal histories proliferated. Philosophers such as Hegel, and political philosophers such as Marx, presented general theories of history that shared essential characteristics with the Biblical account: they conceived of history as a coherent whole, governed by certain basic characteristics or immutable principles.
  • World history: the world history movement sees much written history as too Euro- or North America-centered. World history is a discrete field of historical study that originated in the 1980s when the World History Association was formed. It examines history from a global perspective. Unlike history of the nineteenth and early twentieth century that primarily focused on national and ethnic perspectives, world history looks for common patterns that emerge across all global cultures. Historians use a thematic approach, with two major broad themes: integration (how the processes of world history have drawn peoples of the world together) and difference (how the patterns of world history reveal the diversity of the human experience).
  • Providential history: this is a theological or religious approach to history that sees God's activity behind historical events. In this understanding, God's plan for the salvation of the world unfolds through human history. History is not to be seen as random, although human rebellion against God means that human history is a struggle between good and evil.

Historiography from a Faith Perspective

Historiography from the perspective of belief in a divine mover behind or within history may be accused of imposing subjective belief onto empirical data, as noted above. On the other hand, such an approach has much in common with many of the historiographies listed above. Like 'Big History,' it is interested in identifying 'big themes' in order to understand whether the trend at a given period was away from, or towards, the End that God has planned for history. Recognizing that self-interest and group-interest often manipulate historical data to render a story that promotes their interests over and against others, a providential view of history shares with post-modernism and deconstruction the view that historical accounts must be interrogated to uncover bias and hidden agendas.

With the Annales School of history, such an approach is also interested in what life was like for the many not just for the few. With Marxist historiography (a secular "faith perspective"), it accepts that the powerful often oppress the powerless, so it does not always regard the victors of history as 'right' and the losers as 'wrong', believing that forces of evil can delay the progress of the good. Some Christian historiographies see the inexorable hand of God overriding human action, but others posit that history may regress as well as progress, depending upon human co-operation with the divine.

Historians who bring a faith perspective to their study of history do not understand the exercise as neutral, value-free reconstruction of facts but as a means to learn lessons from history. For example, when individual and social life was God-centered, selfless and moral, history moves towards fulfillment, when life was self-centered and God-less, history regresses. When the external (material, worldly) aspects of life dominated the internal, spiritual aspects, humanity worked against God. When these two aspects of life were harmonized, humanity aids God. When divisions of race or religion divide person from person, humanity regresses. When people realize their common humanity and recognize that there are multiple ways of knowing God, humanity progresses. When male and female compete, humanity regresses; but when both the masculine and the feminine are valued, humanity progresses.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” 251-262 in Heart of Darkness A Norton Critical Edition, Robert Kimbrough, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393955524
  • Carr, E. H. What is History? New York, PalgraveMacmillan. (original 1961) New edition, 2001. ISBN 0333977017
  • Christian, David. 2004. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. University of California Press, ISBN 0520235002
  • Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. London: Pantheon, 1992 ISBN 0394711068
  • Furay, Conal and Michael J. Salevouris. [1988] 2000. The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 2nd ed. Harlan Davidson, ISBN 0882959824
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1988. Works and Lives: Anthropologist as Author Stanford, CA Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717478
  • Loewen, James W. 1996. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone Books. ISBN 0684818868
  • Said, Edward. 1978. Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 039474067X
  • Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York, Vintage Books. Reprint edition, 1994. ISBN 0679750541
  • White, Hayden, "Historiography and Historiophoty." in The American Historical Review 93 (5) (Dec., 1988): 1193-1199. Available online through JSTOR


Philosophy of history:

  • Ankersmit, Frank (ed). 1995. A New Philosophy of History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226021009
  • Carr, E. H. 1961. What is History? New York, PalgraveMacmillan. New edition, 2001. ISBN 0333977017
  • Collingwood, R. G. 1936. The Idea of History. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Revised 1994. ISBN 0192853066
  • Elton, Geoffrey and Richard J Evans (eds). 1969. The Practice of History. Oxford: Blackwell. Second edition, 2001. ISBN 0631229809
  • Evans, Richard J. 1997. In Defence of History. New York: W. W Norton & Co. Reprint 2000. ISBN 0393319598
  • Fukuyama, Francis. 1992. The End of History and the Last Man London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0380720027
  • Jenkins, Keith. 1991. Rethinking History, New York: Routledge. New edition, 2003. ISBN 0415304431
  • Marwick, Arthur. 1970. The Nature of History. Macmillan. ISBN 0333109414
  • Tosh, John. The Pursuit of History. New York: Longman, Third edition, 2002. ISBN 0582772540
  • Walsh, W.H. 1997. An Introduction to the Philosophy of History. New York: Thoemmes Press/Continuum. ISBN 1855061708
  • White, Hayden. 1987. The Content of Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press. Reprint edition, 1990. ISBN 0801841151

Broad histories of historical writing:

  • Bentley, Michael (ed.). 1997. Companion to Historiography. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415285577
  • Bentley, Michael. 1999. Modern Historiography: An Introduction. New York, Routledge. ISBN 0415202671
  • Breisach, Ernst 1994. Historiography: Ancient, Medieval and Modern. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Second edition, 1995. ISBN 0226072789
  • Burke, Peter. 1995. History and Social Theory. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press. ISBN 0801472857
  • Gilderhus, Mark T. 2002. History and Historiographical Introduction. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. ISBN 0133900975
  • Kinnell, Susan (ed.). 1987. Historiography: An Annotated Bibliography of Journal Article, Books and Dissertations. Oxford: ABC-Clio Inc. ISBN 0874361680
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. 1992. The Classical Foundation of Modern Historiography. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. ISBN 0520078705

Regional or thematic:

  • Achebe, Chinua. “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” 251-262 Heart of Darkness A Norton Critical Edition. Robert Kimbrough, ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393955524
  • Ahmed, Leila. 1993. Women and Gender in Islam: Historical Roots of a Modern Debate. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0300055838
  • Ferro, Marc and Naomi Greene. 1988. Cinema and History. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press. ISBN 0814319041
  • Geertz, Clifford. Works and Lives: The Anthropologist as Author. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804717478
  • Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Culture. New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0465097197
  • Guha, Ranajit. 1998. Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674214838
  • Lerner, Gerda. 1979. The Majority Finds its Past: Placing Women in History. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press. Revised, 2005. ISBN 0807856061
  • Novick, Peter et al. 1988. The Noble Dream: The 'Objectivity Question' and the American Historical Profession. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521357454
  • Oliver, Roland. 1997. In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History. Madison, WI: The University of Wisconsin Press. ISBN 0299156508
  • Saunders, Christopher. 1988. The making of the South African Past: Major Historians on Race and Class. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. ISBN 0389207853
  • Smith, Bonnie G. 2000. The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0674002040

Teaching History

  • Loewen, James W. 1996. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: Touchstone Books. ISBN 0684818868


External links

All links retrieved January 10, 2018.


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