The Role of Historiography in How We View Our Past and Present

Last week, I introduced the term historiography. Simply, it means “the study of historical writing.” When historians try to understand how other historians have viewed and written about a certain historical event, they are exploring historiography. Historians do this to understand how their own research fits into the academic conversation. Usually, trends in historiography, like in history, are slow, shifting viewpoints over time. But occasionally, there are big “historiographical moments,” where trends are halted and rerouted.

One such example occurred in 1988 when Eric Foner published Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. In it, he upended prevailing views of Reconstruction which saw it as a failure filled with corruption (and implicitly, a failure because black Americans received civil rights en masse). To be fair, back in 1935, W.E.B Du Bois made the same claim as Foner in his Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, but his views never gained traction in the academy. Before Foner’s book, few people questioned “The Dunning School” interpretation of Reconstruction which favored former Confederates and disparaged radical Republicans from the North. (In fact, even in 2008 in my High School U.S. history classroom, this was the narrative I was taught.) Foner’s book transformed the way that Reconstruction is presented by historians (the historiography).

We explored chronological historiography (how historical study has changed over time) last week. This week, I want to highlight competing historiographical views among contemporary historians and more practical implications of historiography. First, just like Protestant Christians can fall into thousands of denominations, but still be considered Christians in general, historians can hold to various conclusions about the past and still be credible historians. History isn’t simply “what happened” (as we noted in blog #1). Because different people study the past, different conclusions can be drawn. And despite whatever ideologues want people to believe, that is OK. 

First, and most broadly, there are many different categories of history, some examples being: political, intellectual, economic, social, and cultural. These categories are the general approach that a historian takes to a particular historical era or event. For instance, a political biography of Abraham Lincoln might look very different from a social biography. (This is probably why there are over 15,000 books on him!) By having these different lenses for viewing the past, historians can focus their research and dive more into depth with their subjects. This allows historians to explore specific details of the past, and when combined together, build a more robust picture of the past. 

Within these broader categories, there are often different schools of history. For instance, within economic history, one might see the work of marxist historians and those who favor capitalism. Because the nature of these economic systems widely differ from each other, the views of particular historical events between these schools can also vary. This does not necessarily mean that either perspective is wrong, but it is helpful to know the lens of a historian when you are reading their work. Depending on your own lens, you may be more likely to agree or disagree with their findings. In this sense, historiography can be a debate about the past.

In short, as a professor of mine put it, “historiography is a living, breathing thing that we imbibe.” It varies over time and across perspectives. While it may seem like an esoteric aspect of a university discipline, understanding historiography is more important than one might think. The next time you see societal changes based on history, recognize that this is practical historiography. When Columbus day is replaced by Indigenous People’s Day, that’s historiography. When Rodeo Road in Los Angeles became Obama Blvd, that’s historiography. When plantation tours in the South begin to elevate the lives of the enslaved (as Monticello has modeled so well), that is historiography. Historiography is all around us as we gain new insights, refine our own perspectives, and think through how the past impacts our present.