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Historiography is writing about rather than of history. Historiography is meta-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.


Historians' definition of historiography

Conal Furay and Michael J. Salevouris 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." (The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 1988, p. 223)

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 other historian is using Stampp's book -- originally produced as a secondary source -- as a primary source, an artifact of study. This new work which criticizes a secondary source, is a work of historiography.

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 USA. 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 (namely, 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.

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.
  • What is 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 methodology was the evidence compiled?
  • In what historical context was the work of history itself written?

Some recent controversies

Some recent historiographical controversies include 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" to the Holocaust.

Approaches to history

Diplomatic history, also called political history
The Annales School - 20th Century French movement
History from below
Social history
Oral history
Marxist analysis



  • Michael Bentley (ed.), Companion to Historiography, Routledge 1997
  • Ranajit Guha , Dominance Without Hegemony: History and Power in Colonial India, Harvard UP 1998
  • Gerda Lerner , THE MAJORITY FINDS ITS PAST: PLACING WOMEN IN HISTORY. New York: Oxford University Press 1979
  • Roland Oliver , In the Realms of Gold: Pioneering in African History, University of Wisconsin Press 1997
  • Christopher Saunders, The making of the South African past : major historians on race and class, Totowa, N.J. : Barnes & Noble, 1988
  • Bonnie G. Smith, The Gender of History: Men, Women, and Historical Practice, Harvard UP 2000


  • Cromohs - cyber review of modern historiography
  • History and Theory

History of Historiography - Histoire de l'Historiographie - Geschichte der Geschichtsschreibung

See also

External Links

  • Feminist historiography 1968-1993

a bibliography

Last updated: 02-10-2005 18:05:32
Last updated: 03-18-2005 11:16:12