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What is a Historiography?

As you have gleamed in history courses, historians often disagree about how to reconstruct the past. For example, they vary in their interpretation of primary sources, they emphasize different events, people, and places, and they argue about how to periodize and account for change. A historiography asks you to examine the secondary academic literature to recognize, account for, and assess these types of differences in interpretation.

Questions to Consider

When starting your historiographical paper, you should consider the following questions:

  • Who are the preeminent scholars on your chosen topic?
  • What does each of the authors argue regarding your chosen topic?
  • How does each of the authors situate herself/himself within the historiography (What does each think s/he is contributing? Does s/he claim to be supporting earlier scholarship or offering a revision?)
  • How are the authors you have identified in conversation with each other? (What are their main points of agreement and disagreement? Note that sometimes the authors will be diametrically opposed to each other and other times their disagreements are more subtle.)
  • How can you account for differences in interpretation? (For example, do they have different worldviews, do they use different sources, or are they asking different questions?)
  • Based on what you are seeing, which interpretation seems the most plausible? Why?
  • What broad trends are evident in the secondary literature?

Organization of your analysis:

One of the biggest challenges for students is how to organize a historiographical analysis. Keep in mind that better papers are organized more thematically and focused on identifying connections within the body of scholarship. Avoid the tendency to explain what one author says, then explain what the second author says, and then summarize a third author. This latter organization does not focus your attention on analysis. In your paper, you should be accounting for disagreements, assessing how authors use sources and methodologies, identifying trends, and explaining why you think certain interpretations are more convincing than others.

Here are some further resources on how to write a historiography:

  LAST MODIFIED: 6/7/2016