How to Write a Historiographical Essay

Historians do not always agree about how to interpret the events and people that they study; this leads to multiple explanations, which at times, are diametrically opposed to each other. As students progress into upper-level courses at Brunswick High School, they must move from the mastery of facts and analysis of primary sources encouraged by lower-level courses to a richer and deeper understanding of how history is written and the fact that events and ideas are open to interpretation. Within upper level courses, students then move into another level of explanation, where they read intensively on a topic and provide their own historiographical explanations for a series of events/ideas.


Therefore, historiography can be described as “the history of history.” What this means in practice is an exploration of a specific topic, and how historians have explained events or people over time, how their explanations have changed due to their own worldview and/or ideological bent, due to re-interpretation of previously-viewed sources, due to the availability of new sources, previously unexplored, and/or due to the application of different questions and/or methodologies to sources. Revision of prior interpretations of the past is an implicit and important element of historiography. It requires students to not only be able to explain the different schools of thought or interpretations but also potentially to develop their own explanations, based on their assigned readings. The focus of a historiographical essay is not on the event or person itself; rather, it is on the interpretations of the event or person.


  1. Read and analyze multiple works independently on the same topic (assigned on weekly or bi-weekly basis), including an exploration of the sources that the authors utilize or do not utilize in shaping their arguments.
  2. Make sure that you are not merely summarizing the author’s ideas; rather, you are providing analysis of the work’s argument, sources, and conclusions and of the author’s own interpretation of said topic.
  3. In addition, each author is likely to provide an explanation of the fit of his/her work within the larger historiographical context; take careful note of this as well, particularly when he/she references other assigned works.
  4. Another element of this process is to have a firm understanding of who the author is; be certain to conduct research into previous publications, ideological background and/or current research interests. Are there any parts of his/her background that are directly related to the subject matter and if so, what are the pros and cons of this?
  5. Questions to consider as you write your historiographical essay: Individual Works
  • What is the “main point” or argument made by each work regarding your specific topic? Think particularly about whether or not the author is trying to reinforce an earlier perception of history or argue for a re-interpretation of the past.
  • What kinds of sources are used, how and why? How does the author deal with counter-evidence, i.e. information that seems to weaken or contradict the thesis?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses in terms of argument, analysis and conclusions of the work?
  • How does this work relate to earlier readings, i.e. do they present similar or dissimilar ideas and how/why?
  • How do these authors or works, as a group, contribute our understanding of this series of historical events and their outcome?
  1. Bring these works together in an integrated analysis that incorporates and explains the different arguments, conclusions and evidence of various authors in order to build your own explanation of a central theme. An integrated analysis is one that not only draws on different books/articles but also explains how the works agree and disagree with each other. A particularly strong historiographical essay will do this by considering multiple points of view within discussion of a sub-topic, all in one well-crafted paragraph or series of paragraphs, which is then connected back to the overall argument. Then you would move on to the next connected sub-topic, again linking back to the overall argument. You want to avoid the temptation to simply discuss one work, then the next, and then another, with little explanation or analysis of how they fit together.
  2. Questions to consider as you write your historiographical essay: The Big Picture
  • How has the historiography of your topic evolved over time? What has changed in terms of interpretation of events and ideas? What was the initial interpretation of this event, idea or person? How has it changed and why?
  • How have ideological shifts had an impact on your topic? Are the authors under study wedded to a particular “historical school” i.e. Marxist, Feminist, Neo-Conservative, Liberal, and/or how does the author’s main lens of analysis (cultural, political, military, social, etc.) have an impact on his/her interpretations?
  • Have the “discovery” or re-interpretation of sources caused historians to ask new questions or take their research in new directions?
  • Have historians used different methodological approaches (e.g. quantitative, linguistic) in their work and how was this had an impact on conclusions?

Method of Citation

Chicago Style: The system of annotation for B.H.S. Social Studies student papers recommended by the Chicago Manual of Style uses footnotes to identify the sources of quotes, listed at the bottom of each page of a paper. Upon their first reference to a given source, footnotes list full bibliographical information and, in subsequent notes to the same source, a shortened version of the same information. Each footnote links up to a corresponding entry in a concluding list of Works Cited

More on Plagiarism

The word plagiarism is derived from the Latin plagiarus, or “kidnapper.” In the English language, plagiarism refers to the intentional or unintentional act of using other people’s ideas, words, or work without providing documentation.

As you know, every word-for-word quote is placed in quotation marks, and its origin is clearly acknowledged in a footnote or reference. Failure to provide such documentation constitutes plagiarism.

Additionally, lifting another person’s ideas without acknowledging the source also constitutes plagiarism. Ideas originating outside of yourself, even when paraphrased or summarized in your own words, require explicit documentation. Failure to provide such documentation constitutes plagiarism.

Related acts of academic dishonesty include submitting under your own name papers borrowed, purchased, or stolen; and submitting a paper for which you have already received credit in a different course.

The following websites offer excellent guidelines as to what constitutes plagiarism, and how to avoid it:


Plagiarism is one of the very worst acts of academic dishonesty. Those found guilty of plagiarism risk a “zero” for the assignment on which they have plagiarized, possible failure of the class, and potential expulsion from school. Plagiarism in the professional world may result in the termination of one’s employment.

As important as the penalties one risks is the principle involved: plagiarism is dishonest. Purchasing or downloading papers, handing in other people’s work, failing to provide documentation and/or failing to place quotation marks around quotes – all these are efforts to cheat. Their objective is to receive credit for work that is not one’s own, and those found guilty of such practices deserve the harshest penalty available. The penalties for unintentional plagiarism are the same as those for intentional plagiarism. As some plagiarists claim they “didn’t know” a dishonest practice they engaged in was plagiarism, we have listed below some common sense measures to help you recognize and avoid plagiarism.


 Play it safe: until you develop a clear sense on what does and what does not require a reference or footnote (basic rules are listed below) air on the side of over-documentation: in your first draft, provide more rather than less documentation, and ask your professor which of your footnotes/references are necessary, and which are not.

All word-for-word quotes are placed in quotation marks and receive full documentation, either in the form of an in-text parenthetical reference (for those using MLA) or a footnote (for Chicago). This is a non-negotiable rule.

 If you paraphrase or summarize another person’s ideas, interpretations, or arguments, you must provide documentation identifying your source, either in the form of a reference (for MLA) or a footnote (for Chicago). Basic rule of thumb: if an idea didn’t come out of your head, it requires documentation.

 The only material not originating with you that does not require documentation is generally-known information. Generally known facts of information are facts listed in multiple sources without further documentation, such as the facts that FDR was elected president in 1932; that Hitler assumed power in 1933; that both ruled their respective countries until 1945; that World War II lasted from 1939 – 1945, etc. Such basic and generally-known facts need not be documented.