What is Historiography?

What is Historiography?

Historiography, n., pl. –phies. 1. The body of literature dealing with historical matters; histories collectively. 2. The body of techniques and principles of historical research and presentation. 3. The narrative presentation of history based on a critical examination, evaluation, and selection of material from primary and secondary sources and subject to scholarly criteria. 4. An official history. (Webster’s Dictionary)

In a nutshell, historiography is the history of history. Rather than subjecting actual events – say, Hitler’s annexation of Austria – to historical analysis, the subject of historiography is the history of the history of the event: the way it has been written, the sometimes conflicting objectives pursued by those writing on it over time, and the way in which such factors shape our understanding of the actual event at stake, and of the nature of history itself.

Questions of historiography include the following:

  • who writes history, with what agenda in mind, and towards what ends?
  • how accurate can a historian ever hope to be, analyzing past events from the vantage point of the historian’s present?
  • does the historian’s own perspective, impacted as it undoubtedly is by gender, age, national and ideological affiliation, etc., contribute to an “agenda” that the historian’s work is playing into, unwittingly or consciously?
  • what about the types of sources, both primary and secondary, an historian chooses to base his or her work upon? Do they too contribute to the above-mentioned “agenda”?
  • does the very selection of sources (and, by extension, the decision to exclude certain other sources) prejudice the outcome of the historian’s work in certain ways? et cetera

It can mean the study of historical research and writing.

Historiography is an academic discipline studying the various ways historians have sought truth about historical realities in all their diversity, and how they have reported them.

It can mean a body of historical literature about a particular topic.

The historiography of the Second Punic War, for instance, is the body of books, articles, commentaries, and other writings that have discussed what happened during the Second Punic War, and why.

The adjective “historiographical,” in the sense of “pertaining to historiography,” frequently takes on the texture of referring to the principles and methods of accessing something historical and writing about it.

For instance, if we were starting out to write something about an event or person in the Roman Republic, we’d be interested in such historiographical questions as the following:

What evidence do we have for this person or event?

In interpreting the evidence, what should we keep in mind about it? (If it’s a text, who wrote it? for whom? why? where and when? How much could the author have known about what he or she was writing about?

What are the limits to our knowledge of this historical person or event? (How far can we trust the perspectives of the evidence that we have? What evidence are we lacking?)

What can we infer about the past person or event from this evidence? (What happened, and when, and in what order? What circumstances were important? What motivated people? What results followed?)

How should we structure our historical writing? (Should we try to put everything into chronological order? Should we identify and discuss important themes? Should we state and demonstrate a thesis? Should we discourse on the evidence?)

Or, if we wanted to read a textbook about the Roman Republic in a critical, not gullible, way, we’d want to interrogate it historiographically:

Why does the author select certain persons and events for discussion, and not others? Are there patterns or criteria for selection?

What assumptions does the author make about how history works? (Does he or she put a lot of emphasis on economic forces? ideological influences? social circumstances? personalities? divine guidance?)

Does the author work plausibly from identifiable evidence? Or are there leaps of logic, speculative inferences, imaginative reconstructions, or “special pleading” (where the author wants to make a case so badly that he or she focuses on favorable evidence and ignores unfavorable evidence)?

As you can tell, the underlying sentiment of historiography is one of skepticism. This is due to the recognition that historians do have agendas and do select sources with the intent of “proving” certain preconceived notions. History is therefore never truly “objective,” but always a construct that presents the historian’s view of things. At its most objective – and even this is debatable – history presents basic “facts” (dates, events, etc.); the task of the historian, then, is to interpret those facts, the outcome of which (a book, a journal article, a lecture — even a student paper) can never be truly objective, as interpretation is by definition a subjective mental process.

All this is just a fancy way of saying what you already know, and what has long been articulated in such platitudes as “the victors write the history.” Does this render the entire pursuit of history pointless? Do not despair: far from undermining your desire and potential to become a better writer and student of history, a keen sense of historiography will in fact increase your potential in these realms. Asking the types of questions bulleted above of any historical text you read will push you to delve more deeply into the matter, to explore both the event itself and the writer whose work you are reading in greater detail, and to consult additional sources. The outcome may complicate your view of things but, undoubtedly, will give you a greater appreciation for the many factors that contribute to the interpretation of an historical event, including factors of bias and prejudice – even your own. This appreciation, in turn, will make you a more thoughtful reader and writer of history yourself.

For the most part, historiography is simply something to keep in the back of your mind when you read a text or sift through your various sources as you prepare to write. Occasionally, a historiographical insight is worth a footnote, or perhaps even an aside in the main text of your paper (in which case it will already have had an impact upon, and will have raised the quality of your thinking and writing on history). Sometimes, however, a grasp of historiography can be the very point of an assignment.