Historiography: An Introduction

In my first blog post back in September, I hoped to answer the question “What is history?” Simply, it is the study and interpretation of the past. But what happens if you study that study? If you seek to understand the history of those interpretations? Well, enter historiography. 

Historiography is the study of historical writing. It is one of my favorite aspects of history. You see, when a historian writes about the past, they don’t do so in a vacuum. Historians are shaped by the time and place they live in just as historical actors are shaped by their own historical context. 

One example to illustrate the point can be seen in the wave of social history being written in the 1960s and 1970s. Until then, much of the discipline surrounded political and intellectual history, covering those in power in order to understand how nation-states and other institutions survived, prospered, or decayed. However, amidst the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and resulting protests, and other social movements of the era, historians began to ask different questions. How did the lower class experience a particular event? How did women exercise agency when they lacked autonomy? What was life like for peasants? Questions like this, that looked at history from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, infiltrated the academy and in many ways revolutionized the way history was studied. 

Examples like the one above can be seen throughout the centuries of historical study. The way a historian saw the founding of the United States in 1950 is, in many ways, different than the way historians see the founding today. Different cultural contexts, new evidence, and different lenses can all cause historians to view the same event differently. As historian John Fea writes, (and as I quoted in September 3’s blog… you can tell I like the quote!) “The past never changes, but history changes all the time.”

Unfortunately, historiography was a term I did not learn until my junior year in college, even as a history major! The study of historiography empowers students and historians to enter into decades-long (or even centuries-long!) conversations. It reveals the complexity of the past and that it is ok to arrive at different conclusions with the same data, as long as evidence is the driver. It highlights the truth that history is not stagnant, that it is a robust field that needs to be critically analyzed. Historiography compels us to not simply settle for age-old conclusions or textbook answers, rather, it fuels the fire of curiosity and allows us to engage with the past ourselves, with new eyes ready to uncover the most accurate picture of the past possible. Without historiography, we can’t have the discipline of history. It’s why we create historiography-focused DBQs in out historical thinking curriculum.

(Note: This post explores chronological historiography, however, historiography is also the study of different contemporary interpretations of the past. We often refer to these as “schools of history.” We’ll continue to explore this aspect of historiography in a future post.)